After 13 years, four Avengers, and 21 other blockbusters, we know what to expect by now from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There’ll be action and spectacle and clever character crossovers, with enough slyly knowing humor to offset the occasional tragic exit or life-decimating blip.
There have definitely been bumps along the road, not to mention a woeful dragging of heels in the diversity and inclusion department. What cannot be queried is that Kevin Feige and his pals have constructed Hollywood’s most dependable hit factory, with a guaranteed global audience more than happy to gobble up more of the same.
The moment Eternals begins, though, they’ll know they’re getting something different. A Star Wars-style scroll unfurls a new cosmic mythology, one in which all-powerful beings named Celestials rule the roost from the heavens, while ageless warriors – the Eternals of the title – do their bidding on Earth. A dizzying opening salvo locates these heroes, 10 in all, in Mesopotamia in 5020 B.C., using their superpowers to defend a beachhead from a snarling sea-beast armed with whirling serpentine tendrils.
The customary Marvel logo, meanwhile, is accompanied not by Michael Giacchino’s stirring fanfare but by Pink Floyd’s "Time" – a canny choice for a film that spans 7,000 years of human history and spends much of its two hours and 30-odd minutes hopscotching between millennia like a hyperactive Tardis.
On paper, the boundless imagination of comic-book innovator Jack Kirby and the low-key naturalism of Oscar-winning Nomadland director Chloé Zhao seem irreconcilable poles apart. On screen, though, they combine to create a movie of epic scale and ambition, with a keening, pensive soulfulness at its heart that invites serious contemplation on existential imponderables.
The Eternals – nominally led by Salma Hayek’s Ajak, a maternal healer with Wonder Woman’s taste in headgear – are tasked with battling 'Deviants', like that aforementioned sea creature, and have been expressly instructed not to meddle in human affairs. After so many centuries, though, how can an empath like Sersi (Gemma Chan) not have affection for the mortals she co-exists with? And how can a shape-shifter like Sprite (Lia McHugh) – a fellow immortal doomed for all time to be the girl who never grows up – not feel curious about what life might be like as a mature and fecund woman?
These aren’t the sort of questions Iron Man or Thor had much room for as they hared about the galaxy in search of Infinity Stones. Indeed, there is much more of a Zack Snyder’s Justice League vibe to the MCU’s latest ensemble, which we see gradually reunited in the present day in response to a series of mysterious earthquakes that portend a rupture in the current world order.
Exotic flashbacks to ancient Babylon and 16th-century South America reveal why the now-separated Eternals require reassembling, as well as the reason the once-fearsome Thena (a rather underused Angelina Jolie sporting a stilted English accent) isn’t quite the force she used to be. A witty pit-stop in India, meanwhile, has Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo reinvented as a Bollywood leading man, complete with a loyal valet (Harish Patel) documenting his every utterance.
Putting the team back together takes up so much time it’s inevitable that some members get less attention than others. It is unfortunate that it’s Brian Tyree Henry’s gay family man Phastos and Deaf actress Lauren Ridloff who are most noticeably sidelined, the latter’s much-heralded casting as speed dynamo Makkari amounting to little more than a cameo.
Breaking new ground
In the year of CODA and Rose Ayling-Ellis on the UK's Strictly Come Dancing, it’s a pity that more was not done to integrate Ridloff – and the sign language in which she so eloquently converses – more fluently into the story. As it is, we’re left wanting more from her – something that can’t really be said of Richard Madden’s Superman-ish Ikaris, Barry Keoghan’s sullen mind-manipulator Druig, or Kit Harington’s Dane, a beige love interest for Chan’s sensual Sersi, whose role seems set to be expanded in future instalments.
Fans expecting the slam-bang escapism of Black Widow and the genre-based certainties of Shang-Chi may be initially wrongfooted by Zhao’s tinkering with the established formula. Yet her daring pays off with a movie that, for all its players’ Guardians-style banter, has a purposefulness and gravitas that feels strikingly akin in places to Denis Villeneuve’s recent Dune.
This is certainly the first Marvel film to reference both the Hiroshima bombing and the Tenochtitlan massacre of 1520, while the connections it draws between overpopulation and extinction seem explicitly tailored to contemporary environmental concerns. That it can do this while also putting Don Lee’s Gilgamesh in a fuzzy pink romper suit bodes well for a franchise that looks eminently capable of developing in more than one direction.
Eternals reaches cinemas on November 5. For more, check out everything to expect from Marvel Phase 4.