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New Podcast! Podcast 616 – “Eternals”

Podcast 616 is a podcast looking at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I was thrilled to be invited to join Dan Owen for a discussion of Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, which is a movie I enjoyed considerably more than most.

It’s a fun and broad discussion, which delves into questions around auteurship within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the paradox of superheroes, the question of power, and the challenges in adapting concepts like the Deviants for the big screen. It was really fun to roll up my sleeves and delve into this discussion with Dan, which allowed me to chat about everything from my blind spots with certain characters to the way in which the plot and themes of Eternals feels true to the spirit – if not necessarily the art – of Jack Kirby.

You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

Non-Review Review: Eternals

Chloé Zhao’s Eternals is a small, but necessary, step forward for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

There has been a lot of pre-publicity around Eternals, most of it centring on Zhao as an auteur. Zhao has given interviews insisting that she directed all of the film’s action. Kevin Feige has talked about how her work convinced Disney executives to shoot in real locations rather than simply rendering a lot of the movie in post-production. As such, Eternals has become a weird battleground for the idea of authorship within the confines of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

When Marvel saw the breadth of its domain…

It is easy to understand why this is. There have been Marvel Studios movies directed by Oscar-winners before; Joe Johnson won an Academy Award for visual effects on Raiders of the Lost Ark and Taika Waititi recently won a Best Adapted Screenplay award for JoJo Rabbit. However, there is something tangibly different about seeing a big budget blockbuster coming from an artist who won both Best Picture and Best Director at that year’s Academy Awards.

It also makes sense in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. There have undoubtedly been Marvel Studios films with strong senses of authorship: Shane Black’s Iron Man 3, Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy and Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther. However, those movies all feel quite a long time ago. Although one can perhaps pick up traces of Cate Shortland’s personality in Black Widow or Daniel Destin Cretton’s interests in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, those films feel very familiar and very rote.

Red eyes in the morning…

There is tangible sense of opportunism at play in way that Marvel Studios has positioned Eternals as an auteur-driven project. After all, the studio has a long and complicated history with directors who have distinct visions; Patty Jenkins, Edgar Wright and Ava DuVernay have all suggested that the company’s culture is not particularly welcoming to creatives. In particular, Zhao’s assertion that she oversaw the movie’s action sequences exists in the context of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who recalls being told that if she chose to direct Black Widow, she would not be allowed to direct the action scenes.

Again, context is important here. Eternals is really the company’s first director-driven project since Black Panther, which is a big deal given the studio’s history of beginning pre-visualization of scenes and special effects “before the cinematographer or director has signed on to the project.” While movies like Avengers: Infinity War, Captain Marvel, Ant Man and the Wasp, Avengers: Endgame and Spider-Man: Far From Home are all varying degrees of entertaining, none of them feel like the work of a filmmaker who has something particularly pressing to say about the modern world.

Superfriends.

All this tension plays through Eternals, the fine balancing act between a director with a very distinctive artistic sensibility working with a studio that appears eager to launder its reputation by association, while also being anxious that this auteur doesn’t get to go too far. In some ways, Eternals feels like a limit case for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, an example of just how far the studio will allow a creative talent to stretch a rubber band before aggressively snapping it back into the default position.

This is the challenge facing Eternals. It goes further than any Marvel Studios film in recent memory, but that’s still not far enough.

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New Escapist Column! On Chloé Zhao’s “Eternals” and Marvel Studios Auteurship…

I published a new column at The Escapist today. With the upcoming release of Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, and the ongoing debate around it, it seemed like a good opportunity to take a look at the narrative around the film.

Publicity around Eternals has made a big deal of the extent to which Zhao is the author of the film. Zhao has made it clear that she directed all the film’s action, and Kevin Feige has talked about how hard she fought to use real locations rather than simply green-screen effects. This is interesting, because these two very basic accomplishments are being treated as a big deal, as a revolutionary amount of freedom being afforded to a creative talent. It’s an interesting snapshot of modern blockbuster filmmaking, where these freedoms are considered exceptional and newsworthy.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Non-Review Review: Nomadland

Nomadland is essentially two competing and irreconcilable films.

The first, and more successful film, is a character study of its protagonist. Frances McDormand plays Fern, a widow who has embarked on a life on the road following the death of her husband and the destruction of the community in which she lived. Fern is a wanderer, a restless soul who finds herself trapped between the harsh demands of life on the road and the freedom that such a lifestyle affords her. She is a restless soul wandering across the vast open plains of the United States of the America.

Fern From Home.

The second, and irreconcilable, film is a snapshot of a particular class of people that developed in the aftermath of the Great Recession. As jobs were destroyed and houses were repossessed, large numbers of people found themselves dispossessed and force to live an itinerant existence largely dependent upon the gig economy to keep their heads above the ever-rising tide. There is something almost documentarian about this film, drawing as it does from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book and featuring many actual “nomads” in supporting roles.

Nomadland quite rightly refuses to condescend to the people who have found a way to survive on the margins. However, the decision to focus on a character like Fern robs the movie of a lot of its potential sting and insight. Watching Nomadland, there’s something almost empowering about the way that Fern’s existence plays out, a sense in which Fern is living the way that she always wanted to on some level. This feels rather cynical and calculated in the context of the very real and devastating trauma of the financial crisis and the destruction that it wrought.

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