7,000 years ago, alien beings known as Eternals (Richard Madden, Gemma Chan, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Lia McHugh) arrive on Earth to defend humanity from creatures known as Deviants. Guided by an all-powerful being known as Arishem, the Eternals integrate with humanity and eventually begin to hide among them. However, when a major earthquake in the present day marks the return of Deviants, they must reconnect with one another and their powers...
One of the many, many ways in which the Marvel Cinematic Universe has grown to become the dominating presence it is in cinemas is that each entry has clung to a certain formula and pulled liberally from genres. For example, 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' drew from '70s conspiracy thrillers like 'Three Days of the Condor', 'Spider-Man: Homecoming' was like a John Hughes teen comedy, and 'Black Widow' was a spy blockbuster in the vein of Tom Cruise's 'Mission: Impossible' franchise.
It's given audiences a measure of familiarity when introducing new characters and arcs, allowing them to tap into surroundings and tropes that they recognise, but with a comic-book twist to it. With 'Eternals', Chloé Zhao and fellow screenwriters Patrick Burleigh and brothers Kaz and Ryan Firpo are reaching for something that's probably just too far of a stretch for the Marvel Cinematic Universe - substance. Much of 'Eternals' is spent zipping through the centuries, dropping into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Gupta Empire of India, the fall of Tenochtitlan, and charting out how the band of heroes have played a role in shaping humanity's mythology - Icarus, for example, was actually Richard Madden's Ikaris, the goddess Athena was really just Angelina Jolie with platinum blonde hair and CGI. It's bold stuff, reshaping myths around the world and placing Marvel superheroes in the middle of them. It doesn't end there, either. They're guided by an all-powerful being who judges which planets live or die, and they - the Eternals, that is - are really just instruments of his design. That's right, folks - the Marvel Cinematic Universe has shot past the cosmic and into the realm of divine providence and the very nature of existence.
Of course, in order to try and rope all of these huge ideas onto the screen, a good chunk of 'Eternals' is spent trying to make exposition and world-building seem cool and interesting, not boring and lifeless. In fairness to director Chloé Zhao, that's a tough task for any director to manage, let alone one whose most notable work to date has been a meditative piece on place and family and is largely devoid of plot. Even if you get Gemma Chan's character to literally spell things out to the audience surrogate - Kit Harrington, in this case - the story itself is needlessly convoluted in a way that really leaves you scratching your head about why it spent an hour-plus to get there.
Still, Zhao is pushing the boat out for a Marvel movie in ways it hasn't before. There's a love-making scene, albeit very, very tame, but still! Marvel superheroes having sex! Said superheroes themselves actively question their purpose and their abilities when humanity itself seems unworthy of them, and it literally has them confronting the actual creator of the universe about the divine order of creation itself. With that kind of scale to it, 'Eternals' then has to work extra hard to keep balance with a sense of grounded humanity to it by introducing romances, families, unrequited loves. Sadly, none of them ever quite reach a place where it's convincing. It doesn't help either that the cast is so dense that the camera never seems to rest on any of them for too long, or give any of them a chance to actually develop.
For example, Barry Keoghan's character Druig has the ability to control minds and we later see him leading... a cult, you could say? How did that happen and why? Before you get a chance to breathe, there's a CGI fight with tentacled alien-animals and more crying, more jaws clenched in dramatic fashion, and more exposition. To their credit, the cast are giving it their best shot. Richard Madden has real screen presence as Ikaris, Angelina Jolie likewise has a real aura of menace to her character, Lia McHugh's Sprite has all the angst and heartbreak of young adulthood, and even Kumail Nanjiani gets to do a Bollywood dance sequence.
'Eternals' isn't the big blockbuster fun of previous Marvel entries, it's trying to make itself more substantial and ponderous. In an ironic twist, 'Eternals' falls victim to the kind of problems that plagued DC movies like 'Man of Steel' and 'Zack Snyder's Justice League'. It flies high, grapples with huge themes and ideas, tries to keep check with humour and heart, but the whole thing feels so overblown and overwrought that you kind of walk out of the screen in a daze.