Tag Archives: Marvel

A Difference, but Not a Departure — “Eternals”

I like “Eternals” because it’s different. I might be more critical if it were part of another franchise, but the MCU desperately needs entries that are different. That may seem like a strange claim after the last year of fresh choices Marvel has made, but after 27 movies and 17 series, that renewed creativity can feel as much like a survival mechanism as an artistic choice. Too many of these still boil down to fistfights and fireballs. I once thought I could never get enough of those two things, but the MCU can hit the repeat button too often.

This may be one of the factors that informs whether you like “Eternals” or not. Do you want something different out of the MCU? If the answer’s yes, then this may be the place to find it. If the answer’s no, you may find “Eternals” shifts too many of the narrative priorities you’re seeking, or even tackles too many at once.

The film follows 10 alien superheroes called Eternals. They’re sent by a Celestial (a member of an ancient race) to protect Earth from Deviants, a species that feeds on sentient life. Thankfully, that’s where the homework ends. In almost all ways, the story of “Eternals” happens separately from anything having to do with the Avengers and pre-existing MCU properties. That means you can watch and understand the film without having to know the interpersonal drama of two dozen brand names.

The Eternals spend thousands of years helping humanity to advance and protecting us from Deviants, eventually wiping out Deviant presence on the planet. Without a mission the last few hundred years, they’ve gone to separate corners of the world to live. Some choose quiet, unassuming lives, others become celebrity dynasties. Some take part in society, others isolate themselves from it. That is – until a surviving Deviant attacks two of them in London.

Now the Eternals have to get the old team back together, all while unraveling a deeper mystery as to their own purpose. This last part is really the film’s core. “Eternals” has action, but at its heart it’s a conversation between these characters about whether they should fulfill a divine purpose or use their personal morality to determine their own. The contrast between the never-changing Eternals and the always-adapting Deviants highlights this.

Director and co-writer Chloe Zhao has spoken about how “Eternals” engages Taoist concepts, and in many ways the film acts as a conversation between Taoism and Buddhism. Do the Eternals trust in the path of the universe they’ve been assigned, or do they treat what they find as an opportunity for rebirth? Can these things co-exist? Can the answers be different for different characters? Both ethical and unethical decisions are shown being made out of logic, and both are shown being made out of emotion.

OMG, what’s this all doing in an MCU film? Please. Captain America is half-Jesus allegory, half a season of “Daredevil” takes place in the Confessional, and Kenneth Branagh got a cool $150 million to make Henry IV, Part 1 but with more capes. Every infusion of meaning has been a good one, so let’s not be upset something non-Western finally makes the cut.

There’s also an underlying conversation happening between feminism and toxic masculinity here. Free of their mission for hundreds of years, how have the Eternals chosen to fill that void of purpose? One chooses empathy and community. One focuses their connection to humanity on only their partner, one social link who now bears all their emotional burdens and processing for them.

Does the nature of this change when someone focuses on another by choosing sacrifice and care; rather than expecting sacrifice and care be provided them from someone else as a burden? It’s not the focus of the film, but it guides characters’ motivations in important ways.

This range of perspectives makes for a unique and intriguing personal dynamic, especially in a film featuring Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Brian Tyree Henry, Ma Dong-seok, and more.

I’ve seen these concepts engaged more complexly, but certainly not in a superhero movie. “Eternals” has some of the most interesting conversations because it sets aside many of the MCU’s cliches. The witty banter was great for the first 30+ projects, but it’s become awfully plug-and-play. For instance: I really enjoyed “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” and what it had to say, but the Sam-Bucky back-and-forth felt awfully similar to Steve Rogers-Tony Stark, Thor-Loki, Natasha-Clint, Doctor Strange-Spidey, the list goes on.

There’s a mix here of that banter alongside more deliberate jokes, a splash of prop humor, and Jolie delivering superb one-liners. Not all of it works, but all of it does help “Eternals” establish its own space instead of feeling like the Avengers rehash it could have been.

It also might be the most beautiful MCU film. Its storytelling hops around history to fill in backstories and realizations, and fuses together a history of sci-fi imagery. Zhao draws from Golden Age sci-fi, 60s B-movie, 80s horror, today’s superhero cinema, and anime. The result is pretty cohesive.

I liked the action because each Eternal has one or two superpowers and is otherwise pretty limited. They have to function as a team. When they don’t, they fail. The tension of the action scenes is less about whether they can out-punch the Deviant and more about whether they can agree on tactics when they’re otherwise not communicating well. That echoes the core conflict at the center of the film and allows these disagreements to be communicated by the action itself, without the traditional in-suit cutaways of heroes pausing fights for a debate. It also enables the action to help tell the story, rather than waiting until the set-piece is done.

