When the trailer for Eternals dropped last week, it seemingly answered a big question: What would a Chloé Zhao Marvel movie look like? The director of the Oscar-winning Nomadland, a road movie about America’s ignored class of Amazon workers and roving population of people experiencing homelessness, was expected to bring a more human touch to big-screen superheroics. It was shot in-camera on actual locations, Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige reportedly proclaimed to a room full of executives. But to say the trailer is that far outside the realm of what we’ve seen from Marvel before is a bit of a stretch. Does this movie look so alien to the cinematic universe that contains Thor: Ragnarok and Guardians Of The Galaxy? Regardless of what Zhao has in store—whether it be a sprawling centuries-long epic in which characters echo through time a la Cloud Atlas or just the long road to baby Thanos—the trailer used footage that wouldn’t agitate even the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most casual fan.
Despite the movie’s obvious aesthetic connection to the rest of Feige’s empire (not to mention its cast of A-list movie stars and beefed-up comedians, and its gold-encoded, computer-generated magic), it’s still the “next big test” for Marvel—“The Ultimate Test Of The Marvel Brand” as a Forbes headline put it. Everything is, and always was: The press has been identifying these supposed trials for Marvel since Marvel started making its own movies. Way back in 2008, Iron Man tested whether Robert Downey Jr.’s star-power could carry a B-list character. 2014, Guardians Of The Galaxy: Can a Troma veteran get the world into a talking raccoon no one’s ever heard of? (“Many are seeing the film as the first major test of the Marvel brand,” wrote the New York Post.) Avengers: Endgame tested whether or not Oscar voters would go for a Marvel movie (a headline from A.V. Club contributor Robert Daniels: “The Academy Awards’ Endgame Test”). Every movie is a new test for the studio, and each time they pass. They have nothing left to prove.
To call the Marvel experiment an overwhelming success is an understatement. The fact that so many of these movies fall within the same ballpark of quality, which is pretty-good-to-great and rarely, if ever actively bad, is more than enough for any studio to hang their hat on. But Marvel isn’t being tested at this point because there are no real tests for a company like Marvel. In a sense, they’re a bit more like Apple than a conventional movie studio. The loyalty for the brand and their batting average keeps people coming back, even when there’s a slight dip in quality. But it’s time to stop pretending that a company with all the money in the world is risking it all when they’re putting out another movie about gods reshaping the world around us.
So what would that test actually look like? As a start, it would require a Marvel movie outside the genre. Clearly, what they do is superhero movies, and that’s fine. They’ve managed to include some winks and nods at different types of movies (’70s paranoia thrillers for Captain America: The Winter Solider or high school comedy in Spider-Man: Homecoming), but they still feel undeniably Marvel. Here’s a challenge: Can Marvel make a Spider-Man movie without Spider-Man? Can they turn the terror of living through an Avengers event into a street-level human drama about New Yorkers surviving bombardment? If they have to use existing I.P., why not an Endgame follow-up about Marvel’s first openly gay character: “Grieving Man,” as he’s credited on IMDB. Already the title Grieving Man poses an interesting predicament for Marvel’s formidable marketing department—but if you think for one-second that I wouldn’t go see a Marvel movie called Grieving Man, you’re out of your mind.
One risk Marvel could take is with its name. Marvel’s known for movies based on its expansive roster of characters. But what if they started using all that talent they’ve cultivated over the last decade and a half and let the filmmakers make something else? Let Chloé Zhao make her next movie under the Marvel label, and keep the “one for me, one for you” agreement in-house. Joe and Anthony “Grieving Man” Russo released Cherry on Apple TV+ a year after they delivered Marvel the biggest movie ever. Surely, Feige could’ve ponied up the cash and gave it a big marketing push. Regardless of quality, it certainly would have, at least, tested what people think of when they think of Marvel movies.
Ultimately, for Marvel to truly be tested, they would need to actively antagonize their audience. They would need to strip away all that robust infrastructure, release-date dominance, and storytelling formulas that have made them such a success. Realistically, they would need to make a movie without Kevin Feige. He’s the secret sauce here. His curation results in movies that people feel comfortable in and want to return to. And even then, it would probably take two or three movies for audiences to notice that a change occurred.
The problem with the notion of “the next big test for Marvel” is Marvel is a little too big to fail. Their track record excuses any box office hiccups—of which there are very few, and you’d have to squint to see them—and their stockpile of cash makes for a comfortable safety net. When they want to experiment, they do it on TV. On television—specifically their parent company’s personal streaming service, Disney+—they can get wild in their formal interests, like WandaVision’s sitcom pastiche and the timeline-patching hijinks of the upcoming Loki. And when things don’t work out the way they hoped, those attempts can be easily disowned or ignored. Even when working within the Avengers timeline, all of those Marvel Netflix shows were cast away, even after Jessica Jones won a Peabody. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. only ended last year, despite its very tacit connection to the overarching world. It doesn’t really matter when things don’t work out because a failure, or even a perceived failure, can be minimized, buried by something much bigger with a more expensive marketing blitz.