What If… We Unpacked Chloe Zhao’s Eternals?

  • by

Eternals isn’t the worst MCU movie by a longshot; that’s still Iron Man 2 or The Incredible Hulk. But it’s a mess, albeit an inclusive and well-meaning mess. At two hours and thirty-seven minutes, it feels both too long and too short, especially with about 10 new characters to introduce, and a slew of narrative threads for future MCU entries to take up.

One of my main thoughts after seeing it was that I might have liked Eternals better as a show. A story spanning several millennia may lend itself better to longer-form serialized storytelling. That seems obvious in hindsight given the success of WandaVision, Loki, et al, though Eternals was months in development before Disney+ was even announced. As a movie, there are so many missed opportunities given the scope of this story and what these characters could be.

Counterfactual history is fun. There are countless stories about the events as we know them turning out differently, both in lived history and in fictional canon. Going through my issues with this well-meaning mess of the movie, it got me thinking what if we What If’d Eternals?

[Major Spoilers for Eternals Below]

 

What If… Eternals Was a Series Instead of a Movie?

On paper, most of the arcs and motivations of various characters generally work, yet so much is truncated to fit into two hours and thirty-seven minutes. It feels like reading bullet points instead of a novel. Obviously more space to tell this sprawling story could have helped explore the lives of these super-powered immortals.

Sprite (Lia McHugh) was given short shrift in the film, but a series would flesh her out beyond the “Not Growing Up Sucks” trope. We could also unpack Druig (Barry Keoghan), who’s spent the last few centuries mind-controlling a village and acting like a cult leader. Yeah, Druig did a WandaVision, but not out of grief (he’s just a dick), which brings up a fascinating contradiction that goes unexplored. Druig breaks from the rest of the Eternals because of the group’s refusal to prevent genocide, colonialism, and other human atrocities. But what is generational mind control of an indigenous population, if not colonialism persisting?

And maybe we’d see a better choreographed and more authentic Bollywood dance sequence than the half-hearted one that appears in the film, which verged on Bollywood parody. Not like I’m a Bollywood aficionado, but I was hoping that scene would play more like a celebration of another culture’s cinematic tradition. Not so much. Given, Kumail Nanjiani is not a dancer, and apparently only had a limited time to prepare for the sequence, but maybe playing up his limitations while surrounded by more seasoned performers could have been funnier. It may even be a good character moment for Kingo, who’s skirting by on name recognition/faux-nepotism rather than making an effort.

In a show, maybe Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) would be given something more to do. Think of where the Eternals are when they try to get the band back together. Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) found love with a mortal and is raising a family; Sersi (Gemma Chan) has been hiding out as a history teacher; Druig lords over a jungle village, etc. But Makkari? She’s just been reading in a spaceship buried underground, waiting for the third act to happen. Ridloff is such an underutilized presence in this film, and it’s a shame her character doesn’t get a better spotlight.

A series could also be beneficial to the Deviants, who are such generic CG monsters devoid of personality or motivation. There’s a hint of potential solidarity between our heroes and villains that’s not explored. They have a common enemy in the Celestials, after all. To the Celestials, both the Deviants and Eternals are mere buttons on an Earth-sized Tamagotchi. What does it mean to be the playthings of amoral gods, and what would it look like if the angels and rebel angels wanted some payback? But that would mean treating the Deviants like actual characters rather than an excuse for the requisite action beats. There are 10 characters vying for attention already, and too little time as it is.

However, if Eternals went from the big screen to a streaming service, the biggest trade-offs would be scale and star power. Instead of a globetrotting on-location shoot, there’d likely be more reliance on the Volume a la Mandalorian. How much would Marvel have to pay Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek to be in a series instead of a film? Would bona fide movie stars like Jolie or Hayek even want to do Disney-exclusive prestige television? For that matter, would Chloe Zhao even be interested in doing a show? The movie version of Eternals was marketed on the talent involved. What happens if the marquee names are no longer there? But I guess that becomes a bigger question about the MCU brand after 13 years, and if that brand is more important at this point than the people behind and in front of the camera.

At the very least, Disney+’s Eternals would be better than Inhumans.

 

What If… The Sersi/Ikaris Romance Wasn’t So Boring?

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

Ikaris (Richard Madden) may be the biggest charisma vacuum in the entire MCU. For 95% of his screen time, he drains all life from the film. When he eventually flies into the sun, my only thought was, “Why didn’t you do this sooner and spare us, you fiend?” And yet Ikaris is part of the primary relationship in Eternals, which is also part of two love triangles.

