The world is coming to an end! Again! It’s been what three years since the blip erased half of mankind in Avengers: Infinity Wars (2018) and two since the mother of all battles to the finish in Avengers: Endgame (2019)? And even as the Covid pandemic continues to rage, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe assembles 10 ancient superheroes — no, wait, these are beings with superpowers but are they really superheroes? — to battle the Deviants who are unleashing another apocalypse on planet Earth.
Unless you are an MCU geek, connections across the films are difficult to make at the best of times. It took my son a few years of schooling me in the universe before I could get a hang of the superheroes and their interconnectedness, and even then Infinity Wars and Endgame often left me scratching my head both in wonder at the spectacle and the plethora of characters.
No wonder, Chloe Zhao has her task cut out in Eternals: Laying the ground for a new mythology, introducing 10 new crusaders, making a case for more representation and inclusivity, following her own artistic calling that informed her American west trilogy, including the much-feted Nomadland, while ticking all the boxes of a film in the MCU. And no wonder, the end result is somewhat of a mixed bag.
There’s a throbbing heart, an aching sense of loss at the core of Eternals that not many MCU films and characters can boast of. There are some grand vistas that owe themselves to Zhao’s authorial flourish. A few spectacular set pieces that are par for the course in the MCU. And some never-before-seen vignettes — two Marvel characters making love, a same-sex relationship involving one, an androgynous superhero, another who is hearing impaired, one who has deep psychological issues, and even a Bollywood superstar (and a Bollywood dance number that won’t pass muster in a home-grown production) and his valet (Harish Patel) played largely for laughs.
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However, even after 160 minutes of runtime, the mythology remains dense. This despite the narrative almost coming to a standstill midway for an extended exposition and despite a few paragraphs right at the outset, before the credits, explaining how the Eternals — Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) — came to Earth at the behest of the Prime Celestial, Arishem, and have been living among us for millennia. Arishem, of course, has his own nefarious design but the writing is never able to give him the menace of the best of MCU villains. And, personally, I missed the peppy fun and self-disparaging witticism that has been a hallmark of the MCU films.
The narrative traverses the entire spectrum from Mesopotamia (circa 5000 BC) to Babylon (2500 BC) to the Gupta Empire (AD 400) to present-day London, South Dakota, the Australian outback, Amazonian forests and even a Mumbai film set. And though the expanse lends itself to some spectacular visuals and production design, the proceedings seldom break free to soar. In the end, despite its palpable feel for intimate ‘human’ drama and resplendent landscapes, Eternals never quite overcomes the feeling that it is straddling two diverse worlds that fail to come together for a fully satisfying experience. There’s majesty here, but little magic.
Director: Chloe Zhao
Cast: Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan
Rating: 3 stars
(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is an award-winning publisher, editor and a film buff)
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