Eternals is Marvel's most beautiful failure yet

Eternals reveals both the limits and endless possibilities of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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“My vessel so lovely, but nothing inside. Now that I've touched you, you seem emptier still.”

Written by the poet Julio (no known last name) on the NBC sitcom Friends, those words were originally deployed as an insult against both Monica and American women in general, but they might as well apply to Eternals and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The studios’ latest outing may be its most visually daring, but it quickly reveals the limits of Marvel’s formulaic storytelling.

Eternals has been heralded for its use of natural light, meaning director Chloe Zhao used the actual sun instead of artificial lighting for much of the film. The result is many beautiful moments far beyond what Marvel fans are used to seeing from the studio.

Richard Madden and Gemma Chan in Eternals.

Marvel Studios

Some of the most iconic scenes in MCU are actually pretty ugly if you think about it. Picture the airport fight scene in Captain America: Civil War, which is set completely against a grey backdrop with flat lighting. Or the final battle in Avengers: Endgame, awash in shadow and the artificial glow of various superpowers. The conflicts might be memorable, but the visuals are not.

The opposite goes for Eternals. This is a movie full of stunning scenery. Our heroes fight on unblemished beaches and rocky canyons. They live in rustic shacks on terrifying cliffs overlooking icy tundras. Even when the movie leans into CGI, it’s still gorgeous. Zhao goes so far as to recreate the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Eternals spaceship is a monolithic stone slab that looks like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Even Eternals’ greys are stunning.

Marvel Studios

Out of the sunlight, Eternals looks just as good. Zhao uses light better than any director in Marvel Studios’ history to frame her characters, suggesting complex inner lives that fail to materialize. Over a week of first seeing the movie, I can still remember dozens of shots from its 157-minute runtime. But I can barely remember a single line of dialogue.

That’s because, to put it bluntly, Eternals is boring. Its characters are all ageless space gods with nothing to lose. When a betrayal among them is revealed, it’s supposed to be a big twist, but their actions are given so little motive it’s hard to care. (I was just glad the movie could move on from the CGI monsters that dominated its first act — yet another painful Marvel trope.)

Director Chloe Zhao with Chan on the set of Eternals.

Marvel Studios

The Eternals themselves might as well be stick figures drawn over a beautiful 3D painting. Zhao is clearly more interested in creating a world than filling it with relatable characters, though the director is hardly to blame. Marvel apparently wanted to stack the already bloated cast with even more Eternals before she showed up. But even with that meager win, it’s easy to see why she’d focus on the visuals (something she can truly control) rather than the characters (who will quickly pass into another director’s hands as the MCU continues).

If the Eternals do have a place in Marvel’s bigger plans beyond this movie — they might not if the current Rotten Tomatoes trends hold — whoever writes and directs that movie will have to wholly reinvent the characters. (Is Taika Waititi available?)

Meanwhile, Chloe Zhao’s work will live on in the breathtaking images she conjured up for Marvel, even while the studio’s own habits held her back from creating something truly incredible.

Eternals is in theaters now.

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