At The Movies: Eternals offers dignified superhero fun; Malignant is an unhinged murder mystery

A still from the movie Eternals. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY CO

Eternals (M18)

156 minutes, opens Nov 4

4 stars

One thing Disney keeps doing that gives some Marvel fans fits is turn movies into think pieces about moody demi-gods and powerful women. All these fans really want are quips, tights and fights, with everything fronted by - as others have put it - "a white guy called Chris".

So when Chloe Zhao was called in to helm this movie, adapted from an obscure corner of the Marvel comic-book world, breaths were held.

The result will have them sobbing in the fan forums. Oscar winner Zhao has turned in a movie fronted by a gender-, race- and age-balanced cast about - you guessed it - moody demi-gods.

There have been movies about superheroes tormented by their god-and-human dual natures, such as the first and second Thor movies (2011 and 2013). Tellingly, Marvel hired gifted comedy director Taika Waititi for the third one (Thor: Ragnarok, 2017). He stripped away the navel-gazing, creating a critical and commercial hit.

The source comics for Eternals were heavily influenced by ideas of ancient aliens, popular in the 1970s. There are believers still around today, tuning in to cable shows featuring "experts" attributing every technological innovation in ancient civilisations in Africa, the Middle East and the Americas to after-school coaching from extraterrestrials.

Thankfully, such racist ideas do not enter Zhao's vision. While her Eternals are indeed ancient aliens, a race of guardians put here millennia ago, their only job is to protect humans from Deviants, monsters created at the same time as them by an even more powerful race of galactic beings.

Sersi (English actress Gemma Chan) can transmute one inanimate material into another; Ikaris (Scottish actor Richard Madden) can fly and project power beams from his eyes.

Richard Madden as Ikaris (left) and Gemma Chan as Sersi in Eternals. PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Having wiped away the Deviants, the team of 10 become purposeless, split up and go incognito. The events of Avengers: Endgame (2019) awaken a sinister force and the team is reactivated.

Zhao, an arthouse director known for her award-winning dramas that imbue working-class struggles with poetry (cowboy biopic The Rider, 2017; and the Oscar-winning portrait of the gig economy, Nomadland, 2020) was hired to add a touch of prestige drama to a comic-book tale.

She elevates the material in some places - she is fond of static establishing shots that underline the team's dignified, semi-divine status - but only so much can be achieved before plot and exposition kick in, especially in a work that is just one thread in the larger Marvel Cinema Universe fabric.

Malignant (M18)

106 minutes, now on HBO Go

4 stars

"You've been a bad, bad boy, Gabriel," says a doctor as one might to a labrador puppy, after the person she is addressing has turned his wardens into a mutilated mess.

This groan-worthy line and plenty more feature in this movie about Gabriel, the mysterious stalker gifted with unique murderous powers.

Malignant, released in cinemas in September this year and just added to HBO, comes from director and co-writer James Wan, who helmed horror hits Saw (2004) and The Conjuring (2013) as well as action blockbusters Furious 7 (2015) and Aquaman (2018).

A still from the film Malignant starring Annabelle Wallis. PHOTO: HBO GO

As shown by this dialogue snippet, the Sarawak-born, Australia-raised Wan likes his edgy jokes inserted at random. While this reviewer did not have a problem with Wan's spasms of under- or over-statement, one can understand how the sudden mood swings might lead one to conclude that he has lost control, as other critics have claimed.

Madison (English actress Annabelle Wallis) is a Seattle resident pursued by a demonic entity responsible for a string of deaths around her.

British actor George Young - a face familiar to Asian audiences for his television work in the region, including Singapore - plays detective Shaw, the cop assigned to look into the string of deaths.

Like everyone else, he cannot explain why the killer can materialise out of thin air, or what the victims have in common.

Madison (English actress Annabelle Wallis) is a Seattle resident pursued by a demonic entity responsible for a string of deaths around her. PHOTO: HBO GO

Wan is not a fan of subtlety. From its supervillain origin story opening to its monster-hunt middle to its bonkers climax, Malignant is in-your-face literal.

This is a film-maker who knows his lane, sticks to it and obviously loves his material. The result is an idiosyncratic but highly watchable mix of gore, supernatural chills and mystery.

Rock Dog 2: Rock Around The Park (PG)

91 minutes, opens Nov 4, not reviewed

A still from the film Rock Dog 2: Rock Around The Park. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

This work of animation is a follow-up to the 2016 original, which had a story and characters based on graphic novels by Chinese rock star Zheng Jun. Aspiring musician Bodi (voiced by Graham Hamilton) and his band True Blue have achieved some success, but yearn for more. When a businessman offers a shot at fame, but at a cost, Bodi and his band are torn.

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