Wednesday, November 10, 2021

'Eternals' wants to save the superhero genre from itself

It's doubtful that Marvel Studios will appreciate, or even understand, what Eternals has to say about the horror of living in a superhero franchise

It's a revelation to see how much Eternals is unlike the rest of the MCU. It feels strangely like a normal movie, which shouldn't be noteworthy, because we really shouldn't be this accustomed to expecting characters to smash each other in the head in every scene, but to follow the discussion around Eternals is to realize how severely the MCU has warped our way of watching. It is the first MCU movie to get a rotten score on Rotten Tomatoes (48% at the time of writing this review), which makes it, completely undeservedly, the worst-rated entry of the MCU (not counting television). Upon closer look, the criticisms thrown at Eternals reveal a particular type of anger, which stems from a particularly twisted set of expectations. Supposedly, Eternals believes too seriously in its themes, has too much talking, is too abstract, leans too far into substance, is not violent enough, has too many feelings.

Let it sink in that this is the rare superhero movie directed by a woman, and reread those complaints.

In fact, those are exactly the qualities that make Eternals one of the most important entries, and I'm not exaggerating, in the history of the superhero genre. It wasn't until I watched Eternals that I noticed how tired I was of Marvel's trademark ironic detachment. It's refreshing to have characters who don't hide behind a barrier of quippy banter, who aren't afraid to own their emotions, who care about what their battles say about who they are.

Solid characterization was always going to be difficult. Eternals had to fulfill the mammoth task of being simultaneously the origin story, the teamup blockbuster, the team breakup tragedy, and the world-ending epic for an entire new crop of ten almost unknown superheroes, in a cinematic universe that pretends every obscure character needs A-lister treatment. But there was no alternative; it wasn't viable to introduce these characters in their respective solo movies, because their place in the fictional world makes no sense outside of this team. Perhaps Eternals would have achieved better pacing as a Disney Plus series, but as one single movie, it's remarkable that it manages to make almost all of its heroes feel like full persons. And it does so via relevant moral disagreements.

As a rule, the MCU has very badly dropped the ball when trying to grapple with the ethics of superheroism, opting for a juvenile power fantasy every time it has played with hard dilemmas that called for a more thoughtful approach. Eternals sees the oversimplistic moral calculation of Avengers: Infinity War and raises a more pointed set of questions: if heroes have a responsibility toward living beings, does that extend to future lives? And should their concern for those potential future lives outweigh the importance of present ones? And does it matter in the decision if the future lives are thousands of times more numerous than the present ones that may have to be sacrificed? These are not the speculations of fantasy. The problem of the potential value of future lives is an extremely delicate point of contention that has been debated by philosophers for decades, and that has had, still has today, and will continue to have real consequences for real people.

It will be argued that these are unnecessarily heavy interests for a movie where a character is called Sprite and another has pew pew fingers. But Eternals doesn't fool itself. It knows that the MCU is a ridiculous place to ask the big questions. In fact, the conscious mismatch between its themes and its setting is a central part of how Eternals is made, and it shows precisely in the characters of Sprite and Mr. Pew Pew Fingers.

On one hand, Sprite is an illusionist. Over the centuries of the Eternals' mission on Earth, she has been feeding the human hunger for inspiration via stories. If the Eternals are behind all our ancient myths, Sprite has been behind the telling of the myths. On the other hand, Kingo is a movie actor and director. He used to live in hiding with Sprite, but became tired of hanging in the limbo between truth and deception. So he opted for full-time deception: he's been pretending to be a dynasty of Bollywood stars for roughly a century. Indeed, both are beings of legend: Sprite cannot have the normal human experience, while Kingo doesn't even try. They exist in the world of stories.

This matters because, in Eternals, what threatens to invade the physical world is the world of stories. Our heroes yearn for normality, but beasts that belong to primal nightmare keep interrupting their dates, their family meetings, their careers. This occurs more explicitly with Kingo's sudden interest in filming his friends. The Eternals' lives become a threatened home, not unlike the fortress Phastos has built in his house: a shelter of domesticity besieged by conventions of cinematic spectacle that are emphatically unwelcome. These characters are trying to go through their lives, but their boss Arishem needs them to stick to their predefined roles, while Kingo keeps annoyingly insisting that their lives be made into a movie. When the obligatory faceless monsters show up during a family discussion in the Amazon jungle, they don't feel like an adventure, but like an inconvenience. Eternals is a movie, and it has superheroes, but it resents having to be a superhero movie.

