Eternals: A Marvel Movie Through and Through
Is this the breaking point for the Marvel Cinematic Universe? A scan of the critical landscape for Eternals reveals a bleak consensus — easily the MCU’s lowest Metacritic score since 2013’s Thor: The Dark World — and I’d be hard-pressed to say the negative reaction is necessarily undeserved. Personally, I find Marvel’s output entirely enjoyable, if nothing particularly special: it’s been said before, but the joy in the endeavor comes from that fact that these films nail an aspect of comic books that the Dark Knights and Into the Spider-Verses don’t — the ongoing and somewhat disposable soap opera-esque nature of reading 22 or so pages on a monthly basis. With the very occasional exception, the value of the MCU will always lie in the whole rather than the individual pieces, and it’s hard to see any one film truly standing out from the pack. We’re 26 movies in at this point: have we really seen anything to suggest that even the most talented director can deliver a transcendent entry?
And maybe that’s part of the problem, because if you were making a list of the qualities such an effort would take, Chloé Zhao would check a hell of a lot of boxes. Fresh off Academy Award wins for Best Picture and Best Director, with a style that elicits comparisons to the great Terrence Malick, and handed a cast of characters with approximately zero name recognition (and thus no preconceived notions to manage), there was a sense of excitement around what a director of her caliber — so seemingly antithetical to the sanitized world of the MCU — might bring to the table. But in the end, Eternals turned out to be...a Marvel movie, serviceable in all the ways that these movies have come to be. Just as with Shang-Chi and Black Widow, I had a perfectly pleasant time in the theater and look forward to seeing where the story goes from here. But I understand the nagging feeling that maybe this time, that’s simply not enough.
That’s not to say Zhao’s directorial touch isn’t felt. It’s just that she, like those who have come before, just isn’t the auteur of a film whose existence as a cog in a larger machine ultimately trumps its standalone value. Zhao’s a good fit for the subject matter at the very least: the most interesting parts of the film are when the titular Eternals — semi-immortal beings employed by giant space gods to protect humanity from alien monsters called Deviants — esoterically contemplate the cost of interference, the worth of human life and the natural world, and their own existence. At times you can spot Zhao’s fondness for handheld closeups and expansive landscape shots during the magic hour. As a result there’s — for portions of the film at least — a real sense of individual artistic vision that we’ve rarely seen this franchise present on-screen.
But Marvel was never going to accept an uninhibited Chloé Zhao movie, and the majority of the film plays essentially like you’d expect an MCU movie to if you had no idea who was behind the camera. The Eternals spend most of their time exchanging quippy one-liners, and engaging in vaguely fun but mostly perfunctory, hollow, and bloodless CGI battles. Relatively speaking, the film’s problems are primarily two-fold. One, Eternals suffers from the bloat that infects seemingly all blockbusters nowadays, spending far too long on flashbacks and a “getting the gang back together” narrative framework that fails to justify the nearly two hour and forty minute runtime. Second, an impressive cast that includes Brian Tyree Henry (one of our finest working actors), Kumail Nanjiani (a truly charismatic comedian), and Angelina Jolie (perhaps the most uniquely commanding screen presence of the past several decades) — who all have their moments, though not enough of them — chooses to place the weight of the story on the shoulders of Gemma Chan and Richard Madden. Chan is charming enough, and the script doesn’t give her much to work with, but Madden stands out like a sore thumb. He’s underserved on the page as well, but his performance (and the importance the film places on his character) is deathly — the MCU often tends to skate by via the skill of the casting department, as having the charm and pathos brought by a Hemsworth or a Downey Jr. or a Hiddleston frees up the behind the scenes folks from the heavy lifting of character depth, and Madden just doesn’t have those skills.
That being said, the MCU’s greatest trick is that, because the films are essentially on rails at this point, they have a relatively high floor when it comes to their entertainment value. Despite these flaws and removed from the expectations that come with the talent attached, I struggle to say whether it’s truly any better or worse than the platonic ideal of a Marvel movie at this point. I appreciate the faction that decries them as soulless, and I sympathize even more with those who feel they represent the slow death of cinema as an art form, but my biggest creeping issue is the franchise’s insistence about its own importance. I doubt many really bought into the marketing implications that Eternals would be a game-changer, but I understand the disappointment when it became clear that we’d just be getting more of the same, and I wish the masterminds behind the films realized that the movies work just fine on their own terms. If you generally like these movies, you’re probably going to have a solid time with this. If you’re exhausted by the MCU (a very fair stance), their latest may only accelerate the fatigue. And while I don’t fault Zhao in the slightest for jumping at the opportunity, I hope that she and talents of her caliber won’t spend too long playing in a sandbox that ultimately isn’t theirs.