Saturday, November 6, 2021

Almighty Then: ETERNALS

The first thing we see in Eternals, before the first sequence and even before the Marvel Studios logo, are the words “In the beginning…” Lifting from the Bible for an opening info dump sure sets a tone. You can tell right away this is a superhero movie of unusual hubris. Here we find the creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, high off the smash culmination of their first multi-franchise finale, 2019’s absurdly popular Avengers Endgame, starting to mistake their comic book lore for actual mythology and take it as seriously as the ancients did.

The result is a centuries-spanning story following immortal beings sent to Earth to guide humankind’s development by protecting people from carnivorous computer-generated critters until such time that enormous intergalactic celestial masters send for their return. They’ve mostly done that job, and are in their 500th year of waiting for the next assignment, when the Eternals must confront an apocalyptic threat of which only they are aware, since the seeds of this destruction have been incubating since prehistoric times. So, although the main thrust of the movie is the far-flung members of the mostly-disbanded team wandering around collecting their compatriots one at a time to confront this crisis, the movie begins with the dawn of the Bronze Age and contains numerous flashbacks to a number of ancient cultures and modern historical moments. The mix of real myth and history with Marvel’s filigrees is sometimes fun—I liked how the Eternals are an explanation for gods and heroes of yore (Athena, Gilgamesh, and so on)—but just as often it is slathered with a phony religiosity that amplifies the sometimes chintzy visual thinking and cliched writing on display. It’s a cosmic leap with an anvil tied to its feet.

Inspired by characters from Jack Kirby, the movie lacks his spark of divine madness in dashing out incomprehensible intergalactic gods and monsters. But it does have ambition I want to admire. It stretches across time and space, concerns itself with the birth and death of the universe and the alien midwives of solar systems. That’s potentially profound nonsense. The movie is at its best when it deals casually with the intersection of the mortal and immortal. Some of their kind seems to float above it all—Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek dimming their bright star-power to intone exposition and disappear into muddy colors. But others are in direct collision between their ageless powers and human fragility. Leader Sersi (Gemma Chan) tentatively romances a mortal teacher (Kit Harington). Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) has enjoyed being every member of a Bollywood dynasty, hiding his finger-gun powers for a song-and-dance screen heroism. A perpetually-preteen Sprite (Lia McHugh) has some pathos derived from never growing older. (There are also some odd questions about her the movie just barely skirts around.) Technologically inclined Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) laments what humans have done with his gifts to them, while the mind-controlling Druig (Barry Keoghan) wishes he could just zap the minds of the masses and quell all conflict. (Worth a shot, right?) The movie gazes at their conflicts from an inhuman remove, but the camera hovers close to their whispered melodrama and angst. We can see why they haven’t done more to help stop humanity’s problems—they’re too busy moping around about it. They love us from afar, distant gods shaking their heads and wandering away for awhile.

The movie perches this massive idea on the usual Marvel mechanics—super-beings on a MacGuffin quest in route to a final effects reel—and writing. The gears turn. The simple story is told complicatedly to preserve meager surprises. The balance is all out of whack, cosmological woo-woo cut with a soupçon of deflating quips. As the team assembles for the climactic showdown, they banter and quip and feel sorry for the state of humanity and themselves. The apocalypse is well on its way, and the only way to stop it is for them to take drastic action on the margins of our awareness. Somehow the movie gathers both real portent and dopey interpersonal japes. There are some lovely or amusing character beats bubbling up in what’s otherwise drowned in the po-faced pseudo-spirituality draped over the sunlit hero shots and awestruck sentimentality. The film comes to us from writer-director Chloe Zhao, who has so often been good at that exact balance, a neo-Malickian flair for star personas set against quotidian beauty of her cultural tourism. But here it lacks the poetic gleam that animated her indie character studies against the backdrop of the American West, like The Rider or her Oscar-winning Nomadland. It does film most of its big sequences outdoors, which does lend the images a different texture than the usual Marvel green-screen, parking-lot blandness.

Small pleasures in an enormous, occasionally confused bore is par for the course with this mega-franchise lately, but this one wrestles over it more than most. The issue sits in the unbalanced approach, spinning wildly, if cheaply, to humanize characters who are themselves entirely apart from us. The usual Marvel cutting-down-to-size works with heroes who deal with real human emotion. Here, though, we’re in the realm of myth, and the lightness sometimes clangs. So, too, the attempts to stare up at these deities, which is the more interesting cosmic philosophical tussling—faint echoes of Snyder’s DC approach. (Interestingly Superman and Batman are referenced as often as Iron Man and Captain America in this movie.) It literalizes the latent authoritarianism that sits uncomfortably beneath the MCU’s worst impulses of the sort that assure us the powerful have our best interests at heart and we should just let them take unilateral action on our behalf. (It still chafes that Civil War made this argument flat out.) Eternals wrestles with the idea, with a calamity that truly only these heroes could address, and makes the villain ultimately think bringing about the end of the world will benefit him personally. (He must vote Republican.) But it also goes easy on its Eternals, with obvious decisions to make amid jokes and juggling tones that cheapens the film’s fleeting ideas. The machinery doesn’t let the movie express its philosophy visually, dumping it into the cast’s poses and monologues before making them just another set of action figures to move around the board. It ends as they all do, with last-minute rescues, slam-back fisticuffs, swirling pixels, and a chain of teases for future MCU projects. So it goes.

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