She does though rise to the challenge of Eternals, a first outing for a new bunch of super heroes. It looks magnificent, there’s loads of spectacular action, both fisticuffs and special effects but, like the X-Men series in particular, it also has interesting, genuinely conflicted characters. As well as directing, Ms Zhao had a hand in writing the screenplay, which may explain why.
The Eternals of the story are a team of mythic beings from beyond the stars who have protected man since the dawn of time and have been living among us like apparently ordinary human beings. But when some really fierce and fiery monsters known as the Deviants (interesting choice of name), which the Eternals thought they’d polished off centuries ago, put in another appearance, the group have to go into super hero mode again.
They are a very diverse group made up of a wide range of ethnicities, plus one of them is gay and another deaf. Their leader is the mystical Ajak (Salma Hayek), but well to the fore of the story are Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden). He can shoot lethal light beams from his eyes and fly like Superman. Her super powers are a bit more subtle.
These two have a long history together – one of the threads which we trace through flashbacks, in which we see to the Eternals battling to protect us humans though the millennia. They even found time to get married in India back in 400 AD. But for reasons that will be revealed later in the story, he left her for thousands of years, so their reunion is a bit sticky. Even superheroes have problems with their love lives.
Others in the team include Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who packs a fighting punch that would put Rocky to shame; the warrior Thena (Angelina Jolie), who keeps having funny turns, in which she starts attacking her own kind; Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), who is responsible for inventing things that will help humanity develop – everything from the plough to the hydrogen bomb – and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), who has been filling in the time between super hero duties as a film star in Bollywood movies. There’s also a lovely comic performance from Harish Patel as Kingo’s producer, who latches on to the Eternals, trying to make a documentary about them.
The film has a satisfyingly mythic quality about it – many of the characters’ names are similar to those in Greek mythology – and the Deviants are a virulent, visual version of the dragons of legend, who were fought by knights of old. Apart from the spectacle though what makes the film really interesting are the human vulnerabilities in the super hero line up. Again, like the X Men.
There will be more Eternals to come – stay for after the credits for a taste of that. And though I am not a great fan of super hero films as a genre, I may well be in the queue for the next one, particularly if Ms Zhao is still involved.