Producers: Kevin Feige and Nate Moore   Director: Chloé Zhao   Screenplay: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo and Kaz Firpo   Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Harish Patel, Haaz Sleiman, Esai Daniel Cross and David Kaye   Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Grade: C-

Disney’s advertisements announce that the newest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was “centuries in the making.”  At an unconscionable 157 minutes, “Eternals” also feels like centuries in the viewing.

Based on the comic book series initiated by Jack Kirby in 1976, which was cancelled after a run of less than two years but had a few brief resurrections before its full restoration earlier this year, is predicated on a sci-fi reimagining of Genesis in which the intervention of the gods, called Celestials, in human evolution millennia ago resulted in the creation of two hostile groups: the super-powered humanoid Eternals, defenders of humanity who live among men though never aging, and the monstrous Deviants, gnarling CSI dino-beasties that appear periodically to try to destroy mankind.  This state of affairs, it seems, results from the fact that the gods are either klutzes, having created the Deviants by accident, or fibbers, misleading the Eternals about their real intentions. 

In any event, the Eternals, whose names indicate the fact that they inspired the ancient gods and heroes, have waged battles against Deviant irruptions throughout history. As the movie opens, in contemporary days, they’ve not been faced with Deviant activity since the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the sixteenth century, when their victory seemed to be decisive.  But suddenly the Deviants have shown up again, and they must reassemble.

Their leader is Ajak (Salma Hayek), a spiritual sort with healing powers who communicates with Arishem (voiced by David Kaye), their Celestial “handler” who appears as a huge helmeted figure in the sky.  She comes out of her quiet life in the rural American Midwest when a Deviant emerges from a London canal, confronting Sersi (Gemma Chan), a matter-controller who has been living as a museum researcher while also acting as big sister to Sprite (Lia McHugh), who remains eternally twelve years old and can bring illusions to life.  Sersi is carrying on a romantic relationship with a human, Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), although she carries a torch for Ikaris (Richard Madden), a handsome Superman-like fellow who can fly and shoot destructive energy beams from his eyes.  He’s long been gone somewhere, but shows up to help Sersi and Sprite against the Deviant.

That’s just the beginning.  Also called back to action are Gilgamesh (Don Lee), a strongman type; Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), a super-speedster; and Thena (Angelina Jolie), the great warrior and weapons-mistress, but with anger issues.  They return to service voluntarily, but three others must be coaxed: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who can project bursts of energy from his hands but is reluctant to abandon his career as a Bollywood superstar; Druig (Barry Keoghan), who can control human minds and has withdrawn into the Amazon rainforest in disgust that the Celestials have forbidden him to use his power to end human violence; and Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), the master inventor appalled by the fact that his technology has been perverted into instruments of destruction and has settled into domesticity with his husband (Haaz Sleiman) and their young son Jack (Esai Daniel Cross).

That makes nine eternals in all, and a tenth is added in the inevitable post-credits teaser (the identity of the character and actor will not be revealed here), which proves an unwieldy number of superheroes for director Chloé Zhao and her fellow screenwriters to deal with.  The previous Marvel ensemble movies had scads of them working together, but in those cases stand-alone pictures had already introduced the major ones; in this case they’re all new, and even in a film of epic length they can be little more than sketched before they start fighting the Deviants, bickering among themselves and even dying (despite the title, they’re not immortal, though once killed they can apparently sometimes be returned to life—the rules in that respect are left obscure).   

Certainly they’re a diverse group—the makers have bent over backwards in that respect, in terms of both gender and ethnicity; and, of course, it’s notable that Pharos is gay and Makkari deaf.  But nothing much is done with these differences; once they’re checked off, as if on some sort of honor role, that’s it.  And of course the actors can’t do much but play the single note assigned them. Soulful Henry and comic-relief Nanjiani come off best, and Madden worst: stiff, impassive Ikaris, despite having the most formidable powers in the group, is easily one of the most boring superheroes ever concocted, and the actor’s stony depiction of him is just as drab.

Nor does Zhao distinguish herself.  The Marvel honchos may hire directors with unusual résumés to helm their mega-projects, but the producers certainly don’t give them much leeway to exhibit their peculiar cinematic perspectives.  Like other entries in the MCU, “Eternals” is basically an assembly-line product, and the directorial job a simple for-hire gig in which someone like Zhao must submerge her own voice in service of the series’ overall vision. 

One can glimpse fleeting moments when Zhao’s concern for relationships over empty spectacle intrudes, but they’re few; and she proves no great shakes in the action sequences, which she, cinematographer Ben Davis and editors Craig Wood and Dylan Tichenor serve up in surprisingly pedestrian fashion.  Even the effects in them—overseen by Stephane Ceretti, Susan Pickett and Neil Corbould—are less impressive than is usually the case with MCU pictures, though Eve Stewart’s production design, Sammy Sheldon Differ’s costumes and Ramin Djawadi’s music are solid enough.                      

In the end, of course, “Eternals” is, like most of these films, all about family—an unorthodox one, of course, and often fractious, but a family nonetheless.  The really odd thing is that despite being about the salvation of mankind and Zhao’s reputation for exploring human interconnections, there’s so little about the human family in it.  There are occasional scenes featuring groups of people—a primitive tribe at the start, indigenous folks facing off against Spanish conquistadors, Druig’s submissive Amazonians—but they’re just anonymous victims of Deviants. 

In only a few instances do we get to spend much time with individual human beings—Pharos’ husband and son, or Whitman (who may, in fact, be something more than human anyway, as another post-credits scene suggests).  In fact, the real earthling we see most of is Harish Patel as Karun, Kingo’s manager, who follows him (and his fellow Eternals) around with a camera to document his master’s adventures.  And he’s portrayed as a likable schlub, a comic foil totally dependent—like all others of his sort—on the kindness (or lack thereof) bestowed on him by extraterrestrials.  Human beings are really peripheral creatures here, mere pawns in a vast cosmic game.

That might remind you of the underlying theme of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” and the shape of the Eternal’s ship bears a striking resemblance to the black monolith from that classic.  But a comparison of that film’s cerebral thoughtfulness to this one’s vacuity is devastating.  Whether you feel he succeeded or not, Kubrick was attempting to get his viewers to think; in this case Zhao is merely trying to give hers the usual Marvel thrill.  And even in this she fails: “Eternals” is one of the least engaging of all the Marvel movies—big and splashy but lumbering and strangely dull.

Nonetheless one can predict that it will be a hit, spawn a sequel and get folded, however inelegantly, into the behemoth known as the MCU. And it would seem that’s all that really matters, to both Disney and devotees of the series.