Disney Can’t Stress Enough How Much it Hates You — Eternals
This has been stewing in me for a while now, and I’ve been trying to find the right words to describe what I experienced with this movie. This is the best I can come up with. Strap in.
I’ve seen every Marvel Cinematic Universe film to date, with some being much better than others. But there have only been a few true duds in the forms of The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 3, Black Widow, and Thor: The Dark World so far, so while franchise fatigue has indeed set in, I’m normally more than willing to give Marvel — and Disney by extension — the benefit of the doubt and at least continue the overall story to see where everything’s leading.
However, with the advent of Eternals, my confidence has officially been shattered. Just about every MCU movie has a cringeworthy moment or two, or a scene that makes me roll my eyes at Disney’s continual corporate avarice (most recently the post-credits scene from Black Widow being nothing more than teaser for the Hawkeye show on Disney+), but usually I can get over it. Not this time, though. This time they’ve gone too far, taken their audience too much for granted, and insulted fans across the cinematic spectrum in such a way that it will be a long time before they’re forgiven, if ever. It doesn’t matter if you’re a critical thinker who tries to connect everything on a meta level or just a casual fan who likes good popcorn entertainment, this film tells you exactly what the Disney machine thinks of you, and it’s not good. This movie currently holds a 43% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest any MCU film has ever gotten, and after sitting through it, all I can say is that 43 is generous.
The plot of the movie basically doesn’t even matter, because it’s standard paint-by-numbers Marvel fare. You’ve got the heroes in the form of the titular team of nigh-immortal superbeings. You’ve got the villains in the form of the Deviants, ugly, piss-poor CGI monsters that eat people because, reasons. You’ve got the villains pretending to be heroes, revealed in twist scenes so obvious and patronizing that The Boss Baby seems practically intellectual by comparison. You’ve got completely illogical fight sequences where you can’t tell what the hell’s going on due to either a) quick-cut edits, b) intentional darkening of the scene, c) no real explanation of the characters’ powers and strength differentials, or d) all of the above. Giant climactic fight of same vs. same happens to resolve the “story,” such as it is, and sequels and spinoffs get teased. Lather, rinse, repeat.
But it’s even more glaring here because Disney brought in Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao to helm the project. Now, when the MCU occasionally deigns to let a high-caliber filmmaker put their own spin on the proceedings, we get some of the better entries, like Taika Waititi doing Thor: Ragnarok or James Gunn tackling the Guardians of the Galaxy films. Here, though, Zhao is wholly absorbed into the mass, getting basically no freedom to let any of her hallmarks shine through. She gets a couple decent landscape shots here and there, and she essentially let Kumail Nanjiani ad lib his own jokes, but apart from that, she’s just a cog, with Disney opting to profit off of her name and prestige rather than her actual skill. It’s a thematic stench that pervades the entire movie, honestly.
Throughout the excruciating run time, there is at the same time too much going on and absolutely nothing going on. The team itself is way too big, boasting 10 members when they’re all together for any of several early splash page shots where they all stand in a line and look to the camera. You know, like anyone would ever do. And all of them are named after deities and mythological figures, because the script thinks it’s clever to suggest that the Eternals themselves inspired those legends rather than ripping them off, which fits right in with Disney’s leitmotif of retconning everything you once enjoyed.
There’s Sersi (Gemma Chan, who just did Captain Marvel two years ago, but hey, fuck continuity, am I right?), who can change the atomic structure of inanimate objects — and some living beings — into other materials at the whim of the script. Then there’s Ikaris (Richard Madden), who can fly and shoot laser beams out of his eyes, because why would a guy based on Greek myths ever hear of a character called Cyclops? Nanjiani plays Kingo, who despite being Pakistani moonlights as a Bollywood star, because as long as we have a diverse cast, it doesn’t matter if we get the actual diversity completely wrong. Also, the man trained for a year to get super jacked for this role, only to occasionally get to wear a sleeveless shirt that shows some arm muscle and nothing else. Lia McHugh plays Sprite, a shapeshifter and illusionist trapped in the body of a child, who harbors an affection for Ikaris so obvious that Kingo has to spell it out multiple times… even though she can change her appearance at will. Barry Keoghan is Druig, who can control minds when he feels like it. Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) runs fast and is deaf, Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is strong and… strong, Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) can make technology to help humanity advance, and he’s gay (we can’t even enjoy the idea of Zhao insisting that the one gay scene be kept in the film, risking overseas censorship, because Disney knew they had a bomb on their hands and was willing to accept the loss on balance), Thena (Angelina Jolie) can make transparent weapons that are practically invisible when a scene is properly lit and has convenient for the plot violent memory swings where she’ll attack her friends. Finally, the group is led by Ajak, played by Salma Hayek, who is there.