Even if I thought a few of the powers are kind of silly, it still makes the action scenes smoother and better-paced when they’re chiefly about action instead of bickering. More importantly, it grounds me in the consequences of that moment.

Some of the Avengers team choreography feels like it’s made to be an impressive visual, and it succeeds at that. Because it succeeds so well at that, I’m rarely concerned about whether the Avengers will out-rocket, out-punch, and out-magic their foes. Hell, they’re doing so well they can pause for multiple team photos; they’ll get there in the end.

In the “Eternals”, we get an ebb and flow of messy vs. controlled, interspersed with one character’s ability to transform objects in ways that become a sort of fighting by way of magical realism. It’s a cool blend, albeit one that requires more suspension of disbelief. We know how rockets and shields and punching hard works. We don’t so much know how turning a bus into flower petals does.

There are also visual moments influenced by French cartoonist Moebius, Stanley Kubrick, David Lean, the Wachowski sisters, Kenji Misumi, and – my personal favorite – a gorgeous homage to one of John Carpenter’s most shocking creations. This is melded within Zhao’s own meditative style, a patient and incisive visual approach that recalls Terrence Malick, Byambasuren Davaa, and Zhang Yimou.

All this put together should make “Eternals” the best film in the MCU. In some ways, it may be, but there’s also a sense that it needed to pull even further away than it has to truly become what it wanted to be. It can feel like a large number of priorities mashed together at times, and that can sabotage pace. “Eternals” is two hours and 37 minutes. What could it have been as a three hour-and-ten minute meditation? That might test an audience’s patience, but so does a film that doesn’t entirely get where it wants to go.

At some point, much like its Hal Hartley-meets-Wong Kar Wai styled Netflix shows once did – and some of its Disney+ series start to before getting scared – the MCU’s got to deliver something that’s truly of another genre and approach. “Eternals” is maybe 70% of the way. It’s a different take on the MCU aesthetic and narrative philosophy, and that’s what I love about it most. Yet what the MCU needs a film like this to be is a complete departure from the aesthetic and narrative philosophy that can still exist within that cinematic universe.

The differences in “Eternals” are its strengths, but those strengths can also feel like a limitation’s been put on them. It feels like there’s an MCU ceiling of “this is how different you can make it, but no more”, regardless of whether that’s a studio decision or Zhao’s own. The result is a film I like and place among the better MCU movies but stop short of putting in that elite few. Nonetheless, it’s one I may be more interested in revisiting than a “Guardians of the Galaxy” or “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”, simply because “Eternals” hasn’t had a dozen semi-faded copies of it made yet.

You can watch “Eternals” on Disney+.

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The MCU and Genocide — Storytelling Negligence

Please be aware there are spoilers for various films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe in this article.

Everything I read about upcoming MCU shows is that this character didn’t really die, they’re coming back, etc. I realize one of those shows may take place inside someone’s head, or in an alternate reality, or depend on the timey-wimey bits of “Avengers: Endgame”. It just makes a lot that’s come before it feel even more questionable.

Who Stays Dead in the MCU?

Characters coming back to life simply because we like them, enjoy their performers, and want to see more of them begs a very obvious question:

Who did die in the MCU and will really stay dead?

A lot of people in Sokovia who died in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” are still dead. That’s a nation coded as Eastern European.

Most of a group of fleeing refugees whose homeland was just devastated in “Thor: Ragnarok” are still dead. That made a noteworthy opening for “Avengers: Infinity War”, but it stomped all over one of the chief takeaways from “Ragnarok”.

Later in the film, thousands of soldiers in the African nation of Wakanda protect an android. They die simply because the heroes are unwilling to give up one life. They’ll give up thousands of African lives, sure, but heavens no – not an android who wants to sacrifice himself in order to save others.

Oh, and countless planets we’ve only seen in passing and are unimportant have been annihilated. They’re not important because they’re coded as “other”.

Iron Man got more of a sendoff in “Avengers: Endgame” than all these groups combined.

Risk Management

Superhero movies work with the notion that people are at risk. They have to be saved from something that threatens them – without that precept, there wouldn’t be a need for superheroes. The MCU deserves some credit for wanting to explore what happens when the superheroes fail. Yet that failure is only ever used as window dressing, or a plot device. Nothing is revealed from it.

