Eternals (Chloé Zhao, 2021) and Venom: Let There be Carnage (Andy Serkis, 2021)

The Eternals stand in a line.

I went out to the mall last Friday to watch a self-made double feature of superhero movies at the AMC. First up was Eternals, the latest in the on-going saga of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by the Oscar-certified Chloé Zhao, whose Nomadland and The Rider are notable for their location work, focus on small details of performance and process in everyday lives, and twilight-gray color palettes, she was maybe the worst possible choice to adapt the work of four-color genius/cosmic weirdo Jack Kirby, whose 1970s series of the same name was his third (at least) attempt at creating a new kind history myth of the universe, after the initial creation of the Marvel Universe and then his New Gods series at DC. The comic book Eternals is a massive epic, encompassing the whole history of humanity and the wider universe beyond, marked by Kirby’s densely packed and luridly colored panels and splash pages. Zhao’s Eternals, on the other hand, is very very beige.

A group of super-powered beings are sent to the Earth 7,000 years ago to defend humanity from big CGI lizard dogs who show up sometimes and start eating everyone. They each have special powers and colored suits (all the colors of the rainbow: blue-grey, green-grey, red-grey, white-grey, etc). Most of the powers involve yellow lines of CGI (why is it always yellow?) that allow them to punch stuff really hard or set things on fire with their eyes or have a sword. One of the guys looks exactly like the evil Super-man from a Zack Snyder movie. He’s not the leader, but everyone acts like he is because he can fly and he’s a handsome white guy. The actual leader is Salma Hayek, who can heal people, but she’s dies early on and that’s what sets the plot in motion. 

The new leader is Gemma Chan who plays Sersi. She’s dating Jon Snow, and her ex is the flying guy, Ikaris, played by Robb Stark. This is funny because those two actors were on the same show with a main character also named Cersei and they also look exactly alike: they can’t get away from Circes (like Odysseus I suppose) and also they’re totally interchangeable in every way. Sersi tracks down all the other Eternals, who have spread out across the globe for the last 500 years and don’t have phones or internet or any way to communicate other than showing up in person at each other’s house or place of business. They argue about whether or not they should do something (most MCU properties are about people with superpowers arguing about whether they should do anything at all), and Zhao intercuts flashbacks of what they’ve all been up to for all of recorded history (mostly stuff like brainwashing indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest or taking thousands of years to realize that sometimes humans do bad things with technology). One of them, Kingo, is a Bollywood star. We’re introduced to him filming a musical number that seems to be conceived as an homage to a much more vibrant cinema, but literally pales in comparison and might be in slow motion. More action happens, secrets are revealed, there’s a big showdown on a beach, Kingo wanders off and everyone forgets about him, Ikaris flies way too close to the sun.

It’s baffling how low-energy Eternals is. It looks like a film made by people who work in an office. Zhao’s intimate approach is swallowed up by the demands of the epic story and Disney house style, and the result isn’t satisfying on either a personally expressive or corporate synergy level. It’s a marked contrast to the next movie I saw, Venom: Let There be Carnage, the second film about the alien symbiote that possesses Tom Hardy and tries to eat people and talks in a funny voice. The villain is played by Woody Harrelson in a disastrous red wig, a serial killer who accidentally becomes a host of a different, much meaner symbiote named Carnage. Woody and Carnage break his old girlfriend out of superpower jail (she breaks stuff by screaming) and go on a Natural Born Killers style rampage, and only Venom can stop them.

Like the first Venom, Let There be Carnage is crude and tasteless and very funny, with more physical comedy than all 20+ MCU films put together. Deeply black and red, in both humor and visual scheme, it flies along in seemingly half the running time of Eternals. If in Zhao’s film, everyone looks like clockwatchers, in Carnage, everyone involved appears to be having a tremendous time. Great Actress Michelle Williams returns as Hardy’s estranged love interest for some wide-eyed shenanigans—she plays the straight-man girlfriend role, but with an energy that demonstrates that she wouldn’t mind chomping some heads off either. Naomie Harris dusts off her Pirates of the Caribbean performance and chews up the screen with aplomb, every bit a match for real-life lunatic Harrelson. Motion capture actor Andy Serkis takes over as director, and keeps things rolling delightfully free of backstory or moral lessons, moving from one frenetic action sequence to the next with only quick breathers for oddball asides like a sequence where Venom hangs out in a club, or one where Hardy explains Don Quixote to a pair of chickens named “Sonny” and “Cher”. An Eternals/Carnage double feature is a textbook example of the white elephant/termite distinction in comic book movies. Or at least as close as we are likely to get, considering that even Carnage is a product of huge corporations (Sony and Disney have split rights to the characters), and is now directly connected to the larger MCU thanks to its cliffhanger ending. It’s possible that we’re going to see more of this split in the future, with more diversity of filmmaking and storytelling approaches within the larger corporate umbrella. As the MCU enters its second generation of characters and actors, we can only hope that our content overlords allow us a taste of the wild breadth of the medium their movies and TV shows are based on.

