There’s a quote from Avengers: Endgame director Joe Russo, as part of the recently released Story of Marvel Studios book, that sums up the daunting task of developing a new MCU movie.
“The big thing I used to say all the time was, ‘People tell you how much they love chocolate ice cream,’” he said. “You give it to them six days a week, they’re gonna throw it in your face on day six. And the problem is, if you have three chocolate ice creams in the can at 200 million dollars a pop, you’re screwed. So you better start figuring out ahead of time how to be disruptive.”
As the co-director of four Marvel movies, Russo knows what he’s talking about. Fan expectations grow with each new entry in the MCU – so much so that Marvel Studios must constantly break its own glass ceiling to please its fanbase. So the Marvel movie formula needs to be disrupted and tweaked occasionally to keep it fresh.
Russo’s quote couldn’t be more apt, then, for Eternals, the next movie in Marvel’s Phase 4 slate. It’s a film with all of the right ingredients: an Avengers-esque line-up of superheroes, an all-star cast, an Oscar winning director in Chloé Zhao and a creative, novel vision that sets it apart from its predecessors.
What’s not to love, then? Well, a lot of things, judging by the film’s critical reception.
Currently, Eternals holds a 61% rating on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. To put that into context, Eternals is considered to be the worst MCU movie to date. Read that again: the worst. MCU movie. To date.
As things stand, based on its average score, critics think that Thor: The Dark World – believed to be the worst Marvel film ever, which led to director Alan Taylor stating the backlash made him “lose the will to make movies” – is a better MCU flick than Eternals. The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2 and Avengers: Age of Ultron are also viewed as far superior films.
And yet, as someone lucky enough to see Eternals ahead of its November 5 release, I can’t grasp the absurdity of how poorly received Eternals has been, relatively speaking.
Marvel movies need to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant and remain at the top of their game, and we’ve already seen examples of this on multiple occasions.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the first MCU film that the Russo brothers directed, was a superhero flick dressed up as an espionage thriller. It hadn’t been done in the MCU before and, following the period setting of Cap’s first MCU runout, it made Chris Evans’ supersoldier feel subsequently fresh and innovative.
Cosmic entries including Guardians of the Galaxy, as well as fantasy-style flicks like Doctor Strange, also helped the MCU to branch out into different genres. Black Panther, too, was a celebration of Black communities, traditions and cultures, with Wakanda adding a new dimension to the fiction. Even Thor: Ragnarok breathed new life into the God of Thunder’s MCU series with its 80s-style, comedic elements – that didn’t seem possible after Thor: The Dark World.
So Marvel has previous for switching up its moviemaking formula. Sure, from a structural standpoint, MCU films haven’t changed much: they’re still humorous, action-heavy, heartfelt at times and comprise three distinct acts.
What does change, though, is how each director or head writer chooses to tell these stories. They determine how their MCU film is shot, written or edited. And they decide on each movie’s tonal or aesthetic differences. This constant reinvention through the use of different storytellers, albeit with Marvel’s in-chief creative team keeping a tight hand on the steering wheel, keeps the Marvel movie formula fresh.
Eternals is no different. It pushes the envelope of what a Marvel movie can be through its storytelling and visuals, as well as offering a teasing insight into just how little of the MCU we’ve actually explored.
I’m not only talking about Eternals from a representation or inclusivity standpoint here, either. It’s vitally important that the world’s biggest cinematic universe is more reflective of the world around it. So it’s pleasing that Marvel Studios continues to diversify its predominantly white, cisgender male superhero line-up, albeit slower than expected.
But the scope of this film is what’s exciting. Eternals is ambitious in how its story spans 7,000 years of human history. It’s visually arresting in its use of different color palettes to set the tone for various scenes. Moments of joy or celebration are vivid and brightly lit, while more serious scenes are gloomier affairs made up of paler or faded hues.
Eternals’ numerous real-world locations not only give it a global appeal, but also bring a grounded, natural and realistic feel to its tale. And, when it does need to go more cosmic, such as when the Eternals talk to the Celestials, the sheer scope of these sequences present a universal depth that outstrips what we’ve seen in any Thor, Guardians or Avengers flick.
Sure, there are missteps. Some decisions made by the Eternals are a tad silly, while a few hard edits are noticeable early on in the film. We’ll dive into some other niggles in our review early next week.
But Eternals shouldn’t be belittled for trying something new. Nor should Zhao be criticized for tackling a superhero movie, even if it’s a far cry from her previous projects. Directors should push their own boundaries, too, so Zhao shouldn’t be singled out for branching out into new territory.
Maybe critics’ opinions on sites like Rotten Tomatoes shouldn’t be taken as gospel, either. Maybe Marvel fans should wait to see Eternals for themselves and, in what would be an ironically amusing twist, its audience score may outweigh its critical score. After all, another comic book movie – 2018’s Venom – is adored by most Rotten Tomatoes users, whereas critics universally slammed it.
I get it: people don’t like change. I didn’t like how Zack Snyder altered the ending to his 2009 Watchmen movie adaptation. In July, He-Man fans were furious with the direction that Netflix and Kevin Smith took that franchise in for Masters of the Universe: Revelation, too. As a result, even though Revelation: Part 2’s trailer looks like it’ll rectify Part 1’s errors, some He-Man fanatics won’t be tuning in to watch it.
To suggest that Eternals is the worst ever MCU film, though, is simply wrong. Sure, it takes some big swings that some viewers may be unimpressed by, but they represent a necessary effort to bring something unique to the traditional Marvel movie formula. If every MCU film was made in the same way, fans would get bored quickly, their box office hauls would fall, and the MCU would eventually die off.
Marvel Studios took a big risk with 2008’s Iron Man, which paid off. It took another major gamble by bringing the Avengers together in 2012: an ensemble movie that similarly wowed audiences. And, until March’s re-release of James Cameron’s Avatar in China put it into first place again, Avengers: Endgame was the highest-grossing movie of all-time. Not bad for a company that’s made its name on risky endeavours.
Eternals deserves the same treatment. Yes, it’s a high-risk entry in the MCU, but it has to be. We need originality and ingenuity in movies, including Marvel films, and Eternals provides that in spades. It seems, though, that this very same creativity isn’t what most critics want from a Marvel movie – and I can’t fathom why.