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Sincerity, diversity and a little realism make 'Eternals' a new type of Marvel movie

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The new Marvel movie "Eternals" really is new. It's got superheroes no one has ever met before on screen. It tells a story that just barely connects to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And it's directed by Chloe Zhao, who won two Oscars earlier this year for a film that couldn't be less like a Marvel movie. So how is it? Well, critic Bob Mondello's superpower is he can tell us.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Where most Marvel movies start at a gallop, this one starts with a crawl, as in paragraphs crawling up the screen Star Wars-style - talking Celestials from Olympia and Arishem and Deviants - a whole mythology to lay out before a triangular slab of a spaceship can show up on the shores of Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: ...With 10 - count them - 10 superheroes. Their mission - to protect humankind from what look like alien rope-asaurus-es (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: It's at about this point - and we are maybe three minutes in - that two things become clear. One, director Chloe Zhao has not lost the eye for rugged landscapes and Oscar-worthy sunrises that she brought to "Nomadland" last year. And two, she is going to have a lot more in the foreground this time.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Where we are - how (ph)?

MONDELLO: Folks who fly or zip or wield magical spears, who turn things to dust, create energy grenades from dust, are good with mind control, wound healing, holograms - I mean, there are 10 of these superfolks. One's superpower is that he's a whiz at mechanical engineering.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

BRIAN TYREE HENRY: (As Phastos) You know what's never saved the planet? - your sarcasm.

MONDELLO: Point taken. None of them seems ideally suited to battling a rope-asaurus (ph), but who am I to question Marvel's deploying of superprotectors? I am, though, qualified to talk about storytelling. And in that regard, "Eternals" is both overcomplicated and clever, zipping back from characters' domestic lives in the present...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

RICHARD MADDEN: (As Ikaris) What is this even made of - Vibranium?

HENRY: (As Phastos) Don't...

(SOUNDBITE OF TABLE BREAKING)

HENRY: (As Phastos) Fall collection. IKEA.

MONDELLO: ...To, say, an inflection point moment thousands of years ago when an Eternal introducing a primitive plow could change the course of agriculture. When things get too quiet, Zhao can also zip back to wars in ancient Babylon or an Aztec city-state. One of the film's niftier conceits, actually, is that the battlefield exploits of superfolks named Ikaris, Sersi, and Gilgamesh might have inspired the legends humans passed down of gods and sorcerers with those names.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

MONDELLO: That said, the reason "Eternals" is compelling has less to do with its planet-shattering conflicts than with the cosmic off-screen conflict it represents - indie art house director versus Marvel franchise machine. I mean, you know, the machine will win, but can she nick it - maybe discover points of vulnerability for next time? You don't hire a Chloe Zhao unless you want her to bring something new - though with a formula as successful as Marvel's, not too new.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

LIA MCHUGH: (As Sprite) Who do you think's going to lead the Avengers?

MADDEN: (As Ikaris) I could lead them.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDELLO: The results are mixed. Zhao specializes in nuance and realism, which tend to slow things down, and the digitized critters feel like an afterthought rather than a real threat. Still, there's plenty the director gets right. The film looks terrific and is multicultural in ways you wish everything could be - superheroes sufficiently varied that there's room not just for different skin colors but for one to exclusively use sign language, another to be gay, a third to have mental health issues. And where most of these movies put snark, this one puts sincerity. After 7,000 years, it may just be Stockholm syndrome, but the supes (ph) seem to like us.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ETERNALS")

SALMA HAYEK: (As Ajak) This planet and these people have changed me.

MONDELLO: "Eternals" is far from perfect. But sincerity, diversity, a smidgen of reality 20-some-odd Marvel movies in, we're lucky we got any one of those.

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.