This past weekend, Marvel’s new big-budget superhero movie “The Eternals” proved to be a super disappointment, earning $71 million domestically and $90 million internationally—the lowest opening for a Marvel movie this year, a bad sign of things to come.
“The Eternals” seemed to have all the right elements: great special effects, a formerly quarantined fanbase eager to consume Marvel blockbusters again, and a multiracial cast that ought to appeal to everyone. Moreover, its story was the familiar setup: superheroes fighting supervillains to save the world yet again.
So what happened? Many critics think there has been a burnout on superhero movies. With so many movies and television series scraping up the dregs of Marvel source material still untouched, there is little left to revive the superhero genre.
Coupled with this is the obvious leftist ideology incorporated into each new Marvel and Disney iteration. The movie made news with its inclusion of a large multiracial cast, a Chinese-American female director, and a kissing scene between two nonwhite men. All this seemed like cheap leftist virtue signaling and suggested the movie was checking boxes rather than entertaining audiences.
On their own, however, neither the apparent burnout or ideological overreach sufficiently explain the declining interest in the superhero genre or the lackluster reception of “The Eternals.” When put together, however, they do indicate what’s really happening: the burnout isn’t with superhero movies, but with what leftism is doing to today’s movies in general.
As with most things in life, leftism will ruin a good story, even the stories of well-funded superhero movies. Fundamentally, this is because it substitutes a utopian, simplified vision of the world for the world as it actually is. Instead of characters and plots that are relatable, complex, and thus interesting, a story infected by leftism features characters and plots that are unrelatable, predictable, and thus boring.
“The Eternals” is a great example of how this works. First, it attempted to feature characters of as many different races as possible. Rather than add to the richness and uniqueness of these characters, this decision seemed to do the opposite—they were flat and unmemorable.
As the YouTuber Critical Drinker explains in his review of the film, this is the result of too many characters competing for screen time. Even with a nearly three-hour runtime, there is not enough time to develop so many characters sufficiently. Instead of seeing a handful of characters interact with one another, work through internal conflicts, or grow in any meaningful way, you simply have a pageant of individuals showing off their muscles and superpowers against an equally shallow supervillain.
This is also why the X-Men movies tended to fail more than succeed, even though the source material is among Marvel’s best. Despite having great characters with interesting backgrounds, there are simply way too many of them. The best X-men movies, like “Logan” or “Days of Future Past,” are the ones that contain their multitudes, and the worst X-Men movies, like “Dark Phoenix” and “X-Men: Apocalypse” quickly become messy and chaotic.
The Avengers movies handled this problem by giving each Avenger his own origin story, allowing audiences to become invested and informed about each character. Audiences these days sometimes forget how most of the characters that eventually appear in “Avengers: Endgame” were completely unknown to most people before each had his or her own movie. “Antman”? “Guardians of the Galaxy”? “Dr. Strange”? They were once as unfamiliar to people as the Eternals are now.
Another problem with infusing identity politics is the inevitable tokenism, the inclusion of different minorities for the purpose of virtue signaling and nothing else. In one way, tokenism makes too much of identity, assuming race or sexual orientation can make up for an undeveloped, unrealistic character. They are simply included because it’s politically correct to do so, nothing more.
Paradoxically, tokenism also makes too little of identity by purposefully limiting a character’s personality to an incidental quality. If a character is a token person of color or homosexual, the only thing that matters is his skin color or kissing a person of the same sex. In every regard, they are just like everyone else or generally superior since the goal is to normalize and celebrate, not to show any kind of growth or struggle—for that would imply weakness, which then implies some kind of prejudice.
“The Eternals” adopts the very worst aspects of tokenism. The main characters fight, and they look good doing it. That’s it. Their personal struggles are minimized and their growth is nonexistent. Like Rey from the latest Star Wars trilogy or Captain Marvel, they have nothing to learn because they are awesome already. And if audiences have a problem with this, they better check their privilege and stop being prejudiced.
In addition to the paper-thin characters, the infusion of progressivism also leads to simple, predictable plots. The conflict is always external with some antagonist always trying to destroy or take over the world. The good guys are fighting the bad guys, and nuance is nowhere to be found. The difficult questions of responsibility, freedom, the nature of evil, and even identity are minimized. It’s basically the narrative form of “punch a Nazi.”
That’s why one doesn’t even need to watch “The Eternals” to know what will happen. They are superheroes who will fight a supervillain in order to save the world. Why now and not before? Why don’t they just take over the world themselves? What makes them good and the other side bad? Where do they come from and what is their purpose? And how do they feel about it? None of this is answered because it would complicate the narrative and challenge simplistic leftist thinking.
By contrast, other Marvel movies seemed much more open to these kinds of questions, like “Captain America: Winter Soldier,” “The Avengers: Infinity War,” or even “Spiderman: Homecoming.” Good and evil were not so obvious, or at least the villains seemed to have a point and heroes had to pay their dues. None of it seemed so simple—and the plots of these movies were so much better as a result.
Unfortunately for those movie critics desperately hoping otherwise, the superhero genre is not dead. It can be revived at any time, and probably will be once moviemakers in Hollywood decide they want to make money again. Just as the superhero genre came to the top two decades ago when filmmakers decided to abandon the childish campiness that formerly characterized the genre, it can emerge supreme once again when it abandons the childish leftism infecting it today.