Chloé Zhao certainly isn’t trying to hide behind the Marvel shield. The credits for Eternals, the new blockbuster from the Oscar-winning director, describe it as “a Chloe Zhao film”. It has a reported budget of $200m (£148m), which is to say it cost roughly $195m (£144m) more than her previous feature, Nomadland. Everyone loved Nomadland. The reviews for Eternals have been, at best, grudging, and, at worst, disdainful.
Zhao’s involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe begs the question: why on earth did she do it? She is known for elegiac, character-driven dramas with small casts, often set on the prairies and paying exhaustive attention to nature and landscape. Her inspirations are Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai, not Clark Kent or Bruce Wayne. You wouldn’t expect Jane Campion to direct Guardians of The Galaxy or Robert Bresson to make a series of Spider-Man movies.
One of the most poignant moments in Nomadland showed the itinerant traveller (Frances McDormand) in her van suffering from an upset stomach and relieving herself in a bucket. The film was personal and particular. That was its magic.
So what has led Zhao to unleash rumbling VFX-created dinosaur-like creatures (”Deviants”) to create mayhem in Camden Town, as she does early on in Eternals? Why is she interested in a big, bloated ensemble piece, set in multiple different locations and over many time periods, full of characters who wear funny costumes and who can fly or zap their enemies with rays from their eyes?
The familiar argument, always made when “auteurs” sign on to direct huge budget popcorn movies, is that they are putting their own stamp on the material. It is very hard, though, to see personal touches in Eternals. This is a movie made by a big, corporate machine, not one fashioned by an individual artist.
Yes, the film breaks new ground for Marvel. It has both a gay superhero and a deaf one. Its characters are far more diverse than when producer Kevin Feige was first cranking up his high-testosterone Iron Man and Incredible Hulk stories. There are eco themes (lots of shots of ice floes cracking and volcanoes exploding) and some powerful quieter moments, mainly those featuring Salma Hayek on her remote South Dakota ranch, which look like scenes from Zhao’s earlier films.
That’s not enough. Zhao hasn’t passed the Martin Scorsese test. Two years ago, Scorsese suggested Marvel movies were the cinematic equivalent of theme parks. “It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being,” he told Empire magazine. One very much doubts that Eternals will shake him from his view.
Zhao is far from the first auteur-style director to come unstuck on a big franchise feature. Whether it’s the bad boy of British arthouse filmmaking, Ken Russell, making the harebrained Harry Palmer thriller The Billion Dollar Brain (1968) or Rebel without a Cause’s Nicholas Ray taking charge of biblical epics like King of Kings (1961), directors known for having strong, idiosyncratic visions have been press-ganged into directing blockbusters, generally with very mixed results.
Look through the credits of both the James Bond and the Marvel series and you’ll find plenty of filmmakers who’ve cut their teeth on independent pictures made on tiny budgets. Some have done excellent jobs. Take Cate Shortland. The Australian director, previously best known for determinedly art house fare like Somersault (2004), Lore (2012) and Berlin Syndrome (2015), surpassed expectations with Marvel film Black Widow (2021), released earlier this year. To understand why her film was so effective while Eternals is such a straggly misfire, you need only look at the title. Shortland has a single main superhero protagonist (played by Scarlett Johansson); Zhao has a small army of them. Shortland’s film is tightly focused; Zhao’s is pulling in many different directions at once. She can’t develop characters in any meaningful depth.
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The traffic isn’t all one way, either. Established directors of franchise movies sometimes need to downsize to do their best work. Kenneth Branagh’s latest blockbuster for Disney, Artemis Fowl (2020),was given a very lacklustre reception. His new Hercule Poirot movie, Death on the Nile, has been sitting on the shelf for months. In the meantime, Branagh has directed arguably the finest film of his career, the autobiographical Belfast, about his experiences as a boy in Northern Ireland in the late Sixties, just as the Troubles were beginning.
The film includes a shot of a scruffy kid sitting on the street outside the local bookies, reading a Thor comic. Many years later, Branagh went on to direct a huge budget Thor movie for Marvel. He did a competent job, but Belfast, made for a fraction of the money, has an emotional kick that you simply don’t get in Marvel movies. It’s small but very special.
Jean-Luc Godard once quipped that all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl. Zhao has already shown in Nomadland that she can get by with just a van and a lonely woman in late middle age. If she wants to rediscover her superpowers as a filmmaker, Zhao surely needs to remind herself that less is often so much more.