Review: Marvel tells intergalactic soap opera with ‘Eternals’

Lauren Ridloff in Eternals / Marvel

Marvel’s latest film “Eternals” is a sweeping meta-human saga with intergalactic roots that plays out over 7,000 years of history, but at its core, the movie is a sudsy, super-powered soap opera — as a friend of mine pointed out after we watched it — that is getting mixed reviews from critics whose opinions are tabulated by Rotten Tomatoes.

The film’s score registered at 51 percent when I sat down to write this review. It’s the lowest tomato-meter score of any of Marvel’s 26 films. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the movie that plays with myths, mysticism, religion, and science to formulate a compelling melodrama that like all Marvel films sets the table for future super-hero shenanigans before its done.

The film directed by Academy Award-winning director Chloe Zhao, who also had a hand in crafting the screenplay, is a feast for the eyes and one of Marvel’s best-looking movies as shown through the lends of cinematographer Ben Davis.

The layered tale of biologically-engineered aliens placed on Earth to safeguard humanity from monstrous Deviants offered a compelling yarn of what happens when duty stands in the way of love. The Eternals have to protected he humans so they can serve as a food source for the birth of Tiamut, a god-like being who is known as a Celestial. Celestials feed off planets and their inhabitants during their “Emergence” and go on to create scores of other universes. It’s another circle-of-life story, if you will, just told on a cosmic scale.

Eternals / Marvel

The only problem is that the Celestial creator Airshem isn’t exactly forthcoming about what the planet will eventually be used for with all of the Eternals. They aren’t clued in or tuned in until the Emergence is on their doorstep. Over the centuries living on Earth, the Eternals become fond of the humans, and most of them aren’t willing to sacrifice their adopted planet and its denizens just so Tiamut won’t go hungry.

Zhao effectively uses flashbacks in the film to fill in the backstory. Here we get to see the Eternals work together and apart to safeguard humans from the Deviants. However, when the Deviants are killed off, what are the super-powered beings who are not supposed to interfere in the affairs of men to do?

Each of the 10 characters becomes the inspiration of mythic gods, heroes, and villains of the ancient world. As time moves on, the Eternals separate, some on their own while others are in pairs. One becomes a cult-type leader, while others become a history professor or a Bollywood star. However, when the Emergence becomes apparent, they seek each other out, and some begin to question their mission and whether or not Earth should be sacrificed to allow Tiamut to emerge. Telling much more would be too much.

Gemma Chan’s Sersi is basically the lead character in what essentially is an ensemble, and her love affair with Ikaris (Richard Madden) is star-crossed and tumultuous as duty separates the pair for centuries. Both are strong in their roles as lovers whose relationship just isn’t meant to be.

Zhao coaxes compelling performances from each of the principal characters, who all given their moments to shine. The film’s tone is less humorous than most Marvel movies, but the movie boasts cataclysmic stakes.

While the focus is on relationships between the characters, the movie doesn’t neglect the super-heroic exploits for long with super-heroic exploits here and an attack by the Deviants there.

Angelina Jolie in Eternals / Marvel

The third act is action-packed and after a second-act twist that is surprising. The climax somewhat answers the question of what Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige would do if he were to make a Justice League movie for Marvel’s chief competitor DC Entertainment. Ikaris is a Superman type, just as Thena (Angelina Jolie) analogous to Wonder Woman. More parallels can be drawn with the other eight main characters, too.

The weak link in the film are the Deviants who become more of an excuse for an action sequence than anything else. However, the film covers plenty of ground in its two-and-half hour running time, and was paced well to my taste.

I would be remiss not to mention that The Eternals were created for Marvel by the great illustrator/plotter and sometime writer Jack Kirby, who was one of the foremost creative talents to ever work in the comic book field. His career spanned from the start of the industry in the late 1930s into the early 1990s. Kirby’s collaborations with Marvel editor Stan Lee in the 1960s on characters like Captain America, Avengers, Fantastic Four, and the Hulk among others are the stuff of legends. Name a Marvel character other than Spider-Man, Wolverine, and Dr. Strange, and Kirby likely played a major role in its creation. The Eternals were his last major contribution to the Marvel mythos in the mid-1970s.

Esthetically, the film’s look isn’t overwhelmed by Kirby’s influence. The easiest place to notice his influence is the character’s costumes, which do have a Kirby feel. However, his handprints are all over the Marvel cosmology that takes center stage in this film.

“Eternals” offers a bit of a different flavor to the Marvel menu, and its scope and leisurely pace might not please everyone, but I was entertained and intrigued.

The movie contains mid- and post-credit scenes that hint at what’s to come in future Marvel films. Two new characters are introduced to the Marvel Universe in the mid-credit scene, and a character introduced early in the film has his story advanced in the post-credit scene.

(PG-13) 2 hr. 37 min.
Grade: B

  New in Local Theaters

Eternals (watch trailer) / (PG-13) 2 hr. 37 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Springdale, Malco Pinnacle, Malco Towne, Skylight

Spencer (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 51 min. / AMC Fiesta Square, Malco Pinnacle

The French Dispatch (watch trailer) / (R) 1 hr. 48 min. / Malco Razorback

Red Notice (watch trailer) / (PG-13)1 hr. 54 min. / Malco Pinnacle

Classic Corner – Malaya

By the end of the 1940s, Hollywood’s studio system was entering its twilight. Little by little, stars and directors were garnering more and more control over the their projects, but from time to time, studios like MGM could still align the stars to produce a big picture.

One of those is the well regarded but somewhat forgotten 1949 war picture “Malaya,” which plays at 10:45 p.m. Wednesday on Turner Classic Movies. A fit film to roll the night before Veteran’s Day.

The movie, directed by Richard Thorpe, is based on the true story of how the United States maneuvered to acquire rubber for the war effort in the early days of World War II from Japanese-held Malaya. The film’s all-star cast includes Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Stewart, Valentina Cortesa, Sydney Greenstreet in his final movie, John Hodiak, and Lionel Barrymore.

It’s only the second time that stars Stewart and Tracy shared the screen together. The first was actually Stewart’s big-screen debut in a 1935 picture called “Murder Man,” in which Tracy was the lead with Stewart getting sixth billing.

This time they are basically co-stars with Tracy playing a convict named Carnaghan, whom Stewart’s character John Royer gets released from Alcatraz to smuggle rubber out of Malaya for the American war effort.

Greenstreet plays the Dutchman, an old associate of Carnaghan’s who recruits a gang of rough necks to help with the operation. The scheme begins to work until the Japanese get wind of it, and Col Tomura (Richard Loo) steps in to double-cross Carnaghan and Royer.

The film is action-packed and full of intrigue, but also features a romance between Carnaghan and Luana (Cortese), his old girl friend.

Barrymore plays newspaper publisher John Manchester, who backs Royer’s plan. Fans of “It’s a Wonderful Life” will get a kick out of seeing the man who played mean ole Mr. Potter work with Stewart instead of against him in this movie.

Tracy and Stewart played in so many fine movies that it’s hard to call “Malaya” one of their very best. However, it is a solid movie with winning performances throughout by a memorable cast who was still working at the top to their game.