Eternals, the new Marvel superhero movie, is a ‘first’ in many aspects.

It’s the introduction of an immortal group of unkillable powerhouse superhero saviours called the Eternals. It’s the first movie to officially bring in another Thanos-level threat that will play into the still-expanding Marvel movies catalogue, and their unending phases. It’s the first movie to deliberately tell a small story in overly expansive, and uncharacteristically long expositions — and because of this it’s the first Marvel film, since the studio took control of the intellectual rights of mostly all of their comic characters, to form a very divided response within the critics’ circle, and perhaps the audience at large.

Currently holding an aggregate rating of 53 percent at the review-collection website Metacritic — that’s 20 positive, 34 mixed and five negative ratings — Eternals holds the lowest ratings in the Marvel line-up. Technically, that’s a lower rating than the terrible Thor: The Dark World and its 54pc at the website (there have been other non-cannon films with ratings in the 30pc before Thor).

Still, this is bad company. The uproar, especially in critics and would-be critics’ circle, is quite unjustified.

Also, last-minute bans in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait doesn’t help because a gay character was played by an Emirati actor. That’s another long debate about diversity in casting and sexual inclusivity which, by the way, the film is big into. For inclusivity’s sake, genders and sexual orientation are switched for key characters. As gradual as the transition between ethnicities have been though, we now see people with Caucasian skin tones in minority, mostly playing evil roles.

As I said, that’s a debate for another day.

Clearly, Eternals has a lot of excess baggage, especially storytelling-wise, where co-screenwriter/director Chloé Zhao, who won the Oscar for Nomadland this year, has to balance at least 10 leading characters that include actors Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, and two Game of Thrones alumni Richard Madden and Kit Harrington, amongst others.

Zhao is not an odd choice given Marvel’s tilt towards hiring directors with credibility and chops to handle their cinematic wares. Jon Favreau, Kenneth Branagh, Ryan Coogler, Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Cate Shortland were critical favourites well before their directorial works at Marvel, and their styles, for better or worse, did manage to wiggle through the corporate-like thinking of intertwined, long-threaded stories at the studio.

Zhao just shines a bit too much… not that I’m complaining.

For whatever it’s worth, Eternals has a standard story. They have been saving humanity from genetically engineered annihilators called Deviants for 7,000 years while casually nudging the human race into the right evolutionary path (they gave people the designs for a plow, to till the earth).

Sent from a planet called Olympia, each Eternal has a special power — one can transmute elements, one can run really fast, one can influence people’s will, one can design impossible machines, one is a god of war, one has fists of immense power, one is a stand-in for Superman — you know, the usual tropes of superpowered beings.

They’ve inspired legends but remained mostly passive, especially after they eradicated the last of the Deviants a few thousand years ago (a key question about why the Eternals didn’t help out when Thanos eradicated half of the universe in Avengers: Infinity War is clarified early).

But Deviants weren’t really eradicated, and the group who has been ordered to stay on Earth for eons by their far-superior masters — the planet-sized Celestials who make billions of worlds from scratch — because of an unexplained mission, are suffering emotionally.

Zhao’s previous movies centered on disenfranchised characters, and Eternals is no different. However, her storytelling tilt, of creating grounded heroes, as good as it is in the scope of a movie, would have been better suited for a series.

At 157 minutes (that’s nearly two hours and 40 minutes), this is a long movie with some shortfalls.

Surprisingly, Zhao is very good with spectacle and very, very good with actors, but she can’t help wasting characters played by Jolie, Nanjiani, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan because more scenes would just expand the runtime.

For a ‘first’ movie hedging its bets on an obscure group of heroes, the title has enough problems as it is. The balance might be a little off at times, but the widespread negative consensus is a bit unfair.

Personal opinion: seeing the movie, and then understanding its storytelling intentions, I’m reminded of two variants of an idiom: of people having the attention spans of goldfishes and gnats.

A goldfish has the attention span of nine seconds; a gnat has zero seconds.

According to a study from Microsoft, in the age of the internet — circa, the year 2000 — humans had an average attention span of 12 seconds. In 2015, that number dropped four seconds from the count.

Standing at eight seconds with cellphones and social media in our hands, we now officially have lower concentration span than a goldfish.

In the age of movies, that means dumb but rip-roaring movies such as the Fast and Furious or any other of their ilk, will hold more attention — and therefore more interest — because they’re satisfying our current mental state.

For a title such as Eternals that breathes a little, that’s bad news. But only if you have less attention span than a goldfish.

Featuring characters created by comic book legend Jack Kirby, Eternals is rated PG-13. Apart from the usual cosmic action and a lot of drama, it features the first sex scene in Marvel movies. The movie is playing in cinemas across Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 14th, 2021

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