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Eternals (2021)

Chloe Zhao is the biggest name Marvel has gotten yet for its cinematic universe (MCU). Sure, they’ve had major directing names before like Kenneth Branagh and Ryan Coogler, and successful populist genre filmmakers like Jon Favreau and Joe Johnston and Joss Whedon and Shane Black, and quirky auteurs like James Gunn and Taika Watiti. However, Zhao is the first Academy Award-winning director to jump into the Marvel sandbox. Zhao seems like an odd fit for something as mainstream and successful as the MCU, but she was excited to tell a big story with the biggest studio operating in Hollywood. Eternals (no “The”) is just as much about the question over what it means to be human as Zhao’s Best Picture-winning Nomadland, and it’s a lot easier to watch with one hundred percent less Frances McDormand pooping in a bucket in her van (granted, she did win an Oscar for that performance). Eternals has received the lowest critical rating of any MCU film in its thirteen-year history and I’m trying to figure out why.

Thousands of years ago, the Eternals were created by the Celestials, powerful beings that are responsible for birthing new galaxies into the universe. The Eternals were sent to protect the inhabitants of Earth from the Deviants, terrifying tendril-heavy monsters that will consume and overrun a world. The Eternals are instructed by their masters not to intervene in human conflicts; only to intervene to save them from Deviants. Now that the last Deviant has been dead for over 500 years, the Eternals have settled into comfortable lives among present-day humans. Then the Deviants return, evolving with added powers and posing a new threat to humanity and the Eternals, but the real threat might be outside the confines of Earth.

Eternals feels like a different kind of Marvel movie in that stretches feel like it’s a Stanley Kubrick movie, or a Terrence Malick movie, or a DC movie. The plot structure and tone even reminded me of Watchmen. Don’t get me wrong, the standard Marvel elements are recognizable, but this is a much slower, more methodical, more cerebral, and more challenging movie that really feels like a distillation of Zhao’s humanist indie naturalism and the crazy cosmos from Jack Kirby’s trippy source material. I can understand why some people would find this movie to be boring and poorly paced. There are extensive flashbacks and setup. It definitely doesn’t need to be a staggering 157 minutes long, second only to the three-plus hours of Endgame. Granted the movie is introducing a dozen characters, their relationships, their powers, their histories, as well as a new history for the universe that doesn’t relate to anything that came before it. There are assorted references to Thanos and the events of Endgame, bringing half the population back, but this is more a standalone movie that can serve as an introduction for those less well-versed in two dozen movies’ previously on’s. I knew going into Eternals it was going to be slow, and I knew several friends that outright hated it, but I think pacing is more to its benefit and detriment. The scenes feel like Denis Villenueve (Dune) is pacing them, where moments are given more time to breathe and where characters are given space to reflect and absorb. Like a Villenueve film, Zhao wants her audience to take in the grandeur of the moment, but she also wants the characters to be able to take in the drama of their circumstances. Some people will find it all too boring, and while there were points that could be trimmed, I was enjoying myself because of the attention to character perspectives that are given precedence over splashy beat-‘em-ups.

I was drawn in by the character reveals, their conflicts, and the time Zhao allows to examine their emotional and philosophical states. Look, it’s still a big, action-packed Marvel movie with plenty of monster fights and a world-saving cataclysm climax, and while those are agreeably executed, I was more taken by letting the characters pontificate on their problems. There’s Sprite (Lia McHugh), an eternally looking child who can never live an adult life she craves. There’s Druid (Barry Keoghan), a man with the power to control the minds of all humans on Earth but is explicitly instructed to remain hands-off with their conflicts. He is severely torn and emotionally wrecked over watching them slaughter one another and knowing he has the power to intervene and resolve genocide, prejudice, and poverty. That’s the eternal question over why a loving God seemingly chooses to be hands-off, all rolled into one character. There’s Thena (Angelina Jolie), a legendary warrior of physical renown but whose mental state is fracturing and who poses a potential lethal threat to her family. There’s her partner, Gilgamesh (Don Lee), who would rather watch over his love as she suffers and potentially declines than have her lose her identity and erase herself. There’s Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), a man who only wants to help the humans with his technological skills but regrets his contributions and declares humans as unworthy of their keep after Hiroshima. Then there’s a reveal halfway through the Eternals that loads a needs-of-the-many sacrificial debate that positions different characters on different sides of the divide for the final act. I enjoyed that even the villains are presented with their rationale and are tortured over their choices they deem to be necessary for the greater good.

