What ‘Eternals’ Means for the Future of Marvel

What ‘Eternals’ Means the Future of Marvel

Disney’s pandemic theatrical hot streak continues following the release of Marvel’s “Eternals” over the weekend, which net $71 million at the domestic box office following similar opening hauls for Marvel titles “Black Widow” and “Shang-Chi” earlier in 2021.

Disney’s 19th film set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Eternals’” success is no major shock to the system. If there was any pre-pandemic trend likely to roar back to life following the widespread shutdown of cinemas due to COVID, it was certainly the MCU’s domination of theaters, and with the four top film openings of the pandemic tied to Marvel properties, that’s already transpired.

But “Eternals” is fairly unique within the Disney MCU canon. An ensemble film, it introduces 10 heroes to the franchise in one fell swoop who haven’t appeared in prior MCU films. It also hails from writer and director Chloé Zhao, who took home best picture and director at the 2021 Oscars for “Nomadland,” an arthouse film about modern American nomads in the desert whose star, Frances McDormand, won best actress as well.

Both these aspects have lent themselves well to marketing “Eternals.” Still, the film is the lowest-regarded MCU film from Disney among critics to date, per review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

With a franchise as robust as the MCU, it’s tough to determine if reviews really matter much now. Before the last two “Avengers” installments in 2018 and 2019 cemented Disney as the box office leader for these times, there were noticeable impacts tied to critical reception.

2013’s “Thor: The Dark World” was once Rotten Tomatoes’ lowest-scoring MCU film from Disney and had a more muted opening to show for it. Then Taika Waititi, known at the time for well-praised films like “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “What We Do in the Shadows,” was tapped to helm 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok,” which received rave reviews and opened more than 40% higher than “Dark World.”

Then there’s “Black Panther.” Other first-time MCU entrants like “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Doctor Strange” saw modest openings amid high praise, but 2018’s “Black Panther” remains both the most well-received MCU film and the only such entry built around a single hero to open at the scale of the ensemble-driven “Avengers” movies.

Released in 2019, “Captain Marvel” bucked this trend. Despite lower critical reception, it was still a top box office earner and comes in second behind “Black Panther” in terms of openings for new franchise entrants after 2012’s “The Avengers.” Bridging the gap between the last two “Avengers” films, “Captain Marvel” provided more background for the MCU as a whole and the big “Endgame” finale for “Avengers.” 

Superhero films generally play well to filmgoers seeking big-budget action, but the fabric of the MCU is knit around continuity-conscious fans who stay on top of all franchise entries, be they theatrical tentpoles or Disney+ series.

With “Eternals,” Disney now has a weekend’s worth of survey and social media analytics to sift through with regard to the film’s 10 titular Eternals. Perhaps star Richard Madden regained some momentum from his “Game of Thrones” days and is a subject in mind alongside co-star Gemma Chan for a smaller filmic follow-up – or, Kumail Nanjiani’s turn as in-film Bollywood favorite Kingo gets such treatment.

Likewise, if audiences responded well enough to the chemistry between Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos and the character’s husband, a Disney+ series focusing on their domestic life could be in store. As for the other Eternals, there’s nothing stopping Disney from placing them in supporting roles spread out among its upcoming slate of MCU films and series.

Some may have seen the critical reception to “Eternals” and decided to skip it, but could end up scratching their heads in confusion when every character from this film shows up in other films and series — requiring them to go back and watch the movie for necessary context.

As such, “Eternals” is primarily a bum-rush injection of characters to a franchise that is still figuring out the right combination of leading characters to set a path forward after the core “Avengers” cast was disassembled in 2019.

With the Disney+ Day showcase set for Friday, don’t be surprised if Marvel has already jumped the gun and plotted out such a canonical future for its newest batch of heroes.