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‘Eternals’ proves the MCU can’t escape itself

Eternals may be the most unique MCU film to date, but it can’t escape its maker.

Eternals is being positioned as the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) most unique film to date. Touting a large, diverse cast and grounded visuals, Eternals seems like a turning point for the MCU. There are myriad reviews out there slamming the film for being too busy or not behaving like a Marvel movie, but I found the film enjoyable — mostly because it didn’t completely behave like an MCU film. Despite this, Eternals suffers because it’s still a Marvel movie.

I suspect director Chloé Zhao did the best she could with the parameters she was given. Her influence on diverse casting, prioritization of minimal CGI and green screen, and focus on character building is in large part what differentiates the film from the rest of the MCU. However, Zhao’s valiant efforts don’t eliminate a lot of the common Marvel mistakes that Eternals makes.

Slight spoilers for Eternals ahead.

There are quite a few MCU-based faults in Eternals. Comedic one-liners built for trailers are almost forcibly inserted into what would otherwise be potent dramatic scenes. Marvel’s military apologism is rampant when the MCU’s first Black gay man is positioned as responsible for the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima (deflecting blame from the US military who killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people with the bombings). The story can’t go deep enough to fully explore Zhao’s story of existential human crisis when it has to squish the film into the current MCU continuity (where were they when [insert bad thing] happened?).

Along with a general reliance on formulaic MCU touchstones, like tongue-in-cheek references to other MCU characters, occasional notions of white saviorism, drab and uninspired costumes (oddly countering creator Jack Kirby’s vibrant art), and an overload of lore, there’s no disguising the fact that Eternals is quintessentially just another Marvel movie.

Jack Kirby Eternals

Classic Jack Kirby Eternals art / Marvel

Eternals can’t help but be dragged down by the MCU rules the film has to follow in order to maintain the franchise. The strides that Marvel Studios are taking to diversify the scope of MCU productions are sorely needed after 25 movies of relative monotony. But if Marvel Studios can’t let go of these lackluster, harmful, and cheap MCU staples to do so, it’s not going to work.

Marvel Studios’ recent foray into limited television series on Disney+ has created the same cookie-cutter productions. The shows try to tell compelling, contained stories but their faltering finales, tired formulas, and the studio’s general cowardice around identity fall victim to serving the larger universe.

The MCU Disney+ debut Wandavision appeared to be a revolutionary turn for MCU products based on its smaller scale focus and conceptual storytelling. But the drastic façade of difference is the only reason it was revolutionary. Otherwise, the show still played into the MCU’s continued racism with the whitewashed and stereotyped Scarlet Witch, relied too much on MCU and Marvel Comics mythos, along with a finale that let the main character off the hook simply because they are the main character (when has an MCU main character been allowed to fall and stay fallen, or to be painted as villainous for more than one second?).

The lack of complexity continued in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. Its attempt at being racially radical was completely undermined by Marvel’s cowardice to truly speak out against the government and military. Along with hashtag-inducing cameos and surface-level plot, it was a characteristically centrist stance for Marvel — centrism being a large component of MCU (and Disney) politics.

Loki and Sylvie

Loki and pseudo-Lady Loki / Marvel Studios

Loki was on its way to maybe saying something important about identity and self with its use of variant Lokis and its (albeit, cowardly in method) inclusion of a female Loki. But a final episode too tied up in crafting continuity couldn’t solidify any of that or the rest of the story. The confirmed second season may pick up some of those character threads, but aspects like executive cowardice around sexuality and gender and obligation to world-building will remain.  

The MCU’s reliance on routine is ultimately a ploy to keep viewers entrenched in the world of the MCU so that more parts of this universe can be sold. The impact of large events like the world-changing snaps from Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame only works story-wise because Marvel Studios pocketed so much from those films. If instead they were a gentler box-office send-off to the Avengers series, subsequent MCU stories wouldn’t make nearly as much sense to the broader audience, leaving them in more confusion than curiosity. Hence why we get TV shows and movies that can’t help but ultimately prioritize broader world-building over compelling, localized storytelling.

‘Eternals’ proves the MCU can’t escape itself

The pop culture behemoth Thanos / Marvel Studios

Sometimes it seems quite obvious that the MCU can’t escape itself based on the fact that its source material is a bunch of comics that play into the same formulaic complacency. Comics stuck with reacting to a larger universe, ones that fail at proper representation, and series that lack deeper story and character engagement? That’s just a typical Wednesday. Except it isn’t how all superhero media operates. Take Marvel’s FX Legion show and DC’s Doom Patrol. Both are based on superhero comics, both have compelling, diverse characters, stories, and visuals. But these shows aren’t part of a larger cinematic universe. 

Then the problem lies in maintaining the larger franchise. If Eternals didn’t have to acknowledge the rest of the MCU it could have been focused on building a team of non-humans growing to love the human world they were assigned to protect. If it didn’t come after years of “safe” representation it wouldn’t have the bear the weight of the first deaf and gay main characters. And if it wasn’t produced by a company that revels in Pentagon money and its financial success from tried and true blueprints, then it could have been something new and inspired like it’s trying to be.

Will the MCU always be too scared to serve anything but itself? If Marvel Studios can’t take the financial risk to diverge from its standardized storytelling they will continue to produce an ouroboros of commercial fodder for their wallets. Whatever new directions they try to take will always be hampered by their desire for excessive profit and popularity, no matter how many Chloé Zhaos try otherwise. Eternals may be the most unique MCU film to date, but it can’t escape its maker.

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