Part of what makes superheroes super is the aura of invincibility. Armed with mythic powers, they’re the last line of defense when more fallible folks fail humanity.
It wouldn’t be much fun to watch superheroes in action, however, if they didn’t have at least some vulnerability. With the release of Eternals last Friday, Marvel Studios, the long-dominant force for cinematic superheroes, finally revealed an Achilles’ heel of its own.
Eternals, the much-hyped 26th (!) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), debuted to the worst reviews in the franchise’s history (48% on Rotten Tomatoes), the MCU’s worst-yet CinemaScore rating (a B, one notch below Thor’s B+ in 2011), and lower-than-expected box office ($71 million, down nearly 10% from already-lowered earlier expectations.) As of this moment, the film is by no means a straight-up flop. It’s already grossed $90 million on the increasingly crucial international market, and it may get a bounce from Thanksgiving audiences or late-breaking contrarian word of mouth.
What is certain just from the opening weekend, though, is that Eternals is not a win for Marvel, and it may have a lasting impact on the studio’s plans for the future.
The third film in the MCU’s Phase IV, Eternals tells a story that should feel familiar to fans of Netflix’s 2020 superhero movie, The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron. In it, divine entities known as Celestials created a group of immortal beings called Eternals, who are tasked with safeguarding the human race, and a separate group of immortal beings called Deviants, who are tasked with being necessary antagonists for some reason. This isn’t a review, so fortunately I do not have to expend keystrokes explaining who all 10 Eternals are and what powers they have. (On the latter score, just about any random guess would prove accurate for one or two of them.)
The cast is high-profile—featuring Angelina Jolie, several Game of Thrones alumni, and Gemma Chan—and Eternals was helmed by Chloé Zhao, who won multiple Oscars directing this year’s Best Picture winner, Nomadland. On paper, it sounds like a blockbuster with brains, the latest line-drive right down the plate for the Marvel juggernaut.
So what went wrong?
The pandemic is undoubtedly a factor, but people have proven themselves willing to leave the house for a hot superhero movie recently, with the Marvel adjacent Venom 2 scoring a COVID-19 era-high $90.1 million opening just a month ago. The runtime is a bladder-testing 2 hours and 37 minutes, longer than most of the Avengers movies, but audiences showed up in record numbers for that three-hour finale, Endgame, in 2019, so that can’t be what kept more people away this time.
Here’s what did.
Marvel was simply due for a miss
It was bound to happen sometime. No franchise gets to its 26th entry without incurring a little wear and tear, and only so many superfans will automatically come out for every single MCU outing without engaging their critical faculties whatsoever beforehand. Marvel Studios achieved something no one else ever had before with its overarching, interconnected superstructure, but just on a statistical level, the franchise was overdue for a bomb, if not an outright fiasco.
Marvel exhaustion is real
Marvel fans are never left hungry for long. They have an infinite supply of comic books, digital content, and podcasts to tide them over between MCU projects. Lately, though, that in-between time has shrunk to nearly nothing.
Eternals is the third MCU movie in 2021, with the fourth one, Spider-Man 3, due in about six weeks. Before then, fans will be treated to the debut of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, the fourth MCU series to debut on Disney Plus this past year. The deluge of premium Marvel projects was already difficult to keep up with for casual fans before this all-new set of interwoven series began trickling out on a new platform. Now, it’s just overwhelming. Highly acclaimed and widely viewed as new series like WandaVision and Loki have been so far, perhaps Eternals is the first real indication that even Marvel fans have a saturation point.
Too many heroes at once
Watching the endless, aggressive marketing push for Eternals—which made it feel as though the film was arriving imminently every day of the past six months—casual Marvel fans were left with one question: Who the hell are the Eternals and why do I care? The most apt comparison in the MCU is 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another deep cut from the comic books, with a whole new team needing introduction. But the most obvious difference between the two—it would take far too long to unpack the tonal differences—is that while Guardians boasted five new heroes, Eternals has a full 10.
That’s too many!
Even people who have already seen the movie are likely to have trouble keeping straight which one is Druig (Barry Keoghan) and which one is Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and what powers they have. Not to mention that all the powers on hand are so superhero boilerplate as to be scarcely distinguishable from one another. In one scene, a child in the universe of the movie calls out the similarity between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Superman. In response, Ikaris quips, “I don’t have a cape.”
If a superhero movie has to hang a lampshade on the samey-ness of its superheroes, perhaps it should consider simply being a different and altogether better superhero movie?
Tenuous connection to the larger MCU story
Another major difference between Eternals and Guardians of the Galaxy is that the latter had far more connections to the larger story at hand. Both the plot and characters driving it were carefully woven into the Infinity Saga, which ended with Endgame. While Eternals is the fourth MCU movie released since then, the next overarching plot has yet to be revealed, so audiences have no idea if and how Eternals factors into it.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which came out in September to surprisingly good box office numbers, features a similarly lesser-known hero from the Marvel vault and a similarly self-contained story. However, Shang-Chi at least has appearances from a character essential to the Doctor Strange wing of the franchise, pointing toward future possibilities, while Eternals, outside of its many post-credits scenes, merely references the existence of other Marvel characters, in a cringey attempt to account for why the Eternals never stepped in to help during the events of Endgame.
What might be next for Marvel
Now that Marvel has incurred its first major letdown, its architects may decide to retool elements of its strategy. They could pump the breaks on the pace of product rollout, and limit the output of series and films per year. They could decide to stop recruiting hot indie directors to bring a touch of prestige to their blockbusters, although that seems unlikely given how Destin Daniel Cretin (Short Term 12) and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) have recently delivered the goods (Shang-Chi and Captain Marvel, respectively.) If more Eternals movies had been in the pipeline before, they might now be jettisoned over to Disney Plus instead of theaters. The possibilities are as endless and varied as the Marvel canon itself.
While the brand’s leaders would be wise to do a thorough forensic analysis in the wake of Eternals’ relative crash-landing, though, the studio obviously has no need to panic.
The MCU is a uniquely and historically successful phenomenon that could withstand several subpar releases before having to do any kind of major overhaul. In the near-future, Marvel is back to basics with rabidly anticipated new Spider-Man and Doctor Strange movies on deck, and the MCU-ification of the Fantastic Four just over the horizon, along with Mahershala Ali’s take on Blade.
Just because the mighty Marvel Studios has shown itself to be capable of weakness, does not in any way mean it has lost its powers.