And gosh, how absolutely boring both the main romance and the two love triangles are.

Sersi and Ikaris suffer from a tell-don’t-show sort of love (i.e., the script told us they love each other, therefore…). Sersi seems torn up about Ikaris coming back into her life, yet she hasn’t been with him in centuries (and she probably has her reasons). Chan and Madden both look good in natural light, posing in a way that people in love are supposed to pose, but it feels more like statuary than any living, breathing complicated relationship. Sprite’s longing for Ikaris is similarly something we are told but not shown. Again, that speaks to how little of Sprite’s desires and interior life are explored in Eternals beyond a few overt declarations.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

As for the love triangle between Sersi, Ikaris, and Dane… eh. Who really cares about Dane? Seriously. Dude’s there at the beginning, shows up in a video call mid-film, and then pops up at the end because he’s going to be the Black Knight. It feels like there is more care in how Dane-as-IP fits into the bigger cinematic universe than where any emotions fit into these relationship. If anything, Sersi sure has a type: hot boring white dudes.

And Sersi herself is unfortunately pretty boring. She arguably has the coolest powers in the entire film (matter transmutation), but she barely gets to use them. Rather than sculpting the material world with her limitless imagination like a scientist-turned-artist, Sersi spends the majority of the movie acting helpless and indecisive. It’s a waste of Chan’s screen presence, and a shame that a compassionate protagonist is written as such a shrinking violet.

The much-touted sex scene in Eternals is brief and passionless. All pleasure seems replaced by an air of dutiful efficiency; sex as exposition dump. You can’t expect much in a PG-13 movie, but there could have been some sense of enjoyment. Yes, Chan and Madden are two very attractive actors, but they are together because of a screenplay, not chemistry.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

So many other relationships and expressions of love in Eternals are better than the contrived sort of love that takes center stage.

Compare Sersi and Ikaris to the smoldering attraction between Makkari and Druig. We get just a few seconds of glances and smiles, but they’re the familiar glimmers of two people who are uncontrollably into each other. It’s an unexpected pairing, and that might be what makes the magnetism between the actors shine. Makkari and Druig smile at one another in a golden bath of sun as their foreheads press softly like swans; Makkari tilts back and smiles at the warmth of Druig’s approach, a tree leaning toward sunlight. Both of these moments are sexier and more intimate than Sersi and Ikaris solemnly coupling in the desert at twilight.

Sersi and Ikaris? They engaged in intercourse.

Makkari and Druig? Oh, they fucking.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

And then there’s the domestic bliss of Phastos, raising a family in the suburbs. There’s such joy in that family that I would have loved to see more of. It would be nice to get to know Phastos’ husband and son (Haaz Sleiman and Esai Daniel Cross) with a bit more detail than the shorthand of the film. I also wonder about any relationships Phastos had in the past. What if this is the first time he’s settled down?

And I feel like there’s a melancholy dimension to explore with Phastos’ family, which gets at what it means to live forever and love someone who won’t. Phastos will watch his husband grow old and pass away, and also his son. What does loss feel like for someone who won’t die? Is there sadness in this eventual loss, and is that sadness outweighed by the beauty of finding someone who really gets you and vice versa? And what does the mortal side of the family feel about this gentle, supportive demigod who loves them?

Phastos is essentially saving the world so that his husband and son can experience a few more decades of life. This is more of the philosophical and emotional depth that Eternals glosses over.

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

I also couldn’t help but notice the tenderness between Thena (Jolie) and Gilgamesh (Don Lee/Ma Dong-seok). It’s not necessarily a romance, but there is such a history of affection in that relationship that surpasses the film’s two love triangles.

In their glory days, Thena and Gilgamesh are happy to be around each other; if not lovers, then the best of besties. Now, Gilgamesh is Thena’s devoted caretaker while she struggles with an immortal malaise called mahd wy’ry. There’s such an endearing rapport between them, a deep fondness in their mutual gaze, and such comfortable familiarity when they’re close together. And like any warm-hearted person, my man Gilgamesh bakes.

They remind me of older couples in which one partner has a degenerative condition, and their spouse is there for them, no matter what. It made me think about one of my relatives currently experiencing dementia. Her husband and adult children guard her from loneliness, and by their presence help remind her of the person she is, and of her name, and that she is loved.

