Marvel producer Kevin Feige has indisputably changed the cinematic landscape, ushering in an era where franchises, sequels, and spin-offs are the hottest tickets in town. The science behind the superhero studio’s box-office dominance is complicated, but there are two ingredients more important than any others that have led to Marvel’s success: quality and connectivity. That formula remains unchanged, but, with Eternals, Marvel’s looking at an uphill battle that will put the franchise’s pulling power to the test.
To understand the potential struggle Eternals faces at the box office, we must look back to the very beginning. The Marvel Cinematic Universe would have never left the gates had Iron Man been a bad movie. The character was unknown outside of the comics, while Robert Downey Jr.’s public persona was still recovering. Jon Favreau, though, delivered a success story, thanks to stellar reviews bolstered by increasingly positive word-of-mouth.
The Incredible Hulk came that same year – a relative blunder considering how much more popular the Hulk and its star, Edward Norton, were at the time. An Iron Man sequel built on the predecessor’s goodwill, offering signs that these movies may be building to something bigger (that’s discounting the first Iron Man’s post-credits as no-one, minus a few clued-in comic-book readers, knew to wait through credits for a sting). The first Thor drew middle-to-positive reviews, reflected in the box-office takings, and the same went for Captain America: The First Avenger.
Marvel ascended beyond mere success to unstoppable behemoth the next year, when all five previous movies cajoled into something greater than themselves: a well-reviewed, record-breaking movie titled The Avengers. From there, the MCU truly came alive and Marvel Studios delivered blockbuster after blockbuster, each one successful thanks to either starring an Avenger (Thor: The Dark World grossed over $640 million, despite being terrible) or winning rave reviews.
You can see Marvel’s plan in action when you look at how the studio introduced new characters to the world. Guardians of the Galaxy picked up $772 million despite being about a rag-tag bunch of unknowns, thanks almost entirely to rave reviews (it remains one of the best superhero movies ever made). Ant-Man featured Anthony Mackie’s Falcon heavily in marketing materials and scored an 83% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Doctor Strange scored even higher, with 89% on the review aggregator, and Black Panther was the first Marvel Studios’ movie nominated for Best Picture. Captain Marvel came after the hero was teased in Avengers: Infinity War’s post-credits scene – now that’s one big entrance to make.
More recently, we’ve seen Shang-Chi score relatively well at the box office – not as well as Doctor Strange or Ant-Man or Black Panther, but that’s partly because there’s a worldwide pandemic going on. Still, Shang-Chi was heralded with an excellent Rotten Tomatoes score (92%) and the inclusion of recognizable characters (Benedict Wong’s Wong shows up, while The Ten Rings organization previously appeared in the Iron Man movies).
Eternals' not-so marvellous reviews...
Eternals is a different story. First, there’s a lack of obvious connective tissues to other Marvel movies. Yes, Eternals will span the centuries, offering a look at the universe’s deeper lore, but there’s no Wong or Falcon or Black Widow or Abomination to feature in the marketing and help audiences understand that it is a key component of the bigger MCU picture. Instead, the titular characters – a bunch of long-living aliens – simply namecheck Thanos (and Superman) in the trailers.
Then there are the reviews. Considering director Chloé Zhao made the Oscar-winning Nomadland during pre-production on Eternals, everyone had high hopes for her big-budget debut. Yet, some auteurs’ styles seemingly do not gel well with the MCU’s tried-and-tested three-act formula. Zhao may be one of the best directors working today (and I highly recommend you seek out her movie The Rider), but the early reviews have signaled that Eternals has moments of her style, overridden by the CGI bombast that a superhero movie necessitates. As a result, Eternals is currently the worst-reviewed Marvel release since Thor: The Dark World on Rotten Tomatoes. Ouch.
Without an Avenger showing up, or positive reviews to create early excitement, or even a straightforward superhero origin story at its center, Eternals must rely on other things to bring audiences to the cinema. And luckily, the movie has a few major draws.
First, there’s star-power: Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kit Harington, Kumail Nanjiani, Gemma Chan, and Richard Madden bring that. Plus, there’s Zhao, who has a sect of devoted cinephiles wanting to see her post-Nomadland work. Second, Eternals marks a brilliant, long-awaited step forward for diversity, featuring the MCU’s first deaf hero (Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari) and gay hero (Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos). Long may that continue.
Third, and perhaps most obvious of all, there’s the Marvel branding. While Iron Man may not show up, the Marvel logo will. And while the Eternals may not have helped the Avengers fight Thanos, you can guarantee they will be back to face down more threats in the future.
Eternals, then, marks the first time the Marvel brand itself – without an Avenger in sight and without the blessing of critics – has been the dominant marketing factor. Will that be enough to bring people to cinemas? We will have to wait and see, but this could mark a minor blemish on Feige’s scorecard.
Eternals arrives in cinemas on November 5. Until then, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading our way soon.