Chloe Zhao’s take on the Marvel formula : NPR
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Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios
Eternals is the latest film belonging to that great, teeming, not-so-riotous achievement in cross-platform multi-vertical corporate synergy/narrative cat-herding known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
You perhaps read the above and rolled your eyes. Maybe you muttered something unkind under your breath as well. If you didn’t, you assuredly know someone who did. That’s just simple statistics: Superhero films have become our cultural furniture; they’re the steady, unceasing hiss of universal background radiation none of us can escape.
And today, with the debut of every new film and television show, more and more prospective audience members find themselves aching to escape, to rid themselves forever of these children’s characters and their microweave pajamas and their hypertrophic musculature and their too-tidy, infantilizing morality tales.
It’s not a backlash, really, because backlash suggests a reflexive reaction driven by a sudden, overwhelming need to reject, to force out, to detoxify. What some critics and audiences are manifesting now, as they find themselves wading clavicle-deep through whatever particular numbered MCU Phase we find ourselves in, is something softer and sadder — a weariness bred by familiarity.
So it’s strangely fitting that Eternals, the latest MCU film, should take as its organizing principle that selfsame feeling of fatigue — the sort engendered by long years of observation, and the creeping sense that you’re seeing the same stories play themselves out, over and over.
The only difference, of course, is that in the film, it’s not we, the moviegoing audience, who are weighted down by that weariness, but instead a fractious, ten-member family of immortal and impossibly hot aliens who zap sinewy space-lizards with their eye-beams and finger-lasers and magic swords made out of gold filigree.
… Tomayto, tomahto, really.
Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios
How Eternals engages with the top 10 go-to MCU complaints
Even the weariest anti-Marvel zombie among us can stipulate that the studio’s hiring of Chloe Zhao to direct and co-write their latest film was surprising. Zhao’s previous movies (Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider, Nomadland) are intimate meditations about laconic outsiders and the insular communities they find as they try to secure for themselves a lasting emotional purchase, set against the vast expanses of the American West. They’re imagistic, elliptical and character-driven (don’t say tone-poems don’t say tone-poems don’t say tone-poems) odes to both human frailty and the immutability of the natural world. As a director, she’d rather frame a flinty face in golden-hour light and let her audience impute the thoughts and feelings roiling beneath its surface than fill her scripts with dialogue that lays it all bare.
And given all of that, Marvel still said, “Great, got it, good, let’s hand her a plot choked in 7,000 years of backstory and a CGI budget Michael Bay would chew his own leg off for. Greenlit!”
You’d be forgiven for assuming that Zhao’s directorial presence would get buried, caught up in the gears of the MCU machine and ground into the same uniformly fine powder that gets baked into every Marvel movie.
And it does get ground up, to a certain extent. But not entirely. And as a result, the film pushes back against the usual complaints offered up by those who harbor a performative disdain for Marvel’s cinematic output. Let’s take them one at a time:
1. Marvel movies are formulaic, anodyne, made-by-committee
Eternals doesn’t follow the usual formula — or at least, the narrative formula it does follow is one of those weird, abstract, unsolvable equations. The film utterly lacks the familiar superhero-movie feeling of plot threads neatly tying themselves up, of Chekhov’s gun finally discharging, of moments foreshadowed in the opening minutes landing at the climax with the satisfying whump of a car door closing.
Zhao’s penchant for abstraction and nuance manifests in a host of ways: The lines the film draws between its heroes and villains shift in ways that are, in the MCU at least, novel and intriguing. The plot, such as it is, doesn’t churn ahead like an engine that has been tooled, lubricated and filed down for four-quadrant success. No, it sputters, stalls and jerks forward. Yes, there are big fight scenes — many, in fact — but they’re dealt with like the lima beans you have to finish to get to the dessert Zhao truly cares about: Talking, feeling, and — especially — talking about feelings.
In the context of the MCU, then, Eternals is weird.
2. Marvel movies depend too much on backstory laid out in too many previous films for audiences to keep track of, if they hope to understand what the hell is going on
Not true here! The story of Eternals exists alongside the history (the pre-history, technically) and events of the previous MCU films. In a nutshell:
The Eternals are a group of ten immortals who were sent to Earth 7,000 years ago by an immense, all-powerful being — a Celestial, in Marvel parlance — called Arishem. They are tasked with protecting Earth — but only from one very specific enemy, a race of giant dogs/small dragons called Deviants, whose flesh is composed of greyish ropes that give them the look of cornhusk dolls from Hell. (They … do look kind of goofy, it has to be said.)
