For almost any other franchise, a $71 million domestic debut would be something to celebrate. Eternals opening with (as of this posting) $71 million in its domestic debut isn’t remotely a disaster or cause for company-wide alarm, merely slightly “troubling” in relation to other factors (like a poor 2.29x multiplier). It’s a somewhat underwhelming figure, especially in light of “business as usual” debuts for Halloween Kills ($49 million), Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($90 million) and Shang-Chi ($94 million over the Fri-Mon Labor Day weekend). That would indicate that Eternals opened with about what Eternals would have opened to, give or take Covid variables. So, with the understanding that what happened happened and couldn’t have happened any other way, why exactly did Eternals nab the second-lowest MCU debut in ten years? Well, without further ado…
The reviews were unusually terrible.
Shifting demographics among online critics (arguably less “older white guy” than when Iron Man opened) and shifting expectations among critics in terms of once-rare big-budget comic book entertainments (back in 2011, a comic book movie as good as Thor was in itself an accomplishment) notwithstanding, a 47% rotten and 5.6/10 on Rotten Tomatoes is pretty bad. It’s tied with X-Men: Apocalypse and lower than the likes of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Man of Steel. Moreover, the reviews themselves, the pans and the raves, argue that the Chloe Zhao-directed flick lacks some of the tropes and bare-minimum variables usually present in an MCU movie. Sure, Spectre was a terribly 007 movie, but it gave most of the tropes associated with a James Bond movie. Eternals, ambition notwithstanding, failed to offer even some of the franchise’s core ingredients.
Word of mouth was unusually mixed.
Thor earned a B+ back in 2011. It still legged out to $181 million from a $65 million debut. The MCU has otherwise scored straight-As (sometimes A+ and sometimes A-) since Iron Man in May of 2008. Now you can argue that the film was divisive and not crowd-pleasing in a way that turned off general audiences accustomed to a certain kind of populist entertainment. Everyone claims to want something new in the big-budget superhero genre but generally holds their noses at comparatively unconventional takes (whether the likes of Punisher: War Zone, Batman v Superman or Hulk were “good movies”) on the formula. Whatever the reason, probably a mix of “unconventional” and “not good,” along with “didn’t provide certain formula tropes,” audiences weren’t much crazier about Eternals than were the critics.
Eternals was sold as “just another MCU movie.”
Kevin Feige’s commitment, at least in terms of pre-releasing marketing, to differentiating each MCU movie as belonging to a given genre has been instrumental in making the films seem different from each other, especially as we started getting more of them in a given year. Captain America is a World War I drama, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a teen coming of age comedy, Ant-Man is a heist flick, Thor: Ragnarok is a sword-and-sorcery fantasy, etc. Eternals sold itself as, well, just a superhero movie. The unknown characters, played by primarily (to the general public) unknown actors, were presented as god-like beings whose defining trait is that they had superpowers and fought CGI-created monsters. Absent marquee characters or a genre-specific story, Eternals came off as “just a superhero movie” that happened to take place in the MCU.
It feared unfamiliar characters in a generic story.
Jack Kirby’s Eternals was never a popular or well-known comic book, and the immortal aliens never remotely breached pop culture in a way similar to Hulk, Spider-Man or even Doctor Strange. You could say the same about Guardians of the Galaxy, but that film’s marketing campaign mainly was focused on explaining who these (much smaller) bunch of a-holes were and why they would be good cinematic company. It was sold and embraced as an irreverent outer-space swashbuckler, featuring “not your normal superhero” protagonists. Eternals was positioned as a very serious, unconventional superhero flick that played like the most conventional superhero movie in the world. Absent a specific genre and offering characters primarily defined by their superpowers, Eternals came off as the kind of movie Hollywood spent nine years making in attempts to capitalize on Marvel’s character-specific success.
Yes, we’re still in a pandemic.
Since A Quiet Place part II opened over Memorial Day weekend with $57 million, the domestic marketplace has recovered to the extent that the preordained biggies are still performing close to “business as usual” box office. A 15% sans-Covid bump would have given Eternals an $82 million debut, right between Thor: The Dark World ($81 million in 2013) and Doctor Strange ($85 million in 2016), both of which opened on this very weekend. Factoring in poor reviews, lackluster marketing, unknown characters and mediocre word-of-mouth, $82 million would have been “par for the course” in non-Covid times. The variables mentioned above may explain why it didn’t flirt with a $100 million opening. Still, the Covid curve is why it’s opening closer to Thor ($65 million in 2011) than Thor: The Dark World.
If Eternals legs out like a 2021 Disney release (think Jungle Cruise or Free Guy), then it still ends up over $200 million domestic, and much of this is trivia. However, suppose it flatlines like Batman v Superman (1.99 x its $166 million debut after similarly poor reviews and word-of-mouth). In that case, it’ll end up with less than any MCU movie since The Incredible Hulk ($132 million/$55 million in 2008). The truth is probably somewhere between those two extremes. Think the lousy-for-Marvel 2.28x multipliers of Captain America: Civil War ($409 million/$179 million) and Black Widow ($184 million/$80 million), which would give it $162 million. For the record, Marvel will survive, especially if they don’t panic and don’t throw out $100 million for Robert Downey Jr. to star in Iron Man 4.
Eternals was the least surefire MCU property, and that it may bomb is less of an issue than if any of next year’s surefire sequels stumble too. Eternals was arguably a case of too much (unknown characters, mostly unknown actors, an art-house director, a slow-burn fantasy, a lack of genre-specificity, etc.) all in a single movie, one that (so says the critical and audience consensus) wasn’t that good. Think, again, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which tried to sell a new James Bond in a less-conventional, more emotional 007 movie with a downer ending to boot. Audiences may love it now, but they were more shaken than stirred in 1969. Cue Sean Connery returning for Diamonds Are Forever. Like James Bond, the Eternals may indeed return, but it might not be in their own sequel.