The Marvel Cinematic Universe expands this weekend with the theatrical release of “Eternals,” a star-studded superhero film with thousands of years of backstory and 10 new-to-the-big-screen superheroes.
For the uninitiated, those who don’t know their Jack Kirby from their Bruno Kirby, the Eternals have existed in comic book form since 1976.
They are 10 immortals lead by matriarch Ajak (Salma Hayek) and Ikaris (Richard Madden). Rounding out the diverse cast (who are often lined up on-screen like they are posing for a 1980s album cover shoot) are matter manipulator Sersi (Gemma Chan), Thena (Angelina Jolie), a warrior with super strength and the ability to fly, strongman Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), the fastest woman in the universe, Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) who can shoot fireballs from his palms, the childlike ancient Sprite (Lia McHugh), master inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree), mind control expert Druig (Barry Keoghan) and Sersi’s human (or is he?) boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington).
Pay attention. You may need a scorecard to keep track.
7000 years ago they were sent to Earth by the all-powerful Prime Celestial Arishem (voiced by David Kaye) to keep humans safe from evil killer creatures called Deviants. Over the years they have been present at many defining world events, from ancient battles to Hiroshima. They live by a strict set of rules, including one, a prime directive of a sort, that instructs them to only protect humans from Deviants. That means no man-on-man conflict. If they interfere with earthly concerns, Arishem says, humans will never figure out how to protect themselves.
When the Eternals vanquished the Deviants, they went undercover, blending in with the normies for eons.
Now, in present day, the Deviants are back and badder than they ever were—this time around they can heal themselves—but can the Eternals battle the deadly invaders while pondering the real reason Arishem put them on earth in the first place?
The 25th epic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe spans millennia but tackles many current issues. Themes of unity and the power of connection are woven into the story, topped with messages of self-awareness and being who you are. The ten new superheroes are more introspective than your run-of-the-mill superbeing, expressing their innermost feelings when they aren’t grappling with the existential threat posed by the Deviants. I mean, when was the last time you saw a superhero cry? The ideas expressed regarding sacrifice, interventionism and purpose of mission are endlessly replayed but never truly explored. It is pop psychology disguised as depth.
But, nonetheless, they take the time to pontificate. At two hours and thirty-seven minutes, “Eternals’” story doesn’t exactly feel like it takes an eternity to tell, but it does feel long, especially if you stay to the end to see the two post credit scenes.
Oscar winning director Chloé Zhao, who also co-wrote the script, brings humanity to these alien creatures, but the blockbuster style action, endless exposition and humanist musings sit uneasily beside one another. It’s ambitious, but tonal shifts abound and by the time the CGI orgy of the finale gets underway, “Eternals” simultaneously feels like too much and too little.