Eternals a jam-packed, ambitious and oddly imperfect addition to Marvelverse

Eternals (M, 156 minutes)

4 stars

The Disney-Marvel juggernaut continues with this 26th film in the "Marvelverse" and I'd hate to suggest that they've become such an unstoppable force that even governments and nature bow down before them, but is it just a coincidence that our COVID pandemic lockdown ended just a week before this film's opening date?

A scene from Eternals. Picture: Disney

A scene from Eternals. Picture: Disney

It is a mammoth exercise in a number of ways. As a member of the audience, its an investment in time at nearly three hours, and one that should possibly be undertaken without liquids. As an exercise in storytelling it is ambitious. Kevin Feige and the Marvel team are very experienced in long story arcs and keeping track of thousands of characters and plot threads across their films, but Eternals is almost as jam-packed with those things as all of the 25 previous films combined, with a dozen lead characters and a storyline that takes place over 7,000 years.

It takes a strong person at the helm to control such chaos and for the most part Oscar winner Chloe Zhao pulls it off. Responsible for much of the screenplay, working from years of Marvel comic books and with author credits shared with a handful of other writers, the script races through the millennia at times, at others pausing for the moments that help us understand our lead characters.

The Eternals are an alien race sent to Earth to protect humankind and nurture it through its development while protecting it from a race called the Deviants.

There's a bunch of them, each with their own special powers they employ as a team to save mankind. As the film settles into its current-day storyline, Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan from Crazy Rich Asians) hasn't seen most of her God-like friends for a dozen centuries. She is living in London and teaching at the Natural History Museum. She has a human boyfriend in Dane (Kit Harrington) and she protectively lives with one of her Eternal friends, the youthful Sprite (Lia McHugh), who despite also being 7,000 years old never grew into adulthood.

Sersi and Sprite are attacked on the London waterfront by a Deviant, thought killed into extinction by the Eternals thousands of years earlier, and so they take off around the world to get the old band back together.

First on the trail is Sersi's former husband Ikaris (Richard Madden) but when hey come to the home of their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) they find her dead, evidence pointing to death-by-Deviant. That takes them next to the Australian outback to collect Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), to the Amazon for Druig (Barry Keoghan), to a Bollywood film studio to collect Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), and thence to find Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) hiding in suburbia and finally Makkari (Lauren Ridloff).

Marvel had a few dozen films to build a sense of motivation and then development for this many characters that eventually came together in The Avengers, but here Chloe Zhao has just half of this film's run-time to do it. It is successful for some characters, and others we barely know. Gemma Chan and Richard Madden enjoy the greater screen time and the greater audience connection.

Smarty funnyman Kumail Nanjiani enjoys the light-relief role as the God turned Bollywood movie star, hiding in plain sight as generations of leading men from the same family film dynasty over a century. His character discussing the action going on around him in filmic terms is the kind of meta stuff Marvel audiences just love.

A Goddess in her own right, Angelina Jolie humbly shares the spotlight, her character having her on moments of comedy and plot-progression, but nonetheless a secondary character.

One of the production decisions I question most vocally is why most of the film's many fight scenes needed to take place at night. Perhaps we were sitting a little too close to the screen but much of the action was hidden by dark and murky lighting and I lost track of much of the action.

The film's best moments come earlier on, as the Eternals live among the humans they love and protect, in ancient cities like Babylon, meticulously recreated (and with a handful of notable historians in the credits contributing to the authenticity). The costuming, set design and CGI here is lovely work, as are the moments of storytelling, aided by Sprite's powers, that are the building blocks for much of mankind's mythology and fables, inspiring the heroic tales Gilgamesh and Athena and Icarus, and even Peter Pan.

What a monumental adjustment Chloe Zhao undertook, moving from her faux documentary small production Nomadland, to the hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of support staff here. It's not a perfect film, moments are frustrating, some of the storytelling is lazy, but the scale and ambition do pay off despite the exhaustion of it all.

And, as ever with a Marvel film, stay through the credits - there are two post-credit sequences teasing future Marvel films.

This story Eternals a jam-packed, ambitious and oddly imperfect addition to Marvelverse first appeared on The Canberra Times.