Director Chloé Zhao has made history in two drastically different ways this year. In April, her film Nomadland, starring Frances McDormand as a woman who tries her hand at becoming a modern-day nomad, earned Zhao Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. This made her the first woman of color to ever win Best Director, and the second woman overall to do so—11 years after Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker in 2010.
However, this month Zhao made history in a not-so-great way: she’s directed the ONLY Marvel movie to have a “rotten” score on Rotten Tomatoes. Talk about your highs and your lows.
If you’ve seen Zhao’s previous films, like the aforementioned Nomadland or The Rider, then you know they are gorgeous to look at and deeply contemplative, but they’re not exactly what one would call fast-paced. So I was curious to see what in the heck she would do with a big-budget superhero movie. It turns out, not anything new, and not much interesting. I think the source material may have been part of the problem.
Based on the comic book series by Jack Kirby, who also created the X-Men, Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk for Marvel Comics, Eternals follows wayyyyy too many characters, each with different powers that I am not going to list out here because it would be the longest sentence of all time. You have: Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Druig (Barry Keoghan), and Gilgamesh (Don Lee). In addition to ten characters being hard to keep track of, most of the Eternals don’t have names that tip you off or remind you of what they’re known for. Like Kingo can, um, harness celestial energy, and Makkari—who’s deaf—has super-speed.
There’s also a clunky backstory explaining why the Eternals have been sent to Earth to watch over humankind since 5000 BC … but aren’t allowed to actually help in any way—unless it’s to protect humans from Deviants, which are these nearly impossible to kill, hell-hound-looking beasts. The Eternals last defeated all of the Deviants in the 1500s, so they’ve since settled into various versions of “normal” life on Earth. Until Deviants start surfacing again in the present day and kill one of their own.
I think besides there being too many characters to keep track of or really care about, my main issue with Eternals is that I found its “villains” really boring. In general, I like when superheroes are battling against each other or some formidable foe who can actually, you know, talk. But when it’s just these wolf-like creatures bounding around and trying to eat everything in sight, I don’t find that very compelling. I felt like I was watching a cross between the X-Men with its uniquely powered mutants, and Justice League, whose “bad guys” were … alien parademons.
It was also hard to feel connected to Eternals’ group of characters because I knew nothing about them going into this film. Whereas if you think about how Marvel led up to 2012’s The Avengers, they had already introduced audiences to all of the characters who make up the Avengers team, through either dedicated movies or cameos across 5 films starting 4 years prior.
What I do think Zhao handled well, however, and what ended up being Eternals’ most stand-out scenes to me, are the quieter moments between characters. From the ups and downs of the long (really long) relationship between Sersi and Ikaris, to Phastos’s sweet home life, to Sprite’s frustration at never aging out of her tween body.
So while Eternals was a letdown overall, it does have some redeeming qualities that I think make it eventually worth a watch on a rainy day. But by the end of its two much-buzzed-about end-credit scenes, I felt much less positive about the MCU’s future than I did after seeing the amazing Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.