Oct 28, 2021, 6:22:46 AM10/28/21
If “Eternals” is any indication, Marvel’s glory days are officially
Some lovely world-building, full of color and light notwithstanding,
from beginning to end, the film is a mess.
The storyline centers on a group of immortal beings fashioned by the
great celestial energy god Arishem to battle deviants — neon, fiber-
optic dinosaurs that traverse the planet feeding on humankind. After
thousands of years, the Eternals have finally destroyed the last of
them, and are free to roam the world finding their own purpose, hanging
in bars, making movies, riding the range.
That’s what they’re doing when an evolved breed of deviant shows up,
setting them off on a journey for answers.
This sounds kind of fun. And I wish it were. But with the exception of
Kumail Nanjiani who offers, without question, the only real reason to
see the movie, the story takes itself far too seriously for fun or,
really, even logic.
Complicating plot twists surface and disappear and we’re never clear if
they were important to begin with. Someone is suddenly revealed to be
in love with someone else yet there’s been no foreshadowing to achieve
emotional impact. Characters’ motivations, that we are supposed to
believe were forged through millennia, shift on a dime, but seem to
indicate deep religious faith is bad and will make you kill the people
Ultimately Eternals commits the one sin a blockbuster, superhero movie
can never be redeemed from — it’s dull.
The issue is primarily that Marvel is no longer content to make
entertainment. Now, under Kevin Feige’s new direction, it wants to make
commentary. It wants to be relevant. Instead, it often ends up
ridiculous, taking you out of the world of the movie as you begin
thinking about the kind of fawning, celebratory headlines Slate and Vox
are going to write about it.
The prime example is Arishem’s creative decisions in fashioning this
team of minor divinities: A Chinese woman, a Middle-Aged white woman, a
Hispanic woman, a deaf woman, an androgynous child, a Korean man, an
American black man, an Indian man, and, finally, a pair of Gaelic white
This overt rainbow coalition would have been fine if the film had
bothered to offer some utilitarian explanation for it. How hard would
it have been to throw in a line about needing to reflect the varieties
of humans, or some such superhero boilerplate? Instead, the
unaccountable diversity is taken as such a bedrock, unimpeachable good,
Zhao and team don’t even think they need to clarify it.
During my press screening, this perfect illustration of ethnic, gender,
sexual, and ability variety inspired my completely non-politically-
minded brother to lean over and whisper: So what then — even a cosmic
space deity is worried the woke mob will come after him if he doesn’t
get the representation right?
With “Eternals,” it seems clear Feige has officially won the struggle
for wokeness. The revelation that one member of the team is gay is no
quick aside Disney can easily disentangle to pass muster with Chinese
censors. He is black and has a husband of a different ethnic minority.
They dote in the suburbs over a little boy; they linger long in a kiss.
The same impulse to make statements also led Feige to tap Chloe Zhao,
an art-house Oscar-winner to helm this project. He and others at Disney
have celebrated it as a step forward in politics, not story-telling. It
The best Marvel movies have always come from the scruffy guys rising up
from the unrespectable genres of horror and comedy. Directors like
Taika Waititi, James Gunn, and the Russo Brothers had histories making
crowd-pleasers on shoe-string budgets. Zhao has a history of inspiring
deep think-pieces in The Atlantic. She’s done wonderful work as a
meditative auteur, but she’s a terrible fit for Marvel.
At times this striving to celebrate global cultures juxtaposed with
American progressive sexual ethics grows ridiculously obtuse and
contradictory. As when the gay Eternal decides to journey to the Middle
East, a land portrayed as a glittering, exotic gem in the desert sands.
Again, a joke from my brother, whispered a little too loudly across the
dark theater—The LGBT guy’s going to Iraq?! Don’t think he’s going to
like it there…
In short, this is a movie chock-full of important messages that are
ripe for lampooning by the very guys who used to be Marvel’s target
That’s not to say the MCU eschewed politics in its best movies — but
they were interesting politics that grappled with real complexity.
What responsibility do independent nation’s have to the well-being of
the rest of the world? (“Black Panther”). What are the best means to
combat religious fanaticism when you inhabit a tolerant, pluralistic
society? (“Guardians of the Galaxy”). What culpability do powerful
actors have when the law of unintended consequences ultimately come
home to roost (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”). Are bureaucracy and
government oversight a necessary evil or just evil? (“Captain America:
Now, the questions are no more interesting or authentic than a yard
sign in an expensive, urban neighborhood. Full of virtue and self-
importance, signifying nothing.
Girl power! (“Captain Marvel”). Racial grievance! (“Falcon and the
Winter Soldier”). Patriarchy! (“Black Widow”). Even if your ideology is
in line with these preoccupations, where’s the discovery, where’s the
thrill in watching a gender or race studies lecture given by guys
dressed up in tights? It largely has the effect of reminding you, Huh,
I’m a grown woman watching guys dressed up tights.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that Marvel still won’t have some hits on
its hands with the old guard. Thor, Spider-Man, the Guardians, and a
few fan favorites—established before the political themes grew easy,
cheap, and flat—will still put backsides in seats, no doubt. But
Marvel’s natural lifecycle is drawing to an end. A long slow slide into
mediocrity and irrelevance has begun.
Let's go Brandon!