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Marvel finds itself at a crossroads with Eternals. Their movies are, by design, all fairly similar, following the same playbook that allows for uniformity in the so-called “Marvel Cinematic Universe.” To distinguish each entry a little bit, the studio often hires directors from the independent world, hoping they will infuse the films with just enough of a distinct style to keep them from feeling like the cookie cutter adventures they basically are. For Eternals, Marvel hired Chloe Zhao, the Oscar-winning maker of Nomadland. There is possibly no director whose style is less compatible with the demands of a superhero movie, leading to what is somehow Marvel's most ambitious movie and also its worst. The plan has finally backfired.

If you've seen Nomadland or The Rider, you know Zhao tells stories lyrically. Her films set moods, take place in natural environments, and observe the emotions of her characters instead of hitting obvious plot points. She admirably tries to bring that approach to Eternals, giving it a rhythm and flow unlike previous MCU installments. The requisite action scenes where heroes fight CGI monsters are here, yet they're considerably lower-key than normal. In the forefront are languid scenes between the central characters.

On the surface, that seems like a reasonable choice, given that these particular characters are outliers in the Marvel universe. The Eternals are immoral beings, living on Earth with the mission of covertly helping to shape civilization. (There's much more to it, but to avoid spoiling anything significant, I'll leave it at that.) Each of them has a unique power, although none as visually captivating as the powers of Spider-Man or Ant-Man. Salma Hayek plays Ajak, the leader who chooses Sersi (Crazy Rich Asians' Gemma Chan) as her successor. Ajak has opted to keep her team hidden during the reign of Thanos. The rise of an ancient enemy known as the Deviants creates a situation where the group can no longer sit by idly.

The other Eternals are Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Sprite (The Lodge's Lia McHugh). That's a lot of characters. One of the biggest problems with Eternals is that, even with an overlong 156-minute length, there still isn't enough time to make the interpersonal relationships as meaningful as Zhao and her co-screenwriters would like. The movie keeps splintering off to examine the dynamic between different pairings; consequently, we never get to know any of these people to a satisfying degree, causing them to become the most boring superheroes in the MCU. Choosing two to focus on intently, then making the rest supporting players, would have been a much wiser decision.

An annoying tendency to jump around in time causes the plot to feel muddled. We're constantly flashing back from present day to a different century to show what the Eternals were up to. It's supposed to establish a history of their work on Earth. In reality, it merely slows the pace down. The rise of the Deviants should be what drives the drama, creating suspense and peril. Eternals is interested in depicting how the job of being Earth's guardians takes a toll on the team's members. Nowhere is this more evident than an awkward scene in which one character breaks down at the realization that he inadvertently caused the Hiroshima bombing.

Again, trying to buck the basic mechanics of superhero movies – however respectable the attempt – ends up sucking the fun right out of the movie. Zhao obviously has an interest in examining the moral responsibility heroes carry around. She wants to dive into the repercussions of actions, the way shifting allegiances impact teamwork, and the psychological effects of protecting society over the long haul. As it turns out, those ideas either need to be underlying themes in an action-heavy story or the sole intent of the film. Putting them front and center, then regularly stopping to sprinkle in half-hearted fight scenes mutes the impact of everything.

Eternals predictably looks great. Zhao skillfully escapes the patented “filmed against a green screen” look so prevalent in the MCU, putting the characters in magnificent, elegantly lit landscapes. Of course, that is just one additional example of what's wrong here. The movie is too artsy to satisfy the superhero crowd and too superhero-y to satisfy the arthouse crowd.

out of four

Eternals is rated PG-13 for fantasy violence and action, some language and brief sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 36 minutes.