I’ve written a lengthy paragraph all on the meaty character conflicts, and none of them revolve around the goal to gather a magic item or learn a special power. I didn’t mind Zhao’s movie taking its sweet time to allow these conflicts and struggles to be felt because they were evocative, and Zhao’s storytelling shines when she focuses on the noble and often tragic struggles of people being complicated, contradictory, and confusing. Even the big dumb beasts evolve and have a perspective that has an understandable complaint. The final confrontation doesn’t come down to a giant sky beam and an endless army of disposable CGI brutes. It rests upon character conflicts and a romance that spans thousands of years where empathy is the secret weapon. Early on, you think it’s going to be a love triangle, and the movie just teleports out of that trope. I found myself more invested in the ending, even if I could already predict the conclusion. I was more interested in what the conflict was doing to the Eternals as a family fracturing under the weight of their destinies and the consequences of defiance. The film ends on a cliffhanger with significant fallout, and I don’t know how the rest of the MCU is going to square what we learned and accomplished here. This seems in sharp contrast to everything down the road.

Eternals is also an often beautiful-looking movie with Zhao’s penchant for natural landscapes and magic hour lighting. The editing and photography feel nicely matched and allow the viewer to really soak up the natural splendor and the impact of the battles. The action is kept at a human level with the camera tethered to the characters even when in flight. There is the occasionally eye-opening shot of a landscape, or Zhao’s use of visual framing, or the special effects revelations that reminded me of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s certainly not the most breezy, action-packed movie in Marvel’s lengthy canon of blockbusters, but it’s not devoid of spectacle.

So then why has Eternals scored so low with film critics and a significant portion of general audiences? Some wonder if the level of diversity and inclusivity of the movie is a factor; we have many non-white characters including a deaf character and a gay male character in a committed relationship, with a genuine and loving onscreen kiss no less (your turn, Star Wars franchise), and that seems like a trigger point for certain fans that grumble about “woke culture.” I’m sure for some that’s a factor. I think the length will be a factor too. I think the elevated emphasis on emotional stakes and philosophical conflicts might be another factor. This doesn’t feel like any Marvel movie that has come before. It’s much more comfortable with silences, with patience, and with cerebral matters (again, not to say the dozens of other MCU entries were absent these). This one is just different, encompassing the directing style and humanist attentions of Zhao and looking at a far larger scope of drama than toppling one super-powered being. I saw this in theaters with my girlfriend’s ten-year-old daughter and her friend and they both said they enjoyed it, so I won’t say it’s too mature or impenetrable for younger viewers. Eternals might be too boring for some, too long, and too different, but I was happy to endure it all.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captain Marvel (2019)

Wonder Woman may have beaten her to the punch but Carol Danvers, a.k.a. Captain Marvel, deserves her own share of headlines as the first woman to have her own starring vehicle in the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Her presence was first teased in the post-credit scene of Infinity War. After twenty-one films, Captain Marvel gets squeezed into the penultimate chapter before closing the book on the MCU as we know it for a decade, and it feels like a throwback in both good and bad ways.

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), or “Vers” as she’s known on the Kree home planet, is part of an elite alien squad of “noble warrior heroes” fighting in a long-running war against another alien race, the shape-shifting Skrulls. Carol Danvers goes back to her home planet of Earth (a.k.a. Planet C-53) in the 1990s to look for a hidden weapon linked to a mentor she can’t quite remember, a woman (Annette Bening) from her past life on Earth as an Air Force pilot. Carol Danvers must try and recall who she is with the help of Agent Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and stay one step ahead from the invading Skrulls.

