Eternals ★★½

In an era of hundreds of streaming shows that would have been better as a movie, Marvel has managed the nigh-impossible: a movie that would have been better as a streaming series. Chloé Zhao enters the blockbuster arena with lofty ideas, occasionally-pretty golden hour photography, and commendable ambition, and helps minimize some of the worst elements of Marvel’s inescapable house style — the humor-induced weightlessness occasionally rears its ugly head, but not nearly as frequently as in the studio’s other movies, and many of the scenes appear to be shot on location, as opposed to Marvel’s default ugly green screen environments.

But Zhao can’t prevent some of the gargantuan studio’s worst qualities from taking hold over the movie: the action remains pretty choppy, the exposition extends for ages, and the stakes are impossibly high. The film is trying to do far too many things in a 2.5 hour timeframe — it introduces ten characters, five distinct sources of conflict, and at least 7000 years of immortal history across time and space. The rules of the game aren’t too complicated for the average viewer to understand, but they’re convoluted enough that they necessitate that the movie devote a disappointing amount of screentime to their explanation, yet there’s so much of it that you can’t really invest in any of it on an emotional or narrative level.

The film frequently introduces a concept about what the Eternals are for, then pulls the rug out from under that idea in a way that’s supposed to shock the characters and the audience — but each time this happens, there hasn’t been enough time for us to internalize the dynamics that are being subverted, so each big “twist” doesn’t really feel like anything at all. There’s one exception to this near the climax where a character pulls a genuinely surprising heel turn, but that heel turn retroactively makes the character’s actions throughout the preceding two hours make almost no sense if you think about it for more than five seconds.

I went into this movie excited to see how the members of stacked ensemble play off each other. Turns out that the best performances (Ma Dong-seok, Barry Keoghan, Angelina Jolie) are largely sidelined to highlight a preposterously annoying child (Lia McHugh), a laughably bungled attempt at gay representation (Brian Tyree Henry), an uninteresting lead performance from an otherwise charming actor (Gemma Chan), and an irritating comic relief turn from a comedian who bulked up to play a guy whose main superpower is literally finger guns (Kumail Nanjiani).

I admire the movie’s big swings toward giant moral questions, many of which almost become existentially and theologically fascinating. “What if God wasn’t what we thought?” is a better premise than the vast majority of comic book movie conceits! But this particular execution of answering that question buckles under the weight of its ambition, and quickly devolves into a dubious game of pretty black-and-white morality about sacrificing innocent lives that’s barely distinguishable from other sci-fi and superhero movies. And if it’s not particularly fun, funny, exciting, emotional, thought-provoking, or visually engaging, and the conflict is pretty similar to its comic book counterparts…what’s the point of it all?

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