However you may feel about the place superhero blockbusters have occupied in the cultural landscape for the past dozen-plus years, there is something ineluctably sad about the way directing one has become the primary marker of success for a gifted emerging filmmaker. Distinguish yourself in your field, as Chloé Zhao did when she won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars last year for her contemplative indie road movie Nomadland, and you are ceremoniously handed the keys to the Marvel car—a gigantic CGI-enhanced vehicle that can navigate black holes and shoot rays of plasma out of its headlights, but that always moves in the same direction to arrive at the same predetermined spot.
That’s not to say that Zhao’s Eternals doesn’t feel different from the average Marvel offering. This is a movie with a prominently featured gay male relationship, a (PG-13–rated) sex scene between two other major characters, the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari), and the most diverse cast of superbeings the franchise has yet offered. Eternals is as sociologically inclusive and as pictorially beautiful as any movie in the franchise, with scene after scene bathed in the warm light of Zhao’s favorite time of day, the pre-dusk “golden hour.” But it’s also one of the weakest Marvel movies I’ve seen, meandering and wan. It takes place over a vast timespan in locations all over the globe (and the galaxy), yet it has the curiously claustrophobic feel of a Saturday afternoon serial filmed entirely in a windowless studio.
The Eternals, a gang of immortal quasi-divinities created thousands of years ago by even more powerful space beings called the Celestials, have spent the last few millennia scattered around Earth living undercover as regular mortal beings. As the group’s tech wizard Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry)—a sort of divine IT department—points out, that requires changing residences periodically so your neighbors never notice how you don’t seem to age. Flashbacks threaded throughout the film’s first half show us that members of the Eternals have been present at many of the great atrocities of human history: the siege of the ancient city-state of Tenochtitlan by colonizing Spanish forces, the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. But according to an ancient law not unlike the “prime directive” of the Star Trek universe, the Eternals are forbidden to interfere in human affairs. They may save individual lives in a pinch, but they cannot use their superpowers to prevent the global problems that arise from the poor moral choices made by humans. This places the Eternals in an existential, even religious dilemma: What purpose were they created for, if not to engage their Celestial-given skills to help the planet they have come to love? Is it possible that it’s time to stand up to Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), the Celestial space giant—a literal sky daddy—who has dictated their every move for millennia?
When Earth is once again menaced by a race of monsters known as the Deviants—packs of vaguely lupine CGI beasts made of what appear to be bundled gray extension cords—the Eternals must reunite. Their leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), who has been spending her semi-retirement on a picturesque South Dakota ranch, emerges, resplendent in a cowboy hat and shearling vest, to gather the crew from their various hideouts around the globe.
One of the most well-adjusted Eternals, and the closest thing this sprawling multicharacter story has to a protagonist, is Sersi (Gemma Chan). Working by day as a teacher at the Natural History Museum in London, she limits her superheroic efforts to her off hours. Sersi’s power is to be able to transform any material into any other material, a skill that comes in handy when a child is about to be crushed by a large falling object, as happens twice in the early scenes of Eternals. Sersi also has a mortal boyfriend, Dane (Kit Harington), who is unaware of her cosmic back story. But a part of her is still enmeshed with fellow Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden), with whom she was romantically involved for centuries (been there, sister) and who has now reappeared to help fight the Deviants with his extremely silly-looking but apparently undefeated ability to shoot laser beams from his eyes while hovering broodingly in midair.
There are more Eternals, so many more. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is a super-strong sweetheart whose main role is to watch over the volatile Thena (Angelina Jolie). She, in turn, is a white-catsuited glamourpuss with country-music hair whose power involves conjuring an indestructible golden sword out of thin air. Thena is suffering from a kind of immortality-induced mental illness that causes her to periodically lash out at her fellow Eternals as if they were enemies; when this happens, her eyes turn into opalescent marbles, a good look for her.
Sprite (Lia McHugh) is the only underage Eternal, a permanent adolescent who pines after the hunky Ikaris and longs, Pinocchio-style, to be turned into a real girl. Druig (Barry Keoghan) is a rebellious type who uses his psychic powers to create an isolated Amazon jungle settlement of peaceful, if brainwashed, human followers. And Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is the comic-relief superhero. His hands can generate lethal fireballs at will, but he is more interested in remaining one of Bollywood’s top male stars. In one of the movie’s best jokes, Kingo shows another character a wall of movie posters demonstrating his presence in the Indian film industry over three generations, passing himself off first as his own grandfather and then as his father. After walking out on a (delightful) Bollywood dance sequence to join his mighty ex-co-workers, Kingo brings along his valet (the endearing Harish Patel) to shoot a puff-piece documentary about the Eternals. This setup makes for some welcome humor amid the solemn pageantry to come, though it seems strange that none of the superheroes would object to the idea of being publicly outed after millennia spent living incognito.
The film, scripted by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, and Ryan and Kaz Firpo, weaves plenty of jokes in with long stretches of intergalactic hocus pocus and equally long action set pieces. But the parts only sporadically cohere into anything like a whole. Zhao, a director whose previous three films have all centered on the everyday lives of working-class rural outsiders, seems ill-suited to a movie of this scale and frankly uninterested in the fight scenes.
Perhaps this movie’s sluggish pace, what I can only describe as a lack of narrative muscle tone, can be attributed to the lack of a single identifiable villain. Instead of the Avengers saga’s mauve meanie Thanos, whose staunch belief in the rightness of his must-destroy-half-the-universe mission made him an actual character with a comprehensible if horrifying motivation, all we get here are sad ropy CGI dogs with no apparent goals beyond the desire to destroy the Eternals. A scene where Phastos, standing in the ruins of Hiroshima, berates himself for allowing his technological advances to make way for the Atomic Age feels in questionable taste when the movie’s ultimate conflict takes place not in the crucible of the human soul but in a landscape overrun by animated superbeasts.
Eternals’ cinematography incorporates a little more natural light and open landscape than your average Marvel joint, but the demands of a $200 million corporate enterprise ultimately prevail over any aspirations to auteurship. That’s OK—a filmmaker of Zhao’s gifts has earned the right to try her hand at what, like it or not, is one of the dominant genres of the 21st century. She has also earned the right to make a bad movie, shrug it off and move on. Whatever world she decides to build next, I hope its heroes are significantly less super.