What happens in Sokovia is the fuel for a plotline in “Captain America: Civil War”. Should superheroes be regulated with international oversight? That’s an interesting question. I do get that exploring it in greater depth doesn’t put butts in the seats the way that car chases, great fight scenes, and Chris Evans benching helicopters does.

Yet the imperative to make money in these movies doesn’t excuse them from using mass killings simply as a plot device to get superheroes to face off. The ultimate question of whether superheroes should be regulated and have oversight really ceased to matter after that movie.

Theoretically, it still would have been an issue – especially after all they do across two-thirds of “Civil War” is destroy large chunks of major cities. Yet aside from positioning certain characters (Captain America and friends stay in hiding, Iron Man and his cohort dorm up together), that fight about being accountable to their destruction never again matters.

Scarlet Witch Deserves Better

When a group with power does something negligent in the real world that causes death and impacts lives, we generally favor their being held accountable in some way. Take the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010 or any of a dozen other corporate disasters. Whether that accountability is ever enacted is another question. We do want our leaders to seek it out in the first place, though.

Certainly, the creation of a rogue A.I. and robot army that levels an entire city (and portions of others) is pretty dang negligent. It causes deaths, refugees, ruins an economy, and impacts hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of lives. Oh, and the city was almost used as a giant meteor to wipe out the human race.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” does give us two survivors of a war to root for in Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. She blames Iron Man’s alter-ego, Tony Stark, for selling weaponry that contributed to her and her brother being orphaned. Yet the onus in that film is never on the audience to have a problem with Stark. We’re told he’s already changed and that’s good enough. Instead, the story focuses on Scarlet Witch getting on board with the program so that she can help save Sokovia. What’s she saving it from? From mass destruction that’s once again the fault of Tony Stark.

The story treats Scarlet Witch as the one who needs to evolve, not Stark. The story fails to treat Scarlet Witch as someone who’s so right about something that she’s right about it all over again now. The entire plot of the movie is that she was right about Tony Stark, yet the storytelling treats her as someone who needs to get over it in order to clean up after him.

She discovers the magic of forgiving someone for helping destroy her country even as his actions destroy it again. That’s certainly a fairy tale I’m sure many powerful leaders tell themselves.

Two Early Places They Got it Right

I get it. It’s hard to turn on the people who saved humanity from Loki and aliens and tell them that act doesn’t mean they have a blank check to do whatever they please. That’s not really what I’m asking, though. What I’m asking is that the filmmakers treat mass killing equally.

I think about “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” a lot because even the threat of genocide was treated extremely seriously there. It wasn’t the whole world being threatened in that film, it was people selected out through mass surveillance for their political beliefs and likelihood to resist. “Winter Soldier” had jokes and stellar action scenes, and it also treated the subject matter they were engaging as if it was worth examining more deeply.

The first “Guardians of the Galaxy” absolutely used the potential destruction of a planet and its people as an excuse for action scenes (the way nearly all superhero movies do). Yet it also examined characters who were each either exiled from their race or the last of their kind. They were survivors of genocides. It treated what they’d been through and the trauma that it caused seriously.

Atrocity as Window Dressing

Then the second “Guardians of the Galaxy” came along and ended with a big funeral for Yondu, who we find out early in the film was disgraced because he was once a child trafficker. Nobody ever deals with that, but it’s apparently OK because the protagonist saw him as a father figure. Everyone’s happy! Except all those kids he trafficked who are dead now.

“Avengers: Endgame” uses a range of Holocaust remembrance imagery, chiefly delivered through Ant-Man coming back into the world without knowledge of Thanos’s genocide. He has to discover what’s happened through the iconography we put in place to remember half of the world’s population being erased from existence. He then has to race to find if his daughter is still alive. It’s a fairly panicked and serious set of scenes.

Meanwhile, Captain America leads a trauma support group. For perhaps the first time in the wake of an MCU genocide, the tone of everything is appropria– oh wait, Hulk gets recognized by kids in a diner because he’s famous and Ant-Man’s not.

And just like that, the somber tone is over and the meaning of it all is yanked out from under us because we have to get back to being a Marvel movie. What about the remaining Asgardian refugees? Who cares, Thor’s fat now! The genocide is window dressing, the refugees are set-up for a joke.

It goes beyond the screen, too. The only two directors of color in the MCU’s first 23 movies told stories that asked serious questions about colonialism and racism. Ryan Coogler gave us a situation that was impossible to judge or find a right side to in “Black Panther”. He delivered imagery of African superheroes that we haven’t seen on-screen before.

