Prepare to be wowed. But not in the way you think. “Eternals,” the 25th epic in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is a plea for diversity and empathy wrapped in an eye-popping blockbuster that keeps springing surprises you don’t see coming.
“Eternals,” now in theaters, also takes on the gargantuan task of introducing 10 new superheroes who’ve never been on screen before. Lucky for us, that challenge falls to Chloe Zhao, the Chinese director and co-writer who’s never tackled anything of this size and scope.
Zhao, whose “Nomadland” made her only the second woman and first woman of color to win a directing Oscar, makes character-based indie films (“Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” “The Rider’) whose combined budgets could hardly pay for a week’s catering on a Marvel movie.
And yet it’s Zhao’s personal touch that makes “Eternals” stand out from the herd. That plus her exemplary work with actors, from the starry likes of Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek to such stars in the making as Richard Madden and Gemma Chan.
There are bumps in the road. Even Zhao can’t hold back the avalanche of exposition that slackens the pace or alien attacks (look out for that giant lobster) with special effects that seem lifted from the standard Marvel playbook.
“Eternals” feels long at two hours and 37 minutes, taking its time to achieve liftoff with actors often posed in groups that suggest a static calendar layout instead of adrenalized filmmaking. It’s a lot to set 10 new superheroes spinning. We get it. But this plot needs goosing.
Things improve when the action helps define character. What you need to know is that the Eternals are 7000 years old, from the planet of Olympia and sent by the Celestials (don’t ask) to protect humans from a monstrous species called the Deviants. Mission accomplished.
Cut to present-day London, where the Deviants are back and all fired up for revenge on the Eternals. That means that Sersi (Gemma Chan) must leave her day job at the Natural History Museum and prepare for war with help from her protege, Sprite (Lia McHugh), an ancient trapped in the body of a teenager.
Wait, there’s more. Ikaris (Richard Madden), Sersi’s love from a thousand years back, also returns with his power to fly and shoot destructive lasers out of his eyes and mess up Sersi’s new romance with Dane (Kit Harington), a human hottie who knows more than he first lets on. Did I mention that Sprite loves Ikaris from afar? She does.
There’s also a relationship between Thena (a blonde Angelina Jolie), the brain-addled goddess of war, and her protector, Gilgamesh (Don Lee). And Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the tech-genius among the Eternals, has built a family with his gay husband (a Marvel first).
That leaves Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Eternals matriarch, with much to untangle, including a rebellion from Druig (Barry Keoghan), who resents her rules against using mind control to end violence, and the deaf Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who hates being exiled on Earth.
Among the Eternals, no one is having more fun than Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the firebomber who has spent his downtime becoming a Bollywood star with a human videographer, Karun (Harish Patel), to capture his exploits. Nanjiani’s capacity to steal scenes cannot be questioned.
Cheers to Zhao for bringing a distinct touch to characters whose time on Earth involves deaf and queer communities and actors of Black, Latina, and Asian descent. Based on the comics created by Jack Kirby in 1976, the movie shows its hand with the Uni-Mind, which allows the Eternals to quit squabbling and unite as a single force.
As the Eternals sweep the globe from Australia to the Amazon—stick around for a post-credits sequence that connects Thanos and the Avengers to the path ahead—what you’ll remember is the quiet at the heart of the storm and the intimate connections that Zhao values above spectacle. Different? You bet. But it’s also what makes “Eternals” unique and unforgettable.