 

What If… Eternals Felt More Like a Chloe Zhao Movie?

Screenshot: Sony Pictures Classics

Eternals has some moments that look like Zhao’s previous work, particularly in the way people inhabit the frame, and the way they’re lensed in the muted beauty of natural light. And yet the film never quite feels like her previous work. The shots don’t linger on the screen as long; we don’t get an opportunity to ponder a tableau and what it may reflect about the subject’s interiority. The clock wouldn’t tick quite so fast in a series, and that ability to hold on a shot and sustain that mood would probably bring out the richer qualities from Zhao’s more intimate films.

Zhao’s movies up to this point have been about the textures of people’s lives, verging on pseudo-documentaries since she often works with non-professional actors. Eternals is such a departure since it’s about immortal space gods punching things, and yet there’s potential. These heroes are the living source of world myths, and Zhao’s movies have examined and deconstructed the mythic iconography of Americana (cowboys, the frontier, the American dream). Then again, the dialogue in Eternals is so stilted and bland, that it leaves little room for Zhao to capture unexpected moments. To put it another way, the humanity in Zhao’s films comes from her skills as an observer of other people living their lives. Yet so much of the dramatic weight of Eternals is the opposite of this, and Zhao’s lens catches just how much of this movie is inartfully manufactured.

On that note, it turns out the Makkari/Druig relationship (you know, the good one that people want more of) was improvised. In a press conference for the film, Ridloff noted that the implied romance wasn’t so apparent in the script. Zhao added that there were sparks between Ridloff and Keoghan when they first met, and she encouraged the actors to improvise together. There it is. Something living, something naturalistic, something that just happens between people. There are certain things that cannot be planned ahead of time and simply have to be caught as they happen, but that may be antithetical to the rigid structure of the MCU.

An Insider video on the MCU’s pre-visualization process suggests many action sequences are mapped out before a director is even selected for a project or the script is completed. Even comedic or dramatic beats are mapped out well ahead of time. This reminds me of when Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel (one of my favorite directors working today) was offered a chance to direct Black Widow. Like Zhao, none of Martel’s work syncs up with the MCU house style. In an interview with The Pioneer, Martel noted that Marvel was looking for a woman behind the camera to work with Scarlett Johansson on her character, yet they made a somewhat patronizing comment about Martel working on the action: “Don’t worry about the action scenes, we will take care of that.” Martel remarked, “Companies are interested in female filmmakers but they still think action scenes are for male directors.”

Despite Martel’s misgivings about the process and its implied sexism, Zhao told IndieWire she was able to work with the previs/postvis artists and their tools to sculpt the action sequences. “My God,” Zhao began, “for a year and a half, three times a week for a couple hours a day, I was sitting in front of a big screen making decisions for every detail of how visual effects could look in the real world.” And yet despite that, I feel like the action in Eternals is still very similar to the other pre-visualized action in the last decade of MCU movies. (That may be why the Jackie Chan-esque bus fight in Shang-Chi is an anomaly, and why I was less enamored by that film’s finale full of mostly unmemorable CG monsters.)

Maybe certain sensibilities slot into the MCU better than others. James Gunn and Taika Waititi have more visible fingerprints on their MCU films, but they fit better into the quippy, zippy aesthetic established over the course of a decade. Edgar Wright famously worked on Ant-Man for years, yet left due to creative differences. He summed up that tension in an interview with Variety: “The most diplomatic answer is I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” Wright added, “I was the writer-director on it and then they wanted to do a draft without me, and having written all my other movies, that’s a tough thing to move forward. Suddenly becoming a director for hire on it, you’re sort of less emotionally invested and you start to wonder why you’re there, really.”

With Eternals, I wanted to see a Chloe Zhao movie, not an MCU movie first and a Chloe Zhao movie second. But that was never going to happen. Why did I expect something that would never be on the menu? Maybe because I hungered for it so badly.

I want to see Zhao take on another big project in the future, but something weightier, more personal, and where she has more control over the rhythm and path of the story she wants to tell.

 

What If… I’m Just Experiencing Mild-to-Moderate Marvel Fatigue?

Image: Myriams Fotos, Pexels CC license

I might have a case of Marvel fatigue, and I sense others have it too. Even Uatu the Watcher is thinking, “Yeah, No Way Home is gonna be cool, I guess, but I’m more interested in seeing The Matrix Resurrections and Parallel Mothers.”