Now why would a Marvel production want to do that?

Because Eternals, you see, is actually about the horror of being a Marvel character.

Most hero stories are about the search for purpose, but few dare address this openly the despair of having your purpose written in a script. The surprise reveal of this movie is that the titular Eternals don't exist to be full persons, but to be action figures in a war with a preordained result. They're not meant to have lives; they're just meant to make it to the end of the world and then be refurbished and repainted for the next end of the world, with nothing left of their previous personalities. Much like the tragic heroines of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, they're created to be pieces of cosmic machinery in a plan guided by the most ruthless of utilitarian calculations. The awkward excuse for their absence from every other Avengers-level crisis refers back to the same metanarrative directive: those other conflicts were not about them. They were not their story.

If you've ever wondered why Tony Stark went back to superheroing after burning all his suits in Iron Man 3, as if he had forgotten his entire personal growth in that movie, here's the explanation: as a Marvel character, he's not allowed to have an inner life. He just has to make it to the end of the movie and go back to the makeup department to get ready for the next movie. It's only in Eternals that this curse is shown in its full monstrosity: Marvel characters are doomed to repeat the end of the world again and again, and all the lives they're supposedly saving only have value as food for the cosmic machine that controls their fates.

Marvel fans complain that not enough stuff blows up in Eternals. Yes, that's the whole point. Stuff blowing up would just be another repetition of the endless cycle that makes the MCU a Gnostic hell, its characters trapped by a heartless creator who only cares that the rules of the game be obeyed. Ajak and Ikaris constantly refer to Arishem's Grand Design. Well, the Grand Design is the MCU and its voracious need to keep growing by recycling its heroes, throwing them at one cataclysm after another, because that's the only way it can feed itself. This movie is so informed by the obligations of franchise that its new slate of heroes drop onto the world from a literal floating slate. The Eternals' rebellion against the Grand Design (as well as their repeated destruction of Kingo's cameras) symbolizes Eternals' resistance to being a Marvel movie. These characters don't want to be action figures. Fans who complain that the Eternals always want to discuss their feelings miss the point: that's what characters in a story are supposed to do. It's not that the movie lacks a villain; the established rules of MCU storytelling are the villain that gets in the way of these heroes' happiness. It's nice that Ajak decides that Earth is worth saving, but it's depressing that the reason why she decides it's worth saving is that it produced superheroes.

This symbolic framing of Eternals as a war waged by Marvel characters against Marvel Studios helps decipher what otherwise are incomprehensible character choices. Kingo's puzzling exit from the final fight is actually in consonance with the rules of his assigned role: as the character who is most aware of the conventions of superhero fiction (it's no coincidence that his superpower is making literal pew pew fingers), he chooses the right moment to leave the movie and repackage himself for the next one. He survives by following the game. Sprite goes the opposite way: her victory is that she's no longer a Marvel character. She was stuck as an unchanging piece in a game she didn't ask to play. So she wins by refusing to play any longer.

Give some thought to the fact that what saves Sprite, and the world, is the power of transformation. The message couldn't be clearer: the MCU needs to change, because the alternative is the existential abomination (and the narrative laziness) of treating people as instruments. It's a horrifying twist that Arishem, the ultimate producer of the show, gets to literally take these characters out of the movie and dress them up again for their assigned roles in the next one.

Coming to terms with that absurdity is the breaking point that drives Ikaris to kill himself after his defeat: the people of Earth were never people to him, just instruments. Accordingly, he saw his own life as a mere instrument of the Grand Design. Once the mission was frustrated, he couldn't accept that he was responsible for choosing his own purpose; he needed to have it scripted for him. So he followed the plot of his own myth, and flied toward the sun. (Director Chloé Zhao knew exactly what she was doing when she took inspiration from Zack Snyder's Man of Steel when designing her nihilistic and ultimately self-negating version of Ikaris, because that is the logical consequence of a Snyder-style Superman.)

This is the kind of shaking up that the MCU desperately needs. This is the kind of outsider perspective that can save superhero movies from endless self-cannibalization. But in all likelihood, Marvel executives (and fans) will bemoan the lack of explosions, fail to get the intended warning, and go back to the regularly scheduled show. They don't want to miss the end of the world—again.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie/Miraculer, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.