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Eternals (2021)::rating::3::rating::3

Compared to the twenty five movies that came before it, Eternals occupies the most distant orbit in Marvel’s sprawling cinematic galaxy. We only hear a few references to Thanos and the Avengers, and even those feel wedged in by obligated screenwriters. This narrative independence means that Eternals can be judged largely on its own merit, a fact that supplies both blessing and curse. Ironically, even though this movie departs from the Marvel formula, it still bears some of the same flaws: Chloé Zhao’s ambitious epic goes on way too long, undergoes jarring shifts between comedy and drama, and packs its expansive plot with far too many empty calories.

Another storytelling blemish pops up early and often: The film opens with an unnecessary text crawl, and then cuts to the first of a bajillion flashbacks. In 5000 BC, primitive man is under assault by ravenous alien predators, known as Deviants. Thankfully, a team of all-powerful superheroes arrives to ward off the monsters and keep humanity safe. This squad is known as the Eternals, immortal and overpowered beings who have each developed a special skill to aid the team.

That group is headed up by Ajak (Salma Hayek), a serene figure who can rapidly heal herself and those around her. Sersi (Gemma Chan) can transmute inanimate objects from one form to another, while Ikaris (Richard Madden) sports flight and optic blasts that place him somewhere between Superman and Cyclops on the superhero scale. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is a sass-mouthed kid who can project Loki-style illusions. Kingo (Kimball Nanjiani) fires cosmic missiles from his fingertips. Angelina Jolie plays Thena, a legendary warrior who suffers from a debilitating mental illness. To give you an idea of how busy this damn movie is, I’ve barely listed half of of the good guys.

Anyway, over the course of these umpteen flashbacks, we learn that the Eternals spent thousands of years eliminating the Deviants from Earth. Once their mission is accomplished, the gang feels the same burnout known to every middle-aged rock band: They’ve seen. million faces, and they’ve rocked ’em all. With that, the team disbands to embark on separate spiritual journeys.

Naturally, just like The Beach Boys and Three Dog Night, destiny decrees that the Eternals get back together. More powerful and adaptive Deviants start popping up all over the world, along with a new threat to the planet’s existence. Meanwhile, the Eternals learn of a dark secret behind their mission on Earth.

And that’s a small chunk of the plot. You know those clichéd movie scenes, where a stressed-out character sits in their office, and the boss comes in and dumps new stacks of work on their desk? That’s pretty much the script to Eternals: We get tons of new characters, waves of exposition, and multiple scenes that set up both sequels and brand new franchises. (Oh yeah, Kit Harrington plays Dane, a love interest for Sersi and superhero-in-waiting.)

Amidst all this frantic construction, Zhao and company find a way to do too much and not enough at the same time. The film presents so many Eternals that we never get a proper chance to bond anybody on an individual basis. Their character arcs feel rushed, and the story’s big emotional payoff rings surprisingly hollow. That aloofness is amplified by the Celestial-sized elephant in the room: How can we root for these so-called “heroes,” when they’ve watched twenty five movies worth of world-ending threats and done nothing to intervene? I get the feeling these genetically-enhanced demigods could’ve turned Thanos into purple kitty litter. And you can say they were only following their mandate, but the group also chucks the rules aside whenever it suits them. In any case, it makes it difficult to get invested in any of this.

That’s too bad, because Eternals also delivers a few checks in the plus column: The special effects, fight scenes, and cinematography are all world-class. That goes ditto for Ramin Djawadi’s gorgeous, melodic score. Marvel’s latest entry may be overlong, uneven and maybe even a smidge confusing, but Zhao’s film is never boring. Of the actors, Nanjiani has the most fun, as Kingo spends his superhero hiatus as a vain Bollywood superstar. Harish Patel also steals a few scenes, as Kingo’s faithful, goofy assistant. Madden brings humanity to Ikaris, as he struggles completing the mission and saving his adopted planet. Chan also scores as the film’s emotional center of gravity.

Zhao messes with that gravity by failing to strike a consistent tone. Occasional beats of comedy sit awkwardly next to scenes of cosmic drama. Unlike triumphs like Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok, Zhao and her cohorts never find the same delicate balance of silly and serious. With such an excruciating runtime, this ragged storytelling only makes the film more wearying.

That being said, Marvel at its most middling trounces DC on all cylinders. Eternals still has moments of genuine joy and excitement. They just happened to be scattered across a wholly average movie. MCU completists will enjoy this more than casual fans. In either case, I would strongly suggest keeping your expectations in check.

157 min. PG-13. In theaters only. Coming to Disney+ in December.

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