Unless the formula and feel changes, Marvel fatigue will grow given the sheer glut of content getting pumped out in the next few years. As of this writing, these are the scheduled MCU movies and shows from the end of 2021 through 2023:

Hawkeye
Spider-Man: No Way Home
Ms. Marvel
Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
Moon Knight
Thor: Love and Thunder
She-Hulk
Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Secret Invasion
The Marvels
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania

Symptoms of chronic Marvel fatigue may include the following after reading the above list:

Sighing
Groaning
Headache
Teeth grinding (bruxism)
Eye rolling
Nausea
Vertigo
Fainting

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

COVID-19 set MCU releases back a year and change, but I wouldn’t mind more of a reprieve that wasn’t dictated by an ongoing global health crisis. Maybe a year with just two movies and a show rather than the forthcoming deluge. Of course, that’s a foolish thought. It’s like me going up to the leviathan of capitalism and saying, “Hey, dude, can you just cool it already?”

Maybe part of my Marvel fatigue is the inescapable discourse, and watching people become personally invested in the MCU’s financial and critical performance. But why should we cling to a cultural juggernaut so strongly, like the fate of an international brand is our own, and the praise it garners embiggens us while the criticism it draws wounds? And why should anyone take something called “the Tomatometer” so seriously? You say “to-may-toh-meter,” I say “to-mah-tahm-etter.” What if… we called the whole thing off?

Mostly I keep asking myself how can I miss something that never goes away? Maybe it’s on me to take a step back from this gargantuan IP monolith—the MCU as Celestial; just picture Arishem with mouse ears. The MCU dominates pop culture, but the world is bigger than the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with so many other movies to watch, and books to read, and life to live. Maybe Makkari’s got the right idea: kick back, read some books, and just show up for the MCU when it works for you.

Hope Hawkeye does a good Pizza Dog episode, though.

 

What If… There Was No Eternals Adaptation?

Screenshot: Marvel Studios

The Eternals are no one’s favorite characters. To me they feel like also-rans when compared to Kirby’s more beloved New Gods. A Manichean anti-fascist space opera > Chariot of the Gods/“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…” There’s a lot of fun to be had with third- and fourth-tier heroes (see the success of Guardians of the Galaxy), but Eternals feels like it’s in a shared-universe holding pattern, setting the stage for its own sequel, other upcoming MCU properties, and basically killing time before the more anticipated revamps of Blade, the Fantastic Four, and the X-Men.

Zhao is so good at finding people in her films, and yet the script for Eternals side-steps her skills as a filmmaker. By the end, the Eternals still felt like archetypes, tropes, ciphers, and sketches; the idea of people rather than people. It says a lot that the anticlimactic final shot of Eternals isn’t of the title characters embarking into space but of boring old Dane, Sersi’s barely-seen boyfriend, gawking at the sky. The shot is mostly there so you remember Dane exists before his post-credits sequence. The two post-credits sequences in Eternals introduce Pip, Eros, and Black Knight. Like the Eternals, none of these characters are anyone’s favorite either.

Had the pandemic not happened, I wonder what it would have been like for Nomadland and Eternals to be in theaters at the same time. What would the discourse have been like? How many pieces about auteur theory would there be? How many debates about authorship in a studio-driven motion picture? Nomadland couldn’t exist without Zhao, but it pains me to say that Eternals often feels like it could have been made by anyone capable of an occasional Terrence Malick pastiche.

Maybe some time down the road we’ll see how Eternals kicked the Fantastic Four and X-Men movies into motion, and how it helped get Kingo a Disney+ show, and how, when you really think about it, the first movie was the just laying the necessary foundation for its superior sequel, Eternals 2: The Search for Curly’s Gold. But for now, in the present, not knowing what’s to come, it feels like a lot of unrealized potential. If Eternals didn’t exist, all of that MCU Phase 4 place setting would be distributed to other films and series, and the discourse would just glom onto the next Marvel product. Unstoppable change, meet immovable plus ça change.

I’m glad Eternals exists even if I’m pretty mixed-negative about the finished film. Hopefully it’s a catalyst for something different, and a loosening of the MCU’s vice-grip on all aspects of production. Fans and detractors alike want something new. There was an attempt.

In that regard, Eternals’ greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: what’s most important is what it may be setting up.

Hubert Vigilla really does say “to-mah-tahm-etter,” and wouldn’t mind reading books in a spaceship for a few hundred years as long as there was decent wifi. What if… you followed him on Twitter?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *