Chloé Zhao has had one of the most unexpected careers in modern history. Songs My Brother Taught Me premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance Film Festival and then screened at Cannes Film Festival as part of the Director’s Fortnight (I briefly met her when she lived in Denver). This is an incredible achievement for a directorial debut. Zhao’s follow-up, The Rider, was her breakout hit that traveled the film festival circuit for almost a year before earning raves (I caught it in Telluride, where it was a sleeper hit). Pivoting to help launch the next phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was surprising, but I was eager to see what she could bring to the recognizable global brand with an impassioned fan base.
With Eternals, Zhao’s first foray into blockbuster territory, her efforts as a filmmaker are noble and made for one of Marvel’s more unique movies. Sure, there is always a formula with these movies: big fights, jokes, inner conflicts, more fights, more snark, and the biggest fight during the climax, followed by an alluring mid- and post-credit stinger giving fans a taste of what’s to come. Eternals has all of this, but it also has more on its mind.
A few things not typical for a Marvel movie include an openly gay character, a sex scene, and natural lighting. In other words, there are lots of things we don’t often see in today’s blockbusters. The western landscapes, sunsets, and improv make this a Chloé Zhao movie through and through; atypical and distinctive in style.
Kumail Nanjiani was a highlight and could mesh well into the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Stylistically, the film is daring in a way where the sun stands in for the green screen. I may have gotten lost in the chaos of what was happening with the action, but I was entranced with the monsters, which reminded me of the creatures from A Quiet Place. Plus, I had a big grin during the few scenes in South Dakota, being true to Zhao’s filmmaking roots.
Eternals felt like the next chapter for the MCU in a way similar to Guardians of the Galaxy. These were the significant turning points for Marvel. Sure, the audiences wanted to watch Captain America and Iron Man movies, but these different sorts of films opened a pandora’s box by making every superhero movie display its diverse characters on the screen. That being said, this is still a big bombastic movie where teamwork makes the dream work, and there’s fun to be had.
We aren’t sure what’s in Chloé Zhao’s long-term future other than a Dracula Western and a potential Star Wars movie, but I hope to see her make time for smaller to medium-budget movies. Most of all, I just hope she gets to enjoy what she does.