I mean, Jesus Christ that’s a lot to unpack. Every hero shot looks like a goddam Benetton ad, and yet none of these characters offers anything interesting to latch onto. They’re all one-note (if that), and each performance is monotone line deliveries that look disinterested at best, save for Nanjiani’s jokes, and even then they mostly fall flat. It says a lot about your cast and your scripting when the only two interesting characters in the film are the ones who aren’t part of the team of protagonists. Harish Patel plays Karun, Kingo’s valet, who is a delightful bit of comic relief, and Kit Harington bookends the film as Dane Whitman, the eventual Black Knight, who happens to be dating Sersi, because Heaven forfend that we have any ancillary character who isn’t being set up for their own section of the franchise. That’s about as good as it gets from a character standpoint, and half of that fun (for lack of better term) is that you have Kit Harington reading lines that are just thinly-veiled Game of Thrones references. When you hear him say, “I love you, Sersi,” you giggle because you imagine him saying that to a character whose name is spelled slightly differently. When he teases, “My family history is a bit odd,” you’re left wanting to scream, “Well, DUH! You’re Aegon fucking Targaryen and you banged your super hot auntie without knowing it!” It’s clever, certainly, but when the most fun you’re having is referencing some other IP that’s not on the screen, you know you’ve got nothing to work with.
When you have this large of an ensemble cast (and we haven’t even gotten to the baddies yet, but just you wait), you have to figure out something worthwhile to do with them, and this movie completely fails in that regard. All the scenes with them together happen in a multitude of flashbacks to points in human history where the Eternals supposedly intervened to defeat the Deviants, using their ill-defined powers at whatever degree they wish to at a given moment, but notably never interfering in the big things, like, say, Loki opening up a portal to let Chitauri invade Earth, or Thanos snapping his finger to wipe out half of all existence. In the film’s present, half the run time is spent trying to reassemble the team, with 30% of them ending up dead before we even get to re-introducing the last one on the list. There’s overstuffed, then there’s the “Gluttony” victim from Se7en, and then there’s this.
But what really sunk this for me was the first major “twist” of the story, revealing who the villains truly were. The Eternals, under Ajak’s leadership, are meant to save humanity at the behest of a giant Celestial named Arishem, voiced by David Kaye (if you watch Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, he’s the “And Now…” announcer). After the team is mostly back together (it took the Avengers like, two minutes to assemble while this movie takes two hours), Arishem reveals the truth to Sersi, that the reason Eternals help to guide humanity is because the thermal and mental energy of a sentient population helps to incubate the seed of new Celestials inside the planet core. The Deviants were created and sent by the Celestials to destroy apex predators so intelligent life could flourish, but the Deviants themselves evolved (including the secondary villain Kro, voiced by Bill Skarsgård) and got out of hand. The Eternals only exist to foster the multiplication of the human race until a new Celestial can be born from Earth’s core, destroying the planet.
Now, before you bite my head off about spoilers, consider this. Arishem is depicted as a super duper massive giant in space with a head the size of a moon with six huge spotlights for eyes, and no discernable facial features. He looks like if the Iron Giant fucked a traffic light. Now think back. Give me any example in the MCU, or really any genre or comic book film, where a giant head in space was actually a good guy. Has it ever happened? Galactus? Dormammu? Thanos before we knew his scale relative to humans? No, they’re always trying to destroy Earth in one form or another, so pretending to even go along with the film’s initial presentation of Arishem as a benevolent leader of heroes is foolhardy at best. It’s the kind of assumption Disney might have because they truly feel you as a viewer are stupid, but I choose to have faith in your intelligence.
Even within the context of the MCU this reveal makes no sense. If we only exist to help Celestials grow, then why wouldn’t the Eternals get involved in the Infinity Arc? Thanos snapped his fingers and made half of all life in the universe cease to exist. That’s not just a threat to Earth, but a threat to the Celestials themselves, both in halving their numbers and in ensuring that it’ll take millions of years to repopulate. And while I try to leave the source material out of it when I watch these movies, apparently Thanos himself was an evolved Deviant in some interpretations, and he has an Eternal brother in the form of Eros (Harry Styles in an eye-rolling mid-credits scene that includes Patton Oswalt voicing a lazy CGI dwarf), so that would make Thanos an especially relevant threat to the very mission the Eternals are on, whether they’re aware of it or not. But instead we just hand wave their previous absence as “not getting involved” in non-Deviant matters (even though there are multiple subplots about various Eternals directly interfering with our development) because Disney only felt the need to act like it wanted to have some sort of respect for its own continuity.
