I went to "The Eternals" hoping it would feel at least as much like a Chloé Zhao movie as a Marvel movie but, alas, it does not.
The "Nomadland" Oscar winner established a distinctive, naturalistic style in the low-budget movies she shot in her beloved South Dakota. But other than an S.D. cameo, some lovely scenes set at dawn and showing more interest in character interaction than an "Avengers" sequel would, there's not much to mark it as her work in Marvel Cinematic Universe's latest entry. In other words, the movie still climaxes with a bloated battle sequence where it's tough to tell what's going on.
"The Eternals" has an extra degree of difficulty because it must introduce a dozen characters who, unlike the Hulk or Spider-Man, audiences don't know. Zhao gets help there from a diverse crowd of actors. Using sign language to communicate with her fellow heroes (it's subtitled for those who don't know the language), Lauren Ridloff's Makkari stands out, as does Brian Tyree Henry's matter-of-factly gay Phastos. Even Angelina Jolie's tense Thena and Kumail Nanjiani's quippy-like-Ironman Kingo register because Zhao hangs with them long enough for a distinctive gesture or looks to reveal something about them. Zhao seems more willing than other Marvel directors to point the camera away from the person speaking to the people listening — a gambit that's bound to give us more nuance.
That "Eternals" makes even a little sense is an achievement, given that it spends most of its running time hopping between continents and across centuries, folding in references to mythic tales including King Arthur, Noah, "Star Wars," Superman, Peter Pan and more.
Zhao is ambitious — she wants to connect "Eternals" to the great tradition of storytelling — but the movie never earns a place there. There are so many heroes fighting to save the world that we don't connect to any of them. Even immediately after seeing it, it's hard to remember what some of their powers are; is he the one who runs super-fast or is it her? And, in a 157-minute movie, why is there no villain for the first two hours?
With titles delayed from 2020 along with new offerings, it's been a busy, change-up year for Marvel. "Venom: There Will Be Carnage" showed it's possible to make a taut, quirky MCU tale that doesn't overstay its welcome, as did "Shang-Chi," which is as much a comedy as it is an action movie. And "Black Widow" found humanity in its depiction of a compellingly weird family.
The elements seem to be there for "Eternals" to further stretch the boundaries of what constitutes a Marvel movie but too much of the time, it settles for being more of the same.
** out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for violent action.
Where: Area theaters.