Kingo, played by Kumail Nanjiani, in Eternals. Photograph: Marvel Studios
Film Title: Eternals
Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Angelina Jolie, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh
Running Time: 156 min
It seems as if the Marvel empire, in a greatly accelerated echo of its Roman predecessor, is entering the early stages of decadence and monied complacency. At least those ancients had some fun. The superhero conglomerate tempts the gathering Goths with an entertainment so po-faced you half expect it to come with footnotes and a study guide. Large parts of Chloé Zhao’s film find the impressively starry cast – Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Richard Madden, Barry Keoghan, many others – sitting in dark rooms discussing the film’s gimcrack theology. If they weren’t dressed like members of Earth Wind & Fire you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching a left-wing book group in a trendier corner of Portland. “Just relax and have fun,” critics of Marvel are often told. I would if I could, darling.
This is not to suggest the film is afraid of taking big swings. Putting the kitchen sink ambitions of Avengers Endgame to shame, Eternals is about nothing smaller than the birth of the universe and the potential death of God. I would continue “if you’ve read the comic…” but as almost nobody has read the comic, I’ll just explain that a being named Arishem conjured the cosmos from near nothing and engineered our creation alongside an unimpressive herd of evil lizards called the Deviants and the quietly protective beings who give this film its title. If – as I wasn’t – you were wondering where the Eternals were during the Endgame rearrangements there is an explanation here that makes as much sense as the question deserves. Anyway, now Kingo, Phastos, Druig, Ajax, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich (not all these names may be correct) really do have to protect the world from an existential threat.
Look, there are choices worth celebrating. It’s nice that one of the heroes is deaf (Lauren Ridloff plays a Billy Whizz sort called Makkari). It is about time a franchise built on cartoon violence allowed a modestly sweaty sex scene. It shouldn’t be worth commenting that another character lives in suburban familial bliss with a partner of the same sex. We like that someone is allowing Chloé Zhao, recent Oscar-winner for Nomadland, enough money to build her own solar system. But the sluggishness and drabness is unforgivable. Two thirds an eye-wateringly enormous “let’s get the gang back together” story – passing through versions of Earth’s ancient past that resemble cut scenes from Sid Meier’s Civilisation – and one third an underlit apocalypse, Eternals will succeed only with those open to vigorous special pleading.
Thank heavens there’s a SpiderMan film on the way.
Opens on November 5th