Eternals was supposed to introduce us to the MCUs most powerful super team but despite decent box office returns, it fell flat. So, what went wrong?
Eternals is the 26th film in the ever-expanding connected stories of the MCU universe (soon to be multiverse). It’s directed by Oscar winning director Chloe Zhao and attempted to launch phase four of the ongoing saga which officially started with Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man in 2008 tale. Marvels mega maestro producer Kevin Feige put together a great director, a talented cast and budget to match to produce a movie which was as warmly received and successful as ‘The Avengers’. Eternals is currently one of the lowest ranked films in the MCU. So, what happened?
I’m not going to bore you with the plot or answer the question of why these powerful beings didn’t intervene with Thanos as the movie does its best to justify that so that could be considered a spoiler, so you still have something to discover if you choose to watch it.
Despite being young and not having the longest film catalogue, director Chloe Zhao demonstrated her skill and ability as a director in independent films like ‘Songs my brothers taught me‘ and ‘The Rider‘ and most recently in ‘Nomadland‘ which earned her Oscar wins. Kevin Feige saw an opportunity to increase the respectability of the films he was producing by tapping a respected award winner to direct, as they did with Kenneth Branaugh directing ‘Thor‘ which also had mixed results.
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Chloe states she’s a comic book fan and always wanted to direct a superhero movie so in theory it should have been a fantastic match. But being a fan of a genre doesn’t always necessarily lead to a good outcome. Lots of people make music, many singers listen to rap, but it doesn’t mean would all make good rappers! Sometimes it’s alright to just be a fan. Furthermore, there is nothing about her directorial style which lends itself to this type of movie.
Within the superhero genre, there are those which are gritty and grounded, those which are fantasy based and the ones which are totally beyond belief. Space deities, supreme aliens and flying beings with lasers that come out of their eyes is a hard enough sell in this day and age. It requires a special type of director/storyteller and temperament to engage audiences in these types of films and get them invested.
The likes of James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Zack Snyder (ZS Justice League) demonstrated it can be done in a way that people still feel invested in, despite acknowledging the lack of connection to reality. Thats why I believe Kevin Feige made the wrong choice of director with Chloe Zhao for ‘Eternals’.
This is by no means a disparaging remark about Chloes directing abilities. It’s just an acknowledgement of the fact that not all projects fit all directors. One of this generations best directors Christopher Nolan famously declined directing the Superman film ‘Man of Steel’ following his success with ‘The Dark Knight’ trilogy.
He recognised his skill was to bring a realism to superhero movies and it wasn’t something he felt he could do with an alien who flies around and shoots lasers out of his eyes. He chose instead to serve as a producer on the film, leaving the direction to Zack Snyder.
Eternals is not a terrible movie by any stretch, definitely not as bad as some fans and critics are making out but as a ‘superhero film’ it is quite dull. The strong negative reaction comes from fans who have been trained to expect a very familiar style of movie for almost 15yrs and this being so different to what they were expecting. Its like eating Mcdonalds your whole life and then being given KFC . It’s still fast food but not what you like or are used to.
Add to that the convoluted story about all powerful beings the audience had never heard of before (and don’t yet care about) and the continued forced attempts to link this to the previous 25 MCU films and its leaves us with a package that just doesn’t feel right. Marvel here also find themselves guilty of something DC were criticised for with the Justice League, which is giving us a team of new heroes all in one dose, whom we are supposed to be invested in, but we are not.
It is possible, as seen in ‘The Guardians of the Galaxy’, where five previously unknown characters become loved almost household names after their first movie. The key there may have been the unique qualities of each hero.
The cast do a respectable job of bringing these unknown characters to life. The performances are decent and their unique personalities are highlighted early on so, you can decide who your favourites are and who you don’t really like. The issue lies with them as ‘superheroes’. Their powers don’t seem unique or interesting and, in some cases, even appear interchangeable, even though I’m sure that’s not the case. The film does get an ‘A’ rating for its diverse range of actors that thankfully doesn’t seem forced.
It was still alright for the Asian hero Kingo played by Kumail Nanjiani to take a career as a Bollywood star but also for the black hero to not be ‘the stereotypical muscle but rather the brains/inventor. It was all done in a way that seemed natural. Makkari, played by Lauren Ridloff, is a speedster who is deaf but still manages to be as effective and lovable as a hero and in many ways, was the heart of the team, with an impressive performance from Lauren.
Chloe Zhao’s specialty is humanity and the relationships we form and there were some lovely ones here, both romantic and plutonic. From Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden) to Thena Angelina Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok) to Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan). These relationships all felt like they had real weight and substance behind them. As you would expect, this director excels at these sort of interpersonal interactions
How well do you know your favourite villains? tell us who said these lines here?
Eternals is a victim of mismatched director, a poor convoluted story, forced linkage to previous MCU films, uninspired superheroes, and unmanaged expectations of the MCU fan base. Underneath all the mess, lasers, and noise there is a nice story of an unconventional family who go their separate ways and the enduring love they maintain for each other over thousands of years that brings them back together when in trouble.
I don’t know whether Chloe will be directing Eternals 2 or if she will get the chance (or want to) direct another superhero movie but if she does let’s hope it’s one more suited to her skillset. Her next movie is about Dracula for Universal, and while that is still based in fantasy, it’s a more personal tale of internal struggle and survival without a world ending alien in site. We’ll be keeping an eye out for that.
Eternals is streaming for free now on Disney Plus