I disagree with other critics all the time, and don’t generally blink an eye about it, but as soon as the news dropped that “Eternals,” the Marvel epic directed by Chloé Zhao, had received the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score (48% fresh) of any film in the 13-year history of the MCU, making it the first official “Rotten” film in the series, my hidden-agenda detector went on high alert. Rotten Tomatoes scores are, to put it mildly, not something to be regarded as if they’d been handed down on stone tablets. Yet based on that score, and much of the web chatter about the movie, and the fact that it received a mere “B” from audiences polled by CinemaScore (horrors!), a meme has set in about “Eternals”: “Worst. Marvel. Movie. Ever.” Or, at the very least, a creative debacle. If you believe, as I do, that that’s an outlandish piece of hyperbole, then you’re going to start wondering about how and why, exactly, this collective trashing came to be.
On a recent episode of The Take, my colleagues Clayton Davis and Elizabeth Wagmeister agreed that the “Eternals”-as-MCU-disaster idea was, on some level, not unrelated to the fact that the film’s director is a woman. “Anytime a woman takes on the action genre, which has been made typically for men to helm,” explained Davis, “people come down harder on that filmmaker.” I think there is much truth to that assertion. A recent example: We saw the same kind of gnashing critical overstatement when Cathy Yan directed the 2020 DC film “Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).” Chloé Zhao, fresh off her 2020 Oscar triumph with “Nomadland,” put serious things aside to play in the Marvel sandbox, and suddenly she has made the worst Marvel film ever. That’s deeply suspect. Especially considering that Zhao has such luminous technique as a filmmaker, much of which is on display in “Eternals.”
That said, if there is indeed a dollop of sexism embedded in the trashing of “Eternals,” it would be difficult to prove. So while I agree with my colleagues that it’s probably there, I’d like to offer my own theory — also unprovable, but it’s what I think — as to why “Eternals” has been treated so cavalierly.
I won’t relitigate the film’s virtues (I stand by my review of it). But in terms of the Rotten Tomatoes score, one has to ask: Really? Worse than the brain-bogglingly humdrum “Thor: The Dark World”? The cheesy-clunky “Iron Man 2”? The scarcely coherent “Avengers: Age of Ultron? Then again, even if you do agree that “Eternals” should be wedged in ahead of those, what piques my curiosity about the whole “‘Eternals’ be damned” reaction is that so many of the critics who have trashed the film are the kind of lofty cinephiles who’ve been ardent supporters of Chloé Zhao. You could say that this proves they don’t have a bias against her (or for her). In fact, you might assume that they’d be bending over backwards to salute her creative union with the MCU. Instead, I think they bent over backwards the other way — to condemn her creative union with the MCU.
But why, if my hunch is correct, would they do that?
In a strange way, the trashing of “Eternals” has happened out of a dogmatic, slightly perverse, more-highbrow-than-thou loyalty to Chloé Zhao — or, rather, to something she represents. I’m a Zhao believer (I think “The Rider” is brilliant), but last year I was one of the few critics to have a serious reservation or two about “Nomadland.” It’s a film made with awesome ingenuity and humanity, but, by the end of it, a certain sentimentality of vision sets in regarding Frances McDormand’s Fern and her stubborn allegiance to her neo-hippie life-in-a-van existence. The way I half-jokingly put it to friends was, “Sorry, but I’m too middle class to buy that ending.” And that was my honest feeling about it. I wish that feeling had been shared by more of my colleagues, but so be it. The praise for “Nomadland” was an undivided wall of rapture.
You glimpse that same wall in the trashing of “Eternals.” And here’s what I think it means. Chloé Zhao is a major film artist and, as a woman of color, a trailblazing force in the newly developing power dynamic of Hollywood. Marvel movies, which critics, by and large, are publicly blasé about and privately sick of, symbolize the opposing force: the monolith of movies as kiddified product. The MCU is the quintessential mainstream expression of the old power structure — an industry, smug in its corruption, run overwhelmingly by men, that has been feeding us a nonstop diet of fantasy since the salad days of Lucas and Spielberg. In my own review of “Eternals,” I noted that Zhao had taken her fluky and distinctive neorealist style and left it on the shelf. In “Eternals,” she’s a good soldier who buckles down, plays ball and gives in to the mass conventionality of Marvel storytelling. And I think a lot of critics look at the result and think, “They defeated her.”
There are certain enemies you can’t compromise with. And though I think the 100-year history of movies — and the future of movies, if they’re going to have a future — hinges on artists embracing the medium’s populist dimension, it’s my sense that the critical establishment today increasingly prefers to see cinema on two separate tracks: the jumbo-size popcorn movies made for a mass audience, and the smaller, more artful movies made… not for a mass audience. Chloé Zhao doing a Marvel movie, and subjugating a lot of her directorial personality to it, threatens that dichotomy. If she’s trying to work — not just literally but aesthetically — within the power structure, then she’s not fighting the power. And I think she’s being punished for that. The people whose opinions add up to “Eternals” being the “worst Marvel movie ever” don’t want to see Chloé Zhao make a conventional Marvel movie. They don’t want to see her win a battle and lose the war. They’d rather prove a point by making her a casualty of that war.