The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it is but a provincial backwater compared to the colossal scope of this latest addition, which covers such vast expanses of space and time that squeezing it all into one movie is almost a scientific breakthrough in itself. Everything about Eternals is huge, which is both its strength and its weakness. In terms of visual spectacle, it gives us cosmic vistas that would not look out of place on a prog-rock album cover or a documentary about the Big Bang. The story spans the entire globe and the entirety of human civilisation, from Mesopotamia to modern-day London, from the Australian outback to ancient Babylon, with innumerable CGI-heavy set pieces along the way. Sitting through the endless credits (which many will do to catch the very last bonus scene) you get the impression every VFX artist in the world was employed in making this. Some of their work is agreeably bizarre; some, it must be said, is downright terrible.
Along with the epic scope comes an equally huge, and refreshingly diverse, cast of characters; these include Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani. There is also an epic mythology to get our heads around: even before a line of dialogue is spoken, three dense paragraphs of text explain how our 10 Eternals came to earth to protect it from the predatory Deviants (sort of skinless, sinewy beasts with prehensile tentacles) at the behest of Arishem, “the Prime Celestial”. If you’re lost already, bad luck: there’s plenty more to come, which demands some planet-sized chunks of exposition. At times if feels like you are watching a very sophisticated PowerPoint presentation.
The Eternals have superpowers: Madden’s alpha-Eternal Ikaris can fly and shoots beams from his eyes, Jolie’s Thena fights with magic weapons, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is super-fast, and so on. But they are less your standard-issue Marvel superheroes than immortal, indestructible gods, who have been living among us incognito for the past 7,000 years. “Why didn’t you help fight Thanos?” one ordinary human reasonably asks. Eternals can only intervene when Deviants are involved, they say. Like the Wakandans in Black Panther, the Eternals are divided over how to apply their superiority. Power, responsibility, loyalty and unity are overriding themes. But there are very few moments when these immortals actually come into contact with humans, which makes their plight feel somewhat abstract. It’s only when the Eternals’ own fates are jeopardised that they really take an interest in saving us little people. To reveal more would be spoiling the plot’s surprises, and would require explaining terms such as “the Emergence”, “the Mahd Wy’ry” and “the Uni-Mind”.
It’s certainly… different. One of Eternals’ biggest surprises is its director: Chloé Zhao, who won two Oscars earlier this year for Nomadland, her lyrical, semi-documentary survey of America in the here and now. There are superficial aesthetic similarities – a lot of magic-hour sunset scenes – but the two films could not be more different. The trademark of Zhao’s previous work was their intimacy and realism. Eternals is a gigantic exercise in un-realism.
Eternals. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Courtesy of Marvel Studios
Zhao at least manages to ground the story in some personal drama. The film’s emotional centre is Chan’s matter-transforming Sersi who must reassemble the Eternals in the face of a new threat, although she’s still smarting from her recent break-up with Madden’s Ikaris. (By “recent”, we’re talking 2000 years ago.) Lia McHugh’s Sprite also holds a candle for Ikaris, but being trapped in the body of an 11-year-old girl puts her at a disadvantage. There’s an un-Marvel-like sex scene between two naked people, and a gay character kisses their same-sex partner – although both these moments are fleeting. Nanjiani provides some much-needed comic relief as Eternal-turned-Bollywood movie star Kingo (though Harish Patel as his documentary-shooting “valet” feels like a misstep). Jolie’s real-life star power is somewhat dimmed by her character’s unconvincing personality disorder. And some of the minor Eternals barely get time to make an impression.
That’s the problem: there’s just too much going on: it’s all headed towards yet another “race against time to stop the really bad thing happening” climax. It’s not exactly boring – there’s always something new to behold – but nor it is particularly exciting, and it lacks the breezy wit of Marvel’s best movies. One of the strengths of the MCU to date is how it has taken time to define each character individually and lay out the grand narratives over successive movies, building a sense of momentum. Here, it’s all thrown at us at once. It’s like coming into Avengers: Endgame cold without having seen any of the preceding instalments. Most mortals will simply find it too much. Bigger isn’t always better.
Eternals is released on 4 November in Australia, and 5 November in the US and UK.