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The Eternals question: Has the Marvel universe become too complicated?

There’s a star cast in this new Marvel film, but the most remarkable feature is who they got to direct it.
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Eternals ★★★

M, 156 minutes, in cinemas from November 4

Such are the complexities of the ever-expanding Marvel Multiverse and its borrowings from the world’s mythologies that I’m betting some university somewhere is offers a doctorate in its geography and genealogy.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Eternals.

Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Eternals.Credit:Sophie Mutevelian / Marvel Studios

Eternals marks the screen debut of a sub-group of superheroes created in 1976 by the Marvel Comics’ elder, Jack Kirby, with a little help from classical Greek legend. The Eternals hail from the planet of Olympia. Here, they were expressly designed by the Celestials, a godly breed of cosmic architects, to protect Earth and Earthlings from the Deviants. These nasties are rampaging CGI monsters out to gobble up anybody in their path.

As far as I can tell – from a layman’s point of view – the Eternals are blessed with a standard set of super-powers. Collectively, they can fly, run down anything or anybody, fight furiously, assisted by weapons forged from cosmic energy, blast their enemies with cosmic beams, control minds and transform inanimate objects simply by thinking about them. They’re also very wise. At least, Salma Hayek is. Hayek is Ajak, the group’s den mother, who has healing powers as well as a hotline to the Celestials.

Angelina Jolie is burdened with a more febrile temperament. As Thena, named for Athena, the famously formidable Greek goddess who included both wisdom and war in her portfolio, she’s missed out on the wisdom bit. Instead, she is suffering a nervous breakdown, brought on witnessing so many earthly atrocities without being able to do anything about them. For the Eternals are forbidden from interfering in any calamity which doesn’t involve the Deviants.

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Eternals.

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Eternals.Credit:Marvel Studios

Their main distinguishing feature is their ability to merge with everyday folk between assignments. When the film opens, they have been lying low for 7000 years, having adopted various occupations and interests. Sersi (Gemma Chan), the most intuitive of the bunch, has a handsome human boyfriend (Kit Harington). Thena is not the only one to feel helpless in the face of all the horrors they have seen. One of two others are beginning to feel distinctly mutinous.


The action moves back and forth in time, starting and ending in the present day and stopping off at various points in history in between, but the most remarkable thing about all this is the identity of the film’s director. To pilot this grandiose piece of movie machinery, Marvel’s boss, Kevin Feige, chose Chloe Zhao, whose last film, the Oscar-winning Nomadland, was so firmly rooted in the specifics of what it’s like to be short of money in the backblocks of contemporary America that you could almost smell the dust.

This decision pays off in one respect. Zhao has moved the action out of the studio sound stages where so much of the earlier Marvel movies were shot and gone on the road. The South Dakota shack where Ajak has been spending her downtime looks as if it could slot seamlessly into Nomadland. Zhao has also imported some of the Nomadland script’s dry and rueful sense of humour. Much of the film’s publicity has concentrated on the fact that its 10 superheroes represent a broad range of minorities. But more important is their ability to bring a conversational tone to the absurdities of their dialogue. They’re eventually defeated, however, by the cumbersome nature of the basic scenario. So, too, is Zhao.

Walt Disney had a name for the element which persuades an audience to surrender its scepticism and temporarily believe in the fantastic or the outright nonsensical. He called it “the plausible impossible”, and every Marvel movie relies on it. But the pompous stretches of pseudo-metaphysics which take over the film’s second half are more than enough to break the contract.

Over-burdened with good intentions, the film limps to a conclusion which leads straight into the projected sequel. Clearly, we’re supposed to leave the cinema filled with an urgent sense of anticipation. But all I felt was relief that the two-and-a-half hour running time had finally come to an end.

Sandra Hall is a film critic for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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