Solo (Ron Howard, 2018)

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After three films and a few billion dollars earned, Disney has finally succeeded in turning Star Wars into a Marvel movie. Under the competent hands of America’s most consistently mediocre director (Ron Howard, subbing in for the LEGO guys), Solo is a perfectly fine bit of blockbuster action filmmaking, with a capable cast and some neat special effects upholding a wholly conventional screenplay with nary a hint of the idiosyncrasy that has marked every other Star Wars film, for good or for ill.

Solo is a superhero origin story, as such its ceiling is somewhat limited: it’s designed around the pleasure of recognition, rather than discovery, the solving of mysteries which didn’t need to be solved rather than exploration of a wider universe. But there are hints at broader issues: the film begins in the slums of Corellia, a manufacturing planet rife with orphans in thrall to a monstrous (literally) Fagin figure, from whom young Han (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) scheme to escape. He does, she doesn’t, and the film skips ahead three years to Han’s desertion from the Imperial infantry to join a criminal gang led by Woody Harrelson. From there the film proceeds to its requisite three setpieces (a train robbery, a heist, and a showdown), with pauses for exposition and fill-in-the-blanks characterization. Some of the back story explanations are well-done: anything involving Chewbacca and Lando in particular, but some are just pointless or silly (how Han got his last name, Chewbacca learning to play Dejarik). The film makes a great point of fetishizing Han’s gun with pointed inserts and closeups as it takes shape, which is silly because we’re expected to believe that A) Han’s gun is iconic and B) he had the same gun for his entire life. This is I suppose part of the attempt at aping Westerns lying buried in the screenplay (though Westerns never unequivocally adored guns as much as this one seems too, even the movies named after guns like Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73), just as Harrelson’s character is supposed to recall Long John Silver or something (though with his unfortunate haircut all he reminds me of is Nazi buffoon Richard Spencer). But I don’t know, maybe someone should have read the room and realized that valorizing guns probably isn’t the best idea right now (or ever). I’m sure they hope to sell lots of toy versions though (yeah, I admit I had one 35 years ago).

Anyway, all that aside, it is a fun movie. Donald Glover of course is excellent as Lando and I really liked Ehrenreich’s performance as Han, a much more innocent take on the character than Harrison Ford’s in the original films, but a charming one nonetheless. Clarke fares less well, her character is not given much of a personality or even identity, and her scenes with Ehrenreich lack any real spark. Of the newer elements to the film, Phoebe Waller-Bridge comes off best as Lando’s friend and droid L3. Her outspoken demands for equal rights for droids are both funny and pointed, and in keeping with the ideals of revolution espoused in the last two Star Wars films (Rogue One and The Last Jedi), though it’s mostly played for a laugh, until it becomes sentimental (traditional the only two modes in Ron Howard’s directorial toolkit). Although even here Howard and his screenwriters (only the father-son teams of Lawrence and Jake Kasdan are credited) can’t resist making a call back all the way to a line in the original Star Wars, one which in a short sentence (“We don’t serve their kind here.”) conveyed more of a sense of an actual world than any of the speechifying and expositing in the Kasdans’ script. The world Han finds himself is peripheral to the Empire, and there are hints of interest to be found there, a kind of jianghu existing outside the bounds of everyday society ruled by five Triad-like gangs, only one of whom we encounter. But the film’s villain, a gang boss played by Paul Bettany, is underdeveloped and bound to a single set (a result of his late insertion into the film, replacing Michael K. Williams as an alien during reshoots, apparently), and his reputed army of henchman is weirdly small and unintimidating.

Origin stories are nearly impossible to do well, as a sampling of any first installment of a Marvel picture will tell you. Really only Tsui Hark has managed to make a great movie out of an origin story (with A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon), and that was by turning the ostensible hero into a side character for much of the film, allowing it to be driven by his mentor. There was no way of course that Disney could allow Han Solo to be a side character in a Woody Harrelson picture, so I imagine that this movie is about the best that Ron Howard and the Kasdans could produce given the inherent limitations of the project. With a glimpse at a wider underworld and a few developments in the film’s final moments, there are hints of other, more interesting chapters to come in the Young Han Solo story. Here’s hoping the corporate overlords in charge of the project allow someone with a little more vision to tell them. I’m going to go ahead and nominate Soi Cheang for the job.