If one is adapting the work of comic book artist and author Jack Kirby, particularly the era of Jack Kirby when he was obsessed with Chariots of the Gods and trying to create extraordinary new cosmologies for first the DC and then the Marvel universe, I think the obviously correct thing to do would be to embrace the loopy, bonkers excess of Kirby's wild, fever-dream images, and jettison the lumbering, fever-dream-but-in-a-bad-way illegibility of the storytelling. Eternals, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and notoriously, the first one to get a serious paddling from film critics, ending up with a Rotten Tomatoes score south of 50%), goes exactly the other way: the look is pure pseudo-Malick boilerplate, with director Chloé Zhao (lately an Oscar winner for Nomadland) playing the only game she knows how to play in drenching the whole movie in a flat field of fuzzy golden sunset hues, except for a murky, underlit sequence in the Amazon jungle at night; it's banal and trite-looking, though I'll admit that it's nice to have one of these films look flat and washed-out but yellow, instead of the flat and washed-out greys that have been the MCU house style for some time now. There are some appropriately Kirby-ish touches; a few times, we get to see a moon-sized robot-god-thing called Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), its hands roughly the size of a city, its six eyes blazing red like retro rockets, and this made me very happy. The best of these are backloaded, though, and are too little and much too late to make much of the sandy blandness of the bulk of the film.

Meanwhile, the story is just... garbage. Complicated, millennia-spanning, backstory-laden garbage that involved five screenwriters, Zhao counting for two of them (it's a WGA thing), to put it over. I have not read Kirby's Eternals comics, and don't really know much about them other than that they're the off-brand version of DC's New Gods, which Kirby had tried and failed to get started during his short time at that publishing house. So I can't say how much the film we've got here is reflective of any particular moment in that title's run, but I will say that it's approximately as far up its own ass as Kirby's most cosmologically dense stories tended to be.

An opening crawl gives us most of what we need to know: In the beginning, Arishem and the race of godlike beings called Celestials created all of everything. "Everything" included two races: Deviants, who are basically large predatory animals made up solely of ropey grey sinew, and Eternals, immortal humanoid warriors tasked with keeping the Deviants from destroying all of life on the planets the Celestials have created. Planets like Earth, which receives a team of ten Eternals sometime around 5000 BCE, in Mesopotamia. They are [deep breath]: the leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), a magical healer; Ikaris (Richard Madden), who shoots beams of energy and flies; Sersi (Gemma Chan) who can change matter into other types of matter; Thena (Angelina Jolie), who fights with edges weapons she summons out of thin air; Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who shoots beams of energy, but he shoots his out of his hands, while Ikaris shoots them out of his eyes, and Kingo can't fly; Sprite (Lia McHugh), who creates visual illusions and is eternally trapped in the body of a pubescent girl; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who makes devices; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who runs extremely fast; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control the minds of sapient beings; and Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who punches enormously hard. Why Gilgamesh's name is exactly the same as the mythic figure he inspired while everybody else's has been corrupted with age, I cannot say.

The story that Eternals spools out over 167 of the most laconic, indulgent minutes in the history of popcorn movies is basically this: the Eternals killed all of the Deviants, as far as they can tell, by the end of the 16th Century. Now they're just killing time until Arishem recalls them; they've mostly scattered across the globe, in at least a couple of instances because they don't want see each other any more. Sersei and Ikaris, for example, were a romantic item for a couple thousand years before breaking up about a century ago; she's moved on and has found a human boyfriend, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). You will notice that I have not, in fact, started telling you what the "story" is. This is a side effect of Eternals not actually having a story, really, just having a great mighty fuckton of exposition. Let us say that the Deviants aren't so dead as all that, and they're apparently targeting the Eternals; to make matters worse, they killed Ajak before any of the other nine knew what was going on, so now they're leaderless. This leaves it up to Sersi, Ikaris, and Sprite to find the other six and convince them to team back up while trying to figure out how to stop the new Super-Deviant chasing them around the globe, and  dealing with Thena's tendency to go into trances where she sees apocalyptic visions and tries to kill the rest of them. These visions are of course somewhat grounded in reality, and by the time the flashbacks have dried up, the surviving Eternals must find a way to save - wait for it - the entire world and every living thing on it. That old chestnut.

This is not without its charms. Generally speaking, the film is best when it is the most deadly serious - which really sucks for Nanjiani, Henry, and McHugh, stuck playing the anachronistic quip-bots who do a poor job of brining in some very labored MCU-style humor to the proceedings, using 21st Century speech patterns and attitude even when we see them in e.g. 575 BCE - and it's the most deadly serious when it's set in the past. So the flashback material that is, narratively speaking, the most cumbersome material in the film is also, aesthetically speaking, the most rewarding. It has the epic scale and self-conscious grandiosity required to put over its bombastic cosmology (it is, in this respect and none other, a bit closer to the Zack Snyder DC films than the rest of the MCU), and the hazy aesthetic works much better in portraying various periods in the distant past than empty fields and beaches in the present day. The film's prologue, up through the point that the Eternals give humanity the metal knife that, apparently, kick-starts technological development (Kirby was an avowed fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey), is even very good, and I was ready to settle in for a nice time being in awe of the solemn ponderousness of everything, right up until we skip to the present day and things just went slack.

Aye, yes, slack - that's the word for it. Eternals is a slack film, in the way one gets to be when one has no pressing need to come in at a reasonable running time, or to worry much about saving money (the film cost $200 million, and I think I would be lying if I said I saw it; just among autumn 2021 movies of more than 2.5 hours that involve complicated outer space politics, Dune is cheaper and handsomer). The story is just not remotely focused: plot threads wander in, including one fairly major one centered on the Super-Deviant, and then of blow away in the wind; the climax involves one character deciding for no conceivable reason to go home before the big fight and a different character announcing "I always wanted to do this" in the absence of anything slightly resembling foreshadowing for that point. We're told a lot and shown... some. The characters are all moved along without any definition: Sprite hates being trapped in a child's body and Phastos is gay, and that is very nearly all that we get for personality development between the ten leads (eleven if you count Dane). There's not much in the acting to help with that: Nanjiani rests on broad comedy to get by, while Jolie amps up the moments where her character is confused or sad, and Keoghan leans so hard into his character's bitterness and loneliness that it feels like there should be more of a story built around it, and this is pretty much the full list of "choices" being made by the actors. Madden, whose character probably has to do the most heavy lifting to keep the plot on track, is a perfectly empty vessel, maybe not the most boring member of the ensemble (I had a tendency to forget Lee's Gilgamesh was a character whenever he wasn't onscreen), but certainly the most ruinous to the whole.

All that being said, is this the worst Marvel film, worthy of its plunging Rotten Tomatoes score?  No - to the first part, at least. In a franchise that has given us the waterlogged Incredible Hulk from 2008 and the virtually unintelligible Captain Marvel from 2019, "the worst" is a competitive enough title that I don't think Eternals comes even close to stealing it: it looks decent, and it has multiple scenes that are good in isolation, and the action is uncommonly easy to follow, in nice long takes and wide shots that do a pretty good job of helping to let us see where characters are relative to each other and how they're moving through space. The visual effects look pretty great in general, though the Deviants needed more time to cook. And at least it has the courage of its monumental tone, even if it doesn't do anything with it. The film is a failure, but it's only a failure, and if not for its miserably exhausting, slow-moving running time, not even an especially painful failure.

Other MCU reviews (Phase 4)
Black Widow (Shortland, 2021)
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (Cretton, 2021)
Eternals (Zhao, 2021)