This is a preview of our pop culture newsletter The Daily Beast’s Obsessed, written by senior entertainment reporter Kevin Fallon. To receive the full newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up for it here.
In our new reality, there are life’s simple truths. Very famous, very rich people will be “immunized” idiots. Here in Pete Davidson’s New York, yet another celebrity woman will be photographed on dates with the comedy world’s most eligible tattooed noodle. And, if it’s a Friday, a new Marvel movie is premiering.
That’s barely an exaggeration. This weekend, Marvel’s Eternals is released. That comes just two months after Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premiered. Black Widow was two months before that. That’s not to mention the four TV series this year that produced weekly episodes—WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and What If…?—and the upcoming Hawkeye, out later this month.
But for this oh-so brief window, the spotlight is on Eternals, the $200 million, 156-minute (lololol) entry into Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a peculiar one in the studio’s canon. We’ve become accustomed to talking about these movies in a way that’s almost become as streamlined as the aesthetic that the universe fastidiously adheres to. Yet we don’t seem to know quite what to make of this one.
Outside of The Avengers-connected films, which turned its actors into global superstars, it features one of the studio’s most celebrity-stacked casts, with Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Game of Thrones alums Richard Madden and Kit Harrington, and Kumail Nanjiani’s discourse-igniting jacked body leading the credits. It is the first film from director Chloé Zhao after she made history at this year’s Oscars with Nomadland. It’s tracking to have, at least in pandemic-era terms, a stellar box-office debut. Yet it’s also, apparently, terrible?
According to Rotten Tomatoes scores, so take that metric with a grain of salt, it is officially the worst movie Marvel has ever released. It is the first Marvel movie to be given a “rotten” rating. The Daily Beast’s own Tirhakah Love called it “one of Marvel’s emptiest movies yet,” ruling it “all bland fight sequences, cold flashbacks, and blank faces taking in stunning vistas.”
Listen, The Eternals lost me at the phrase “156 minutes.” But hear me out: Is it really the worst Marvel movie yet? (Thor: The Dark World is right there.) Or are we just tired?
Eternals seems to exist in the bizarre liminal space between expectations and indifference.
Let’s first talk about that indifference. I’m so old that I remember when, 26 Marvel movies ago, they were call-all-your-friends, buy-your-tickets-ahead-of-time, let’s-chug-some-Red-Bull-and-go-at-midnight once-a-year events. Not only are these movies now being released in a saturated pop-culture market, competing against the roughly 300 TV shows released on streaming services each week, they are battling their own buzz.
Or, maybe, Marvel doesn’t care about that buzz anymore; a two-month half-life is now enough time to cycle through people caring about a new Marvel movie and then forgetting about it.
But I say people don’t necessarily forget about it; they get overwhelmed by it. Marvel fatigue is real. What we’re learning is that there is a treatment, too. It’s not caring about the new Marvel movie. Anecdotally, it seems that’s how many people seem to be medicating ahead of the release of Eternals.
But then there’s the whole expectations thing.
Once in a while, Marvel does something genuinely cool. The studio will actually recognize its place of power and, let’s face it, monopoly in the film industry and its influence, and take that responsibility seriously. With Eternals, Marvel seems to be listening to the conversations we’ve been having culturally… or, at least, pandering to them.
A female woman of color was hired for the director’s chair and allowed to let her aesthetic disrupt the sometimes ridiculed visual formula mandated for Marvel movies. It features an inclusive cast, including Nanjiani, Gemma Chan, Brian Tyree Henry, and Lauren Ridloff, who is deaf. There is—gather your pearls for clutching—a sex scene. Not only is there a gay superhero, but he has kids and a husband, and is even allowed to kiss him!
Then, after checking every box of what critics and commentators have said they wanted—even demanded—the movie is panned to the point of “worst ever” labels? If you listen closely, you can almost hear a Marvel executive bellowing in his office, “WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM ME??!!”
My dude, I think we just want a break.
Obviously, when you’re doing “firsts” on a scale at the level of a Marvel movie, you’re going to get side-eyed by people who aren’t satisfied. Yes, Zhao’s sunbursts and landscape shots are stunning, but are they compatible with a superhero movie? Yes, there are major strides happening in representation. At the same time, congrats to all women who look like Salma Hayek, who finally can feel validated. Then, too, there’s the question of at what cost? Marvel made Kumail Nanjiani extremely hot. And also possibly gave him body dysmorphia?
It’s about time for there to be sex in a Marvel movie. We are finally acknowledging that, beneath those spandex suits, there are pee pees and vajayjays. More—and would you believe it—the people whose lives exist on a level of adrenaline normal humans may never know would actually use those body parts after a busy day of saving the world. That said, according to my colleague Laura Bradley, the sex scene is not worth it: “Have you ever seen a 6-year-old lay a Ken doll on top of a Barbie doll and then just kind of stare at them because they don’t really know what happens next? That’s basically what we’re working with here.”
And I think we’re all tired of film studios acting like they threw the first brick at Stonewall because they dared do something as brave as acknowledge that there are gay people in the world. Hooray, the MCU’s first gay superhero! And he knows how to kiss! Also, the movie apparently blames him for the bombing of Hiroshima. So let’s all just take a minute to unpack that.
The annoying thing about the Marvel onslaught and the ensuing exhaustion is that it makes things that should be important so messy and, as reviews show, so easy to criticize. There’s the classic Hollywood cautionary tale, that if you try to be progressive and it isn’t well-received that no one will try again. That’s an obvious fear here, given the lukewarm critical reception.
But then there is the way fans are reacting. The extremists seem to be split. Some tried to “review bomb” IMDb with one-star reviews out of homophobic outrage that there is a gay character. Others have accused critics of being racist or homophobic themselves by not supporting a film that is inclusive.
Those two things would ordinarily be written off as sideshows amidst a groundswell of excitement for a tentpole Marvel movie, except, in this case, the groundswell doesn’t exist. The studio has stopped bothering with tents, so now the circus runs free. Those distractions become the story. So does the indifference.
I beg of you, then, supreme Marvel beings, give us a break. We need it. You need it, too.