'Eternals' review: Too many superheroes, too much time

Oscar winner Chloé Zhao takes on the superhero genre with an overstuffed entry into Marvel's ever-growing Cinematic Universe.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

There are simply too many Eternals.

Of the many problems with "Eternals," that's the most glaring one. Superhero posse cuts are, of course, the goal of today's comic book franchise machines: there are three "Avengers" movies in the Top 10 grossers of all-time, and a fourth one sits at No. 11. But those were culminations of long projects, built up to after numerous individual chapters, not starting points. Had Marvel just gone out and started with "The Avengers," the results most likely would have been different. 

Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie and Don Lee in "Eternals."

And "Eternals" is no "Avengers," just as the Eternals are no Avengers. This isn't Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, the Hulk and the rest of the troop, this is (checks notes) Kingo, Ikaris, Sprite, Phastos, Ajak, Thena and Druig. After awhile, they don't even sound like names anymore. This isn't a who's who of superheroes, it's more of just a, "who?"

And that's just the characters. "Eternals" presents a clunky storyline, an inconsistent mood, flat action and confusing world building. You know that feeling when a movie is really humming along, gaining momentum from scene to scene, and everything just sort of falls into place? That never happens in "Eternals." It starts off rocky and never finds its footing.

The Eternals are a group of 10 protectors, ageless keepers of the peace, sent to defend Earth from the Deviants, a race of giant shape-shifting electro beasties. The Eternals have been around for millennia, watching over the human race, nudging us along in our progress — or rather, our noted lack thereof. ("Eternals" has a pretty grim view of humanity in general.) 

The Eternals each have their own superpowers, from superspeed to power of flight, and are led by Salma Hayek's Ajak, who is the sage spiritual leader of the gang. Physically, the most powerful Eternal is Ikaris (Richard Madden, who looks a lot like Sebastian Stan, who is already in the Marvel Cinematic Universe), whose ability to fly and shoot powerful beams from his eyes earns him comparisons to Superman. (Ikaris rebuffs the connection, noting he doesn't wear a cape.)

There's Thena (Angelina Jolie), who is able to whip up weapons out of thin air, Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) can shoot fireball-like beams of energy from his hands, and Gilgamesh (Don Lee) possesses super strength, as well as a close bond with Thena. There's also Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can manipulate people with his mind; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who would give the Flash a run for his money in a footrace; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a genius tech expert and inventor; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who can project illusions and fool people into believing they're real; and Sersi (Gemma Chan), who can turn inanimate objects into whatever she wants, such as a speeding bus barreling toward her into a pile of harmless flower petals.

Richard Madden in "Eternals."

Got all that? Hope so, because we've barely met the Eternals before there's trouble in their ranks: after a significant member of the group is killed — those dang Deviants are on the attack — the squad begins to splinter, and Ikaris turns heel. It's up to the others to stop him, which isn't easy since, well, cape aside, he's basically Superman. 

"Eternals" is also about the individual lives of the members outside of their superhero duties, their interpersonal relationships, and their extracurricular activities. Kingo is a vain Bollywood superstar with a manager-type, Karun (Harish Patel) who follows him around, filming footage for a documentary, an attempt at comic relief which mostly comes up short. Makkari is deaf, and communicates with her fellow superheroes using sign language. Sersi is dating Dane (Kit Harington), who doesn't know the ins and outs of her whole, er, immortal superhero thing. And in an MCU first, Phastos is gay, and significant screen time is given to his domestic life at home with his husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman). 

Again, a lot going on, and Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao ("Nomadland") strives to make "Eternals" the most diverse, representative group of superheroes ever assembled on screen. And she achieves that goal, but it comes at the expense of a story that frequently sputters and never finds a decent rhythm. The narrative regularly time hops, bouncing between the present, ancient times, early civilization and other dates throughout the last 500 years, rarely staying in any place for long enough for it to matter. And because the group of Eternals is so large, there are many scenes where two or three of them are interacting, and the others are just sort of standing around in the background, watching. It seems like the actors' call days could have been cut down significantly. 

Madden's Ikaris is given the most to play with, character-wise, while the others lobby for screen time. Keoghan, a natural villain (see his work in "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," or more recently "The Green Knight"), seems miscast as a hero, and has the least to work with; his character gives off shades of brooding darkness, though he doesn't have an opportunity to burrow in and fully explore his motivations. 

That's the thing with "Eternals": it crams in a lot but still feels meatless. The plot is so exposition-heavy it often feels like sitting down with the Eternals Wikipedia entry, while the action and execution underwhelms. It's a film that takes itself very seriously, and is mostly free of the wonky wink-winks that tend to characterize superhero enterprises. But there needs to be at least some winking — this is a superhero story, not politics — and "Eternals" has a hard time figuring out what it is and what to do with itself. And at nearly two hours and 40 minutes, that's a lot of soul searching, only to mostly come up empty. "Eternals" is too much of a not good enough thing.





Rated PG-13: for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality

Running time: 157 minutes

In theaters