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Eternals and the MCU’s inability to produce compelling pluralistic content

Marvel’s attempt at their own version of a grand epic akin to The Lord of the Rings has backfired spectacularly, but it begs the question of whether the criticism levelled at the film is warranted. 

Eternals and the MCU’s inability to produce compelling pluralistic content
  • Ryan Gomez

Last Updated: 06.01 PM, Jan 18, 2022

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Marvel Studios does not make bad movies, or at least that is the general consensus with regards to the quality of films the studio has released this past decade. The partisan Marvel fandom may have also played a part in the revisionism of how some of these films were received in the past. That’s not to say that there haven’t been some excellent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) roster, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Iron Man, Avengers: Infinity War, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man: No Way Home have all been excellent additions to the superhero genre. But ever since Disney’s takeover in 2009, the vast majority of the Marvel films have followed a template with similar visuals, themes, and its trademark comedy. But what’s more concerning is that critics and audiences are more than content with the recycled ‘formulaic MCU films’ and praise them over the hills as ‘cinematic masterpieces’. For reference, the bland and cringe-worthy Ant-Man and the Wasp has the same Metacritic score at 70 as Christopher Nolan’s excellent Batman Begins. It explains why auteurs such as Martin Scorcese, Ridley Scott, and Francis Ford Coppola have been critical of superhero films released in recent years.

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals was hyped as the film that would finally break free from the Marvel mould and deliver on an epic adventure, ambitious in scale and scope, and setting itself apart with its distinctive style. Zhao, on the back of two Academy Awards, a Golden Globe, and a Golden Lion, for Nomadland, was expected to launch the MCU onto a higher plane — but it wasn’t to be. The film featured a star-studded ensemble of Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Don Lee, and even the fan-favourite ‘kings of the North’ from Game of Thrones, Richard Madden and Kit Harrington. But the star-power was unable to translate into box-office numbers. The pandemic may have certainly played a part in the relatively poor theatrical run for an MCU film, but the gargantuan success of Spider-Man: No Way Home suggests that there may have been other underlying issues with Eternals. Of course when the same critics who heaped praise on several mediocre MCU productions give it a thumbs-down, even the most ardent of Marvel fans will have second thoughts about going to the cinema hall during a global pandemic.

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To Zhao’s credit, some of her trademark wide-angle shots and certain creative decisions for the film are evident across its runtime. It even featured a sex scene which is unprecedented for an MCU film, which has 27 films in its lineup. It was also not added for the sake of it, as it works well with the story Zhao is trying to convey with regards to the relationship between Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden). The all-inclusive cast and themes of imperialism are rarely explored or addressed in any of the other 26 MCU films, and Zhao makes a relatively reasonable effort in bringing it to the forefront in Eternals. Barry Keoghan’s Druig and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos are crucial in examining several philosophical conundrums from human history and past civilisations. An argument could be put forth that Thanos’ diabolical grand design for the universe does hint at similar ideas, but a giant blue coloured alien when compared to real human conflicts will certainly be far less relatable.

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Despite the obvious changes to what one might describe as a ‘typical MCU film’, there are certain aspects of the MCU that the film is unable to break away from — the cringe-inducing comedy for instance. It gives the impression that Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige has given a mandate that all the MCU films should have at least 30% of cheesy one-liners in its screenplay. This has created a scenario where two contrasting ideas clash and it makes for a jarring viewing experience at times. In effect, it takes away some core elements of the film’s central narrative. There is also the issue of how immortal beings, who were created at the beginning of time, have specific English accents from various parts of the globe. While aliens speaking English has always been regarded as a necessary flaw incorporated for a smoother screenplay, listening to these beings speaking in Irish, Scottish, Indian, Mexican, and American accents hinges at the cusp of being utterly ridiculous. In this day and age, where several film and TV adaptations have found logical solutions to solve this predicament, this is almost a half-hearted attempt. It therefore inadvertently renders the point of adding a culturally diverse cast redundant. There is also a Game of Thrones joke somewhere in there about Kit Harrington and Richard Madden falling in love with a woman named Sersi.

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Despite its flaws, Eternals is not as poorly made as its commercial and critical reception might suggest. It certainly offers a far more compelling story than some of the other MCU productions such as Ant-Man and the Wasp, Black Widow, Thor: The Dark World, Captain Marvel, and Iron-Man 3. The filmmakers of Eternals cannot be faulted for attempting something as audacious, and its relative failure seems to suggest that the MCU and its partisan fandom is simply not ready to step outside of the bubble created by Disney.

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