To date, there have been 27 films released in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (to say nothing of the TV shows) with two additional films being released later this year, three more currently in production, and about six others in pre-production that have been announced. The central gimmick of the MCU is its interconnectivity: While each film in the series tends to stand as a capable entertainment, the real thrill comes in seeing how events and characters from one film will end up influencing a future installment. Every single fan of the MCU (who are legion, lending to the franchise’s overwhelming financial success) has been trained to wait through each film’s credits to catch a preview for the next film in the series.
In contrast, Academy Award-winning director Chloé Zhao’s 2021 film “Eternals,” the 26th film in the series, gains power from its ability to stand on its own, outside the auspices of the MCU. In it, a team of ten immortal beings spend 5,000 years hobnobbing with human civilization, offering them carefully curated technological advances (the plow must come before the steam engine, for instance), and protecting them from a race of evil alien animals called Deviants. Following instructions from an ineffable space deity named Arishem, the Eternals must remain on the sidelines of any conflict that doesn’t involve Deviants, forcing them to witness generations of war horror. By the end of the film, the Eternals have come to new realizations about their mission on Earth, the motivations of Arishem, and the reason for their immortality. As mere threads in the weft of eternity, the Eternals have made their way to a place where they can finally step away from the grandness of history and just live. Revisiting them in a sequel almost seems like a disservice to the characters who long for an end to their story.
Perhaps it was its broad scope of history (a different structure for the MCU, which often focused on origin stories and tales of recruitment into a larger team) and sense of independence that left critics and fans wanting. “Eternals” currently carries a 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the lowest RT-rated film in the MCU. The next lowest-rated films in the series are “Thor: The Dark World” at 66%, “The Incredible Hulk” at 67%, and “Iron Man 2” at 72%
Chloé Zhao, in a recent interview with Empire Magazine, says that she doesn’t much care. Consensus, after all, is not the purview of the artist. Ensuring that a film is boldly commercial is more the concern of executives.
The authentic creative process
In that interview, Zhao lays down a pretty potent axiom: “I think the need for consensus is a hindrance for any authentic creative process.” The director of Best Picture winner “Nomadland” has also written or co-written all of her directorial efforts to date, and tends to follow her passions. She was an unusual choice to helm a film in one of the most commercially profitable film series in history. She continues:
“Just like it’s a hindrance for living an authentic life as a person. I have been on the receiving end of somewhat consensus, and divisiveness about my work. Neither of them has any real influence on me as an artist, because every time I’m lucky enough to create, I learn from the process. From what I’ve succeeded [at], and what I’ve failed [at].”
This is a very healthy attitude toward success and failure — that both are part of a larger learning process. Zhao also feels that the learning process is part of the individual’s growth, and not a cue to make something more commercially successful next time.
“But that learning process is a very intimate affair. Anything beyond that, for me, it’s just a part of the ecosystem that exists because of the nature of the industry we’re in. Like a flower or a rock, I acknowledge and appreciate their presence. But that’s as far as it goes.”
How much was hers?
It’s natural to assume that, when taking part of a studio-driven product — one that prides itself on a notion of studio-as-auteur — that each individual director is a mere director-for-hire, asked to move someone else’s pieces around someone else’s chess board. Zhao wants to address such assumptions directly and set the record straight:
“When people have that feeling, like they need to put order into things, they need to understand it by putting it into boxes. It is not about us, it is about them. And I say that lovingly, because they have a level of comfort [with] how their entertainment and their world — their beloved Marvel, or their beloved indie filmmaker — functions. That’s the order of the logic of their world that’s being disturbed. So I appreciate their passion, to try to make sense of it.”
But the truth is, as in all things, more complicated and nuanced, especially when it comes to art:
“The truth is that nobody is one layer. In this case, we truly stepped out of the box that I think the world put us in, and met in the middle because of our shared interests. And by truly doing that, it made a lot of people uncomfortable on both sides. But there are also people who are more comfortable with the order of their world [being] disturbed. And then they look at our love-child and go, ‘Oh! This touches different sides of me!’ I like that. So I completely understand the divisiveness coming from critics and the fans. Because when you take this to extremes that are seen as opposition — the world I come from and the world of Marvel, that has been divided in a way that’s so unfair and unfortunate — and to merge the way we did, I actually see the reaction as a testament to how much we had merged with each other; how uncomfortable that might make people feel.”
An extended period watching and reviewing films will eventually reveal that popularity, quality, and artistic daring are all mutually exclusive concepts. We live in a world where fascinating and important movies are ignored and schlock makes billions, but also a world where important movies make billions and schlock is ignored. Zhao seems to understand that ambition and ideas are vital to making an interesting movie, and that critical and commercial consensus will leave her with a less interesting work overall.
“Eternals” was doing something new and interesting with a commercial film series. Hopefully Zhao’s outlook rubs off on some of her contemporaries.