And what about other threats just within the MCU? I mentioned Dormammu, who wanted to consume the multiverse. Wouldn’t that fuck up the Celestial plans? On the flipside, in Guardians 2, Ego, a living god planet, calls himself a Celestial, and killed all of his children apart from Peter Quill because none of them carried his Celestial genes. Is he the same kind of Celestial as Arishem? If so, why didn’t the Eternals/Arishem help Ego fight off the Guardians? Why do some Celestials seed planets while Ego seeded women? And if they’re not the same, why are we lazily using the same name for them? How do Eternals based on (or serving as inspiration for) Greek and Middle Eastern myths coexist with the Asgardians based on Norse myths? There are no answers to any of this because Disney doesn’t care. They wanted to do some pew-pews against some other pew-pews and throw in a couple of jokes while making you pay for the same exact formula you’ve paid for dozens of times already, with only the vaguest hint of any connective tissue or effort to have it make any sense.
But the worst part of it all is that through this reveal, Disney and Marvel tell you, the audience, right to your face how little they think of you. This whole time we’ve been watching these movies and following these characters thinking they’re part of a larger product that will all come together to a satisfying conclusion. But in reality, we are the product. We are the commodity. In Arishem/Disney’s eyes, we exist only to serve and perpetuate their existence, not the other way around. All that matters is getting more, more money, more asses in seats, more ownership of intellectual property and art, until it controls everything, to keep fueling the machine, and when it’s done, so are we. Whenever a creative mind seems to be aware of the con and seeks to try something new, be it Rian Johnson in Star Wars or Edgar Wright with Ant-Man, send the team in to eradicate them and pretend they were never there. If a visionary like Chloé Zhao comes along and shows what can be done with earnest effort and small budgets, negate it by assimilating her into the process and dictating every step of it so that none of her individuality can show through. Change the histories, change the futures, change whatever’s necessary to keep people coming back and giving themselves to the machine, and make sure to take credit for it as it’s happening.
Because it’s all about control. Rather than acknowledge issues and fix them, set the audience against each other. Instead of coming up with compelling stories and characters, churn out the bare minimum and find whatever ways you can to preemptively nullify any constructive critique. Pretend that a film like this would create new avenues for story while at the same time crushing all traces of imagination as CGI beams shoot from Nanjiani’s fists towards a tentacle lizard thing in half-darkness. Whenever it looks like the audience might get wise, throw in more content, more platforms, more rides, and more cameos to mollify them until such time as the Mouse Machine owns it all and casts you aside, your usefulness to it long over. And the thing is, Disney’s so confident that all of this will work that they’ll blatantly tell you through the screen that this is what you are to them, knowing that the vast majority will never pick up on it. And sadly, they keep proving themselves right. Despite the horrible reviews, the movie had the 4th highest opening weekend gross of the entire MCU.
And honestly, where do you go from here? Once you get to this point, and say in no uncertain terms that none of it mattered, what else is there? Sure, we’ll go back to the more fun wells with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange again, but will it have any meaning? This movie spent two and a half hours moving characters we don’t care about around a nonsensical board like a game of electric football, giving them no motivation and no development, and yet still felt the need to set up sequels. It’s all so empty now, because the veil has been lifted, the curtain pulled back. There’s no grand design, just a grand illusion. And the fact that the creators did the deed in a midway plot turn that they played straight as if it was supposed to be some massive shock only serves to drive home the insult. I’d almost be impressed, or hopeful that Zhao was getting one over on the studio for their own shenanigans, if I didn’t know that every single frame of this film was picked apart and approved by executives and self-important suits at every level of the company before it was allowed to see the light of day. They’re in on it, they signed off on it, and they’re probably jacking off to my anger (and the anger of millions of fans and critics) right now.
To see Eternals is to see Disney at its most brazen with its greed. To introduce a whole new unit of alleged heroes, half of whom they kill off anyway, and pretend that there’s an ounce of credibility to any of it is to prove once and for all that they only see us as dollar signs, because now we’re past the point where we can do anything about it. What started as an innovative exercise in world-building has turned into a self-sustaining automation. The Celestial Mouse has been born, so they have no problem admitting just how hard they’re fucking us over while giving us the cinematic equivalent of a placebo. They’ve been banking on this for years, and laughing all the way to it. Even if the initial threat is contained, it only delays the inevitable. The behemoth is ready to emerge, and it doesn’t care who it takes out in the process. Here, it took out an Oscar-winning filmmaker and a cast that’s otherwise charismatic and entertaining in just about everything else they do. This is what happens when you turn your mind off for too long. This is what happens when we refuse to evolve.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Can the MCU recover from this? Do I sound like a conspiracy theory kook? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on November 18, 2021.