Oscar winning best director and indie icon Chloé Zhao presides over another big budget, huge-cast “All in the Fractious Family” Marvel monstrosity with “Eternals,” an origin story that dates from when the comic book colossus ran out of things to do with its Avengers, et. al.
It’s a derivative, noisy, sometimes-amusing Greek myth-reinventing eye-roller, full of fan-service, inclusion, dry-eyed deaths and “high stakes” that feel like a half-hearted send-up of that idea.
When you put the ’60s weeper (“Don’t they know, it’s) The End of the World” on the soundtrack, you know subtlety isn’t what Zhao was going for.
Overloaded with characters, geographical and temporal settings and exposition, it’s pretty much the generic bore the trailers promised. This could be Marvel’s “Suicide Squad” level bust.
They’ve been on Earth for 7,000 years, a long opening credit tells us and the characters keep reminding us. They’re “not to interfere” with humanity’s progression, we’re told, time and again. We see them interfere, time and again, from pre-history to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
But not when Cortez was going Medieval/Genocidal on Tenochtitlán. Very “prime directive” of them.
Ajak (Salma Hayek) is their leader, the one in charge of their “mission,” the one who talks to “Arisha,” of the space gods called “Celestials,” giants who manifest themselves in modified “Iron Giant” gear and pull the strings in the universe.
The Eternals’ ostensible mission was to kill off the “Deviants” — dragonlike gargoyles who devoured humans from hunter-gatherer days onward. “Eternals” picks up their story 500 years after they wiped them out.
They’ve scattered, with Sersi (Gemma Chan of “Crazy Rich Asians” and a lot of British TV) and the perma-pixie Sprite (Lia McHugh of “The Lodge”) hanging out in London, where Sersi — having split up with Ikaris (Richard Madden of “Game of Thrones” and “Cinderella”) — has taken up with non-Eternal Dane (Kit Harrington).
Druig (Barry Keoghan) is off in South America, Thena (Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok of “Train to Busan”) and deaf-and-mute “Female Flash” Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) are off doing versions of their own thing.
Ajak retired to South Dakota, Ikaris got off to who-knows-where and brainy, tech-oriented Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry of TV’s “Atlanta” and “Godzilla vs. Kong”) has settled down in a same sex couple in the city.
And most amusingly, Karun (Kumail Nanjiani of “The Big Sick”) has been passing himself off as generations of Bollywood stars (explaining away his eternal life/youth) — a century of vampy romances and campy musicals, big paydays with a Man Friday/valet (Harish Patel) at his beck and call.
The Deviants are back, Arisha is not pleased. The world must be sorted and made safe for “this special race” humanity again.
So characters have to get over old grievances, suit up, fly around, shoot bolts or balls of energy out of their hands, conjure up gadgets, wield light swords and shields and get on with the business of killing dragons.
One wrinkle? The Deviants have evolved. Another? An Eternal has lost some of her marbles. A third? Some are questioning “our mission.”
There’s a whole lot of striking a pose, either as a complete Band of 10, or in smaller groups.
Nanjiani delivers laughs as a vain and flippant film star who wants to shoot a documentary of their exploits.
Jokes like “Are you a wizard?” and “Superman!” park the picture right on the edge of (not funny enough) self-aware camp.
Conflicts break out in some predictable, some utterly inorganic (script requirement) ways.
And classic rock, from Pink Floyd to Foreigner, swirls onto the soundtrack. Because that’s what the Guardians of Fanboydom demand.
I liked the next-gen effects, and Zhao keeps the action beats visually coherent, not something you can say about every picture of this genre. The cast is not-quite-“Justice League/Avengers” impressive, but good actors to a one, even if they’re only challenged in the most modest hint-of-human-relationships ways.
But the dialogue is strictly boilerplate — “Druig, I can see you’re upset!” “Know your place!” The “We are family” ethos is Pixar pablum of the “Fast and Fading” variety.
The idea that these aliens from “Olympia” inspired assorted cultures to call them gods and spell their names differently — Sersi becomes “Circe,” “Thena” becomes “Athena,” etc. — wasn’t exactly a great moment in Marvel brainstorming. “Who mourns for Adonais?” anyone?
And as generic as the fights inevitably are, the dead zones between them — with little dollops of Nanjiani/Patel comedy — are excruciating. This picture seems to go on forever.
It’s not like the exposition in this origin story never ends, but it does go on an on, unlike some of the alleged “Eternals.” Whatever “meaning” their deaths convey, Zhao delivers them perfunctorily.
The relationships — a sex scene included — are the only hint that there’s an Oscar winner behind the camera. Much of the time, Zhao is just another Marvel traffic cop, trying to keep the endlessly inter-connected stories straight, the fights and laughs at the appropriate intervals and the fans sated, if not exactly delirious at seeing something “new.”
Let’s hope she has the cash, and the good sense, to never do this again.
Rating: PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality.
Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry. Lia McHugh, Ma-dong Seok, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Kit Harrington, Harish Patel and Anjelia Jolie
Credits: Directed by Chloé Zhao, scripted by Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo. A Marvel release.
Running time: 2:37