Dir: Chloé Zhao. Starring: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee. 12A,156 minutes.

In Marvel’s busy, little pen of comic book films, Eternals is the stallion kicking at the gate. It’s the most independent-minded of the lot, though you can sense it smacking up against the limits of the form time and time again. That has a lot to do with the figure behind the lens, director Chloé Zhao, who’s followed up her Oscar-winning Nomadland with a blockbuster that strives for the same expansive soulfulness, but discovers there’s room enough only for the occasional burst of it.

That’s not to say that a comic book film can never achieve profundity, and there are moments both here and in the wider Marvel canon that possess a sincere and simple beauty – the calling cards of love and sacrifice, duty and empowerment. But these films, after all, are the union between art and commerce at its most tempestuous, locked into a cycle of franchise expectations, box office receipts, and merchandise sales.

The hiring of Zhao, a thoroughly independent filmmaker at heart, reads as a bid for the kind of artistic ambition that Martin Scorsese clearly thought was lacking when he dismissed the entire genre as non-cinema. And while I don’t ultimately agree with his sentiments, Eternals does beg the question: what exactly do we want from our comic book movies? Marvel has already landed on top – does it really feel the need to disguise itself as something else in order to be taken seriously?

Zhao’s own interest in Eternals is clear. Her work is thoroughly invested in the core decency of humanity and here she gets to revisit those same themes through the lens of the outsider, cosmic beings known as the Eternals – the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s own guardian angels. Created by a celestial named Arishem, who oversees the birth and death of entire worlds, they’re given a single task in life: rid planet Earth of an invading alien species known as the “Deviants”. They must not intervene in any other matter, no matter how much it pains them to see humanity suffer.

Speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is the MCU’s first deaf superhero

(Sophie Mutevelian)

They’d crop up whenever and wherever Deviants attacked – Mesopotamia, Babylon, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, the Gupta Empire – but have since scattered across the globe and integrated into society, believing the Deviants to finally be defeated and gone. Until now, of course, though why they’ve returned is a mystery. The closest thing Eternals has to a protagonist is Cersei (Gemma Chan, who shoulders her second role in the MCU after 2019’s Captain Marvel with grace). She serves as a figurehead for Zhao’s own empathy, with an added ability to transmute matter.

The rest of the team feels nicely balanced – there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), Cersei’s brooding ex, and Sprite (Lia McHugh), who’s stuck forever looking like a 12-year-old child. Then there’s their leader Ajak (Salma Hayek), inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), speedster Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Bollywood star Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), the brawny Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and the emo Druig (Barry Keoghan). Angelina Jolie, as Thena, quietly paces the edges of the frame, exuding cinematic regality. It’s a weighty cast of characters and familiar faces, and Zhao’s simplest, most impressive achievement is the ability to give them all discernable personalities beyond a few strung-together quips.

In fact, what comes through strongest in Eternals isn’t, necessarily, the look of Zhao’s films, but the spirit of them. Her usual cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, has been replaced here with Marvel regular Ben Davis – and, more crucially, the earthy spirituality of her camerawork has to contend with the aggressive sheen of far too much CGI. It gets particularly awkward in the action sequences, where the division between what is purely Zhao, and what’s already been processed through teams of previs artists planning out special effects shots, makes it feel as if we’re cutting between two entirely different films.

But the filmmaker has enjoyed more freedom elsewhere. Eternals has been praised as the MCU’s most diverse film yet, and not just in terms of gender and race – Makkari is its first deaf superhero, played by a deaf actor, and Phastos kisses his mortal husband (Haaz Sleiman) onscreen without the camera cutting nervously away. It’s also the first instalment to feature a sex scene, and there’s some genuine romantic tension throughout the film – even if it’s of the very solemn kind that only the deathless and lonely ever truly experience.

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The irony of Eternals is that, despite its characters explicitly tussling with their own lack of humanity, Zhao has delivered one of the most emotionally grounded entries in the entire franchise. She puts into full view the kind of moral quandaries that Marvel’s only ever really danced around in the past – the cost of individual life, or whether humanity is even worth saving in the first place. But there’s only so much room for that kind of thought, and an attempt to explore technology’s complicity in evil, by invoking the bombing of Hiroshima, sits uneasily next to gags about vibranium and Captain America. If Marvel wants to change up its game, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than simply hiring the hottest indie talent around and slotting them into the same old system. Is that a risk the studio’s ever going to be willing to take?

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