Marvel dropped a super masturbatory Phase 4 teaser this morning, and while it is hilariously self-important, it does include some new upcoming titles, a Fantastic Four promise, and our first look at newly minted Oscar Best Director and Best Picture winner Chloe Zhao’s Eternals. First, let’s talk about the title reveals. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good title and a little emotional, as it acknowledges the catchphrase now synonymous with Chadwick Boseman and the collective cultural loss of Chadwick Boseman. Inversely, The Marvels is not a great title. I get that it’s a reference to Monica Rambeau, In Space, With Powers—Monica has also used the “Captain Marvel” moniker in the comics—but it’s just a blah title. We have barely seen Monica use her powers, and we have never seen her as an adult with Carol Danvers, so we have no real connection to what it will mean for her to be a Captain Marvel, too. It kind of feels like that title would work better for #3 in the franchise, after we have some investment in what having Carol + Monica as a duo will mean.
But the big draw of this teaser is the first look at Eternals. Last week, Kevin Feige was the star of the internet for a day after he raved about Chloe Zhao’s work on Eternals, specifically, how she insisted on using real locations as opposed to green screen backgrounds for her entry into the MCU. To prove the value of Zhao’s more naturalist approach, Feige and Zhao showed a sample reel of her intentions to the Disney executives bankrolling the project. Of this, Feige said, “And I had to keep saying, ‘This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all’ Because it was a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore on this giant cliffside — really impressive stuff.”
Naturally, everyone dunked on Feige for a day for not knowing what beachside sunsets look like, but the point is that Feige did what good producers do—he went to bat for his director, doing anything necessary to secure the resources to execute the director’s vision. Marvel has been wildly successful for a long time doing things a very specific way and leaving billion-dollar tent poles to the chances of nature is not part of that way. The point of the Chloe Zhao sample reel is not that Feige has forgotten what sunsets look like, or that you can make movies without green screens—though Eternals will still have plenty of green screen—it’s that he had to show the money guys Zhao could capture something unique by doing things HER way, not Marvel’s way. And they did that, and Zhao got to use many of her signature naturalist techniques on the film. Success! Also, it got everyone talking about Zhao and Eternals for a news cycle. Double success!
We can see this result of Zhao’s naturalist approach in this teaser, as the first shot anyone has seen of Eternals is Salma Hayek on a horse, looking like something right out of Songs My Brother Taught Me or The Rider. Then there is a shot of that sunset, which looks perfectly lovely, and then a shot of the Eternals as a group with Richard Madden’s Ikaris in the fore, and then solo shots of Angelina Jolie as Thena, Gemma Chan as Sersi, and Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo. Everyone looks f-cking GREAT, but more than the sunsets, I want to know what the Bollywood number looks like. Show us the Bollywood number!
Another point of this teaser is to get people excited to go back to the movies. The US, at least, is looking at an ever-increasing return to normalcy, and while I really don’t think anyone has any idea what the post-COVID “normal” really is, more movie theaters are reopening across the country every week. I realize this is not true everywhere, but it does seem that the endless delays and “year with no movies” is over. Marvel will return to theaters with Black Widow, which will also be available on Disney+, but after that one-off, they’re back in the exclusively theatrical game with Shang-Chi. This teaser, with its emphasis on the audience’s reaction to a climactic moment in Endgame, made me think about another viral Marvel thing going around yesterday, in which someone opined that the MCU saved cinema.
"THE ENTIRE MEDIUM OF FILM WAS DYING UNTIL THE MCU SAVED IT" Consumerism is a helluva drug pic.twitter.com/12kyJ1RJZo— Jamie Faith (@JamieF4178) May 2, 2021
Let’s be clear. MOVIES were not dying as of May 2008 when Iron Man came out, nor where they dying in May 2012 when The Avengers made the MCU a monoculture, nor are movies dying today. A lot of people got very mad at this take because there have been good, great, and exceptional films throughout the reign of the MCU as pop culture’s biggest behemoth. But movie THEATERS? Yeah, those have been increasingly in trouble throughout the era of the MCU, and Marvel’s runaway success over the last 13 years has been a major boon to the THEATER business. Even Tom F-cking Hanks realizes the MCU is going to be a critical component of theaters rebounding post-COVID.
It’s just important that we keep in mind movies and movie theaters are two separate things. That difference will matter over the next decade, as viewer habits continue to shift to at-home viewing, a trend Gen Z will probably only make drastically worse. A recent survey found that Gen Z ranks “watching movies”—anywhere, in any format—as their number FIVE entertainment activity. Based on the habits of Millennials, which saw a baseline decrease in film-watching that has not improved as Millennials have aged up, we can assume Gen Z will simply watch less movies than their parents and grandparents. And this is not “movies vs. TV” or “cinemas vs. Netflix” for Gen Z, it is watching ANY narrative story in ANY way coming in fifth behind video games, music, browsing the internet, and dicking around on social media. This is why I can’t get too bent out of shape about the fate of movie THEATERS, when MOVIES THEMSELVES are facing an existential threat.
Everyone got mad at that person saying the MCU saved cinema, and objectively, the MCU did not. But we should be paying attention to the sheer number of people for whom the MCU is the only thing they see in theaters. For a lot of people, Endgame was the last movie they saw in a theater, and Black Widow will be the first movie they see when their local theater reopens. Just as pre-COVID, a lot of people only went to the theater to see Marvel movies. If you care about saving movie theaters, then the MCU is definitely an important cog in that wheel. The problem for cinema is greater, partly that Disney wants to be an entertainment walled garden, providing the only movies/shows people see, on their streaming platform and, eventually, in their Disney-branded cinema chain (that’s coming in 2022, watch out). But it is also that the film industry has not yet figured out how to get the under-25s excited about cinema itself. Right now, for that age group, the MCU may well be the only “cinema” they regularly experience. The job of the ENTIRE FILM INDUSTRY is to figure out how to move the youths past that and into discovering broader realms of storytelling and cinema magic, or else movies really will be in trouble and not even Marvel will be able to save them.