This definitely feels like a lower-to-mid tier Marvel entry, something more akin to the Phase One years (2008-2012) where the initial franchises were just starting to get a sense of direction and personality. They were also lacking the larger depth of character development, social and political messaging, as well as judicious independence from the overall studio formula that has come to define dozens of superhero blockbusters. It’s not a bad movie, and is fairly entertaining throughout its 124-minute run time, but it’s hard not to notice the shortcomings that, frankly, haven’t been this transparent in an MCU movie for some years now. I had to think back on a comparable MCU experience and I had to go back to 2015 with Avengers: Age of Ultron or maybe even 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. In short, Captain Marvel just feels a little less super in many important areas.

This is the first female-lead superhero film in the MCU (sorry Black Widow) and Carol Danvers has been a character in Marvel comics since 1968, and yet the film doesn’t put together a compelling case why she is the one getting her big screen moment. The character suffers that wonderfully tired movie trope of the foggy memory, so we have a protagonist trying to discover who she is alongside the audience. This would be a fine starting point for her to essentially reclaim her humanity and her agency as she travels back to good ole C-53 and learns more about her past. There’s a core of a beginning theme already present there, the nature of what it means to be human, and how it can be viewed as a weakness by n alien species and how it comes to be a strength for her. Maybe that’s too pat but it’s a start. The problem is that Carol Danvers isn’t seen to be that interesting. She’s somewhat boring and the presentation feels a tad inauthentic; when she’s quippy it feels forced, and when she’s badass it feels lethargic. There’s a personal journey that challenges her to assess her preconceived notions of good and evil in an ongoing intergalactic conflict, but it’s so impersonal. Even when she’s revisiting with friends and reminiscing (what she can) it doesn’t feel like we’re getting that much more insight than we had before. She’s a warrior. She’s upstanding. She definitely doesn’t like men telling her what she can and cannot do. But what else do we know besides her increasingly invincible super powers? What is most important to her that drives her? What are her flaws other than a faulty memory? When she goes full super saiyan it should be celebratory and joyous and instead it feels more weirdly perfunctory.

I love Larson as an actress and have been singing her praises for dramas (Room, Short Term 12) and comedies (21 Jump Street, Scott Pilgrim) for years, and I kept waiting and waiting to be wowed by her in this role. I was left unfulfilled. Larson is a terrific actress and can be so expressive, resolute, heartbreaking, and inspiring, and I grew frustrated as the movie kept her talents buttoned up for too long. She seems too removed from the action even as it’s happening in the moment. It’s not that she’s too serious (“smile more” chime the denizens of cretinous “men’s rights activists”) because her character should be serious. It’s that she hasn’t been given enough depth and interest a hero deserves.

Jackson (Glass) and Mendelsohn (Ready Player One) were my favorite parts of the movie. Watching a 40-something Jackson front and center looking like he was ripped out from 90s cinema is remarkable. The movie is at its best when Jackson and Larson are working their 90s buddy cop chemistry together. There’s a fun running joke about how Fury loses his eye with some near-misses played for comedy (reminiscent of Crispin Glover’s eventual armless bellhop in Hot Tub Time Machine) and while the film does a disservice to Carol Danvers’ character it opens up Fury even more as a person. Mendelsohn has become a go-to villain for Hollywood and the filmmakers use this to their advantage. He slinks around having a good time being bad, but there’s also a surprising turn that provides unexpected pathos and depth to what could have been a one-note scary-looking bad guy. In a movie that deserves headlines for being the first female-lead MCU entry, the supporting dudes end up having the most depth and success, which is rather odd.

Captain Marvel is missing a larger sense of vision and purpose, which is why it feels more like a throwback to those early days. Directing/co-witting husband-and-wife team Anna Bodin and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Mississippi Grind) don’t manage to have a feel for the material and for action as a whole. There are some pretty-looking sequences and some moments that strike their intended effect well, but the structure of their movie could use a bit of an overhaul. The first act, the pre-Earth return, is a bit convoluted and could be condensed. This even goes for the Kree Special Forces team (Kree Team Six?), which comprise many differentiated soldiers when really three non-Jude Law members would suffice. The Kree characters are stranded for the middle act and when they come back it’s hard not to feel disinterest. The concluding act brings the various plotlines together better with some good twists I did not see coming and appreciated. However, the climax is missing out on its triumphant jubilation because of the spotty characterization and the haphazard action direction. From the start, the action is unimpressive and poorly choreographed and edited. The chases are humdrum and the special effects are surprisingly substandard at too many turns. It’s hard to tell what’s happening in many fight scenes, and once Carol Danvers gets her full super laser-blasting powers, the screen becomes even more obstructed and even harder to decipher. Bodin and Fleck have showcased a natural feel for visual storytelling but action appears beyond their grasp for now.

