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Review: ‘Eternals’ and the Empty Ethics of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

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In the beginning, Kevin Feige created the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), though he didn’t really set out to do so. In Eternals, the latest Marvel movie, we discover things didn’t exactly go according to the plans of the fictional universe’s creator either.

Echoing Genesis, Eternals opens with the words “In the beginning” on the screen to start the in-universe creation narrative. We are told the Celestials created planets and people, only for those to be placed in danger by the mysterious emergence of the Deviants. In response, Arishem the Celestial creates the superpowered individuals to protect humanity. In doing so, the 10 Eternals become inspiration for much of the gods in human mythology. These original superheroes are only to interfere, however, when the Deviants become involved. This directive spawns much of the cinematic tension as well as provides Marvel with a much-needed excuse for why none of the Eternals showed up to help with past cataclysmic events—like Thanos destroying half of the universe’s population in Avengers: Infinity War.

Academy Award winning director Chloé Zhao gives the audience stunning visuals. Her insistence on filming in real locations rather than studio green screens breaks with Marvel’s established pattern and pays off with beautiful character shots. However, Eternals demonstrates what makes Marvel’s formula work so well—by deviating from it in the wrong ways. The standard MCU fare features a flawed but lovable lead overcoming a generic CGI villain through quips and punches in a predictable battle to secure the weapon/stone/machine/MacGuffin and save the universe. What makes Marvel movies compelling for many is the lovable, quippy lead. We care what happens to Iron Man and Captain America, so we overlook any cinematic flaws. Eternals tries to get us to care about so many people at once that we end up not carrying about any of them enough.

The sheer size of the cast and scope of the story prove too much for the film. The Eternals—Sersi, Ikaris, Kingo, Sprite, Phastos, Makkari, Druig, Gilgamesh, Ajak, and Thena—the humans involved in the story, and the inevitable Marvel post-credit scene character introduction overwhelm viewers. The moments where the audience should be concerned about the fate of the onscreen characters is often met with the internal question, “Wait, which one was that?” This story could have made a great series to stream on Disney+, with each episode centering a character or two before the climactic team up for the finale. Instead, it’s a 2.5-hour movie that often feels that long.

Dedicated MCU viewers will no doubt watch this film as they have the dozens of other stories, and they may appreciate the expansion of the cinematic world and exploration of additional comic lore. The casual MCU viewer will probably feel comfortable skipping the first Marvel movie which feels more at home with Superman and Batman from comic rival DC. More interesting than the onscreen revelations may be what the film reveals about what is driving the works produced by Marvel and parent company Disney.

Feige may not have set to create a universe in the beginning, but he is certainly doing so now. Within Eternals, the creation narrative of fictional MCU, we can see a bit of the creation narrative at work in Marvel Studios. And with this creation, certain religious guidelines seemed to have been handed down. Eternals follows and further entrenches what amounts to the fantastic four commandments of Marvel movies.

There is no cohesive and consistent view of ethics or the value of life outside of whatever the character feels is best.

Authority figures cannot be trusted.

Eventually, we, along with all the Eternals, realize things aren’t as we have been told. The creation narrative is not exactly true and those who have cast themselves as our saviors may really be our exploiters. In the end, religious fanaticism and rigid adherence to your traditional beliefs proves deadly. As Catholic film reviewer Steven Greydanus notes, this is not the first Marvel movie to feature a confrontation with an archetypal powerful, patriarchal establishment figure, which Greydanus calls “The Man.” One of the films twists can be easily predicted just by examining which main character may fit that archetype and thus be untrustworthy.

A specific kind of diversity is the goal.

The Eternals film reimagined the comic characters to be more representative of humanity. The team includes various ethnicities, as well as the MCU’s first deaf character and first openly gay superhero. In some sense, a Christian who longs for the day when people from every nation, tribe, and tongue will be gathered worshipping around God’s throne can appreciate cinematic representation that more accurately reflects heavenly diversity. We recognize biblical diversity as a vehicle for the expansion of God’s glory. Marvel’s diversity, on the other hand, is a vehicle for the expansion of their audience, cultural acceptance, and, ultimately, their bank account.

Marvel and Disney’s concept of diversity never calls us to be more than we are, or challenges corporately accepted Western views of diversity. While the Disney company will receive plaudits for refusing to edit their LGBT-affirming storyline in Eternals for international markets, the House of Mouse will film portions of Mulan in an area of China actively detaining a million Muslim Uighurs and thank the Chinese government security agency in the credits.

Do whatever feels right.

The Eternals are faced with the possibility of sacrificing our world for the benefit of one life here and potentially millions, if not billions of lives on other planets. Their choice to save our world through the barely considered death of another is portrayed as the good, heroic decision. In Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America’s refusal to sacrifice the life of Vision to save billions of other lives is portrayed as the good, heroic decision. There is no cohesive and consistent view of ethics or the value of life outside of whatever the character feels is best, which leads to what may be the most important MCU commandment.

You are the center of the universe.

While the film does raise interesting moral questions, it never challenges the central claim of the modern world: you are the most important part of it all. At the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is not the Eternals, the Celestials, or the Avengers, it’s you. Following along in the footsteps of the characters, the only question to consider is how things will impact you. The probable mantra of the film—“When you love something, you protect it.”—is less “With great power comes great responsibility” and more “You do you.” If you love, you protect. Ostensibly, if you don’t love, then you have no obligation to protect. Christ sacrificed Himself for us when we were at our most unlovable. “While we were still sinners,” Romans 5:8 says, “Christ died for us.” And as Christians, we are called to sacrificially love even our enemies.

Eternals wants to make the stakes enormous and extended to the entire cosmos. In the end, however, what drives the film is the supposed specialness and centrality of humanity. That specialness is not derived from any imago Dei, however. You are special and worth protecting because you are good—flawed, but good. Humans might not live at the center of our solar system, but we certain inhabit the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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Aaron Earls

Aaron Earls is senior writer/editor of LifewayResearch.com and a freelance writer living outside Nashville, Tennessee with his wife and four kids. He earned his M.Div. in Apologetics from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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