Eternals, review: Marvel attempts to push boundaries, but the result is insipid

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Still in their comfort zone: Richard Madden and Gemma Chan - Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios /The Hollywood Archive / Avalon
Still in their comfort zone: Richard Madden and Gemma Chan - Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios /The Hollywood Archive / Avalon
  • Dir: Chloé Zhao. 12A cert, 157 mins

A couple of years ago, the actor Kumail Nanjiani posted a shirtless photograph on social media to unveil his brand new super-heroic physique. The freshly swollen and glazed star was formerly known for amiable turns in comedies like The Big Sick, but he revealed he had spent the past 12 months working with “the best trainers and nutritionists, paid for by the biggest studio in the world” to prepare for his role in Eternals, the latest item in the Marvel blockbuster portfolio.

Nanjiani plays one of a troupe of racially eclectic demigods who flew to Earth in 5,000 BC inside a giant chunk of Toblerone, and are now trying to stop a godlike robo-being that’s been gestating inside the planet from hatching out. Yet his muscles are nowhere to be seen. His character, whose name is Kingo, spends most of the film shooting computer-generated fireballs at computer-generated monsters, while dressed in a long-sleeved mauve tunic.

So why the urge to get buff in the first place? The answer is the problem with Eternals in miniature: it’s constantly engaged in a kind of grit-toothed authenticity theatre, going out of its way to show you it’s doing all the things proper cinema does, even though none of them bring any discernible benefit whatsoever to the film at hand.

Take the fact that many scenes have been shot out in the wild, rather than in green-screen-draped studios. The lighting is so flat and bland, and the actors’ performances so detached from their environments, that they might as well have stayed indoors and saved themselves the trip. Then there is the unusual decision to give the heroes some dramatic down time – banter over dinner, heart-to-hearts at sunset, romantic strolls and other indie drama staples. Again, it’s a promising idea, but it’s all so drearily written, you find yourself wishing they’d just get back to the fights.

The more muted tone rules out Marvel’s fast and flippant house style: instead, Eternals opts for solemnity peppered with wackiness, which occasionally gives it the feel of a Japanese anime series. (It also features the least brand cross-promotion since the first Guardians of the Galaxy.)

Much is made of the fact the ten-strong team are capital-D diverse – which might have meant something if they weren't also completely capital-I insipid. Angelina Jolie’s regal swordswoman Thena is like a parody of a Jolie character: all piercing stares and breathy monologues, until it’s time for her CG avatar to tap in and perform some preposterous combat acrobatics. Nanjiani’s Kingo, who moonlights as a Bollywood megastar, has a musical number, yet inexplicably doesn’t actually sing in it. There is also a sex scene (chaste) and a gay kiss (fleeting): both moments that remain boundary-pushing in Marvel terms, which in itself is depressing beyond belief.

Eternals was directed and co-written by the spectacularly talented Chloé Zhao, whose Nomadland won three Oscars including Best Picture earlier this year. (Marvel got in early, hiring her after the release of her second film, The Rider, in 2018.) But Zhao’s compassionate eye and poetic feel for landscape are nigh-on undetectable here, unless you count a few incidental shots of the Eternals wandering through villages, chatting to locals and helping with chores. Yet the fact they’ve been around since neolithic times raises an awkward question.

Why didn’t they intervene during the events of any of the previous 14 years of Marvel movies? And the explanation given is, essentially, that they’re a bunch of jobsworths: since they were put on Earth specifically to vanquish an alien race called Deviants, vanquishing Deviants is all they’ll do, with the rest hand-waved through on the grounds that it’s character-building (wars stimulate technological progress, and so on).

Perhaps the hope was that Marvel’s 26th film might rattle the franchise out of its comfort zone. But the franchise is nothing but comfort zone, which renders its latest entry an instant white elephant.