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With Everyone Fighting Over ‘Eternals,’ What’s Next for Marvel’s Future?

(L-R): Richard Madden and director Chloé
Sophie Mutevelian / Courtesy of Marvel Studios

SPOILER WARNING: This story includes discussions of the ending of Marvel StudiosEternals,” currently playing in theaters.

“Eternals” was always meant to shake things up.

When Chloé Zhao first met with Marvel Studios about the possibility of directing the film, she was told from the start by the company’s executives that “Eternals” was seen internally as a reset button for the Marvel Cinematic Universe after the conclusive events of 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame.” It would be a way to cleanse the studio’s storytelling palate from the Infinity Saga, and set up the next decade of MCU narrative possibilities. While characters in “Eternals” do mention other Marvel luminaries (Thanos, Iron Man, Steve Rogers etc.), no one from the previous 25 feature films in the MCU makes an appearance — the first time that’s ever happened in the MCU. (Even “Doctor Strange” includes Thor in its post-credits scene.) It’s as close to a clean slate as an MCU movie has ever been.

“This was Marvel’s hope, you know,” Zhao told Variety the day after the film’s world premiere in October. “From the beginning, they told me that this film will explore the origin of the MCU, therefore redefining a lot of things. It will have repercussions to the future of the MCU.”

Divisive critically and less-than-stellar commercially, it’s fair to say that “Eternals” has indeed made quite an impact for Marvel Studios — if not quite like the company intended. But let’s not overstate things: Why else would Marvel hire a filmmaker with as singular a creative vision as Zhao — to tell a story that re-writes no less than the origins of human civilization and the universe itself — if not to shake up what a Marvel movie could be?

On a basic level, “Eternals” does set the stage for a cataclysmic event for the MCU at some point in its future. The Eternals, led by Sersi (Gemma Chan), stop a new Celestial from emerging within the Earth and destroying the entire planet. Arishem (David Kaye), the lead Celestial, subsequently appears looming over the Earth, pulls Sersi, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) into space, and announces that he will judge the fate of the entire planet on their experiences with humanity.

One would expect that, say, Bruce Banner, Doctor Strange, and the leaders of Wakanda will have some opinions about the giant, petrified corpse of a Celestial poking out of the Indian Ocean, let alone a planet-sized god suddenly zapping into orbit and then just as suddenly zapping away. It’s unclear whether Arishem’s threat to destroy the Earth was heard only by the Eternals or the entire planet, but either way, that’s the kind of high-stakes storytelling the MCU thrives on.

But “Eternals” — as a film and as a critical and social media lightning rod — poses an even more intriguing and existential question about the future of the MCU: How will its titles tell those stories?

Since its earliest days, Marvel Studios has earned a reputation, fairly or not, for sanding down its filmmakers’ singular voices to fit inside its cohesive cinematic universe, typified by the lasting sting of Martin Scorsese’s pronouncements in 2019 that Marvel movies are not cinema. It’s true that other filmmakers — especially James Gunn (with the two “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) and Taika Waititi (with “Thor: Ragnarok”) — have brought more idiosyncratic filmmaking voices to the MCU. But “Eternals” feels like an active rebuke against Marvel’s image as a superhero factory. The studio hired Zhao specifically so she would infuse “Eternals” with an aesthetic and narrative sensibility that stood apart from the rest of the studio’s output to date.

“It’s sort of a National Geographic approach,” Zhao told Variety. “It doesn’t do this crazy thing. It’s just shows you what it is, and then you immerse.” This appears to have been a happy collaboration; Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige even half-joked to Variety in April that he hoped to be talking up “Eternals” as an Oscar contender following Zhao’s best picture and director wins for “Nomadland.”

Feige can probably keep his tuxedo in storage: Fans and critics alike have found “Eternals” to be an uneasy, even off-putting mix — not quite the MCU, not quite Zhao — and have had no problem expressing their displeasure all over the internet. The reaction has effectively called out Marvel for doing the thing everyone seemed to want them to do: Give an A-list filmmaker greater leeway to make an MCU movie their way.

So will Marvel do it again? The company’s slate is already scheduled for the next two years, from Waititi’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” (due July 2022), which just wrapped, to Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania” (due July 2023) which is already in production. So any fallout from “Eternals” won’t be evident until the fall of 2023 — and whomever is announced to direct Marvel’s (as yet unannounced) next slate of movies.

It’s also worth underlining that, one, Marvel wanted “Eternals” to be different, and two, Marvel chose “Eternals” as the film to be different. Created by Jack Kirby in a limited run in the 1970s, “The Eternals” was never central to the great Marvel comics narrative. Sure, the title’s origin story for the universe has reverberated throughout the Marvel canon, but as a limited, carved-out narrative many comics fans were free to outright ignore. And, again, Zhao knew this going in.

“We get to really play and make a standalone movie, which I think is a tribute to Jack Kirby,” she said in October. “If you think about Jack Kirby’s ‘Eternals’ run, it was created very much on the periphery of these really popular characters. He was telling stories about something so much bigger through this little group of outcasts.”

Just compare “Eternals” to the next film in the MCU: “Spider-Man: No Way Home.” Debuting in just over a month, “No Way Home” is widely expected to be the highest-grossing film of the year, and the first pandemic-era release to open with over $100 million domestically. Co-produced with Sony Pictures, “No Way Home” also promises to remake not just the MCU, but Sony’s growing suite of Marvel adaptations by unleashing the looser narrative constraints of the multiverse. In fact, no matter how “Eternals” changes the MCU, the multiverse — introduced by the recent Disney Plus series “Loki” and “What If…?” — already has, by opening up an infinite number of possible strands to explore, and paving the way for versions of Tom Holland’s Peter Parker to exist within the MCU and Sony’s separate Marvel-verse.

Also, not to put too fine a point on this, but while Jon Watts has proven to be a lively director of Holland’s “Spider-Man” films, his previous output — including the indie films “Clown” and “Cop Car,” and video shorts for the Onion — had not established him as a unique cinematic voice. If anything, Watts is far more of what most Marvel Studios observers think of when they talk about Marvel’s “house style”: a highly effective and competent craftsperson who disappears into their movies.

Not coincidentally, since his inception in 1962, Spider-Man has lived at Marvel’s very center, so it would stand to reason that Marvel and Sony wouldn’t want to take a big, risky swing with such a valuable character.

And yet, Sony did just that with 2002’s “Spider-Man,” directed by Sam Raimi. A horror auteur with an unmistakable style honed over years as a no-budget indie filmmaker, Raimi brought his sensibility whole cloth to “Spider-Man” and its 2004 sequel, which is still widely considered one of the best comic book movies ever made. By 2007’s bloated “Spider-Man 3,” however, studio demands and commercial considerations had drained away much of Raimi’s voice. The movie made more money than any Spidey film before it ($895 million), but it was widely derided as an embarrassment, and Raimi left the franchise. That prompted the reboot with Andrew Garfield and director Marc Webb, which suffered from the same sense of bloat and creative anonymity, which ultimately drove Sony to its unprecedented partnership to make Spider-Man movies with Marvel Studios.

Meanwhile, Marvel Studios’ follow-up to “Spider-Man: No Way Home” — “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” — is directed by, yes, Sam Raimi. Much like with Chloé Zhao, it’s hard to imagine why Marvel would hire Raimi and not want him to do his thing. We’ll know soon enough; the film has wrapped and is currently scheduled to debut in May 2022.