REVIEW: ‘Eternals’

The secret sauce that has made the Marvel Cinematic Universe the most successful franchise in the history of the movies is the casting, overseen by the MCU’s majordomo, Kevin Feige. From the jump, Feige has been nothing less than an unprecedented genius in this department.

Robert Downey Jr., a has-been ball of trouble only a few years out of prison on drug charges, lit up Iron Man, the first MCU picture back in 2008. Then Feige surfaced the unknown Chris Hemsworth to play Thor, and the indie actor Chris Evans for Captain America, and the sitcom second banana Chris Pratt for Guardians of the Galaxy, and the light comic Paul Rudd for Ant-Man, and the scrawny British kid Tom Holland for Spider-Man, and a heretofore ponderous biopic performer named Chadwick Boseman for Black Panther.

These performers and others elevated the comic-book movie to another level with their charisma, their high good humor, and their dazzling star power—all of which Feige seems to have incepted into being. And he did it again this year, creating a new action star in Simu Liu, who played the title role in Shang-Chi. Liu has the same combination of likability, physical presence, and throwaway charisma that we have come to expect from Marvel.

Alas, Feige’s skill eluded him when it came to casting Eternals, the first effort to expand the MCU to an entirely new set of characters since Guardians did back in 2015. Here the central role is occupied by Gemma Chan, best known for playing the most beautiful woman in Singapore in Crazy Rich Asians. She is a dud. A colossal dud. Even by the standards of dud-dom, she’s got bupkis—dull, uninteresting, unamusing, and uncompelling. This is easily the worst starring performance in any Marvel movie, and it drags Eternals down into the lowest tier of the MCU’s 26 feature films, the level of semi-infamy where Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 reside.

Chan plays Sersi, one of a crew of aliens from the planet Olympia sent to Earth 7,000 years ago to protect the planet from “deviants”—giant CGI lizards—who evidently want to destroy us. She can turn inanimate things into other inanimate things, a power even more boring than she is. She has been romantically bound to Ikarus (Richard Madden), who can fly and shoot lasers out of his eyes, for thousands of years. As the action begins, they’ve been on a break for a hundred years—he walked away from her. I figured it was maybe because once radio and movies came in he realized he would have a better time just listening to music and watching the Late Show than talking to the winner of Planet Oympia’s Miss Tiresome award. But no—Ikarus has a “secret.” Oooh. Zzzzz.

Their leader is Ajak, played by Salma Hayek. Alongside Salma we find Angelina Jolie. The two characters should really fight to the death because when it comes to the extensive use of filler and plastic surgery, there can be only one victor in our universe. But they don’t, maybe because that would be too interesting.

Chan is not the only offender when it comes to discomfiting acting—another quality blessedly lacking in most Marvel films. She is joined in her lousiness by two teenage performers, Lia McHugh and Barry Keoghan, whom you just want to be offscreen any time you see them onscreen.

To be fair, three performers here have some of the classic Marvel charm. Madden, who was Robb Stark in Game of Thrones, is so glamorous in his part you can see why he’s the odds-on favorite to be the next James Bond. Brian Tyree Henry, great in the TBS show Atlanta, works offhand magic with every line of dialogue in his role as Phastos, who guides the Earth’s technological development. And the Korean actor Don Lee is lovable and moving as Gilgamesh, the strongest man in the galaxy.

Bad and good, all these performers are undone by a shockingly awkward structure imposed on the movie’s narrative by director Chloe Zhao, who won 37 Oscars this year for the tiny slice of life Nomadland. I couldn’t get through 20 minutes of that, but at least it wasn’t supposed to have a plot. This movie does have a plot that travels through 7,000 years of history, and it’s clear that Zhao (who also helped conceive and write it) doesn’t have the foggiest idea how to tell a complicated story across time.

All this being said, Eternals is not unwatchable, and it’s not terrible. It’s just not very good. Call it Mehternals. The movie seems kind of pointless, in large measure because we don’t care in the least about the struggle and journey of Gemma Chan’s Sersi. In the end, the Marvel movies work not because people who can’t die or even be injured punch each other a lot, but because the characters engage us. Let’s hope the Gemma Chan disaster proves to be merely a glitch in the Kevin Feige matrix and that he will soon be back to delighting us with his discoveries.

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