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In every possible way, Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is unprecedented. It’s the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie to feature a deaf hero (Lauren Ridloff’s Mikkari). Also the first to feature a gay one (Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos). It’s bathed in natural light (Zhao’s signature), and teeming with saviors—and villains—previously unseen in the MCU. It also has the rare distinction of being the first Marvel film to be certified rotten on Rotten Tomatoes.
To be sure, Rotten Tomatoes scores aren’t everything—and in an era where everyone’s a critic (hello, Twitter), they only give a sliver of the full public perception of any film. But for a Marvel movie, a venture literally designed to be crowd-pleasing, its (currently) 53 percent score is low. It’s also a sign of what happens when a movie, any movie, is asked to be everything to everyone. Moreover, Eternals is an indicator of the growing pains inherent in moving the MCU forward.
People often associate conversations around pushing things forward with diversity and shifting the canon. Eternals does that, but the film's hiccups aren't linked to its cast and crew. Or even its style, which doesn’t have the hypercolor sheen of many of its predecessors. Really, it’s about the story it's trying to tell—and how much story it had to fit into its 2-hour-37-minute runtime.
The thing is, Eternals has no runway. Now in its fourth phase, the MCU is less reliant on big team-up movies that build on every story that’s come before them. Tony Stark doesn’t just get to waltz into Spider-Man: Homecoming and have everyone know who he is. There aren’t heaping handfuls of origin story movies leading up to superhero slugfests like The Avengers. In a lot of ways, this works to Zhao’s benefit: She was free to make her own film and not get bogged down in having it “fit” with every other movie in the MCU. There are no big cameos in Eternals, and the Avengers and Thanos are mentioned only in passing. But it also means she had to do the narrative equivalent of 10 standalone movies and Avengers: Endgame—all with heroes far less recognizable than Spidey. Her movie also needed some in-group drama, so it spends a chunk of time in the middle playing out what is essentially the entire arc of Captain America: Civil War. It’s too much.
Oddly, it’s in these Earth-bound narrative beats where the movie is its best. Zhao relishes crafting interpersonal moments. But at times those moments feel disconnected from Eternals’ many action scenes. It also means her film has to do a lot of emotional work in small chunks of time; something that, perhaps, led to moments like Phastos weeping over his a-historical involvement in the bombing of Hiroshima, a scene that’s drawn some criticism. If even two or three of the film’s heroes had been given standalone films previous to this one, it’s easy to imagine Zhao’s Eternals being the thoughtful, poignant journey it almost is. Instead, it’s a story too heavy for anyone’s shoulders.
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While watching Eternals I couldn’t stop thinking about something Marvel chief Kevin Feige mentioned to me a few weeks before the film was released. During production, Feige says, he told Zhao that it wasn’t until he saw her vision for Eternals that he thought that “post-Endgame the MCU could survive.” That’s maybe more than one should expect from any single film, but I don’t think his intuition was wrong. Zhao—who, in the time it took to film Eternals and release it, became an Oscar-winner for Nomadland—had the right idea; she just maybe had too many of them. And, as Dana Stevens pointed out in her smart review for Slate, “a filmmaker of Zhao’s gifts … has earned the right to make a bad movie, shrug it off, and move on.” Marvel should be able to do that too.
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