Marvel Cinematic Universe, there was Iron Man. In the very beginning, there was a bunch of Eternals.
The newest Marvel superhero film covers more than 7,000 years of history and, if that wasn’t a large enough feat, introduces 10 very different new personalities – including characters played by A-listers Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek – to the mega-popular movie franchise, courtesy of Oscar-winning director Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”). An impressively ambitious and often beautiful film, “Eternals” (★★½ out of four; rated PG-13; in theaters Nov. 5) is in many ways the anti-Marvel movie: It only occasionally references the ultra-connected MCU, favoring mythology creation over forcing itself into the grander plan. Unfortunately, the exceedingly earnest narrative struggles to juggle its many subplots and tries to do too much in its hefty two hours and 37 minutes.
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The Eternals are immortal superpowered beings sent to Earth – specifically Mesopotamia, circa 5000 B.C. – by the cosmic Celestials to protect humans from dangerous alien monsters called Deviants. And akin to the Avengers, they’re a complementary supergroup: healing leader Ajak (Hayek), matter-manipulating Sersi (Gemma Chan), illusionist Sprite (Lia McHugh), inventive Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan) are the thinkers, while eye-blasting Ikaris (Richard Madden), energy-shooting Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), ultra-speedy Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), weapons master Thena (Jolie) and super-strong Gilgamesh (Don Lee) are the warriors.
But this family went their separate ways after wiping out all the Deviants over several millennia, and in present day, the movie catches up with Sersi in London, where she and her roommate Sprite pass themselves off as humans in society. Sersi is out with her boyfriend, museum co-worker Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), when a Deviant attacks them and Ikaris (aka Sersi’s ex) shows up to save the day.
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The reappearance of the creature, more souped-up than they’ve seen before, leads Sersi, Sprite and Ikaris on a “getting the band back together” mission, first tracking down Ajak in South Dakota and then finding the others: Kingo, for example, is a famous Bollywood star and Gilgameshis working with Thena on PTSD resulting from eons of war. But as they reunite, old dysfunction returns, truths are revealed and differences arise about their role on Earth in the past and present.
Utilizing Zhao’s penchant for naturalistic environments, “Eternals” looks unlike any other Marvel movie and is perhaps the most welcoming for MCU neophytes in forever. There’s as many references to Superman (yes, the rival DC hero) as there are to Thor, and it helps to cast 10 ridiculously attractive people as characterseven comic-book fans deem obscure.
It’s a minor miracle that each Eternal gets their moment: The movie-stealing Nanjiani’s great whenever the fame-obsessed Kingo has a chance to shine; Sersi being torn between Ikaris and Dane symbolizes much of what the movie tries to say about humanity; and the Thena/Gilgamesh dynamic is also fascinating. (Jolie gets one of her best action roles in years here.)
But when you factor in the heap of characters, the various twists and turns, a murder mystery and all the bouncing between present day and ancient history, “Eternals” becomes a head-spinning, multi-car pileup of stuff. An intriguing theme like the ethical conundrum of the greater good is just touched on instead of satisfyingly explored. Zhao’s included so many Marvel firsts and important diversity elements – a sexual encounter (albeit PG-rated), Makkari’s inclusion as a deaf superhero, a gay family being an important part of Phastos’ story – yet each only gets so much screen time before the story moves on to something else.
Zhao understands the larger assignment, as the epic sets the stage for future MCU intrigue. Her attention to detail and eye for design does wonders, even if by the end it all feels like an eternal chore.