The concept of “selling out” has evolved over the past couple of decades. Which is to say, it’s now considered more of an inevitability than an unforgivable sin. Like musicians who license their songs to big-box stores or movie stars who appear in car commercials, directors who devote from three to five years of their lives to shepherding a piece of billion-dollar IP are… well, if not celebrated, certainly widely accepted for getting in on the only kind of movie Hollywood seems interested in making anymore. Some see the job as a paycheck, while others earnestly love the lore of whatever franchise pulls them into its massive embrace. But regardless of these filmmakers’ respective motivations, Marvel Studios wants them on its roster.
Fresh off stellar reviews and a triumphant awards-season run for Nomadland, which won the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars in April, Chloé Zhao is arguably one of Marvel’s best gets yet—and not just because of her pedigree. Zhao signed on to Eternals in 2018, around the same time she was shooting Nomadland, and didn’t have to be wooed into working with Marvel Studios. (Not everyone is easily lured—filmmakers who have rejected Marvel Studios’ advances include Ava DuVernay, the Duplass brothers, and Lucrecia Martel.) Zhao participated in the writing of Eternals and is a longtime fan of the MCU who took the initiative to pitch the studio on her vision for the film.
Zhao has opinions on where the franchise is going overall, and insists that the studio’s “previsualization” strategy, where action scenes are mapped out by digital artists long before they’re actually shot, did not limit her participation in those scenes. In a recent interview with Indiewire, she says that “Previs became something for me to explore ideas with,” adding that while Marvel “help[ed] [her] because I’ve never used these tools,” ultimately she was the one making decisions on “how visual effects could look in the real world.”
It should be an ideal marriage: Zhao brings a handcrafted aspect and singular vision that MCU films are often criticized for lacking, while Marvel Studios offers the resources for Zhao to make an epic on a level she was never able to before. But watching Eternals, something is off. The planets do not align. There are moments when the oxygen seems to have been sucked out of a scene, moments that confuse because you know both the filmmaker and the actors are more talented than that clunky, airless reaction shot would suggest.
Is Zhao’s style a poor fit for the MCU? Or is the way these films are shot and conceived too rigid to allow a personal vision to fully blossom? Historically, the evidence points to the latter: Martel walked away from a meeting with the studio about Black Widow after it offered to “take care of” the action on her behalf; the difference between scenes directed by the project’s eventual helmer, Cate Shortland, and those handled by second-unit crews is obvious. Similarly, Thor director Kenneth Branagh said in a new New York Times profile that his use of Dutch angles in the film “created a miniature furor. Marvel actually tried to see whether they could horizontalize them again.”
Because while Marvel wants a director whose name is well-known among cinephiles to lend its projects prestige, ultimately the studio is working with a pre-established formula that’s built around post-credit sequences and merchandizing strategies, not art. As Edgar Wright said after walking away from Ant-Man in 2017, “I wanted to make a Marvel movie, but I don’t think they really wanted to make an Edgar Wright movie.” And you can see the compromises being made between artist and studio in Eternals: Zhao’s interest in stillness and slow-burn character study remains, but it’s inelegantly peppered with the MCU’s quippy comic book wit. World-building references are shoehorned in, and the film’s much-hyped sex scene is only risqué for this particularly sexless cinematic universe.
In the end, those of Zhao’s signatures that do make it to the screen are essentially Easter eggs for fans of slow-burn festival fare. A South Dakota setting is a wink to fans of The Rider. A luminous sunset over a character’s shoulder seems made for YouTube explainer videos to pause and comment that Zhao is “known for her use of natural light.” Call it the One Perfect Shot-ization of the MCU—the digestion and packaging of artistic style for global consumption.
The lighting in Eternals—at least in those outdoor scenes where Zhao is able to do her thing—is indeed gorgeous. In a handful of scenes, sunrises and sunsets frame the film’s superheroes in glowing halos of life-giving sunlight, and a shot of Gemma Chan’s Sersi communing with the children of ancient Mesopotamia is bathed in golden rays as precious as the moment itself. Both of these scenes use visual language to present the characters as gods—symbolism that’s applied intermittently, ultimately reducing it to little more than pretty decoration sapped of any deeper meaning.
Not to mention, as A.A. Dowd points out in his review of the film, “What’s the difference in shooting a real landscape and just generating one on a laptop if it’s going to serve as wallpaper for another round of visually undistinguished comic book combat?” This is especially true in an early scene where the Eternals are called to battle the one foe they are actually allowed to fight, the slobbering extraterrestrial beasties known as Deviants, on the beaches of some ancient shore around the dawn of humanity. Mixed with the monochrome tangle of CGI that is a hallmark of MCU action scenes, Zhao’s naturalistic color palette goes to mud.
That sequence is doomed under any conditions. But later on in the film, when the heroes trek to an isolated village deep in the Amazon rainforest in search of one of their own, we get a scene that—projected under ideal conditions—has the muted beauty of a still forest just before dawn. Put in the plainest terms, that means it’s dim and shadowy. Which could also make it close to illegible in some of the chain theaters about to be carpet-bombed with Eternals screenings: A common sin of suburban multiplexes is to partially unscrew projector bulbs to save money. A note from Marvel to theaters advocating for the proper way to project Eternals—akin to how Kevin Feige advocated for Zhao to Disney—would go a long way toward proving that the studio really does care about the art, and not just the clout.
Ultimately, an MCU movie is a product, and a global one at that. Disney has a board of directors, and its members are invested in making money for the company and its shareholders above any abstract concerns about artistic integrity. Given this harsh truth, however, why even bother to recruit directors like Zhao with an established, distinctive style? Why not just use a rotating house staff of creatives, more akin to a television show?
A generous read on the situation would be that middlemen like Feige really do value the contributions of people like Zhao but are ultimately caught in a struggle between creativity and commerce. In that case, perhaps the MCU falling out of favor with critics and at the box office is the best thing that could happen to the franchise at this point. With less at stake, more could be accomplished creatively—just look at what’s happened with the rival DCEU after the tepid reception of Justice League forced the studio to re-evaluate its strategy. For the time being, however, Chloé Zhao is simply one more action figure on Marvel’s shelf.