Created by comic book seer Jack Kirby, the Eternals first swooped onto the page in 1976 (“When Gods Walk the Earth!”) and have been resurrected a few times since. With Marvel bringing the Avengers movie cycle to a close (for now), it was a given that it would dust off another group of potential super franchises. To that end, Marvel brought in Zhao (“Nomadland”) to start the engine with a cast culled from across the entertainment world. Angelina Jolie is here, with sad hair and glamour-puss makeup, and so are Gemma Chan, Salma Hayek, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, an indispensable Brian Tyree Henry and two dewy heartthrobs from HBO’s “Game of Thrones.”
Among Kirby’s lesser-known creations, the Eternals are godlike humanoids primarily borrowed from Greek mythology but with oddball spellings: Thena, Ikaris, Sersi and so on. They have an elaborate history and a charge to safeguard humanity. (To judge from the wretched shape we and the planet are in, they haven’t done a very good job.) As a character explains in the movie, they interfere in human conflicts when need be, a role that evokes that of United Nations peacekeepers. But since humanity keeps getting attacked by snarling enemies called Deviants, the Eternals keep stepping into the fray, an interventionist habit that more strongly suggests that of the United States.
Written by Zhao with several others, “Eternals” follows the Marvel house style visually and narratively. It’s busy, borderline clotted, and by turns works as a war movie, a romance, a family comedy and a family drama. It’s best categorised, though, as a getting-the-band-back-together flick: A group of former playmates reunite — warily, eagerly — to make music again, or in this case, kick cosmic butt. Unfortunately, the movie spends an inordinate amount of its 2 1/2 hours revisiting the group’s greatest hits, all while the Eternals explain a lot of stuff. The flashbacks interrupt whatever momentum Zhao builds, while the yammer only further muddies an already convoluted story.
As the potential first instalment in a new series, the movie serves as an extended meet-and-greet, so it’s heavy on introductions (who are they; what do they do?) that delineate the powers, sensibilities, histories and relationships of the 10 Eternals. It’s a crowded marquee, but like in the Hollywood star system, some lights shine brighter than others. The headliner is Sersi (Chan), a caring, somewhat reluctant champion who’s living in London and dating Jon Snow, aka Kit Harington’s Dane Whitman, when Deviant trouble roars into that dirty old town. The enemy incursion instigates the reunion and the amusing entrance of Snow’s bro, Robb Stark, aka Richard Madden, who plays Ikaris. He and Sersi have history; it’s not complicated.
The actors are the movie’s great superpower and give it warmth, even a bit of heat, and a pulse of life that’s never fully quelled by the numerous clamorous action sequences. Henry, Lee and Barry Keoghan (the terrifying kid in “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) are particularly crucial to keeping your sympathies engaged. Henry’s character, Phastos, is the most vivid, partly because his superhero has an identifiably real side, but primarily because of the actor’s unforced sense of empathy and delicate expressivity. Lee offers some much-needed comedy and makes a surprisingly effective foil for Jolie (inspiring visions of a Mr and Mrs Eternal spinoff), while Keoghan adds some prickly menace.
Zhao’s three previous features are all modestly scaled dramas about disenfranchised characters whom the commercial mainstream tends to ignore. She likes to engage old forms and new ideas and is interested in issues of identity and in foundational American virtues like self-reliance. In “The Rider,” the lead character is a Native American who’s a cowboy; “Nomadland” tracks a woman in her 60s who, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, travels the open road. The intimacy of her earlier work, its scope and relative quiet, may have made her seem like an unusual choice for Marvel, but her movies steer clear of overt politics, in the way of most American indies, which makes her a fine fit for a global company that’s interested in alienating exactly no one.
Mostly, Zhao has one of the most important qualifications for this gig: She’s good with actors. For all their special effects and endless brawling, Marvel movies are as character-driven as any Bond movie, and they need charismatic performers and appealing personalities to hold their many prefabricated moving parts together. (There’s a reason so many Marvel directors are Sundance Film Festival alumni.) “Eternals” also benefits from Zhao’s feel for natural landscapes and her love for wide-open spaces. It doesn’t happen enough, but sometimes, when the movie quiets down, the Eternals and their worlds converge, and the larger questions of existence percolating through this story — why are we here; who am I? — finally resound more strongly than even its branding.
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