Very quietly, Marvel is changing the face and feel of popular cinema

·5-min read

NOVEMBER 6 ― Obviously, with the pandemic still very much a part of life in 2021, the experience of watching films in cinemas in Malaysia has only been slowly reintegrated into our lives in the past month or so.

New films are still few and far between here, and blockbusters are still at a premium both here and overseas.

After two years of watching blockbusters on the small screen, thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Peacock and so many more, it’ll take some time to return to that excitement of a night out at the movies.

This is especially so as ocal cinemas are still playing catch-up mostly, with films like F9, Free Guy, The Suicide Squad, Don’t Breathe 2 and A Quiet Place Part 2 being released here way after they’ve been available to stream/rent online.

Even though I’ve slowly been getting back into the cinema game, I’m still way behind my normal, pre-pandemic, groove of catching at least one or two, sometimes even three or four movies a week at the local cinemas.

But even at that slow pace, I’ve noticed a pretty wonderful new development taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year, with a new pattern developing in which the studio has been hiring some pretty striking indie directing talent to helm their new movies.

This is quite similar to how they hired some striking horror/genre directing talent before in the form of directors like James Gunn, Scott Derrickson and Jon Watts.

It's a gamble that has so far yielded mixed results, with Australian director Cate Shortland (who made her name with Somersault and Lore) not really leaving much of a personal stamp on Black Widow, which has now been followed in quick succession by two films that have successfully melded their directors’ more indie sensibilities with the more pop and blockbuster material they’re expected to tackle with their new films.

Just released this week, Eternals was directed by Chloe Zhao, who won Best Director at this year’s Oscars for her film Nomadland, which also won Best Picture and was also awarded the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival.

Director Chloe Zhao poses at the premiere for the film ‘Eternals’ in Los Angeles October 18, 2021. — Reuters pic
Director Chloe Zhao poses at the premiere for the film ‘Eternals’ in Los Angeles October 18, 2021. — Reuters pic

So for Marvel to hand over a US$200 million (RM831 million) budget to her, even before she won her Oscar, definitely says something about the direction that MCU mastermind Kevin Feige is taking with the movies in Phase 4 of the MCU.

If Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings saw Marvel boldly embracing Chinese culture, practically changing the face of the big budget superhero movie with an almost all-Asian cast, they’re now trying something even bolder with Eternals by trying to change the look and feel of the superhero movie with a more personal, ethereal yet epic feel.

If Terrence Malick were to direct a superhero film, it might just look and feel something like this.

The broad outline of the plot is your standard superhero story; this time about a group of superbeings called Eternals, sent to Earth thousands of years ago to protect human beings from a race of dinosaur-like creatures called Deviants, and they’ve been secretly and quietly living among us as they wait to be called to return home to their planet Olympia, after finishing a secret mission that only their leader, Ajak, knows about.

There has been plenty of noise about how “slow” this movie is, which led to loads of bad reviews online from both critics and audiences alike, but for me, it’s this exact “slowness” (for the record, never for a moment did I think this movie was slow in all of its glorious 155 minutes) that makes it so much more than just another superhero movie.

If DC has been trying to distinguish itself by claiming to appeal to darker, more adult sensibilities with their superhero flicks, especially the ones helmed by Zack Snyder, then this is Marvel upping their game by trying to appeal to not just normal adults, but those with more subtle/sophisticated viewing tastes.

Call it an indie/arthouse-lite version of superhero movies, or maybe even an “elevated” superhero flick. This is clearly Zhao re-shaping a Marvel superhero movie in her own image, using its basic plot to ruminate on big and grand philosophical notions such as free will, the beauty and flaws of humanity, the destructive nature of time and, most startlingly, the whole concept of gods and faith.

It’s a movie so rich in subtext and hidden meanings that it’s not only a sort of deconstruction on the superhero genre, but it can also play as an allegory on humanity’s two-pronged need for and struggle with religion, especially organised religion.

However, don’t let these descriptions of subtext and whatnot dissuade you, for this is still very much a superhero movie, with plenty of exciting action set-pieces to keep the fanboys entertained and happy.

But, if you’re one of those who’ve been complaining about how boring superhero films are for always offering the same old thing, this might just be the superhero flick you never knew you needed.

And let’s just hope that this is not the last time that Feige taps up a bona fide indie auteur to helm a Marvel movie, because every once in a while, even superhero movie fans need an invigorating breath of fresh air like this one.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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