Eternals – 2 Stars out of 4

Walking out of the “Eternals” press screening, the snarky jokes seem ready made. You could say something connecting the movie’s name to its two-and-a-half-hour running time, or just say it’s “Avengers, but boring.” Some of the criticism is unfair, because “Eternals” isn’t solely responsible for the glut of superhero burnout fodder it arrives in. But make no mistake, “Eternals” has problems.

The concept has potential, even if it isn’t exactly riveting stuff. The Eternals are a special group of heroes designated by the godlike Celestials to protect humanity from a predatory race called Deviants. They’ve been around for thousands of years, and now live among humans in plain sight, their duties mostly fulfilled centuries ago.

You can sense how this might raise some questions, since as with all Marvel properties, the Eternals are supposed to inhabit the same universe as the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and every other comic franchise under the late Stan Lee’s tent. That’s why early on the characters have a fourth-wall straining discussion to explain why they never got involved when Thanos decided to wipe out half the universe.

This is a problem. It was awkward enough when “Endgame” had to shoehorn in a weak explanation for why Captain Marvel wasn’t around for “Infinity War.” As much as I love the idea of the shared universe, adding exposition to explain all these plot holes to the audience just makes the issue worse.

Anyway, the plot for “Eternals” gets going when one of their ranks mysteriously turns up dead, suggesting that the Deviants are back on the warpath. Of course, there’s a lot more to the situation than that, and when the Eternals discover some long-hidden secrets concerning the true purposes of their mission, things get dicey, even between the heroes themselves.

As another “team of heroes” ensemble movie, “Eternals” has to introduce us to each primary character, and without the advantage of a previous origin movie for every hero, this leads to some issues. For one thing, there are ten–TEN!–different Eternals, way too many to care about, or in this movie, even differentiate with any effectiveness. It may be unfair to hold “Eternals” to “Avengers” standards, but the result feels like getting blasted in the face with a firehose filled with a soft drink you don’t particularly like.

The biggest problem with “Eternals,” is that it’s just dull. It really does feel like a muted, watered-down version of “Avengers,” without the benefit of years of cinematic familiarity. The direction doesn’t help; Chloe Zhao’s moody, bleak, and ponderous visuals and tone were a perfect fit for the melancholy “Nomadland,” but this movie isn’t about the downside of #vanlife. It’s supposed to capture and inspire the imagination.

Again, some of the criticism here has to be directed at the greater state of the Marvel Universe, and at superhero movies in general. But even if “Eternals” shouldn’t be held accountable for post-“Endame” malaise, it certainly isn’t doing anything to get non-diehard audiences excited for more.

Comic book movies don’t have to be funny, and they don’t all have to be built on ten years’ worth of studio strategy. But they should be fun. “Eternals” is not fun.

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