Eternals: **** 'Not quite an arthouse comic book movie'

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 20

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS - Credit: Courtesy of Marvel Studios

In this year of getting back into the swing of things, cinema has been making a particularly faltering return to action.

Probably the conclusion to draw is that 2020 probably would've been a lousy year for movies even without Covid.

The pandemic forced the Marvel cinematic sprawl into a two-year break which really should've worked in its favour. But absence just seemed to make the new films feel more samey. Eternals is yet another of their costumed ensemble pieces much like the others, yet actually quite different. This one may actually have ambition.

(L-R): Gemma Chan and Richard Madden in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian. ©Marve

(L-R): Gemma Chan and Richard Madden in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. - Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

For a start, these Eternals are a band apart. Thanos gets a couple of mentions, but there is no intermingling with the rest of the Marvel hoi polloi. The introductory scrawl reads like a comic book of Genesis, telling how the creator of all things – a dead ringer for the Iron Giant – begat the Celestials, then begat the Deviants before begating the Eternals, everlasting humanoid superbeings who have spent the last 7,000 years overseeing the evolution of humanity.

The narrative kicks off in present-day London but during the two and half hour plus running time, it jumps around all over history stopping off at Babylonia and Mesopotamia. There's the usual humour and punch ups, but within a film of enormous scope.

Eternals is surely unique in being a superhero film from a director who has just won an Oscar. Almost from the beginning, Marvel has made a point of picking directors who have indie credibility or are known for their TV work. They are there to add a smidgeon of individuality to the corporate process, working with the actors or the script. Mostly 'though the giant Marvel machine makes the movie: the credits may announce this is A Chloé Zhao Film, but the thousands of names in the credits, the wretched scriveners of CGI, suggest otherwise.

Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian. ©Marvel Studios 20

Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. - Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

Eternals, however, does show signs of Zhao having some impact on the process. I'm not saying it's an arthouse comic book movie, but the pacing is slower than the norm, and the script has more moral ambiguity. Above all, it is incredibly beautiful to look at. The credits attest to the fact that hours of screentime went into its creation, but the CGI is rarely noticeable. Much of the film looks as though it was shot on location with real people doing real things in real places.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. Photo by Sophie Mutevelian. ©Marvel Studios 2021. Al

Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios' ETERNALS. - Credit: Sophie Mutevelian

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The photorealism is such that at times these spaceships and monsters and superheroes appear to have wandered off and found themselves in a Terence Malick movie. Whether this helps the movie is debatable. Do audiences want a slower, more thoughtful comic book movie? And does just emphasise the absurdity of the whole enterprise? These are supposed to be godlike beings, made to last for all time, yet they bicker, fall in and out of love, and can be ridiculously petty. It's endearing when the Avengers do it, but unbecoming in Eternal beings. 4/5 Stars.

Directed by Chloé Zhao. Starring Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Kit Harrington, Patrick Keoghan and Salma Hayek. Running time: 157 mins.

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