Eternals Challenging the Marvel Formula Only Highlights the MCU’s Flaws
Marvel’s Eternals, directed by Oscar-winner Chloé Zhao, is doing exceptionally well at the box office. Despite being the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first “rotten” film on Rotten Tomatoes, it has made $71 million in the U.S. and Canada and now stands at $161.7 million worldwide. Still, there is a lot worth unpacking about the fact that Eternals has gotten the lowest reviews in the MCU’s history when there are worse installments out there, without question.
Eternals is based on the Jack Kirby-created comic book series, which is a giant ancient aliens-type space opera rich with philosophical questions. After his New Gods series was canceled by DC Comics, Kirby went to Marvel and continued working on those big monster gods concepts with the Celestials, the capital-G Gods of the Marvel world; the Eternals, the offshoot of humanity that is near-divine; and the Deviants, morlock-like creators that are also offshoots of the human-ape.
The series was canceled and not very popular, but the mythology that Kirby created would be recycled often, which kept the characters at some level of relevance to the larger universe, though at a distance. But because a huge chunk of the Marvel Comics world includes weird space stuff, alien races, and the like, the Eternals do fit.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of the MCU.
Yes, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has gone to space, but it has never done it on the scale and scope of Chloé Zhao’s installment into the franchise’s “Phase Four.” In following the lives of these semi-immortal beings, the audience is asked questions about free will, the nature of existence, the price of progress, the lives of countless billions versus one planet, and a lot of other things that will no doubt only make this film feel like it’s bursting at the seams.
In Zhao’s imagining of the characters, which is very different from the comics, the Eternals are a race of warriors from Olympia, sent by the Celestials to protect humanity from the Deviants, but otherwise not interfere with human development—at least not too much. Over the years, while waiting to return home, they assimilate into human lives, until a new, evolved Deviant comes and begins attacking them. Now, they must all reunite, after centuries apart, in order to protect the world they have come to love.
As I watched the film in theaters (next to a row of very loud teenage boys who made comments a mile a minute), I kept thinking about how unfair of a task it was for Zhao to have to lay out so much exposition and story to make this movie work. We spent over a decade getting to know The Avengers and are now being asked to get to know several new characters, and care about their interior lives and their relationship to humanity, in almost three hours, with no one familiar to anchor the film.
Yet, the specter of the Avengers, Thanos, and everything that came before Eternals is always present.
When I look at the reviews for Eternals, what I see in a lot of them is exhaustion at Marvel, for the fact that Marvel has been able to have this chokehold on the movie industry for so long. The pandemic has made people want more, and without the decade-long familiarity of previous Marvel, critics seem ready to call out the things that haven’t been working for a while.
The MCU has put out some truly mediocre, paint-by-numbers films for years—crowd-pleasers that were crafted with a level of competency that can allow them to passively be darlings. If I have any needle with the criticism I’ve seen, it is that. This movie is much better than several MCU films with higher Rotten Tomatoes scores: Captain Marvel, Guardians Vol. 1, Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, Spider-Man: Far From Home, and most of Captain America: The First Avenger, to name a few.
This is not to say people can’t dislike Eternals—these are comic book movies, the stakes are relatively low—but it has been interesting seeing the chickens come home to roost when Marvel is at the precipice of actually trying to be creative and interesting. I’d rather them take big swings and miss, like DC, than keep coasting on being able to hack the same generic Marvel formula.
I have been longing for the weird space stuff from the comics to finally come to the MCU, and now it’s here. Is it perfect? No, but it is something different and at least worth discussing. It is very The Last Jedi, except characters of color actually get a storyline at the forefront.
It was been enjoyable to see people debate and discuss what works about Eternals. It is something that makes this medium more interesting and better for that kind of discourse. I’d rather read thoughtful, well-crafted pieces I don’t fully agree with and argue the intent of certain scenes, than just nod and say, “Yeah, that was fun.”
Eternals is worth watching on your own time and in whichever format is safest for you. Will you enjoy it? I couldn’t tell you. I know people who absolutely love it, people who think it’s fine, and people who think it’s just another bland Marvel movie.
For me, I really enjoyed it and want to see it again, and it has rekindled my absolute adoration of Angelina Jolie, who nails every moment and could absolutely still be Wonder Woman, you cowards.
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