When did Marvel become a mood ring? Early on, their movie multiverse was mostly helmed by amiable experts-for-hire (Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh) in a sort of soylent superhero style more notable for its general competence than flair. Then came the auteurs and their looser, bolder takes: Taika Waititi's gleefully loopy Thor: Ragnarok; Ryan Coogler's culture-smashing Black Panther; Destin Daniel Cretton's breezy, balletic Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings. But Eternals is the first to be overseen by a recent Oscar winner still fresh off her own watershed: Chloé Zhao, who became the only woman of color (and second female overall) to ever take home the Best Director prize, for last year's sparse, elegiac Best Picture winner Nomadland.
It's a long way from Frances McDormand in a van to the center of the MCU, and no mere mortal is stronger than a $20 billion franchise; Eternals (in theaters Nov. 5) still molds itself faithfully to Marvel form — the winky banter and convoluted origin myths, exotic scene-setting (London! Hiroshima! Ancient Babylon!) and clanging third-act showdowns. But Zhao's imprint is also hard to miss in the movie's steady thrum of melancholy and its deeper, odder character arcs. Her sprawling cast's superhuman powers tend to belie their extremely human traits: They fight, fall in love, and fall prey to their own egos; some have serious day jobs and even non-Eternal husbands (or at least Brian Tyree Henry's Phastos does).
Being stuck on Earth for a few thousand years, maybe, will do that; how could anyone embed that long with the natives and not have some of it rub off? For the first time too, the heroes actually look — improbably gorgeous symmetry aside — a lot like the world they're meant to protect: a panoply of skin tones, sexualities, and physical abilities. Many have already noted that the movie marks the series' inaugural inclusion of a Deaf superhero (The Walking Dead's Lauren Ridloff) and same-sex screen kiss (between Henry and Haaz Sleiman, the actor who plays his handsome architect spouse). It also happens that the group's leader, Ajak (Salma Hayek), is portrayed by a Latin woman in her 50s (give or take several millennia), and that the heart of the movie is Gemma Chan's Sersi, a gentle, self-effacing empath who only seems to use her powers because she has to.
Marvel Studios The cast of 'Eternals'
Bodyguard's Richard Madden plays her erstwhile lover, Ikaris, a soulful troubled type idolized by the elfin shapeshifter Sprite (Lia McHugh). A Valkyrie-blond Angelina Jolie swings her movie-star weight as the rampaging warrior-goddess Thena, and Kumail Nanjiani famously bulked up to play Kingo, a sunny bachelor who makes elaborate Bollywood musicals in his spare time and shoots cosmic projectiles from his hands like an electrified Spider-Man. Dunkirk's Barry Keoghan lurks as the mutinous mind controller Druig, while Don Lee floats in and out as Gilgamesh, an affable elder and keeper of the volatile Thena. Granted time off for good behavior and general peace times, they've been scattered across the globe for centuries when the call comes in to reunite; the threat, naturally, is no less than the annihilation of mankind, and the enemy are Deviants — ornery beasts that look like skinned dinosaurs and cut a swath of city-burning, people-eating chaos wherever they go.
Zhao, who co-penned the script with several credited screenwriters, moves through her assorted story lines in a way that seems almost deliberately unrushed, stopping often and leisurely for extended character moments: Kingo's thriving side hustle as a self-made movie mogul, Sersi's ongoing romance with a remarkably understanding civilian (Game of Thrones' Kit Harington), Sprite's longing to be set free from the prison of her perpetual adolescence. The looping flashback structure and relaxed, intimate pacing has the odd effect of making the fate of the free world feel a lot less urgent than it probably should; the movie frequently comes off less like a standard MCU tentpole than a metaphysical family drama whose black sheep just happens to be Thanos.
That probably won't thrill a lot of fans who come for the wham-bam deluge of intergalactic battlefields and Infinity Stones, even though there's more than enough noisy CG battles and byzantine mythology in its 2-hour-and-37-minute runtime. The teasing finale — and a left-field pop-star cameo in the post-credits scene — virtually guarantee a sequel; whether Zhao's mournful, slow-burn brand of eternity will get her invited back to do that is a question only the gods of Hollywood's bottom line can answer. Grade: B
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