If “Eternals” is any indication, Marvel’s glory days are officially behind it.
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 you love.
Ultimately Eternals commits the one sin from which a blockbuster, superhero movie can never be redeemed — 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, a gay black man, an Indian man, and, finally, a pair of Gaelic white guys.
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 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 shows.
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 audience.
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 nations 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: Civil War”).
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 in 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.
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