All superhero movies are ridiculous. That’s where the super part comes in. With the good superhero movies, you don’t notice the ridiculousness — or it doesn’t matter. With “Eternals,” you notice.
“Eternals” sounds like a line of perfumes. That’s never a good sign in the title of a superhero movie. It’s the latest roll-out in Marvel’s post-“Avengers” brand extension. In July, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow got a movie of her own — and it set up her kid sister, played by Florence Pugh, for a new one. In September, there was “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” That was a two-fer: a new story line with a new hero, the title character, with both clearly aimed at the Asian market.
“Eternals” offers a new story line with a set of new heroes. Note that the movie is currently only in theaters. It’ll be at least another 45 days before Disney+ makes it available for streaming.
The 10 title characters are like the Avengers, another superhero cluster, only gone cosmic. The Eternals (good guys) were created by the Celestials (all-powerful guys) to defend the human race from Deviants (bad guys). The Eternals are ageless and have supernatural powers. They look like us (only much more attractive). As for Deviants, they look like a combination of overgrown lizard and undergrown dinosaur, with a bit of wolf thrown in.
It was Deviants, we learn, who made the dinosaurs extinct. Imagine what they’d do to us humans. Thankfully the Eternals, who have been around since the dawn of history, haven’t given them the chance. They arrived here on a spaceship called the Domo, which looks very cool if aerodynamically improbable.
There are flashbacks to ancient Mesopotamia (which, oddly, seems to have acquired an ocean), Babylon, India’s Gupta Empire, Tenochtitlan, at the time of the Spanish conquest, and Hiroshima, when the atomic bomb was dropped. That one seems a bit grotesque and more than a bit self-aggrandizing.
Back in the present, the movie visits London, South Dakota, Alaska, Australia, Mumbai, Brazil, and Iraq. Be glad you’re not the Eternals’ travel agent. All that jumping around in both time and locale gives the movie sweep. It also gives viewers whiplash. “Eternals” has a pretty tricky narrative structure, and lots (and lots) of exposition, which does little for understanding and even less for pacing. The couple of “Avengers” references are nice to hear — they do pay attention at Marvel — and the name Thanos is heard. No wonder he caused such trouble in the last two “Avengers” movies: He’s an Eternals/Deviant hybrid.
The Deviants have been under control for a while, but now they’re looking to make trouble. “Something’s happening to Earth,” Gemma Chan’s Sersi says to fellow Eternal Ikaris (Richard Madden). “It can’t be a coincidence.” She’s got that right.
Sersi? Ikaris? Some Eternals have names derived from the ancient Greeks. Angelina Jolie is Thena. Salma Hayek is Ajak. Brian Tyree Henry is Phastos. Other names come by way of Mesopotamia (Don Lee’s Gilgamesh), ancient Celts (Barry Keoghan’s Druig), and the Coca-Cola Company (Lia McHugh’s Sprite).
Besides the fanciness of their names, Eternals differ from Avengers in various ways, though feuding with each other is not among them. Half of them are female. They know sign language, since one of them, Makkari, is deaf, as is the actress who plays her, Lauren Midloff. Another is gay. Several Eternals, not to name names, aren’t exactly superheroic in their physiques. The group is matter-of-factly multiracial; whether this is a function of enlightenment, further brand extension, or both, is impossible to say. Either way, it’s welcome. “Eternals” also includes the first instance that this viewer can recall of sex between two superheroes.
“Eternals” has another first, a comic-relief Marvel superhero, Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo. This is a type different from a witty Marvel superhero (Robert Downey Jr.’s Ironman) or comical one (Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord). It doesn’t work, especially a subplot about a documentary Kingo is filming about his fellow Eternals. That said, the movie does have a pretty funny Ikea joke; and when some Eternals show up unannounced at a no-longer-active colleague’s door, he introduces them to his family as, um, “my friends from college” (shades of the Coneheads’ “We’re from France”).
One of the smartest things the Marvel people have done in the past is bring in talented young non-action filmmakers to direct their movies: Ryan Coogler with “Black Panther”; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck with “Captain Marvel.” That tradition continues here, with Chloé Zhao, who won an Oscar earlier this year for “Nomadland.”
Is her presence behind the camera discernible? Nanjiani aside, the actors are all fine, if not more than that. The movie emphasizes personal relationships as other Marvel movies haven’t, and it has a vaguely religioso quality. That’s about it. Zhao has said she’s up for directing the sequel, a follow-up which the end of “Eternals” all but announces. Fire up the Domo. Let’s hope “Eternals II” is more aerodynamic.
Directed by Chloé Zhao. Written by Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, Kaz Firpo. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry. At Boston theaters, Kendall Square, suburbs. 136 minutes. PG-13 (fantasy violence and action, some language, brief sexuality).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.