When Marvel Studios released the “Eternals” final trailer several weeks ago, something very rare had my attention: a title card said, “From Academy Award Winning Director Chloé Zhao.” The last time I can remember Marvel emphasized the director this much was Edgar Wright’s “Ant-Man” (Wright eventually left the project amid creative conflict. Otherwise, “Ant-Man” could be the most playful one) and Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” (the film later became the first and only Marvel movie been nominated for Oscar Best Picture). Everyone knows that producer Kevin Feige, who has led Marvel to rule the global box office and reshape the film industry for over a decade, is the guy who controls all the Marvel projects, so giving Zhao her credit is one of the most surprising decisions Marvel ever made. Turns out, “Eternals” is the most refreshing Marvel superhero movie in recent, but it’s unfortunately also the least interesting film Zhao ever made.
Before putting herself into Marvel’s production line, Zhao had only made three character-focused indie films: “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” “The Rider,” and “Nomadland,” which had just won this year Oscars Best Picture and Best Director for Zhao (there’s a joke says that the combined budgets of these three films could only cover “Eternals” production for one week). Zhao does apply her well-known visual herein “Eternals,” so you will see some stunning magic hour shots that none of any Marvel movie had ever pulled off on screen. From ancient Babylon to sunset on the shore to the landscapes shot in natural light, Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis (Marvel veteran who also shot “Doctor Strange” and “Captain Marvel”) manage to create moments of gentle stillness. Take a breath, and you can almost feel the sun’s heat on the desert or moisture in the night Amazon forest.
Even though Zhao provides her aesthetic to “Eternals,” you may still feel her limitation of blending the vision into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The creative difference between Feige and Zhao results in a beautiful blockbuster that has to unsettlingly fit into a massive franchise. The Eternals arrived at Earth 7,000 years ago to protect humans from monstrous Deviants. As Zhao and her fellow screenwriter Patrick Burleigh, Ryan and Kaz Firpo lead the audience to jump between the present-day scenes and several flashbacks throughout historical moments, our heroes begin to question the unsolved mysteries: What is their purpose on Earth? When will their mission be accomplished? And why do they hear nothing but silence from their maker for thousands of years?
Within a very long 157 minutes length, Zhao cleverly uses actions to define the characters, offering her unique personal touch with the starry ensemble including Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, and Angelina Jolie. By bringing MCU’s most diverse cast from deaf, queer, Black, Latina, to Asian, “Eternals” allows the audience really see the flesh and blood underneath the superheroes. Plus, everyone is talking about that sex scene on screen, which is unprecedented in Marvel’s lack-of-physical-intimacy world. It’s one of the wonders Zhao has offered to MCU, giving superheroes a deeper sense of humanity. You can actually feel the warmth and intimate connection between lovers, friends, and families, and that’s what makes “Eternals” stand out above the rest of MCU installments.
But in the end, do not mistake “Eternals” for “Nomadland.” Especially Feige once made a comment on Zhao’s aesthetic “…a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore… This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX… That is not just what she wanted to bring to Marvel. This is a signature style.” If Feige only sees this as Zhao’s “signature style,” then he just tells us her place as a tiny part in Marvel’s money-making assembly line.
Just like the closing title card shows “the Eternals will return,” MCU will continue to expand and explore more planets or dimensional under Feige’s supervise. Considering “Eternals” now receives MCU’s lowest score on Rotten Tomatoes, perhaps Feige will never hire a distinct auteur to drive the Marvel vehicle in the years to come. But without further ado, even Zhao doesn’t get the invitation back to the sequel, Marvel will definitely keep dominating the box office, and superheroes will keep flying above the sky. Eventually, we, the audience, have to decide whether we want to continue to consume the franchise that has been produced under a very standard process. According to the great Martin Scorsese, will you regard this as “filmmaking”?
- Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
- Production: Marvel Studios and TSG Entertainment
- Director: Chloé Zhao
- Writer: Chloé Zhao, Patrick Burleigh, Ryan Firpo, and Kaz Firpo
- Producer: Kevin Feige and Nate Moore
- Cast: Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Don Lee, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan, Kit Harington, and Angelina Jolie
- “Eternals” in theaters on Nov. 5, 2021
Read the review in Chinese