Captain Marvel suffers from being asked to do too much, slap together an origin tale for the last essential character for the conclusion to a larger multi-movie storyline, also forging the beginning of the MCU timeline as a prequel for Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D, as well as some connective back-story with the Guardians universe. It has to do a lot of heavy lifting in two hours that the screenplay and characterization do not seem best equipped to handle. The humor is a bit dull and unsure of itself, relying upon certain beats one too may times, notably a cute orange cat tagging along. Even the 90s setting feels like something tacked on for easy jokes about dial-up Internet and references to Radio Shack. It feels like simple nostalgia and that goes to the soundtrack selections as well. This must have been the easiest job the music supervisor ever had for a film, having to do a mere cursory scan of 90s alternative rock for the hits. An action sequence set to No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” should have more attitude than it does. A dream/trance sequence set to Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” should be creepier and more unsettling. By the end, as the credits flash onscreen set to the guitar chords of Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” I felt certifiable 90s fatigue.

I feel like I’m piling on Captain Marvel with complaints and quibbles and presenting the impression that it’s a bad or dimly entertaining film. It’s not a bad experience but it definitely has its share of flaws that hinder the enjoyment factor. As a white guy in his thirties, Hollywood has been making movies tailor-made for me as their default setting. I cannot underestimate the cultural and personal impact this will have for millions of women and young girls who have been eagerly waiting for a big-budget movie with a strong female protagonist front and center. Wonder Woman was a cultural and commercial touchstone that might diminish the luster of Captain Marvel for some, but the MCU is its own unparalleled zeitgeist. Having a woman carry a movie in this special high-profile film universe will mean considerably much to many. I wish it was a better movie, but even lower-tier Marvel is still better than plenty, and that may be enough. I’ll look forward to see how other screenwriters and filmmakers make use of the character in the ensuing Avengers sequel coming out next month. I’ll reserve my final judgment on the character after I see how she fits into the larger picture and with storytelling talents that have shown more aptitude toward the super stuff.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

Crazy Rich Asians is a frothy mix of familiar 90s romantic comedy cliches and tropes but now with an all-Asian cast and Asian culture given a dignified spotlight. Thanks to the strides in representation, it makes the familiar feel fresh again. This is a very Pretty Woman princess fantasy story of an ordinary woman, Rachel Chu (the great Constance Wu) falling in love with a rich man who then whisks her away to his rich family home out of country and introduces her to the world of the cloistered elites, ex-girlfriends, and hangers-on and their disapproval. Much of the conflict hinges on her feeling accepted by her man’s scowling, scary mother played by the formidable Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). The two-hour running time mostly consists of a lot of blandly nice people. I think enough of these supporting characters could have been consolidated or eliminated to give more space to characters that matter. The film reminded me, in some regards, of the 50 Shades series where we jump from scene to scene to celebrate the extravagance of an elite lifestyle of luxury. It’s intended to alienate Rachel and contrast with her humble, hard-working, honest sensibilities, but after two or three of these, I don’t think it’s quite having that effect. Wu (TV’s Fresh Off the Boat) is a charming, loveable lead, and the film has fun, colorful characters played by Awkwafina (Ocean’s 8) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover trilogy), who amazingly doesn’t overstay his welcome. The production design and costumes are sensational and might even get some Oscar attention. Crazy Rich Asians is a fairly formulaic but pleasant enough movie, and the fact that an all-Asian cast rom-com is slotted as a summer movie is a positive sign. The end results are a fizzy fantasy repackaged but still entertaining and without a sense of pandering.

Nate’s Grade: B

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