Way back in 2008, a little movie named Iron Man introduced us to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Debuting the same year as Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, it featured many of the same themes as the Batman sequel: a rich, flawed superhero protagonist who relies on technology rather than superpowers to fight the bad guy; living, breathing, human villains to be taken down, and a neo– real world setting in which the laws of nature seem to be reasonably close to those in our own reality.
But while Nolan’s determination to ground his trilogy in verisimilitude barely wavered through his next and final instalment of the Dark Knight Trilogy, 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises, Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man has since been on a journey in which he fights off an alien invasion, battles genocidal, godlike extraterrestrials and even invents time travel. Before his ultimate self-sacrifice in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame, his superhero pals have included a near-omnipotent being that evolved from a Siri-style virtual assistant, various Norse deities and a number of reality-bending sorcerers and witches. It is fair to say it has been quite a journey.
Marvel spent more than a decade and more than 20 films slowly swelling to the cosmic climax of Endgame, and was rewarded with unprecedented acclaim for its intelligent, considered world-building. Even cineastes not naturally disposed towards superhero fare recognised the studio had pulled off an impressive feat, a vast spider-web of storytelling resulting in dozens of interconnected episodes, each one enriched by those that sit before or after it in the creative architecture.
It is perhaps little surprise then, that Chloé Zhao’s Eternals has received short shrift from audiences and critics alike (it bears a Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 47%) for completely failing to follow the basic set of rules that Marvel itself set in place all those years ago. Instead of gently introducing the titular alien defenders of Earth in preceding episodes, 10 of them are dumped on us all at once in the space of an hour. And just as we’ve barely got our heads around the idea that these extraterrestrial interlopers are here to protect Earth and its human denizens from the evil, monstrous Deviants, it turns out that their true task is to sit back with a bag of popcorn while a giant being known as a Celestial emerges from the Earth’s core and destroys the entire sentient population of the planet.
Perhaps Marvel felt that having already journeyed so far down the cosmic comic book rabbit hole in previous episodes, audiences would be ready for some truly next-level intergalactic nuttiness. Unfortunately it’s hard to really connect with impossibly powerful heroes, even if they have been living relatively human lives for the past 500 years, when it only seems as if you met them five minutes ago. Even the introduction of Marvel’s first gay and deaf superheroes, Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari, doesn’t end up being enough to ground the whole dazzling tapestry of superpowered silliness in anything approaching reality.
So where does Eternals go next? Marvel has made missteps before on the road to success: the 2013 Thor sequel The Dark World foolishly introduced po-faced nefarious space elves with pointy ears, yet the series was able to get back on track with Taika Waititi’s breezy and ebullient Thor: Ragnarok, which brilliantly reinvented Chris Hemsworth’s son of Odin as a comedy figure. The 2015 Peyton Reed entry Ant-Man was a fairly prosaic introduction to Marvel for Paul Rudd’s size-shifting superhero, yet the character has since grown in stature both literally and figuratively.
The problem for Eternals is that the future of the franchise seems to be out there in the cosmos. Three of our merry band, Thena, Druig and Makkari, end up spinning off into space in search of other Eternals by the time the credits roll, while a mid-credits scene suggests the arrival of the Titan Eros (brother of Thanos) might hold the key to that mission.
Wouldn’t the Eternals be better off engaging in more down-to-Earth pursuits? If Zhao’s film has any saving graces, it’s that there are some interesting snatches of characterisation amid the common or garden superhero mulch. The idea of a standalone movie starring Kumail Nanjiani’s Bollywood A-lister Kingo or even Henry’s gay dad Phastos (certainly in the hands of a genuine visionary such as Waititi) somehow seems a lot more palatable than Eternals 2: Let’s Meet Some More Blimmin Eternals.
Barry Keoghan’s Druig, with his pleasingly off-kilter moral compass, is surely a character with a Loki-like potential for terrestrial mischief-making. There is something tantalisingly comic about Angelina Jolie’s impossibly statuesque Thena and her unfortunate tendency to start slicing and dicing anything in the room without regard to whether they are friend and foe. Perhaps she could team up with the similarly unhinged (at least in his original incarnation) Hulk for a buddy flick.
And yet ultimately the problem is that (for perhaps the first time in its history) Marvel needs to find a way forward for a bunch of characters that never truly inspired that much in the first place. It’s a dilemma that rival studio DC has been wrestling with ever since the original Justice League movie failed to wow anyone ever.
The difference is that Eternals doesn’t really make an impact on the core Marvel universe in the way that Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman are essential to DC. Perhaps Zhao’s entire movie could be explained away as just the result of Doctor Strange’s eating too much cheese before bedtime, a vision of what Marvel episodes might have been like in an alternative reality if the powers that be stopped paying attention. It certainly feels, even if it goes against the studio’s natural preference for ever-evolving narratives, as if we might all be better off pretending this one never actually happened.