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The Eternals trailer suggests even Oscar winners can’t escape Marvel’s drab visual rut

Nomadland filmmaker Chloé Zhao was hailed as a bold choice to direct the forthcoming MCU blockbuster. But, writes Louis Chilton, the first trailer teases more of Marvel’s bland, homogenised house style

Tuesday 25 May 2021 17:46
Grey skies above: An unedited screenshot from the Eternals teaser trailer
Grey skies above: An unedited screenshot from the Eternals teaser trailer

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 26 times and, well, maybe it’s time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Last night, the first trailer for Eternals was released. The 26th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Eternals is notable for the involvement of Chloé Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland. Despite having just three other features to her name, Zhao is already a respected presence in the industry. Marvel has worked with vaguely “auteurist” filmmakers before – Taika Waititi, Ryan Coogler and James Gunn, for instance – but Zhao was by far the studio’s boldest hire, a rising star of the indie world with no experience directing for the mass market.

Since the release of Iron Man in 2008, the MCU has taken in over $22bn in box office returns alone. It contains six of the top 20 highest-grossing films ever made, and three of the top 10. It has radically altered the way film studios operate, driven mid-budget adult fare to the brink of extinction, and pushed what was once “nerd culture” defiantly into the mainstream. And yet, this is not enough. It is not enough to simply be popular: you must also be respected. Zhao’s attachment to the film was enough to intrigue many Marvel sceptics. The hope – maybe even, among some giddy optimists, the expectation – was that she could infuse the boilerplate Marvel formula with the depth, beauty and creative idiosyncrasy that has so far mostly eluded it.

While Marvel’s detractors often chalk their deficiencies up to substance (or a lack thereof), the fact is that the franchise’s failings are often more to do with style. The studio has built its success on a bedrock of aesthetic consistency; other than a couple of half-exceptions (Gunn’s somewhat more colourful Guardians of the Galaxy films), the Marvel films have been subject to a rigorously standardised house style. Some have described it as “desaturated”. To others, it’s just “grey”. Marvel is far from the only one doing it (dull, de-saturated colours are the new standard in Hollywood), but it is one of the worst and most influential offenders.

With The Rider, Zhao showed a flair for the visual, for capturing both landscapes and people with style and confidence. The hope was that she could bring this same panache to Eternals, splashing a bit of soulful blue over Marvel’s bleached white skies. Now I know what you’re going to say. It’s only a two-minute trailer. How could I possibly form a strong opinion based on that? But come on. With its flat, lustreless landscapes and drab CGI designs, it sure does look like a Marvel film, doesn’t it?

The trailer shows off Eternals’ distinguished cast (which includes Angeline Jolie, Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, Brian Tyree Henry and Richard Madden), and gives a brief précis of the backstory: the Eternals are a group of benevolent immortal beings who arrive on Earth in ancient times and avoid meddling in human affairs. Until now. It’s hard to get much of a sense of the film’s tone, or characters, but there are some shots of beaches, fields, and characters standing rigidly in awkward symmetrical lines. 

For some reason, the footage went down a treat with many viewers, who described it as “beautiful” and “stunning”, and even compared it rather straw-graspingly to the work of Terrence Malick. Others were less impressed (they do say we all see colours differently, I suppose), and grumbled about the return of the grey-washed colour palette, the familiar Marvel look. Given that Zhao used frequent MCU cinematographer Ben Davis (Doctor Strange; Captain Marvel) as her director of photography, the trailer’s aesthetic perhaps shouldn’t come as too great a surprise.

I know, I know: it’s far too early to say whether Eternals will be good, whether Zhao can in fact subvert or augment the old Marvel formula, shape it into something new and surprising. But the trailer is enough to repel sceptics. If this is our first look at a deeper, more soulful, more artistically authentic MCU, then it could have fooled me.