At first, the Eternals walked among humans, imparting their wisdom and offering protection via the unique abilities divided among them, including laser-eyes, super-speed, energy-fists, magic swords, mind-control, finger-rays, illusion, matter-transformation, healing, and uh … engineering. (It’s better if you don’t question things at this early stage; just roll with it for now.)
Thousands of years ago, when the Deviants were finally destroyed, the Eternals expected to be summoned home. They weren’t. So for much of human history, they’ve attempted to go underground, and contented themselves to watch as we puny humans descend into war and greed and hatred and not curbing our dogs or re-racking our dumbbells, etc. Some Eternals became disgusted by humanity’s endless, cyclical penchant for destruction, others admired our resourcefulness. All of them, however, grew weary of their mission, and of us, and of each other; most have retreated from any interaction for centuries at a time. And all the while, they’ve held to their oath not to intervene in human history, lest we, their charges, grow dependent on them, and stop evolving.
That’s the setup. Note how completely divorced that whole ennui-of-immortality theme is from issues like where the glowing MacGuffin-du-jour might be found, or how a dimensional portal filled with space-eels might open up, or whatever the hell the Quantumverse might be. Familiar heroes get name checked, yes, as do events like the Snapture (which MCU characters continue to refer to as the Blip, because they are unimaginative and super basic). But mostly, the movie cordons off its characters and leaves them to deal with their interfamilial squabbles.
Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios
3. Marvel movies are ugly-looking films that descend into dark, muddy, incoherent CGI slug-fests in the final reel
Eternals‘ cinematography is where’s Zhao’s directorial voice is most strongly and clearly felt. She bathes scene after scene in the last rays of sunsets, and places her characters small in the frame so they get dwarfed by the vast landscapes of a desert oasis, a volcanic island, or the American prairie.
She insisted on shooting in real-world locations, and it turns out you can tell the difference between a windswept beach in the Canary Islands, say, and some vast Atlanta soundstage covered in green screen. It’s easily the most gorgeous MCU film to date, and the stark, lonely beauty of the places she captures can’t help but color the mood of the film, gently underscoring the loneliness of immortal life, and the desire to retreat from the noise of humanity.
There’s a climactic big battle, of course, but it mostly plays out in the bright light of day, on a beautiful white-sand shoreline, so while what actually happens during the big fight may get pretty silly, and may involve characters exclaiming dippy nonsense like “Uni-Mind!,” you’ll at least be able to follow it all without squinting.
4. Marvel movies are emotionally arid and aromantic, with a pre-adolescent disdain of intimacy. (Read: Why don’t these insanely hot people ever bone?)
We get some hot — well, lukewarm — PG-13 boning! We get a tender, romantic same-sex kiss!
We, uh, also get an adolescent who romantically longs for an adult, and even if we’re quick to slap an asterisk on it, (they’re both immortal), it’s still pretty disquieting.
5. I don’t know or care about these Marvel movie characters
Guess what! Nobody does!*
*Okay, somebody does. You can probably find a nerd out there eager to lecture you on the difference in power-sets between Sersi and Ajak, but none of these characters have made their way off of the comics page and into the cultural ether in any meaningful way.
We’re in Guardians of the Galaxy territory, here. You’re dealing with a blank slate, effectively, and everyone else is going in as blind as you are, which means the film has to set up ten different heroes, their powers, their personalities, and their respective interpersonal relationships, from scratch.
It’s a tall order, and the film makes a yeomanlike effort. Team leader Ajak (Salma Hayek) offers motherly concern, handsome Ikaris (Richard Madden) flexes his jaw muscles, vain Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) provides desperately-needed jokes, Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is soulful and protective of Thena (Angelina Jolie), who keep going full ham on her own family, and Sersi (Gemma Chan), Eternals‘ central protagonist, radiates compassion and, later on, worry.
Zhao has never directed a cast this large, or one as studded with celebrities, and if the various acting styles on display fail to cohere, they do manage to complement each other. (Barry Keoghan’s marble-mouthed Druig, for example, clashes frequently with his super-siblings, but then: He would.)
