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Sersi kneels in front of dying tree atop a mountain at sunrise in Marvel Studios’ Eternals. Photo: Marvel Studios

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Eternals pivots Marvel’s drama from 9/11 metaphor to climate change

The franchise is on the brink of an evolution — or a one-off

One of the more remarkable things about Eternals, Chloé Zhao’s Marvel Cinematic Universe epic about a race of heroic immortals, is how uninterested Zhao is in big fights. Her film is full of personal conversations and cosmic questions, to the point where its superhuman clashes feel discordant, like another movie is trying to force its way into the one onscreen. That’s unfortunate, because the physical conflict in Eternals is deeply rooted in something very different for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a trend that’s been slowly working its way into our biggest blockbusters, because it’s become impossible to ignore in our daily life: climate change.

[Ed. note: Significant spoilers for Eternals follow.]

Eternals’ plot kicks into gear when its eponymous heroes discover that the Deviants — their bestial counterparts, which the cosmic beings known as Celestials sent the Eternals to Earth to eradicate — have seemingly returned from extinction. It’s eventually revealed that the new Deviants plaguing the world likely returned due to melting polar ice caps — a few stragglers once frozen in the ice have now been freed.

This is a passing detail that the plot doesn’t make much of, but juxtaposed with Zhao’s deep interest in her long-lived characters’ relationship with the natural world, it feels significant. The Eternals watch civilizations rise and fall, as Earth is reshaped by empire and time. But in the film’s present, they are brought out of hiding by the changes only they can live long enough to see in their entirety. The planet is in crisis, one humanity is directly responsible for, and even openly acknowledges, while still never doing enough to counter it.

The film relegates this idea to subtext. Zhao instead chooses to foreground the Eternals’ moral struggle with their mandate of non-interventionism, and the tensions between them over their ultimate mission. But the movie’s final battle tugs at the theme one more time. Abruptly ditching the Deviant threat, Eternals pivots to a final conflict where its heroes must prevent what’s effectively a natural disaster. It is revealed that the Earth is the birthing pod for the Celestial Tiamut, and the Eternals must band together to stop a god from erupting from the Indian Ocean, shattering the world in the process.

A Celestial forms a new world in Marvel Studios’ Eternals. Image: Marvel Studios

Tiamut’s attempted birth is the most stunning sequence in the film — less a fight scene, and more a physical struggle against cosmic awe. Stopping Tiamut’s birth feels like a watershed moment for the MCU, one that charts a way out of its overly familiar obsessions into something more relevant.

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, superhuman conflicts usually build to father/son struggles or revisionist fantasies around 9/11. The parental stories can be about surrogate fathers or real ones: Thor and Odin, Tony Stark and Obadiah Stane, Shang-Chi and Wenwu, Peter Quill and Yondu/Ego. (For Peter Parker, conflict often stems from his misguided attempts to find a new father figure.)

Meanwhile, the MCU’s biggest battles are often disaster cosplay, using the imagery of the 9/11 terrorist attacks as a sort of visual lingua franca to establish its heroes as sufficiently heroic. The events of the first Avengers films are canonically referred to as “The Battle of New York.” The second Avengers spends significant time with heroes helping civilians, as a fictional Eastern European nation faces obliteration. The locales change, from the Potomac river in The Winter Soldier to the Hong Kong finale of Doctor Strange, but these films look at one of the worst collective American experiences, and imagine how it might be if something could be done to stop it. But 2001 was 20 years ago, and the global struggle of the moment is very different, if no less disastrous.

The Avengers (2012) - the Avengers looking up from a Manhattan street Marvel Studios/Disney

This isn’t meant to praise one of the biggest corporations on the planet for finally acknowledging a painfully obvious fact of life — the way we’re expected to when they acknowledge gay people exist, for example. Marvel Studios’ success is arguably the result of a carefully applied conservatism, one that lets directors and individual production teams inch forward into enough new territory with every movie to let the stories feel distinct, while holding them to a strict house style, so all the movies are consistently palatable. MCU films are potato chips in terms of their similarity and disposability, but they come with an uncommonly good crunch and just the right amount of salt.

Because of Marvel’s relatively safe playbook, the MCU isn’t blazing a trail by turning toward real existential threats to bolster its fantasy villain threats. Climate change has been on big-budget filmmakers’ minds for decades, in all kinds of films: WALL-E, The Day After Tomorrow, The Core, Snowpiercer — the list is wide and varied. Lately, however, the spectre of climate change has been ramping up, until it’s less of a ghost and more of a monster lumbering toward us, making inroads in cerebral sci-fi films like Annihilation and big, silly effects bonanzas like Godzilla: King of the Monsters; blockbusters that are great (Mad Max: Fury Road) and others that are more of a mess (Reminiscence). It’s part of the speculative-fiction toolset: part of the value in genre fiction comes from imagining humanity’s many possible ends, and looking for warnings or possible reprieves. Right now, one threat obviously looms over the others.

In spite of the uneven reception to Eternals, the film’s most valuable contribution to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is in the challenge it issues to the status quo it arrives under. The movie is full of ideas to explore: about God, about our debt to this planet and each other, and about moral choices that expand beyond a single lifetime. The biggest question it leaves viewers with is, ironically, the one every MCU fan has, but applied in a more abstract way: What impact will Eternals have on future films? Will the MCU post-Eternals be one where stories are told about characters who actually have sex, are in openly queer relationships, and wrestle over the problem of what to do with our dying planet? Or will this film be, for lack of a better term, nothing but a deviation?