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A Marvel ‘Eternals’ movie for everyone who complains about Marvel movies

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 Movies, 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.

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 Movies Online 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.

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.