One of the few upsides to the pandemic’s peak last year was that no Marvel films were released in theaters. We’ve suffered for it this year, with the arrival in close succession of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and, now, Eternals. But it was glorious to have a period of nearly two years without the deadening, soul-destroying presence of Kevin Feige’s Riefenstahlian masterplan deafening audiences in our multiplexes, and, increasingly, at home on our televisions.
But the brief respite is over. Over the next eighteen months, no fewer than seven Marvel films will fight, bite, and kick their way onto our screens, in Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Of the pictures, the only one that looks as if it might be a passably entertaining evening out is Thor: Love and Thunder, the sequel to the uproarious Thor: Ragnarok, which, thanks to its writer-director Taiki Waititi, at least exhibited an unusually quixotic sense of humor. Waititi has returned, which should ensure a consistent degree of quality, though, much burned by the MCU series, I have learned not to hold my breath.
However, salvation from Phase Five, Six, and Seven may be at hand. Chloe Zhao won a Best Director Oscar earlier this year for her film Nomadland, and so the Marvel top brass trumpeted her hiring for the Eternals film with near-hubristic glee. We were informed that this film would be the most diverse, the most inclusive, and, by implication, the most woke superhero film ever produced. After all, they had a WOC director, a cast that included everyone from Angelina Jolie (who is practically a minority in her own right now) and Salma Hayek to Kumail Nanjiani and a bewildered-looking Kit Harington. The film also boasted Marvel’s first gay kiss and first sex scene. The latter, of course, was heterosexual: Disney only likes to push things so far. There are shareholders to think about, after all.
These shareholders will probably be disappointed with the film’s critical and commercial reception. Although the film’s opening weekend gross of $71 million sounds impressive, it’s considerably less than either Black Widow ($80 million) or Shang-Chi ($83.5 million). And while the studio could argue that Black Widow attracted a larger audience because of the built-in appreciation for the Scarlett Johansson character, the other film, featuring a predominantly Asian cast, did not have widespread audience familiarity with its protagonists. Instead, it did well because it was that most reliable of brands: a Marvel movie.
The lukewarm reception given to Eternals represents the first serious drubbing that the brand has received. It has been suggested that the bad reviews stem from sexism towards Zhao, or, on the other extreme, from a sense that an Oscar-winning auteur should be doing better things with her talent than directing serviceable but anonymous entries within an ongoing and largely soulless franchise. Yet it’s also possible that Eternals is no better and no worse than many of the other films that have come out under the Marvel banner, even if its commitment to diversity has been more overt a marketing statement than before. Instead, the unthinkable may have happened: audiences are becoming bored of the whole shebang.
There is a Marvel formula that has been rigidly adhered to, even in the superior examples of the product. Get an overqualified cast and inexpensive director, lavish a thin story about saving the world with some mythical object with sarcastic jokes and state-of-the-art special effects, and let the whole package run for hours. The result, inevitably, has been profit, and no doubt will be so with Eternals in the long run, even if the aforementioned gay kiss has led to its being banned in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. But the formulaic and uninspiring pattern is showing signs of wearing thin. Perhaps if more films underperform, the almighty Feige will reconsider his company’s means of production. And if we’re really lucky, consistent back-to-back flops will result in the whole benighted series quietly disappearing.
I don’t hold out much hope for this, let alone the reinvention of cinema in its absence. Too much damage has already been done to the industry for it to return to pre-superhero and comic book movie days. But the chastening reception given to Eternals by critics and audiences alike is, thankfully, proof that this particular golden goose is showing encouraging signs of turning into a lame duck. Perhaps one day, it will be put out of its misery, and quack no more.