The superheroes in Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” are bound to each other by many things, starting with the interlocking rings and shafts and bolts of golden light that emanate from their very being. The light — a cosmic energy they share — is the piping that lines their uniforms, and it’s the shape-shifting weaponry they conjure to battle the Deviants (gnashing, fast-break monsters that resemble dinosaurs with everything but their sinew and bone stripped away). That filigreed network of light, floating and darting through the air, serves many purposes, and it’s the most tangible figment of Chloé Zhao’s artistry — her way of grabbing hold of the vast machinery of a $200 million comic-book franchise movie and turning it into something elegant and aesthetic, with visual effects that dance before your eyes.
The film presents the Eternals, who have spent 7,000 years saving life on Earth, as an organically unified army of noble warrior souls. Unlike, say, the X-Men, who are boldly demarcated in their powers (this one catches fire, that one has metal claws, this one makes the best chocolate soufflé you ever tasted), the Eternals, while they do have individual talents, such as the ability of one of them to shoot golden rays of light (there it is again) out of his eyes, all share powers like super-strength and the gifts of flight and teleportation.
Their free-flowing, all-for-one unity extends, in spirit, to the diversity of the characters, which is something the film presents with a no-big-deal effrontery that makes them a winning prototype of a more dynamically inclusive superhero world. Four of the Eternals are white, three are Asian, two are Black, and one is Latina. One is gay, one is deaf, and one is an androgynous tween who never grows up. Any troll who surveys this lively medley of backgrounds and temperaments only to gripe that the movie is too “woke” might have lodged the same complaint about “Star Trek” 55 years ago.
Zhao is far from the first director to take the leap from ardently crafted medium-budget independent cinema to the corporate stratosphere of helming a superhero movie. That she’s one of the first women — and one of the first Asians — to do so is a landmark worth celebrating. Yet as I approached “Eternals,” the question I was most curious about was whether Zhao, who in “Nomadland” and “The Rider” defined her filmmaking style in a unique poetic way, would carry any remnants of that mode over to the blockbuster universe. Her previous films are raw and real enough to feel like staged documentaries, yet they’re cut together, image by image, with a gripping pointillistic exactitude.
“Eternals” has none of that. It’s clear that Zhao, in signing up for this project, made a decision to put her highly expressive and idiosyncratic style on the shelf, and to embrace the straight-up expository conventionality of Marvel filmmaking. That’s something of a disappointment. Yet Zhao’s sensibility, to a degree, comes through — in the casual humanity of the characters, in the flow of quip and conflict and passion (at times romantic), in the beauty of the effects, in the no-sweat way that Zhao scales up her logistical skills. She’s a master craftswoman, and “Eternals,” while too long (157 minutes? really?), is a squarely fun and gratifying watch.
Yet one has to say, the film feels very standard. It’s in the genre of team superhero movies, and at this point, between the Avengers and the X-Men, the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Justice League, the Suicide Squad and the Fantastic Four, there have been more than 20 of those. They have their tropes — the camaraderie and the backbiting, the falling apart and the coming together. Zhao works within those tropes, lending them sturdy drama and dimension and springing some major twists on the audience.
The Eternals have lived through most of human history, and the film keeps flashing back to key episodes of it (in Mesopotamia, Babylon, Hiroshima). They show up whenever the Deviants do, slaying the beasts so that the human race can go on, and sometimes — though they’re not supposed to — nudging the evolution of civilization along. (They introduce the plough, and will tend to hypnotize a group of fighters into laying down their arms.)
In the contemporary world, each Eternal has a home, but they’re a bit like vampires: ageless impersonators of normality (though as we learn, they can die). Sirse, played with a serene three-dimensional command by Gemma Chan, is our heroine, a London museum curator who has carried on a love affair across the centuries with the dashing Ikaris (Richard Madden) — though that ended, and now she’s involved with the merely human Dane (Kit Harington). Kingo, played by the droll Kumail Nanjiani as the most amusingly off-kilter superhero since Deadpool, is an acerbically vain Bollywood star. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is an affable strongman living in isolation in the Aussie outback, and Phastos, played with a scene-stealing quarrelsome magnetism by Brian Tyree Henry, is a suburban dad in Chicago with a husband and an adorable son.
The other Eternals include Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), an ebullient deaf speed dasher, and Thena (Angelina Jolie), a fierce warrior who has succumbed to “Mahd Wy’ry” (pronounced “mad weary”) — that is, she’s cracking up as a result of having collected too many memories. (The only cure, which she rejects, is to have the slate of your mind wiped clean.)
When summoned, the Eternals are better than good at defeating Deviants, who are now attacking them directly. But there’s a wrinkle in the cosmic sphere: Ajak (Salma Hayek), the wise and seemingly benevolent leader of the Eternals, has been guarding a secret — and when we learn it, it elevates the drama to a rather intriguing moral plane. Ajak communes with a Celestial, one of the majestic beings that keep the universe going; he’s portrayed as a kind of iron giant in the sky and has revealed the Eternals’ true purpose to her. It is not what it seems. But is he a dark force like Thanos or a benevolent god? Maybe both. Speaking of which, how, exactly, does the plot of this movie intersect with the “Avengers” saga? If you want to give yourself a case of Mahd Wy’ry, discuss.
It turns out that Earth has been serving as a giant seed pod to hatch a new Celestial, and if the Eternals are to support that mission, it means…well, darkness. Can they come together to defend their adopted home? The suspense will not be killing you, though the final battle summons aspects of grandeur. To me, there are three top-tier team superhero movies: the first “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “Zack Snyder’s Justice League,” and “Avengers: Infinity War.” “Eternals” is a fluid and sometimes bedazzling entertainment I’d place on the next tier, because it never transcends its conventionality and makes you go “Damn!” Maybe next time, Zhao can raise the stakes on the heroic vibes by mixing in a drop of nomad reality.