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Is Eternals Really The Worst MCU Movie?


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The critical response to Marvel's Eternals has been disappointing to say the least - but is Chloe Zhao's Eternals really the worst of the MCU to date?

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Warning: This article contains spoilers for Eternals.

Chloe Zhao's Eternals is a beautiful, character-rich story - but sadly, its weaknesses mean that it's arguably, if not the MCU's worst film to date, then certainly the most frustrating. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been one of Hollywood's greatest success stories, and until 2021 the MCU had enjoyed a perfect "Certified Fresh" record on review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes. All that changed with Chloe Zhao's Eternals, which has the MCU's lowest critics score to date. Just like Thanos, there's a sense in which a poor Rotten Tomatoes score was inevitable; sooner or later Marvel would produce something that just didn't quite work or, at least, that was so divisive it left people divided. As is often the case, the audience score for Eternals is very different from the critical consensus; at the time of this writing, there's a 33% difference between the two, with an audience score of 81%.

All this means discussion about Eternals in its opening weekend is very different to the kind of conversation Marvel Studios is used to. The critics are unimpressed, and elements of the fanbase are on the defensive. For all that's the case, though, bad reviews and a mixed buzz don't seem to have stopped Marvel from continuing the success story in the box office, with Eternals performing well over its opening weekend - although it remains to be seen whether it will suffer a steeper than usual drop in its second weekend. Box office analysts such as Forbes' Scott Mendelson fear it could be all downhill from here, because Eternals' opening weekend is dependent on pre-booking and die-hard fans, and word-of-mouth is likely to have more of an effect once the immediate hype has died down a little.

Related: Eternals' Hiroshima Scene Shows The Danger Of Marvel's Real World Retconning

But is this fair to Chloe Zhao's Eternals, an MCU movie unlike any other? Sadly, many of the critics are making fair points - ones that point to flaws with the core concept itself, along with an unusually rushed production that meant many of these issues weren't resolved. It may not be the worst MCU film to date, but it is arguably the most disappointing in a number of ways.

Eternals' Characters Are Compelling - But Underdeveloped

 

Chloe Zhao is rightly celebrated for the strength of her character work and for her attempts to create a strong sense of authenticity in the characters she brings to life on the big screen. That effect is clearly visible in Eternals, where she manages to make almost all the Eternals feel three-dimensional even though she's dealing with so many different superheroes. She's helped by generally excellent casting, with particular standouts including Angelina Jolie's Thena, Lauren Ridloff's Makkari, and Barry Keoghan's Druig. What's more, Eternals is a huge step forward in terms of representation in the MCU, with a diverse cast that feels refreshingly natural, and hopefully this approach will become standard in the MCU going forward. Eternals even goes so far as to finally fix Disney's huge LGBTQ+ problem through Phastos' relationship, and it's to Marvel/Disney's credit that they refused to edit out a gay kiss scene after certain countries requested it.

Ironically, though, the quality performances and the potential of the cast become something of a problem for Eternals simply because there are too many people involved. The main protagonists of Eternals are Gemma Chan's Sersi and Richard Madden's Ikaris, but, frustratingly, this is the relationship that is least interesting. When the movie is over, viewers are left wanting to know more about the hints of romance between Druig and Makkari, Phastos' home life, and how Sprite will adapt to mortality at last. It's telling that, although Kumail Nanjiani's Kingo sits the final battle out for philosophical reasons, it's easy for viewers to forget he isn't there and his absence alongside the rest of his family in the finale isn't really felt, despite him being one of the movie's standouts.

The Character Focus Sits Uncomfortably With The Cosmic Stakes

 

The biggest problem, though, is that Eternals character focus sits at odds with its cosmic stakes. By now, it's becoming something of a cliché that Marvel movies will come to a close with the hero(es) facing a potential end-of-the-world scenario. In the case of Eternals, it's easy to understand why this had to be the case, as there needs to be a threat big enough to bring the band back together again. But it misfires, as Eternals' best moments are characterized by subtlety and intimacy, moments of human (or, rather, Eternal) interaction that hint at deeper stories yet to be told. That lies at odds with the traditional spectacle of Marvel in Eternals third-act battle, as the Celestial Tiamut emerges from the core of the Earth. The disjunct between the emotional core of Eternals and the bombastic, over-the-top final battle means the film feels awkward and uncomfortable, as though two pieces of different jigsaw puzzles have been mashed together. In the end, the Marvel formula arguably holds Chloé Zhao and Eternals back from soaring as high as it might have.

Related: Eternals' Ending May Set Up Atlantis & Namor For Black Panther 2

Eternals' Cinematography Is Unparalleled In The MCU - But Still Flawed

 

The flaws in Eternals are all the more frustrating given the film is absolutely beautiful. Most Marvel movies are dependent on CGI, and while there's plenty in Eternals, there's a surprising amount of on-location work, particularly in the natural world. "We knew that this film had to be immersive, and we knew that there had to be a level of realism to everything, from action to the Eternals in historic periods," Zhao explained in one interview. "So we, as the audience, have to actually believe that these immortal aliens have walked the planet for several thousand years. I want the audience to discover these characters and their relationship with this planet." This further led the production team to create lavish sets that are unparalleled in the history of the MCU. When press visited sets for the Eternals' spaceship, the Domo, they were astounded at their depth and intricacy. There's a depth to the world of Eternals that hasn't really been seen before in the MCU.

Unfortunately, while Zhao's instincts are right in that she does indeed manage to make it feel as though the MCU's Eternals have a deep relationship human history and the earth, this underscores the problems with the cosmic stakes. The blend of beautiful cinematography and Celestial VFX beings seems oddly symbolic of Eternals' identity problem, and it makes the idea of a Celestial tearing out of the planet without shattering the Earth like an egg all the more jarring. It's much harder to suspend disbelief when the spectacular is surrounded by something grounded so effectively.

Eternals Sadly Fails To Live Up To Its Potential

 

Ultimately, Eternals is disappointing in that it is somehow less than the sum of its parts. There are aspects of Eternals that elevate it to the very best of the MCU - the depth of characterization, the beautiful cinematography, and the commitment to representation. But these are at odds with the overarching plot, the end-of-the-world scenario, and the looming CGI presence of the Celestials. Fundamentally, Eternals has something of an identity crisis that means it feels oddly unfinished, as though a conflict that lies at its heart has never been resolved. This likely explains the poor critical response to Eternals, with critics sensing the discontinuity.

It's likely some of these problems could have been dealt with had Marvel not rushed production. It's important to remember that Marvel's Phase 4 plans have been in a remarkable state of flux; the studio originally intended Phase 4 to begin with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, but that was put on the backburner after James Gunn was initially fired by Disney. Eternals was moved forward, with an accelerated production schedule that was commented on throughout set visits in January 2020, with cast and crew seeming astounded at the fact it was (at the time) due to come out in November of that year. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic led to Eternals being pushed back by a year, so the hurried production probably wasn't as essential as it seemed at the time.

All in all, then, Eternals fails to live up to its promise. It displays the best of Chloe Zhao's style, the character-work is tremendous, and the cinematography is gorgeous. But it is fundamentally flawed, and people wouldn't necessarily be wrong if they were to believe it deserved its current position on Rotten Tomatoes as the worst of the MCU to date. Hopefully, the poor reviews won't cause Marvel to learn the wrong lessons.

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