Sometimes, I feel a thin, slightly starchy feeling when looking at a movie poster or watching a new trailer. It’s the feeling of recognizing myself as a targeted audience, with content specifically being marketed to my demographic. Especially in large franchises like Marvel, heretofore dominated by white, male heroes, when a film or TV show strays from the usual template I can find myself feeling that old feeling. Privately, I’ve coined it as the Ethnic Foods Aisle Feeling—like the aisle in large grocery stores staked out for rice, noodles, curry paste, and the like. When I’m in a pinch, I’m grateful for the presence of those foods in major grocery chains, but I’m also a little rueful. The quality, the selection, the know-how of those products: they’re never quite right, but I buy them all the same because that’s all that’s available to me in the moment.
I went into Eternals, Marvel’s latest offering, fully expecting Ethnic Foods Aisle Feeling. The star-studded cast boasts an abundance of non-white actors including Gemma Chan, Ma Dong-seok, Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, and Brian Tyree Henry. The cynic in me wondered if this lineup was a play to Marvel’s global reach and increasingly diverse audiences, like a corporate diversity and inclusion workshop put on not to educate employees or change cultures of racism but rather to put on the appearance of “wokeness.”
What I found instead was genuine, delightful character development nestled inside of a complex and challenging narrative. Eternals follows the story of ten aliens (the Eternals), who are sent to Earth at the dawn of human civilization with the express task of hunting down a species of otherworldly monsters called Deviants. Told in a fragmented, nonlinear arc, the film tracks the Eternals in present day as they reunite to face a potentially world-ending crisis. Bits of the group’s history are woven in throughout the quest, shedding light on Sersi (Chan) and Ikaris’s (Richard Madden) romance, the friendship and banter between Kingo (Nanjiani) and Sprite (Lia McHugh), and the moving relationship of care between Gilgamesh (Ma) and Thena (Angelina Jolie).
Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao, who cowrote the script with Ryan and Kaz Firpo, dwells on side plots and emotional portraits that offer depth and purpose to each character. The Eternals didn’t feel like boxes to be checked. They had humor, personality flaws, and grappled with complex emotions. Under Zhao’s direction Eternals is the first Marvel movie with a (very tame) sex scene, as well as the first Marvel movie with an openly gay superhero, a technogenius who is also a loving and devoted father and husband named Phastos played by an exceedingly compelling Henry. Zhao’s focus on her characters’ inner and outer lives includes everything from sex to jealousy to friendship to ambition. Though some viewers may find Eternals’s meditative pace too jarring of a departure from the usual action-packed flashiness of a Marvel movie, to me her superheroes feel real, not like composites spit out by executives looking at a PowerPoint, trying to game an algorithm.
The nuanced portrayal of the Eternals extends itself to the moral questions of the film as well. In the MCU, especially in the Avengers franchise, there’s often an implicit sense that superheroes are a kind of universal special police force. Bad guys potentially hiding out in Lagos? Send the Avengers, regardless of international sovereignty. Monster ripping up waterways in Venice? Send an Avenger, who cares about extradition! Eerily similar to the U.S. military’s way of dropping into any global conflict that needs “solving,” the MCU paints good and evil in black and white. The Avengers are good guys, the bad guys are . . . well, bad guys. Maybe a hero has a small crisis of faith, but that will undoubtedly be ironed out in a heart-raising pep-talk scene. Who has time to consider the subtleties of how intergalactic warfare might affect questions of personhood when the universe is on the line?
Dir. Chloé Zhao, 157 min. PG-13. Opens Nov. 5 at Cinemark, AMC Theatres, The Logan Theatre, and more.
Though not entirely successfully, Eternals pokes at this kind of blasé morality. Because their time on Earth spans all of human civilization, the Eternals have witnessed countless atrocities. Genocide, war, mass killings: inside of the group of ten aliens, opinions differ on whether they have a duty to step in, whether they should remain bystanders as they have been ordered to do, and finally, whether their complacency is right or wrong, especially when humans die as a result. One of the central questions of the Eternals has to do with whether life can ever be sacrificed for the greater good, and what the moral stakes are of remaining inert when one has the power to determine if someone lives or dies.
Ultimately, the film struggles to answer this question. One scene that brings this struggle to the forefront involves an explanation for Phastos’s (Henry) disillusionment with humanity. In this particular scene, Phastos is shown kneeling in the burned-out wreckage of what is supposed to be Hiroshima post-nuclear bomb, abject at the destruction that has happened there. He shouts, “What have I done?” Initially, I read this as a scene about painful but abstract regret. After all Phastos is earlier depicted as introducing the wheel and plow to humanity and generally introducing the concept of technology to people—surely this was a meditation on the ungrateful and twisted humans who took Phastos’s gift and turned it into something unrecognizably evil?
But since watching the film, I’ve read other takes that saw this as a scene where the MCU is retconning the only use of a nuclear bomb against civilians, laying the blame at the feet of its first Black gay superhero. I have to admit my own naivete here—as someone who cares deeply about this period of history and has loved ones who survived American military violence in Japan, when I saw Phastos in the wreckage of Hiroshima, I found the premise of a Black gay superhero being presented as the sole proprietor for unimaginable violence so ridiculous that I immediately wrote it off, choosing instead to go for the emotional explanation. But given Marvel’s close ties with the U.S. military, it stands to reason that this might be a genuine play at rewriting history.
Here, we see again the problem with corporate film studios using diversity as a marketing ploy. When race and identity are essentialized by executives into buzzwords to gain viewership, it in turn creates characters that can only live as archetypes. When flaws and failings are introduced to such characters, they don’t point to depth or development so much as they point to a sleazy, underhanded view of minorities as demographic products to be sold and taken advantage of. In short, this kind of bad writing isn’t the fault of viewers, but it’s the fault of studios who fetishize and commercialize identity.
Maybe it’s too much to expect a satisfying philosophical tussle from a Marvel movie. Considering the ten points of view to jump between, the millennia of potential plot material, not to mention a satisfying array of beautifully choreographed fight scenes and sweeping landscape shots, perhaps this Chloé Zhao-induced moral wobble is the best we can hope for. But then again, maybe that makes sense—after all, it’s the ambiguity, the attention to a person’s capacity for contradiction and change, that sets Zhao’s MCU debut apart.