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Written By:

Paul Mount

Critics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and even some of its fans, in truth – often complain that the films have a tendency to play safe, to stay true to the tried and tested formula that has pulled in an impressive gazillion dollars (or something closely approximate) at the box office since Iron Man made his debut back in 2008. Marvel has generally clung to the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ truism but, after twenty-five hugely-successful films, it’s inevitable that, in an attempt to avoid audience fatigue and ennui,  Marvel are going to be tempted to rewrite their own rule book to give audiences something a little different, something they might not be expecting. Here comes film number 26, and it’s Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, loosely based on Jack Kirby’s frankly bonkers short-lived 1976  cosmic comic book series and it is indeed a marked change of direction – to an extent – for Marvel, most notably in that it’s not very good. Eternals is dull, it’s boring, and it’s quite epically uninvolving.

The omens were really rather good for Eternals. An Oscar winner in the director’s chair (although the film was long in the can by the time Zhao picked up her statuette last year for the acclaimed Nomadland – kudos to Kevin Feige and the Marvel Bunch for spotting her potential and giving her the gig long before the awards started flying in her direction) and an impressively diverse and inclusive cast; what could possibly go wrong?  On the evidence of the achingly-long film now on our screens – this unwieldy, clumsy thing weighs in at over two and a half hours – almost everything beyond Ben Davis’ stunning, widescreen cinematography that gives the film a sense of the epic, its script and story never remotely lives up to. There’s precious little flair from the director’s chair up on the screen; it’s as if Zhao leapt at the challenge of directing a big-time, big bucks Marvel movie – she had a hand in the script too – but became quite overwhelmed by the process of actually delivering a pacey, interesting movie full of well-rounded, likeable characters.

Eternals is the story of a bunch of superannuated space beings (apparently from the planet Olympia) who have been hiding on Earth for centuries, having seen off a race of bland beasties called Deviants. In Kirby’s original comic, the Deviants were a wily, intelligent species with their own society and civilisation but here they are little more than convenient, rather dreary cannon fodder.  The Eternals each go their own way once the Deviants are demolished but, having been unable to interfere with the affairs of Man in the intervening centuries,  are forced to regroup when the Deviants rear their ugly, CGI heads again… only to find that they themselves are not quite who they thought they were and that an even greater, more CGI threat is lurking under their very feet. As the Deviants break cover again and start to appear at the most inconvenient times in the most inconvenient places, the Eternals are forced to call upon their extraordinary abilities – the usual stuff; flying, throwing bolts of light around, laser beams from the eyes, etc – to keep the beasties at bay. Slowly they begin to reassemble from all around the world as they prepare to fight an enemy that threatens the future of the entire planet. It all sounds quite exciting if a bit generic, but the execution has none of the pace and excitement of even one of the weaker previous MCU entries (Thor: Ragnarok and Captain Marvel spring to mind) because the script is all over the place and the narrative is never allowed to build up any momentum. No sooner have we watched a noisy, rather samey CGI battle sequence that at least briefly piques our interest, than we are plunged into another interminably tedious talky bit where two of the Eternals stand somewhere very pretty – on a beach, on a cliff, on top of a mountain – and gaze dreamily into the middle distance whilst pondering the story so far and their place in the great cosmic plan and how hard it is to be a God hiding in plain sight on a planet of warlike primitives. Repeat and rinse for the better part of three hours. A game cast does its best to enliven the proceedings but they’re hampered by a wildly schizophrenic script that wants to be portentous and pretentious but has to throw in a few classic Marvel quips and one-liners as a bit of an insurance policy in case the audience is too jolted by the shock of the new.  Eternals is a film that would like to be new and bold and different but somewhere along the line Marvel has bottled it and decided that they’d quite like it to be a bit unusual but also quite similar to everything that’s gone before.

Superhero movies really need warm, intriguing characters for the audience to invest in and to help them navigate that difficult ‘suspension of disbelief’ pitfall. Eternals really has none. Gemma Chan plays the empathetic Sersi but there’s precious little life in her dialogue or her performance and almost no conviction in her centuries-long love for Richard Madden’s Superman-ish Ikaris. Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo, a Bollywood superstar when he’s not an Eternal, is tasked with providing the film’s humour but it’s Marvel comedy-by-numbers, jokes for the sake of it and none of them land with anything than other than a dull splat. Elsewhere we have Lia McHugh as the childlike Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, the MCU’s first openly-gay superhero, Lauren Ridloff as superfast Makkari and a handful of others who are really just there to make up the numbers. Angelina Jolie serves up the only real bit of charisma as the balletic, magic staff-wielding Thena who stands around in the background far too much and Salma Hayek is rather wasted the Ajak, the group’s wise spiritual leader.

For all its bombast and its faux bluster, Eternals really doesn’t amount to anything much and certainly doesn’t amount to anything interesting. It commits the cardinal superhero sin of being really, really boring for a really, really long time. Marvel may be commended for realising that they need to ring the changes but they’re done nothing of the sort here and Zhao has simply delivered a slightly schizophrenic, horribly uneven and desperately pedestrian film that’s neither one thing nor the other. It’s a massive Marvel disappointment.

Eternals is in cinemas now.

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