The movie is getting a lot of push back.
However you may feel about the place superhero blockbusters have occupied in the cultural landscape for the past dozen-plus years, there is something ineluctably sad about the way directing one has become the primary marker of success for a gifted emerging filmmaker. Distinguish yourself in your field, as Chloé Zhao did when she won the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars last year for her contemplative indie road movie Nomadland, and you are ceremoniously handed the keys to the Marvel car—a gigantic CGI-enhanced vehicle that can navigate black holes and shoot rays of plasma out of its headlights, but that always moves in the same direction to arrive at the same predetermined spot.
That’s not to say that Zhao’s Eternals doesn’t feel different from the average Marvel offering. This is a movie with a prominently featured gay male relationship, a (PG-13–rated) sex scene between two other major characters, the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari), and the most diverse cast of superbeings the franchise has yet offered. Eternals is as sociologically inclusive and as pictorially beautiful as any movie in the franchise, with scene after scene bathed in the warm light of Zhao’s favorite time of day, the pre-dusk “golden hour.” But it’s also one of the weakest Marvel movies I’ve seen, meandering and wan. It takes place over a vast timespan in locations all over the globe (and the galaxy), yet it has the curiously claustrophobic feel of a Saturday afternoon serial filmed entirely in a windowless studio.
The Eternals, a gang of immortal quasi-divinities created thousands of years ago by even more powerful space beings called the Celestials, have spent the last few millennia scattered around Earth living undercover as regular mortal beings. As the group’s tech wizard Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry)—a sort of divine IT department—points out, that requires changing residences periodically so your neighbors never notice how you don’t seem to age. Flashbacks threaded throughout the film’s first half show us that members of the Eternals have been present at many of the great atrocities of human history: the siege of the ancient city-state of Tenochtitlan by colonizing Spanish forces, the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. But according to an ancient law not unlike the “prime directive” of the Star Trek universe, the Eternals are forbidden to interfere in human affairs.