The latest set of superheroes to be added to the Marvel pantheon are aptly godlike. The Eternals – 10 of them for the purpose of the new movie and more as promised by the mid-credits and post-credits sequences – have protected humankind for millennia. Babylon, Hiroshima and even the Gupta period: the Eternals have been present through good times and bad, keeping a balance between humankind, their own creators known as the Celestials, and the malevolent aliens known as the Deviants. A crisis forces the Eternals scattered across the world to reunite and reassess their relationship with the Celestials and their adversaries.
Indian viewers may get a kick from the marigold wedding, the Eternal named Kingo (who is apparently some kind of a Hindi movie star, although he can barely hold his own on the dance floor), and Harish Patel as Kingo’s Hindi-spouting “valet” (we would have called him a manager).
There’s also a touch of Bollywood to the family-above-all-else theme. The 155-minute Eternals has been directed by Chloe Zhao, beaming herself into the Marvel Cinematic Universe after an Oscar for the gritty road movie Nomadland. Zhao, who is also among the several writers, can possibly be credited for the multi-ethnic cast, the prominence given to female characters, the first gay and first deaf Marvel superheroes (the latter played by a deaf actor), and the concerns over genocide and warfare.
But the real honours go to the visual effects and action teams. Good in the showing and poor in the telling, Eternals soars when superhuman abilities are in full flow and sags when the tortuous back story has to be explained (which is frequent).
Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), the Eternals have been watching over humans for centuries, on the condition that they do not intervene when their wards behave inhumanly. In the present, Ikaris (Richard Madden) finds his beloved Sersi (Gemma Chan) in a relationship with the human Dane (Kit Harington) in London. Sprite (Lia McHugh) is stuck at the age of 12 and hating every minute of it.
While Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is making movies, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is basking in domestic bliss with his husband and a kid with dimples. Gilgamesh (Don Lee) has been ensuring that Thena (Angelina Jolie) keeps her tendency to go rogue under check.
Druig (Barry Keoghan) seceded a while ago and is hiding out in the Amazon. Finally, there is Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a hearing impaired Eternal who is in love with Druig.
The enthralling action set-pieces have to be parsed from in-between awkward moments in which characters stand around waiting to explain themselves. The wildly inconsistent tone moves from laugh-out-loud to deadly earnest, sometimes right in the middle of a scene.
At its best, the diversity of faces and inclusivity of thought are an acknowledgement of how far Marvel movies have come. At its most cynical, the casting of actors who represent each of the major markets for Marvel produce is a nifty ploy to ensure a connection with audiences in any corner of the world.
The actors with less screen time make the bigger impact. Brian Tyree Henry, Barry Keoghan, Lauren Ridloff and Lia McHugh are more impressive than the nominal leads Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. Kit Harington, who along with Madden and composer Ramin Djawadi represent the movie’s Game of Thrones connection, furthers his claim to romantic lead status. The effortlessly jovial Harish Patel outshines Kumail Nanjiani in every one of their scenes together.