When Oscar–winning Nomadland director Chloé Zhao was chosen to direct Marvel’s latest attempt at reinvigorating the Marvel Cinematic Universe post–Endgame, fans were quick to express their excitement at the implications of such an incredible talent. However, when Eternals was released on Nov. 5, 2021, Zhao’s blockbuster quickly became one of the most divisive films that the franchise has ever seen, receiving the worst CinemaScore grade in the MCU’s history. Now, for all of its cinematic charm, Zhao’s ambitious entry into the MCU may falter in its attempt to deliver the witty, action–packed narrative that longtime fans are accustomed to; but does the film really deserve worse reviews than any of its recent counterparts? 

Eternals follows ten humanoids—Ajak, Ikaris, Sersi, Thena, Gilgamesh, Kingo, Druig, Makkari, Phastos, and Sprite—who are sent by the Celestial Arishem to protect humanity from the Deviants under false pretenses. After the last Deviant dies around the year 1500, the group splits up and largely lives their own lives among the human population. Now, five centuries later, they must reunite to stop the Emergence, an apocalyptic event that threatens to wipe out humanity, in order to save the planet. 

The film itself is an ambitious venture. Zhao takes on the strenuous task of introducing ten dynamic characters, and to her credit, the character work isn’t quite where the film falters—in fact, it’s one of its most impressive attributes. The star–studded cast, which includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Angelina Jolie, Lauren Ridloff, Brian Tyree Henry, Kit Harington, and Kumail Nanjiani, are brilliant in their roles. The subtext of each of their performances provides a new layer to their respective characters in the limited time they have to shine. 

That isn’t to say it’s perfect. Each character is complex; however, it’s exceedingly difficult to build a world of the magnitude that Zhao is attempting to convey in two and a half hours. Eternals boasts one of Marvel’s most inclusive casts to date. Ridloff’s Makkari, for example, is the franchise’s first deaf superhero. Additionally, the film features the first gay relationship in the MCU, between Phastos and his partner Ben. However, these groundbreaking characters receive far too little screen time. It's easy to say that the film may have worked better as a Disney+ show where each of its characters could truly be explored. As is, it relies heavily on necessary exposition that complicates its pacing.

Likewise, Zhao’s signature cinematography is stellar—the film’s location shots are gorgeous and only work to enhance it. Each shot inspires a sense of realism that is distinct to this film. Despite its creative swing, however, Marvel’s CGI requirement still manages to worm its way into the storyline, and the movie’s otherwise gorgeous composition is cheapened by cookie–cutter action sequences that, though visually stunning, feel out of place. Thematically, it’s brilliant; but its ambition to rebuke the Marvel gambit falls short because it largely sticks to the expected formula.

For 13 years, Marvel has relied on a foolproof blueprint that consists of groundbreaking CGI, sharp wit, Easter eggs, and grandiose setups. Its record of 25 consecutive “Fresh” scores on Rotten Tomatoes is unprecedented. But, how long until this recipe starts to leave a sour taste in our mouths? Eternals may highlight the flaws of the MCU formula more boldly than prior Phase Four (Black Widow to present) efforts; however, the flaws of Black Widow and Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings can also easily be attributed to the franchise’s expectations, even if they’re marginally better projects. 

All of these films particularly struggle in one area: constructing a satisfying villain. Each of their emotional stakes are frustratingly devalued for the sake of the storytelling structure that requires half–baked CGI monsters and takedowns. It’s flashy, it’s grand, but is it worth it if it strips a story of its emotional setup? Zhao’s film is full of potential and its creative slant offers great hope for Marvel’s future; but is it enough under the backdrop of recycled plotlines that ax its originality?

Now the MCU formula isn’t particularly a problem within itself—these flashy battles and post–credit scenes are signature and addictive. In fact, Phase Three (Captain America: Civil War to Spider–Man: Far From Home) of the franchise managed to vary tone and genre in a way that made each take feel fresh. However, Phase Four’s films have largely failed to do the same; they desperately cling to a blueprint that they should feel free to subvert. It can be hard to escape the Hero’s Journey trope, but it’s easy to argue that the final showdown doesn’t always have to be a CGI–fest. Eternals proves that natural visuals can be just as stunning, so why slash them? Marvel’s money–making method is the most tried and true, but it may be time to change the narrative.

Overall, Eternals is a conceptual masterpiece that buckles under the weight of its own ambition. MCU movies are inherently predictable, and for all of its originality, Eternals falters in that it largely still follows the same format of every Phase Four film. Projects such as Black Widow and Shang–Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings have fallen victim to plot fatigue. These projects are exceptional in their own right, particularly the latter, but Marvel’s fear of character–driven narratives has hindered them in more ways than one. Eternals is a step in the right direction, but the franchise has to commit to the risks it takes.

Eternals most certainly isn’t as “rotten” as critics claim (after all, Thor: The Dark World still exists), but it isn’t its best effort. For all of Zhao’s gusto, Eternals biggest problem is that it still follows the same structure beneath its surface. It’s standard. Every perspective that Eternals plays with is unique, but its overarching narrative is convoluted—it isn’t too artistic to be a Marvel movie, but it’s too artistic to hinge on the same format. It begs the question: How much does a winning idea matter when you rehash the same plotline time and time again?