She’s also dealing with a phenomenon unique to the MCU: Whenever an established, charismatic screen presence like Jolie plays in the Marvel sandbox, it can seem awkward, like when you’re a kid playing with action figures in your bedroom and out of nowhere one of your parents sits down and starts playing too.*
*This is known as the Secretary Pierce Phenomenon, named for that time in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Robert Freaking Redford said “Hail, Hydra.” Just, like, out loud. As if “Hail, Hydra” was an actual line that Robert Redford might say.
You might have noticed that many of the Eternals’ names — Gilgamesh, Thena, Ikaris, and also Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) — resemble names from ancient myths. That’s fully intentional, and one of Eternals’ coolest ideas: That these ten characters inspired our myths and legends. The film plays with this notion just enough, without letting it bog down the present-day action.
Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios
6. Marvel movies have too much exposition
No, yeah, that’s true here, as well. It couldn’t help to be, really, given that we’re introducing ten new characters with thousands of years of history, and a whole new set of conflicts previous films haven’t even hinted at.
For the first time in MCU history, we get an opening scroll that tosses off lots of proper nouns — weird names and capitalized terms and historical events. The film stops dead, from time to time, for beautiful people to debate the fate of the planet and their respective roles in it.
But even here, Zhao’s hand can be detected. She’s careful to tie those discussions to each character’s current emotional state, because the Eternals are a family, and they each see their mission slightly differently. Those differences breed both alliances and conflicts. Thus, the choices these characters eventually make are driven by their personal beliefs, not simply the demands of the (really pretty silly) plot which, yes, does happen to involve a ticking clock, why do you ask?
7. The stakes in Marvel movies are so uniformly desperate and dire — “We have to save the universe! Again!” — that there are effectively no stakes at all
See point one, above, in re: talking about feelings.
Yes, the Earth is doomed. It’s an MCU movie, that comes factory pre-installed.
But Eternals‘ squabbling-family dynamic means that the film foregrounds the kind of emotional stakes that will be familiar to anyone whose ever sat through a Thanksgiving dinner. These characters hold grudges and nurse simmering resentments over centuries, they argue and entreat with each other, they goad and snipe and reconcile.
Which means the film’s story — which features significantly more reveals and reversals than is typical of the MCU, and a twist you might not see coming — feels more intimate, more personal, and admits more shades of gray into the proceedings than you’re likely expecting in a film featuring characters shouting things like “Uni-Mind!”
Sophie Mutevelian/Marvel Studios
8. Marvel movies feature wall-to-wall glib, jokey banter that undercuts any tension, and makes every exchange between the characters feel like it’s been punched up by the same six comedians in some Burbank writers room
Not a looming issue here! Really not!
Kind of wish it was, though!
Most of the Eternals are earnest and open-hearted; they say exactly what’s on their minds, all the time. And as mentioned, this is one talky film, and most of the time, the talk in question centers on how someone’s feeling, or recently felt, or is about to feel.
Which makes the two shining exceptions to this rule — Nanjiani’s Kingo and Henry’s Phastos, both of whom come outfitted with the standard MCU Sardonic Quip PackageTM we’ve come to expect — seem like snarky water in a vast, parched, achingly sincere desert.
9. Marvel movies are predictable. The good guys win, the world gets saved. Lather, rinse, repeat
This is where the decision to futz with the formula by introducing so many new characters works in the film’s favor. Not every Eternal will make it through to the credits, and their various allegiances to each other will undergo a series of changes.
News flash: No, the Earth doesn’t end, but the life the Eternals have known for 7,000 years (and that we have known for 2 hours and 37 minutes, which can seem like 7,000 years if you haven’t managed your fluid intake) does come to an end.
10. Marvel movies are for children and childish adults, and they have crowded out movies for real adults
Chloe Zhao makes the kind of movies you’re talking about. She won two Academy Awards for her last one. She will make serious bank on this Marvel movie, which she has managed to infuse with her sensibility, despite a massive corporate infrastructure engineered to maintain a uniformity of output that keeps directors like her from doing exactly that.
She will take the money and the clout she made from this film and go on to make movies to your liking, having added to her skillset the successful negotiation of impossibly massive global logistics involved in MCU filmmaking, That won’t make her a better director, of course, but it will make her a uniquely experienced one — and, not for nothing, a director able to choose her next project.