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The problem with the MCU: Why Marvel movies are best judged in hindsight

Just give it a few years and you'll probably like Eternals a lot more.

Eternals Still

Over the span of 25 films, Marvel Studios has built a sprawling, interconnected cinematic universe that swings characters from movie-to-movie with such ease it almost feels like an art form at this point. But, it also has the weird side effect of rewiring the way we watch movies in the first place.

It’s not just about the movie you’re watching in the moment anymore — it’s about all the future movies it’s setting up, the characters who will spin off (be it to other movies, or standalone Disney+ series down the line), and the world it’s playing just a small part to build across the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

The latest brick in that wall is Eternals. The Chloé Zhao fantasy epic isn’t just one of the biggest, most fantastical swings for the MCU to date — it’s also locked down the dubious distinction of being the lowest-rated Marvel film on Rotten Tomatoes, with a very average 57 percent on the review index. For those keeping score, that puts Eternals below Thor: The Dark World (66 percent), The Incredible Hulk (67 percent), and Iron Man 2 (72 percent) — three of the least-beloved films in the MCU canon.

The interesting thing about that aforementioned “lower-tier” of the MCU? Like a fine super-powered wine shelved in the cellar for a few years, they go down a bit smoother with the benefit of some time and perspective. Call it a case of added context, or perspective with the benefit of hindsight, as Marvel movies are so interconnected they’re arguably even more enjoyable a few more movies down the line.

When a Marvel film first opens, we can only guess at what seemingly random bits of dialogue and Easter eggs might be set-up for the future. But after the movie has been out a few years, and that sequel it was setting up has played out, all those little nods we missed the first time around seem like brilliant foreshadowing. Which, it is — it just wasn’t foreshadowing something in the movie we were actually watching at the time. Put simply: we’re just playing checkers with our movie-watching, while Marvel is playing 4D chess with all those connections and set-ups thinking two sequels ahead.

In the case of films like Thor: The Dark World and Iron Man 2 — movies that made a lot of money and are definitely still hits, though they’re not as revered as other MCU entries — they make for a much more enjoyable watch with the benefit of the next dozen or so movies that came after them. Like when revisiting Thor: The Dark World, you start to see some of the humor in Chris Hemsworth’s performance that will truly shine in Thor: Ragnarok.

One of the biggest complaints about Iron Man 2 is that it was bloated and trying to world build too-much too-quickly, but now that we know all those characters and storylines from the next few movies? It’s a comfy nostalgia trip to hang out with Black Widow and Nick Fury again, knowing full well how all these introductions and team-ups dovetail in the first Avengers movie. 

Turning back to Eternals, Marvel’s latest film is suffering from some of the same criticism that was levied at Iron Man 2 upon that sequel's release. Eternals is setting up too much too quickly; it's a load-bearing column of this next phase of the MCU that is over-stuffed with characters and plot points that don’t seem all that important in the moment. And while the movie introduces a full roster of new heroes and mythical world-building, most general fans aren’t all that familiar with them heading in. Guardians of the Galaxy had a similar challenge, and no one expected Rocket Raccoon, Gamora and Groot to be household names and mainstay costumes at Halloween.

That’s not to say this Marvel Effect excuses bloated scripts and so-so movies, because it doesn’t.

There’s a reason Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and The Incredible Hulk are typically the least-revered movies in the MCU — they’re simply not as good as the best of the best (or even the "just good" entries). They falter when standing alongside films like Black Panther or Avengers: Endgame. A bad movie is still a bad movie, but there’s something about knowing it has a place within this wider world — a world that also includes the characters and movies that fans love — that makes it go down a bit smoother.

Sure, The Dark World is a misfire, but fans love Thor now more than ever in the post-Ragnarok and post-Endgame world. And watching Thor's first sequel now, with that new love of this character and knowing where he goes next, has the effect of helping smooth off the edges. Iron Man 2 is bloated, but we all miss Tony Stark these days, so any old adventure has the benefit of rose-tinted Mark II nostalgia. And The Incredible Hulk, umm... yeah.. that one's just bad. Sorry.

As for Eternals, this film had even more narrative heavy-lifting to do than something like Guardians of the Galaxy before it, introducing a new group of heroes and an entire mythology around them that spans millennia. That’s a lot to digest, especially when viewers haven’t had the time and investment to buy in to these characters and their stories. Who knows? Maybe when a couple of Eternals team up with the Avengers a few years down the line, and we’re bearing down on the release of Eternals 3: Celestial Boogaloo, we’ll be able to look back with fresh eyes on how it all began?

Regardless, in the here and now critics remain wildly split, with many praising Zhao’s hand to craft a tale that stays true to her own vision and style; with others saying it’s a tiresome and predictable slog through a world fans aren’t all that familiar with in the first place. 

Which take is right? Only time will tell — and this being a Marvel movie — that could take a while.

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