'Eternals' review: Welcome to Marvel's version of Bible study
You might have heard that “Eternals” is overstuffed. Overlong. Overcomplicated. Overly invested in a complicated cosmology involving space gods and the even bigger space gods that created them.
Yes, well. Have you ever heard of a little book called the Bible, my friend?
The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which started with a movie where Robert Downey Jr. played a second-tier superhero in a tin can, is now straight-up hiring Oscar winners to tell creation myths for almost three hours. “Eternals,” helmed by “Nomadland” director Chloé Zhao, is out in theaters this weekend.
The first line of the movie: “In the beginning.” I’m not throwing out Bible comparisons willy-nilly, gang. Got too much respect for Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
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For its 26th film (the third released this year), Marvel goes deep with “Eternals,” based on somewhat obscure characters created by Jack Kirby, the intelligent designer behind most of your favorite comic books. Fictional millennia ago, omnipotent space deities named Celestials sent a superpowered race called the Eternals to Earth, in order to guide humanity’s development and protect it from a ferocious, monstrous race called the Deviants.
Throughout the ages, the immortal Eternals — healer/mater familias Ajak (Salma Hayek), not-Superman-for-copyright-reasons Ikaris (Richard Madden), humanity-loving matter manipulator Sersi (Gemma Chan), not-Wonder-Woman-for-copyright-reasons Thena (Angelina Jolie) and six others possessing their own unique gifts — move among the humans, helping them and doing general “Highlander” antics but never interfering in mankind’s conflicts, per Celestial orders. Deviant-smashing mission seemingly accomplished, they eventually go their separate ways to live through the rest of history.
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But when a resurfaced Deviant attacks modern-day London, Sersi and Ikaris travel the globe to reunite the family. Along the way, they discover that the millennia-old truths they’d believed weren’t so true after all.
Now, just a couple of weeks ago, I criticized Denis Villeneuve’s new film adaptation of “Dune” for trying to cram in too much dour, joyless world-building at the expense of giving newbies a story. “Eternals” has the opposite effect: Zhao, who also co-wrote the movie, crams 7,000 years of colorful, wide-eyed, sci-fi humanism (including 14 years of Marvel continuity) into the same almost-three-hour runtime. And you can find the flaws in “Eternals,” but a lack of story threads sure ain’t one.
It’s a lot. It’s an Old Testament, a New Testament and a testament to hearing Salma Hayek say the line “It is time” while wearing a wacky headdress.
Thankfully, for about 85% of the movie, “Eternals” is heady, nerdy, stupid, smart fun. An incomplete list of its most particular joys, which you wouldn’t find in most Marvel movies:
- Angelina Jolie petting an iguana
- Space gods engaging in Marvel’s first sex scene in an ancient desert
- Angelina Jolie wearing so much white that you assume she’s running down the clock till Labor Day
- The first Bollywood number (I think) in a Marvel movie
- Emmy and Tony nominee Brian Tyree Henry saying the phrase “uni-mind” more than once
- Angelina Jolie creating an axe out of thin air and slicing space dinosaurs with it
At its best, “Eternals” brims with the sense of possibility that makes comic books, which inspired this mega-blockbuster film franchise, so thrilling and so enduring. The film is an unshowy feat of inclusion, from the tender gay romance of Henry’s prolific inventor Phastos to the supersonic feats of speedster Makkari, played by deaf actress Lauren Ridloff. (I also appreciated some subtle, respectful nods to mental illness via Thena’s story.)
“Avengers” characters like Thanos and Thor get namechecks, but Zhao’s film isn’t ever bogged down by its shared universe. Even the concept — “Oh, you liked the stuff with Iron Man and friends? OK, well, the whole time, there were these galactic gladiators roaming around Earth doing entirely different things, and boy, it’s nuts” — engages imagination audaciously. There are even more wild, punch-the-air concepts that we won’t spoil.
However: That chaotic sense of awe also keeps “Eternals” from satisfyingly completing its cinematic covenant. Much like Icarus (or Ikaris, but … well, nevermind, just watch), Zhao’s sprawling epic flies too close to the sun by the end. Its final act is a hat on an immortal hat, with new powers, new stakes and inexplicable behavior — oh, sounds like the Book of Revelation — flooding the screen Noah-style.
It’s never a knock on the cast, who all find a different angle to approach the pantheon from, especially Kumail Nanjiani as vainglorious energy blaster Kingo and Don Lee as nurturing punch expert Gilgamesh. (Yeah, that one.) But with 10 principal roles, a human love interest (Kit Harrington as Dane, Ikaris’ rival for Sersi’s undying affections), some giant cosmic deities, a few CGI beasties and general flashback whiplash, there were bound to be a few odd gods out.
You can sense the Marvel house style creeping under Zhao’s auteur sensibilities like Pennywise lounging in a sewer grate. The vistas? Impeccable. Makes you want to buy a National Parks pass. The moody gravity about the morality of an immortal in a tissue paper world? The first issue of “The Eternals” from 1976 cost a quarter. We don’t have to meditate too much.
“Eternals” could have stood to take one thing off before it left the spaceship. But not you, Angelina. You’re doing amazing. Keep smirking and slicing, amen.
Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harrington
Director: Chloé Zhao
Rated: PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, brief sexuality and some language
Running time: 2 hours, 37 minutes
Watch: In theaters Nov. 5