Deacon Steven Greydanus on The Eternals

Over at the Register, Steve writes:

“You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”

— C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man

One of the most enduring raps on the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its villain problem. After over a dozen years and some 25 films featuring dozens of superheroes, the MCU has produced just two memorable, enduring antagonists: Tom Hiddleston’s mercurial Loki and Josh Brolin’s emo nihilist Thanos. Not to slight Michael B. Jordan’s incandescent Killmonger, among maybe one or two others who stand out amid a deep bench of forgettable mediocrities like Malekith and Taskmaster — but even the best of the rest have, so far, been one-and-done baddies of the week.

Eternals — a sweeping ensemble origin story spanning thousands of years of human history and introducing a record-breaking 10 new costumed heroes at one go — adds a number of new forgettable antagonists, mostly the mindless monstrosities called Deviants. At least one non-Deviant antagonist is officially a spoiler, but you’ll probably spot the other one out of the gate if you’ve been paying attention. He’s a culmination of an archetype running through Marvel movies from the beginning: an apotheosis of the MCU’s most consistent idea, if not their only idea.

This archetype can be broadly called “The Man” or “the Powers that Be.” Always a powerful, patriarchal establishment figure, like Obadiah Stane, Nick Fury, or Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford’s character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), The Man is often the protagonist’s actual father, like Howard Stark or Black Panther’s father T’Chaka. Sometimes Dad is a literal higher power, a being of quasi-divine status, like Odin of AsgardEgo the Celestial (father of Star-Lord), or the immortal Wenwu (father of Shang-Chi). In The Eternals, The Man is something more exalted still — and this has unavoidable existential and dramatic consequences.

Incarnations of The Man vary from one MCU movie to another in terms of how sympathetic or compromised he is. Always, though, The Man has damaging secrets, misrepresents his true intentions, and can’t be trusted, at least not completely. Even if The Man himself is more sympathetic than not, the institution, legacy, program, or domain he represents is fundamentally compromised or corrupt.

“Let’s just say the greater good has rarely outweighed my own self-interest,” Howard Stark himself eventually admitted to Tony in a poignant, time-bending final encounter. Howard left his son a legacy of war profiteering, and the way he dispatched his unscrupulous colleague Anton Venko — who helped invent Stark Industries’ greatest nonviolent achievement, the arc reactor — was ruthless at best, and had grave consequences for both men’s sons, especially Venko’s. Taking this tainted legacy to a new level, Tony’s surrogate father figure Obadiah Stane sold weapons to terrorists.

Behind Nick Fury’s dissembling about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s super-weapons program, among other things, may have been humane motives, but S.H.I.E.L.D. itself was secretly rotten from within, infiltrated and subverted by Hydra, a terrorist secret society with Nazi ties. Odin and T’Chaka were largely depicted as benevolent rulers, but their regimes papered over their leaders’ unacknowledged crimes: Odin’s campaigns of genocide and murderous conquest; T’Chaka’s cover-up of the killing of his radicalized brother N’Jobu and the abandonment of N’Jobu’s young son, the future Killmonger. (Wakanda’s historic isolationism in the face of African suffering and turmoil is a further stain on its legacy.)

Much more here.

I’ve been reading Tom Holland’s Persian Fire and am struck by how much story-telling in the MCU (and the Star Wars and various other American universes) is a continual retelling of Persian War with Greece–and always from the Greek perspective. The overwhelming monolithic threat from a gigantic superpower who holds all the cards. The plucky band of gifted individualists who must learn to overcome their difference, learn to live and work in harmony, and pull together for the common good.

I mean, I get it. It’s a helluva story and it never fails to move us.

But I do wonder how many times it can be told before we have to face Hubris, Nemesis, and the tragedy of the Peloponnesian War that came after that halcyon moment in time.

To do them justice, the Avengers did have their Civil War and then lather/rinse/repeat for Thanos. But it feels a bit tidy.

Anyway, the Persian War seems to be a well the MCU returns to a lot.

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4 Responses

  1. I had the same problems with the writing of The Eternals that Deacon Greydanus did. He was able to put into words what I was feeling. Indeed, any attempt to cast the Biblical God as “The Man” will fall short, because God has no moral shortcomings.

    Earlier in the pandemic, my wife and I were enjoying the Netflix series “Warrior Nun.” I was very disappointed in the finale though, as it was yet another attempt to cast the Vatican/Church/God as “The Man”, and the series disintegrated into yet another zombie film.

    I also like your take on the retelling of the Persian War. Isn’t it weird how clear moral theory makes a story? Lord of the Rings is one thing, a droll retelling of an old war is another…

    Also, for what it’s worth… I have heard retellings of the Persian War from the areas east of Greece – the regions of Afghanisitan, Pakistan, Iran itself. They have no love for Alexander over there.

    1. A historian friend remarked that the central lesson of 20th century politics from Greece v. Turkey to Nazi Germany is “Do not start a race war and lose.”

  2. I watched the first 3 or 4 MCU films but have ignored them since. They are all too much alike: costumed people with superpowers dealing with both internal and external conflicts; and most everything gets resolved in a big dumb loud action climax.

    The pattern is cool once or twice. But not 25 times.

    – joel

  3. Superhero movies are fun. I find them better, though, the fewer superpowers the hero actually has and the more they have to rely on skill, cunning and, even better I think, other people. A good plot, to me, is ordinary people trying to be good in extraordinary circumstances and succeeding, even if the extraordinary circumstances are someone otherwise quite ordinary discovering they have extraordinary powers.
    The Greek v Persian thing, with a small band against impossible odds, and its more extreme version of the lone hero likewise permeates our concept of heroism to an extraordinary degree. In reality, though, in most other cases where you have had a small band of “supermen” taking on large numbers of not-very-good cannon fodder, it’s been the not-very-good cannon fodder who have been the (relatively) good guys. People who are very skilled at killing large numbers of other less skilled people aren’t usually very nice, and those who employ such people generally worse. Lots of wars form the pattern of the violent aggressive people who spend all their money on weapons and fighting attacking the larger, peaceful, minding-their-own business people who didn’t, doing a lot of damage and then finding themselves losing due to the determination, steep learning curve and sheer weight of numbers of the people they thought would be a pushover rising up to figh to defend their homes. A professional, well-equipped soldier fighting with a lifetime of killing behind him is nowhere near as heroic as the poor badly equipped just-last-week-a-civilians prepared to get slaughtered to try and stop him.

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