Hope Springs: As ‘Eternals’ Blazes its Post-Zhao Trail, A Prestige Series Would Represent A Bold New Path

2021’s Eternals was a divisive film. With an Academy Award-winning director at the helm, it boasted an all-star cast while exploring themes of humanity, spirituality, and sacrifice. It also used Z-list Marvel characters that very few audience members had a connection to, and the course of the movie’s runtime proved inadequate to develop that connection with any of them. Add in a very underdeveloped primary antagonist, and the result is an extremely low consensus as to its quality, with a Rotten Tomatoes score that reflects that.

But one recurring comment in discussions about the film’s scope was that the story might better have been served by a series instead of a film. And considering that the film stretches from 5000 BCE to the present, there’s a lot of jumping around in the timeline that makes it harder for a viewer to find proper grounding. That being said, Chloé Zhao had a vision, and it’s doubtful that she would have signed on to do the project, nor would have had the ability to attract the wide range of global stars for it, if it was “just” a show.

But as we reach the cusp of 2023, things have changed quite a bit. A new rumor suggests that Zhao is not expected to return for the Eternals sequel, and the progression of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Multiverse Saga has shifted the focus to its Big Bad, Kang. Whatever our interest in the ongoing exploits of our synthetic lifeforms cosplaying as deities while being the harbingers of worldwide cataclysm, they have surely been diminished, Harry Styles notwithstanding. That isn’t to say that these exploits aren’t worth getting into, though. There’s rich storytelling ground and fantastic actors who deserve the opportunity to be showcased. That’s why Eternals should return as a “prestige” series, telling the stories of individual Eternals in an anthology format.

There are a number of reasons that this is preferable to greenlighting a sequel, shepherding it through the development and production process, and trying to promote it against the backdrop of much more high-profile and anticipated projects featuring more beloved characters. Because of the narrative around the first film, getting people out for the sequel is going to be an even tougher sell. Even though the next director they might choose brings a certain amount of differentiation, it’s hard to do better than the previous year’s Best Director. And the cast was already top-notch. What possible new actor could enter the mix and move the needle?


But for a streaming show, you’re not getting people to load up the family and settle in for two or three hours in the cinema. You’re asking them to boot up Disney Plus at their leisure and watch something poignant, thought-provoking, and moving. We just recently saw that with Andor, Star Wars was able to reset the narrative around that franchise because of the elevated quality of the storytelling and filmmaking of Tony Gilroy, even with lower-than-average streaming numbers. The calculus was that if you make something truly great, people will find it eventually, even if it isn’t fully steeped in the zeitgeist.

The Eternals, by their very nature, have stood apart from the MCU meta-narrative until now. And with 7000 years to explore for each character, each Eternal should easily be able to command his or her own standalone narrative, shaped around a different director’s vision, and showcasing that character in more depth. And for each cast member, instead of having to find the time in their busy schedules for a full movie shoot, they can carve out their availability in tandem with the production, unconstrained by the continuity of one main story.

Just think of the different styles that could be displayed, and the levels of experimentation that would allow them to deviate from the oft-derided “Marvel House Style.” Shooting one episode could be a way to get daring filmmakers like The Daniels in the door without holding them to the parameters of traditional MCU guardrails. And the endpoint of this experimentation would be the differentiation of each Eternal to a greater degree, and a bigger investment in those characters in the future, regardless of whether they appear together or apart.

As much as we love Marvel, it’s really hard for them to make prestige television that still feels like it fits within the same universe as the films — especially when, for the most part, connectivity is a draw. But in the case of Eternals, they already leaned into the idea of these characters’ limited connections. So stories told in that space can just concentrate on being as interesting and powerful as possible. And Marvel should be able to attract interesting and powerful storytellers and filmmakers as they deepen and add more texture to the world of the Eternals. And that, in many ways, would do a lot more for the Eternals brand than any sequel film could.

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