More than any other Marvel movie since the start of this whole MCU phenomenon, director Chloé Zhao’s Eternals feels like “just a superhero movie.” Kevin Feige’s Marvel movies have, to various degrees, differentiated themselves from each other and from the competition by appropriating various genres and selling them as “superhero-plus” action spectacles. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a Tom Clancy-ish spy thriller, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Shang-Chi is a wuxia fantasy, etc., etc. Eternals, comparatively, just presents a centuries-spanning story of celestial superbeings whose defining attributes are their immortality and their arbitrary superpowers. At its worst, it plays like exactly the kind of run-of-the-mill “But, it’s about superheroes!” franchise-starter that Hollywood has doomed itself trying to craft in the wake of Batman Begins and The Avengers. At its best, it’s actually a meta-textual approximation not of any genre but of a rival brand. In a skewed, unsubtle way, Eternals plays like Marvel trying their hand at a Zack Snyder-ish DC Comics movie.
The cast of immortal aliens have a more-than-passing resemblance to your favorite DC Super Friends. For example, Richard Madden is “not Superman,” Salma Hayek (who wants to protect humanity whether or not they deserve it) is “not Wonder Woman,” Kumail Nanjiani (who can project cosmic energy from his hands) is “not Green Lantern,” Lauren Ridloff is “not The Flash,” and Brian Tyree Henry (a brilliant scientist with a grim view of humanity who dresses in blue) is “not Batman.” I can’t speak to the origins of the Jack Kirby’s original comic book, so this may all be source-faithful, but the film’s pondering (and sometimes compelling) conversations about the role of invincible gods living among mere mortals and the debates about whether to shape their own destiny against the will of higher powers will remind folks of Man of Steel and both cuts of Justice League. Alas, these folks don’t have the advantage of being established/iconic superheroes, so in this film they come off as off-brand knock-offs.
Even with a 2.5 hour runtime, the screenplay (courtesy of Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo) struggles to balance the world-specific exposition and character development for nearly a dozen wholly new human characters. Guardians of the Galaxy had five newbies to introduce, only three of which were human, amid a conventional narrative that required little on-the-go explanation. In this case, the to-type casting (save for a fine against-type Barry Keoghan) does a lot of heavy lifting. Eternals spends much of its running time detailing the past-tense adventures of these ageless protectors. Only the third (and best) act focuses on present-tense storytelling. What action we get is mostly the same “superpowered heroes shoot effects out of their hands or throw punches to defeat CGI-created monsters.” That trick got old even when Guillermo Del Toro’s (still-superior) Hellboy overdosed on same back in 2004. Much of Eternals plays as if the mere idea of a superhero movie with CGI monsters is still special.
Like most Marvel movies, this one is 95% stand-alone, save for awkward conversations about why the Eternals didn’t pitch in during Infinity War (real answer – the fight lasted less than a day and the Eternals might not have been aware of it at the time) and trailer-friendly debates about whether any of them should lead the now-defunct Avengers. That said, the film doesn’t really offer up much of a reason for why we should want to see more of these specific MCU superheroes either in a sequel or tagging along in a team-up. Nanjiani is amusing per usual (and I like how his arc plays out) and Henry is winningly droll, but otherwise most of the cast comes off like ordinary superheroes in an ordinary superhero narrative. Gemma Chan is technically the film’s lead, and she’s quite good even if she mostly has to react to fantastical events and/or showier co-stars in her midst. The film still plays out like a glorified prequel for the sequel in a way closer to Fantastic Four than Batman Begins.
Yes, the film is contemplative and ponderous, with a leisurely pace and casually majestic visuals which we now take for granted in an all-tentpoles/all-the-time Hollywood ecosphere. However, it’s hard to give the film too much credit for how it differs from a conventional MCU movie since A) it’s essentially an inferior version of a rival superhero brand and B) Marvel movies have attempted to blot out the very films they were supposed to be imitating or approximating. The core heroes are such blank slates, and so dependent on the star personas of the actors in question, that the otherwise admirable onscreen inclusivity (Chan is the film’s lead, who has onscreen sex with Madden, while Henry plays a married gay father and Ridloff’s speed-runner is deaf) feels like an alibi for thin character development. I’ll let you decide if making Nanjiani’s alien a Bollywood star is skewed cultural appropriation, but the awkwardly-staged scene lacks the verve and energy seen even in Legends of Tomorrow’s similar riff.
Eternals as an ambitious digression from the core MCU arc. I’m happy Zhao got a fat studio paycheck even if I wish the film were more compelling. It looks lovely, but the action is generic and repetitive, the characters are mostly defined by their superpowers amid a backdoor pilot story. It lacks a compelling villain and (not unlike the first Twilight) creates a save-the-day conflict just in time for the third act, while banking on its not unsubstantial movie star charisma. More than any previous MCU movie, Eternals feels like “just a superhero movie” and a “We’re running out of characters” movie. Both credit-cookie scenes will require an explainer, and the first one reeks of a kind of desperation I’ve never seen from Hollywood’s biggest franchise. Considering the years of “DC Films versus Marvel” online handwringing, to the point where Hollywood burned itself down chasing Marvel’s triumphs, it’s quite ironic that one of Marvel’s biggest misses is in an attempt to mimic their biggest rival.