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Any superhero film worth its salt needs a great villain, and the latest Marvel film “Eternals” has plenty to pick from.

There are the villains director Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) wrote into the story, sure — CGI tentacle porn monsters aptly called “Deviants.” But looming much larger are the villains Zhao did not intend: an unwieldy script, bizarre tone shifts, a dozen actors battling for screen time and a supersized story that proves blockbuster machine Marvel can’t always have its cake and eat it, too.

“Eternals” is a film that lives and dies by its many villains — and a few heroes, too. Let’s see if we can sort out which reign victorious once the credits roll.

Hero: The premise. As the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — a franchise that’s done everything from spy thrillers to space comedies — “Eternals” is something unique: a kind of cosmic myth attempting to tell a story spanning 7,000 years. The film follows the titular Eternals, a race of superpowered, immortal aliens who come to Earth on a mission to defend the planet from the nefarious Deviants, monsters seeking to destroy the human race. The Eternals must help humankind evolve, but are sworn by their masters, the space-god Celestials, to never interfere in human affairs.

Whew. It’s a wild concept, even in a franchise that saw a martial artist beat up a cthulhu kaiju with some glowing rings in its last entry. But Zhao was onto something with “Eternals,” which is at its best when it embraces its mythic elements. 

Villain: The story. Given the already absurd but alluring concept behind “Eternals,” it’s not surprising Zhao and her army of screenwriters bit off more than they can chew. The story flashes back and forth from 5,000 B.C., to present-day London, to the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, to modern Chicago for a five-minute scene, then back to the past. Brace yourself for cinematic whiplash trying to keep up with story moments as they unfold across eons. It’s perhaps most baffling that Zhao tries so hard to make immortal gods feel relatable when they keep tossing around the word “human” like the extraterrestrial tourists they are.

Hero: The visuals. Zhao brings her visual sensibilities from her airy, vista-filled “Nomadland” to “Eternals,” and it’s better for it. The green-screen locales of Marvel films before are gone, replaced by real grassy fields and tangible, sandy beaches. The movie’s visual prowess extends to the camerawork and visual effects, which work in tandem to entice the viewer to ignore those other “villains” for a while.

Villain: A gigantic cast. Whoever thought this film could introduce a dozen unheard-of superheroes and give them meaningful character development, equal screen time and satisfying emotional arcs was smoking some ensemble-cast dope. 

Villain: Marvel Studios. In the battle between Marvel’s formula of frenetic quips and comic relief characters and Zhao’s instinct for stoic storytelling, both are losing this one. “Eternals” is surely the only film where a character goes from mourning the creation of the atomic bomb to joking about his IKEA dinner table. Marvel swung for the fences by hiring Zhao fresh off her Best Picture Oscar, but instead of handing her the bat and blasting a home run, they’re stuck with a muddle-toned strikeout.

Conclusion: An admirable mess. Look, Marvel has had the formula for a billion-dollar movie locked down for a decade now. They didn’t have to take a risk, but they did with “Eternals” — a $200 million risk. What’s left is a movie that tries to be many things and fails at most of them. Like a car crash unfolding in slow motion, it’s hard to look away from “Eternals,” even if the “villains” win the day this time.