Marvel’s latest film had an almost insurmountable task ahead of it, which is maybe why it feels like it’s more parts than sum.
Marvel Studios has a track record of recruiting auteur directors with a strong style into its fold. And it’s worked out (Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler) more often than it hasn’t (Edgar Wright).
Marvel swooped in on Zhao before she won her two Oscars for Nomadland, after her first two features, Songs My Brother Taught Me and The Rider.
Zhao’s creative vision relies on the majestic backdrops of grand landscapes and the emotional intimacy of small, human stories. There is nothing small about the MCU while its backdrops tend to be computer generated.
Which makes Eternals something of a departure for the superhero universe, but even Zhao can’t remake the MCU into something that it isn’t.
So, the question is whether Zhao successfully imbued the latest Marvel movie with her aesthetic or if the Marvel machine flattened it. It’s a bit of both.
Zhao’s signature visuals and focus on emotional arcs is all through Eternals but that’s offset by too many over-the-top action sequences involving pyrotechnics and CGI monsters.
The balance doesn’t always reconcile, and even though Eternals is consistently epic, it can at times feel like you’re watching two different movies.
Part of the issue is that Eternals has a challenge like no other Marvel movie before it – and there have been 25 of them – in that it has to introduce a new ensemble and a convoluted mythology.
But it’s not just one or two new superheroes and their supporting sidekicks, it’s 10 superheroes, all with their own distinct powers, desires and fears, built up over 7000 years of human history.
That is an almost insurmountable task if you think about the fact that by the time the first Avengers movie came out in 2012, there were only six superheroes and the vast majority had already had a solo adventure.
In that sense, Eternals does a pretty decent job in bedding who they all are and their roles within the team.
But it still feels overstuffed, and even for an engaged audience who have spent 13 years theorising about infinity stones and mystical realms, the idea of immortal beings in the service of a Celestial called Arishem, is still a lot.
With a huge cast of established and promising new stars, Eternals centres on a group of superpowered beings who have protected Earth for seven millennia, but only against one specific threat, monsters called Deviants, which look like enormous wire-art sculptures.
They’re led by healer Ajak (Salma Hayek), and include Sersi (Gemma Chan), the Superman-like Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), strongman Gilgamesh (Don Lee), speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), mind controller Druig (Barry Keoghan), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie).
In the MCU, Eternals is set after the events of Avengers: Endgame and the return of half the world’s population. That energy set off something called “the emergence”, a threat to humanity.
Sersi is the heart of the story, a superhero that even after thousands of years still has to find the strength from within to meet the great challenge ahead of them. She’s not torn between doing what’s right and what’s not, she still has to work out what that is.
The relationship between her and Ikaris – one of many pairings that help to ground the character arcs – is a millennia-spanning grand romance not seen before in the MCU, which gives way to Marvel’s first proper sex scene.
There are lots of firsts in Eternals – the first deaf character, the first named gay character, the first female Asian lead – but its real delights lie in the exquisite character moments set against real-life landscapes.
The production shot on location and built physical sets. There’s a texture to scenes and to the light that you can’t recreate in front of a green screen. Those moments are Eternals’ strongest.
But even as they linger, held for longer than you would expect in a superhero blockbuster, the action far too frequently inevitably shifts back to CGI monsters and laser beams.
Eternals is messy but there is beauty in its parts if not necessarily the sum.
Eternals is in cinemas from Thursday, November 4
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