The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been knocking around for some thirteen years now, and this week sees the release of its 26th theatrical film. It is an enormous element in pop culture, not just in the USA where the films are made but genuinely on a global level. It is an impressive achievement, but it is clearly going to be harder and harder in the future to maintain audience interest in the films and for those films to keep the general level of quality that has made them so widely popular.
There are three key problems that I can perceive. The first is the long-term risk of audiences tiring of the superhero blend of science fiction and fantasy. There was a time when westerns were all the rage, but they fell out of fashion. There was another time when you couldn’t toss a coin into a cinema without hitting a slasher flick. Both these genres remain today, but neither is as popular as they were. It is unlikely they will ever be. Sooner or later, the superhero market is simply going to move on.
The second risk is that constructing a shared universe requires an unfortunate amount of homogenisation. Those original Marvel Studios features – Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America: The First Avenger, and Thor – all presented varied styles of tone and genre. Once all four were collected into a single movie (2012’s The Avengers) those same tones had to be crudely hammered into a single format and the same visual and narrative cadence. Since then Marvel’s films have increasingly adopted similar plot structures, aesthetics, and senses of humour. It helps to unify the overall franchise, and it results in bona-fide knockouts like Avengers: Infinity War, but it does risk wearing the audience out sooner or later.
Finally there is always the risk that sooner or later Marvel Studios will green-light a new film that simply doesn’t capture a mass audience’s attention. To an extent the overall Marvel brand has deflected this issue for some years. Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel were hardly household names, yet both were the kind of global hit that other studios are increasingly only dreaming about. Marvel still have some high-power IP sitting in the queue, essentially all of the X-Men and Namor the Sub-Mariner, but getting an audience on-side purely on corporate brand and not specific character interest is always going to be much harder.
I thought about all three problems while watching Eternals, the latest Marvel Studios feature. It is, as noted above, the 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is not a bad film, but it is an unsatisfying one. It feels less like a narrative feature and more like commercial content: a means for Marvel’s owner Disney to continue dominating global box office for a few weeks until their next product rolls in. Not that I am against commercial product. I have always been an enthused fan of Disney, but their Achilles’ heel is their sheer corporate nature. When one of their blockbusters allows room for a directorial vision and a modicum of originality, they regularly make some of the best mainstream entertainment in the business. When they reign that creativity in, the sheer quantity of money and committee-based thinking becomes crystal clear. Eternals comes from director Chloé Zhao, who previous film was the Academy Award-winning Nomadland. You would be hard-pressed to recognise her style here, any more than you could recognise Cate Shortland’s behind Black Widow or Jon Watts behind the recent Spider-Man movies. It is that homogenisation effect in play: while Marvel Studios continue to exercise such a strong authorial hand over their films, they are essentially wasting opportunities in hiring some outstanding talent.
The film has an insurmountable problem shoehorning its premise and characters into the MCU. The Eternals are not a popular set of characters among comic book fans. They have never been adapted to other media before, so the general audience has likely never heard of them. To present their obscurity on an understandable scale: there have been 53 issues of Eternals published by Marvel Comics. This compares to about 625 issues of Iron Man, 735 issues of Captain America, and even 110 issues of Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel Studios have never previously released a film based on a property so untested with audiences, and so obscure with them too.
This problem is compounded by there being a team of 10 new characters to introduce, each with their own separate personality, super power set, and names. On top of that, they have an origin and set-up so comparatively complex that it takes several paragraphs of scrolling pre-credits text and a running time of 157 minutes to fully explain it.
The story, in broad terms: all-powerful aliens known as the Celestials manipulated the development of countless planets, including the Earth. When a plan to speed up evolution using their own engineering species the Deviants failed, the Celestials created the Eternals to travel to each planet and wipe the Deviants out. On Earth, 10 Eternals have lived among humanity for 7,000 years – but after completing their mission 500 years ago they are faced with combating the Deviants once again.
Eternals is slow. Much of its running time is devoted to the team – who largely have not seen each other in centuries – getting back together. This is interspersed with a series of flashbacks that illuminate the characters and explore why they separated in the 1500s. Eternals is also a weirdly lonely picture. The characters spend a lot of time talking about humanity and the human race, but very little time around them. By-and-large they don’t fight any characters, simply monsters. The scale of the story is huge, and involves nothing less than saving the entire planet, but it is a very empty vista that is being saved.
Apart from a few uncomfortably inserted references to the broader MCU, this is probably the most self-contained MCU film since Iron Man. The most awkward link comes when the film tries to explain why, if the Eternals have lived on Earth for 7,000 years, they failed to intervene in Avengers: Infinity War. There is an answer, but it is necessarily a woolly and unconvincing one.
Of course there are some thing we can almost take for granted with Marvel movies. Eternals is never less than absolutely beautiful to look at, with strong cinematography by Ben Davis and stunning design work in both costuming and visual effects. The flashbacks offer wonderful set-ups of everything from Aztec-era Mexico to the hanging gardens of Babylon. The cast is also top-notch. Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie offer the star power, but the heavy-hitters here include Gemma Chan as Sersi, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, and Lauren Ridoff as Makkari. It is fantastic to see Marvel Studios cast Ridoff, a deaf actor, as the MCU’s first deaf superhero. It feels progressive, but also natural. The film also boasts the MCU’s first openly gay superhero too, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, although as with Disney’s Jungle Cruise it is hard not to notice that the character is always one or two judicious edits away from being straightened (one has to keep those homophobic markets happy).
This is not the worst film in the Marvel Studios stable, although I am sure debate will rage on about what precisely is the worst. It is, however, the least interesting. There are good ideas here, and they have visibly been put together by very talented people. The film’s problem is that it is always too much or little, and never quite the right amount. Too many characters, too little plot, too many flashbacks, not enough action, and too much conversation. It looks and sounds so much like Marvel generally, but then is too separate from that ongoing narrative to make such a choice worthwhile. It will probably still be a commercial success, since Marvel Studios seem to be such a runaway freight train in theatres, but my gut feeling is a lot of viewers will have forgotten most of it by the time the next Marvel adventure comes along. (Which is in about six weeks, by the way. Marvel Studios really are out of control.)
Two brief notes for the hardcore Marvel enthusiasts. Yes there is the debut of another fairly obscure Marvel hero, although they will slip by most viewers. Yes there is at least a mid-credits bonus scene. It meant very little to me, but apparently if you’re 20 years younger than me it will make you scream enthusiastically.