THE ETERNALS: Chloe Zhao takes Marvel to Nomansland

“Ok, beast from another dimension, you can’t attack until my weapon finishes rendering, deal?”

I always thought the comic book Eternals were boring. Their world felt built of rejected storylines from more popular titles and none of them had Wolverine’s chest hair. But even if you had more patience for them than my teenage self did, admit it, no one was waiting with baited breath for an Eternals movie.

The excitement came with the announcement that Chloe Zhao would direct it, like hearing Wes Anderson was going to do a Fast&Furious. Such a fresh sensibility brought to the genre! This was going to be different.

And…then I sat in an IMAX seat with broken springs to see another Marvel movie, one with broken springs.

Infusing the film is the feeling that from director on down, there’s a reluctance to treat anything the way a superhero movie does. Yet a Marvel film needs rote scenarios and plot points to work, so when no one wants to do them but they kinda have to, you end up with a lack of energy. Everyone seems like they’re just getting out of a long meditation before their scene, all beneficent stares and quiet talking.

Fundamental problem #1: The Eternals are super-powerful and immortal but have only been allowed – for 7000 years of human history – to help humans against one specific threat, creatures made of Twizzlers called Deviants. So from the get-go they’re ‘heroes’ who could have prevented billions of deaths but didn’t. While Captain Marvel was dealing with Thanos or Galactus or The Black Plague, the Eternals finished off the Deviants around 1500 AD and spent the next 500 years loafing in places with pretty sunsets, like where the van people from Nomadland go.

Salma Hayek is the leader and lives in South Dakota (see above). Frances McDormand is not there, though that is one couple I’d totally want to watch argue over how to plant seedlings. Salma is named Ajak, the first of several Greek mythology names we get that are misspelled to be cool. Her boss is a giant rock with six eyes called a Celestial.

Then we (slowly…) meet the infamously diverse cast. There’s Sersi (Gemma Chan), who works at a museum just like Wonder Woman. Sersi hooked up with Ikarus (Richard Madden, Robb Stark from GoT) when they first were sent to Earth 7000 years ago. They got married in ancient India – by Vishnu himself we assume – and then broke up 5000 years into the relationship. How the hell do you break up after 5000 years? What could possibly have happened? Did Sersi get a pimple during the Enlightenment?

Sersi has moved on to date Kit Harrington (Jon Snow from GoT). Sersi/Cersei doing both of the Stark boys is an in-joke that’s funnier than any of the actual jokes in the movie. The couple pal around London with Sersi’s fellow Eternal, Sprite, a teen who can’t age so can’t legally bone her crush Ikarus. Remember Kirstin Dunst in Interview with the Vampire? Same thing, so we’re expecting the worst from Sprite.

Ikarus shows up to save Sersi and Sprite from a Deviant (they’re back!) and they all go to consult Ajak. They find her dead, killed by a Deviant. Seems immortal just means you can’t die of old age, so you still have to get the COVID vaccine and avoid being impaled on giant beast tail spears. With Ajak gone, Sersi becomes the liaison with the Celestial boss, who reveals to her the nasty secret behind the Eternals 7000-year mission: he’s been using them to keep humans prospering toward overpopulation so he has enough of them to eat. It makes Thanos’ plan seem kind.

Our trio go get the two biggest casting newsmakers – Angelina Jolie and Kumail Nanjani. Kumail’s character Kingo has become what is supposed to be the biggest Bollywood star of all time, but instead of getting a desperately needed injection of some crazy fun, a scene with hundreds of dancers on a lavish set, we get a dozen harem girls in an airplane hangar and Nanjani acting like a kid forced to dance at a bar mitzvah, purposely being silly and not doing the moves right. Nanjani’s laziness in this scene is indicative of the film’s attitude toward embracing the beats of a superhero character. If you accept a role where you have to go pow!pow! with your fingers so they can draw lasers on them later, get into it! Did Nanjani just take this role as an excuse to get ripped (which he is and I’m not complaining about that)?

Angelina Jolie bit into Malificent with gusto, but like Nanjani she’s toothless here. Granted, in every action scene she has to pose and wait for a CGI artist to Etch-a-Sketch her weapons into her hands real time, but in the non-fighting scenes be Angelina fucking Jolie. Purr in someone’s ear, arm wrestle, push a guy against a wall and bite his lip. If Jolie can’t bring sex and edge to a film, something is fundamentally wrong.   

Ditto for Bryan Tyree Henry. He’s a milquetoast inventor named Phastos, and making that character type gay takes major points away from this movie’s casting wokeness. Not to mention that the Eternals directive is to not interfere in the affairs of humans other than killing Deviants, yet Phastos gives humankind major advancements like the plow and the steam engine and Ralph Lauren safari chic for Angelina. In one flashback scene we find him crying in Hiroshima because he ‘inspired’ the atomic bomb. What did he think they were going to use it for, gender reveal parties?

The premise of otherworldly beings deciding to spare the destructive human race because “humans feel love and joy and hope (ugh)” has been trotted out more times than you can count, and Zhao could have avoided executing it so on-the-nose. But she Marvel-ed the shit out of that cliché, while avoiding giving us the clichés that make a Marvel movie fun.

In parts, it’s nice to have her meditative take on the proceedings. The cinematography is pretty, and does have more texture than typical Marvel. The way she lets characters be is also less typical for a superhero film, but it rarely works when the script is hewing too close to formula and the cast is so mismatched in acting style.

There is a dinner scene that’s supposed to be one of those where the superheroes let loose and joke around. These scenes work in Ironman and Avengers because we feel these are actually the actors themselves having fun with each other, people who’ve been working together for a few months and become close. The version of this in The Eternals is awkward to watch. It’s meant to feel more naturalistic than scripted, but it’s all conversation lulls and stumbling banter between actors who don’t seem to have even met before the scene. And the one big joke is that the host Eternal is serving his friends beer made from his spit. That’s funny? I mean, if Captain America had made it I might use it as lube, but it’s still not funny.

The Eternals ends up drifting in and out of your interest, because as in her other work, Zhao stands back from her subjects and tries to let them unfold in their own rhythm, present their authenticity.

Unfortunately for Zhao, there’s nothing authentic about the Marvel universe. Movies can fake reality, but they can’t make reality out of the fake.

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