“In the beginning” read the first three words of onscreen text. You won’t find the next few in the King James. They come instead from a different kind of bible, an official handbook of back-issue backstory and trading-card statistics. After a decade-plus of superheroes with messiah complexes, the world’s biggest ongoing movie franchise has finally, officially found religion, adding literal gods to its ever-expanding roster of wizards, extraterrestrials, and wizardly extraterrestrials with the names (and skill sets) of gods. Eternals, the studio’s latest $200-million, two-and-a-half-hour extravaganza, offers an origin story of cosmic proportions: nothing less than an explanation for all of life in the universe, at least the Marvel Cinematic one.
This is vintage Jack Kirby stoner shit. The famed artist, worshiped like a god himself in some circles, introduced the Eternals in the anything-goes 1970s. His idea was: What if the legends of Greek mythology were actually ageless superheroes, stationed on Earth for thousands of years, playing protector to the planet’s superstitious masses? That one of them can, effectively, turn water to wine implies that this cavalry of spacemen and -women may have been immortalized and deified as a few other holy figures in Earth’s storied history of organized belief systems. Not that Disney would explicitly go there.
Eternals brings to the screen a whole team of them—a kind of ageless X-Men from the stars. Our entryway into their ranks is Sersi, the aforementioned manipulator of inanimate matter, who’s gained a real affection and respect for her charges over the millennia. (She’s played by Gemma Chan, who’s already appeared as a different character in a different Marvel movie. Are there now so many of these films that they have to start recycling cast members?) Sersi has an on-again, off-again, Sam-and-Diane thing going with the mightiest of her coworkers, Ikaris (Richard Madden), whose powers are so similar to Superman’s that some kid actually calls him Superman.
That’s just a fraction of the call sheet. There are quite a few of these Eternals—too many even for a movie of this length. We also get Kingo (a newly ripped Kumail Nanjiani), who can throw bursts of glowing CGI energy and has spent the 20th and 21st centuries posing as a dynasty of Bollywood stars; perennially childlike illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh); the deaf and Flash-fast Makkari (Lauren Ridloff); embittered mind-controller Druig (Barry Keoghan); blade-generating cipher goddess Thena (Anjelina Jolie); tech/weapon support Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); resident puncher Gilgamesh (Don Lee); and wise, maternal team leader Ajak (Salma Hayek).
Eternals leaps around in time, flashing back from present day to scenes from 7,000 years of history; some half-a-century after 2001: A Space Odyssey, blockbusters are now counting on audiences repeatedly following the eon-spanning shift from thrown femur to spacecraft. Where were these heavy-hitters when the Avengers needed them, a casual viewer might wonder. The film addresses that, awkwardly shoehorning in talk of franchise brethren. Turns out the Eternals have a pretty narrow jurisdiction: Their bosses, towering space gods called Celestials, have deployed them to our blue marble only to deal with a rampaging species of generic, sinewy beasties called Deviants, which seems like a rather inefficient use of superheroic resources. (Deviants are not to be confused with Variants, another recent addition to the MCU canon; Marvel might need to start issuing a glossary with every ticket sold.)
The director and co-writer this time is Chloé Zhao, making an astronomical leap in budget and scope from her last movie, the Best Picture-winning drama Nomadland. Prerelease buzz centered on the supposed real-world tactility she was said to have brought to this series of rotating green-screen backdrops. Indeed, Eternals has some nice, pretty vistas. It also has an actual (albeit very brief) sex scene, adding a touch of fleeting carnality to a weirdly sexless movie world of virginal super soldiers and chaste romances, and a tone marginally more solemn than the average MCU multiplex-filler, appropriate for a story that literally spans the annals of human existence.
Yet Eternals proves, maybe once and for all, that who’s behind the camera of these quality-controlled blockbusters may not matter so much. What’s the difference in shooting a real landscape and just generating one on a laptop if it’s going to serve as wallpaper for another round of visually undistinguished comic-book combat? As an action movie, Marvel’s latest offers more of the weightless digital same: variably convincing avatars of the actors darting across ashen beachfronts, tossing fireballs and tendrils. Where Nomadland evinced a clear Terrence Malick influence in its fluid, butterfly-in-the-wind camerawork and cutting, Eternals occasionally suggests what The Tree Of Life might look like with Kevin Feige micromanaging the awe and wonder over the filmmaker’s shoulder. However singular Zhao’s sensibilities, they’re no match for the uniformity of Marvel’s previsualization protocol.
The bigger problem here may be that the characters seem a little previsualized, too. Despite the depth of the ensemble (and the acting talents assembled to bring it to life), these Eternals really only come in three varieties: brooding, quippy, and both. It’s difficult to imagine any of them spinning off to a solo vehicle. Last summer’s similarly themed The Old Guard could be something of a drag, but there was a logic to its mopiness: Endless life would lose its appeal after a few centuries, wouldn’t it? Eternals flirts with the melancholy and the neurosis that countless lifetimes of service might instill in its eponymous supergroup, only to essentially conclude that thousands of years on the planet just turn you into, well, a second-string Avenger.
The plot ends up amounting to a kind of big-budget Big Chill, as the Eternals slowly reassemble after a death in the family. Zhao keeps it moving along, across continents and ages and passages of breathless expository information, without ever transcending the pro forma MCU storytelling template. It’s distinguished this time mostly by tonal gearshifts that might give even thick-necked Thanos whiplash: In between jokey scenes of demigods addicted to cell phones and the usual sitcom interpersonal conflict, these characters wring their hands about genocide and free will. They also pop into the fresh atomic ruins of Hiroshima, in a scene that rivals X-Men: Apocalypse’s field trip to Auschwitz in the arena of questionably tasteful historical revisionism.
A decade ago, the idea of a big-screen treatment of these particular superheroes would be inconceivable. While the Eternals may be among the most literally godlike characters in the whole Marvel catalog, their book also qualifies as decidedly obscure source material; no one would call them household names. Yet Eternals never truly taps into its nutty, ’70s-prog-rock potential, from a visual or a narrative perspective. It’s probably good for business that Marvel can cram one of its weirder, more out-there properties into a one-size-fits-all formula for success. But when even the story of ancient, planet-sized gods and their undying servants comes out looking like just another Marvel movie, one might be forced to conclude that the studio is starting to leave the eccentric pleasures of its comic-book universe on the page.