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Eternals,” the latest chapter in Marvel’s sprawling, ever-expanding superhero universe, opened to a mighty $9.5 million in Thursday previews. That’s the third best preview result for the COVID era, just behind “Black Widow” with $13.2 million and “Venom: Let There Be Carnage” with $11.6 million. It’s a tick ahead of “Shang-Chi’s” $8.8 million haul. Internationally, “Eternals” is playing in 39 material markets to date, where it has earned an estimated $19.8 million in its first two days.

The film, which centers on a powerful extraterrestrial race of humanoids, is being hailed as a major milestone for inclusion — its legion of costumed heroes includes Marvel’s first openly gay character and its first deaf protagonist. It also marks director Chloe Zhao’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning “Nomadland,” with the filmmaker moving from smaller, auteur-like works to the big-budget confines of a comic book flick.

The transition hasn’t gone seamlessly. Reviewers have been less enthused by Zhao’s finished film even as many acknowledge its history-making virtues. “Eternals” is the first Marvel-backed movie to be certified “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes, with some critics griping that it’s a little too exposition heavy and a bit too dramatically inert (most do credit it for being beautiful to look at, so points for visual style). However, that may not hurt the film with fans. “Eternals” is projected to open to a sizable $75 million opening — recent pandemic-era Marvel films such as “Shang-Chi” and “Black Widow” debuted to $75.4 million and $80.4 million respectively. “Black Widow” was made available to rent on Disney Plus, where it pulled in $60 million, but both “Shang-Chi” and “Eternals” are having exclusive theatrical releases.

“Eternals” represents an important step forward in Marvel’s big screen efforts. The company is looking to introduce a new lineup of heroes after saying goodbye to fan favorites such as Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America in “Avengers: Endgame.” Plus, its next phase will include not only big-screen entertainment, but streaming series such as current favorites “Loki” and “WandaVision.” Whether this panoply of spandexed stars oversaturated the market remains to be seen, but so far the evidence suggests that moviegoers are still digging all things Marvel.

“Eternals” is opening alongside “Spencer,” a biographical drama that’s generated Oscar buzz for Kristen Stewart’s chameleonic turn as Princess Diana. The film, directed by Pablo Larrain (“Jackie”), is being release by Neon, which will roll it out on 996 screens.

“Eternals” boasts a large ensemble cast which includes Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan and, in a mini-“Game of Thrones” reunion, both Richard Madden and Kit Harington. Internationally, the film is playing in major markets such as South Korea, Australia, Brazil, Italy, France and Mexico. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf region where homosexuality is criminalized have refused to show the film because it includes a gay character.