Taika Waititi gave us the best comedy in the entire MCU when it came to “Thor: Ragnarok”. At the same time, he examined accountability to colonialist histories. He also used that comedy to turn a Norse mythology that’s often appropriated by white supremacists into a story about those mythological figures becoming refugees.

Of course, “Avengers: Infinity War” then sacrificed thousands of Wakandan soldiers and those refugees for the purposes of…action scenes, basically. Neither scene was particularly important to the plot beyond the need for a shocking introduction and a set-piece.

Then “Avengers: Endgame” decided it finally wanted to include the Asgardian refugee crisis by jump-starting our first-in-the-MCU line of fat jokes.

The Hierarchy of Death

Genocide in storytelling is something we should be pretty consistent about addressing. That’s not a big ask or a magically high expectation. It’s pretty reasonable to ask that from our entertainment.

We see New York City is worth risking everything to save. Even if it means risking the lives of our superheroes, the story tells us that’s what we need to do.

Sokovia and its Eastern European population is worth saving, too, but the cause of the destruction is absolutely the negligence and carelessness of superheroes. At least they risk themselves to save some of its people in the end, but at the same time it’s suggested those people forgive our heroes their negligence.

“Avengers: Infinity War” tells us Wakanda isn’t worth saving. It’s not worth risking the lives of superheroes to save. In fact, the sacrifice is inverted. We’ll ask Wakanda to risk thousands of African lives for one superhero.

Iron Man floating in space can be saved, but not an entire ship of refugees. That ship of refugees exists to challenge viewers about their perception of who refugees are. Yet we’ll throw that out the window if it means Thanos can give a quick expository monologue that gets us caught up on the plot.

I don’t hate the MCU. Far from it. I like seeing things blow up in pretty colors as much as the next viewer. Yet too often after an MCU movie, I can’t get a quote from Naomi Klein’s “Fences and Windows” out of my head:

“This, it seems, is the ‘civilization’ we are fighting for: battles of who is allowed to bleed. “Compassion,” a friend wrote to me last week, “is not a zero sum game. But there is also undeniably something unbearable in the hierarchy of death (1 American equals 2 west Europeans equals 10 Yugoslavs equals 50 Arabs equals 200 Africans), which is one part power, one part wealth, one part race.

As media makers we need to look deeply into our own work, and ask ourselves what we are doing to feed this devaluation of human lives and the rage and recklessness that flow from it. Traditionally, we are far too used to patting ourselves on the back.”

The MCU generally supports that math. The MCU has developed a tendency to rely on it as a storytelling shortcut rather than challenge it. We need to look more deeply into why some tragedies touch our souls when others are just plot and window dressing.

Yes, it’s escapism, and escapism in turn shapes many of our norms. It influences us. It’s OK to hold it accountable. It’s frightening to do with the things we love precisely because we don’t want to question our love for them – but it’s not just the things we hate and loathe that shift our norms and make us overlook the intolerable. The things we let in and identify with also require that accountability.

Will the MCU Fix This?

We can still identify with one part of something and enjoy it, while also discussing what it can do better. The answer to much of this is finding a greater diversity in the voices contributing to the MCU. On that front, I do have some cautious hope.

The next slate of seven films include two women directors. They’re Cate Shortland for “Black Widow”, and Chloe Zhao for “The Eternals”. Two in seven still isn’t enough, yet it’s twice as many as the first 23 films had.

Those same next seven films include four directors of color. They are Zhao, Destin Daniel Cretton for “Shang-Chi”, Taika Waititi returning for “Thor: Love and Thunder”, and Ryan Coogler returning for “Black Panther 2”. That’s also twice as many directors of color as the first 23 films had.

I enjoy the MCU. I see every film. I’ll see all the new ones. Yet the franchise as a whole needs to get over using genocide as plot shorthand. I’m tired of walking out of those films contemplating what they teach us about throwing away lives of entire populations because we value a superhero more highly.

The featured image comes from Screen Geek here.

“Big Hero 6” is This Year’s “Frozen” (and might be even better)

Big Hero 6 flying

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s a moment in Big Hero 6, Disney’s new animated superhero film, when I was reminded why I like watching movies with live audiences instead of in critic screenings. Young Hiro has just flipped the switch on his sweet, rotund, inflatable robot Baymax, turning him from a friendly caretaker into a killing machine. In order to exact vengeance, Hiro momentarily erases any conscience the robot has. The next time Hiro tries this, Baymax refuses. You see, Hiro’s lost someone very close, and Baymax tries to teach Hiro to cope in a healthier way than just getting even.

It’s a touching scene that offers a glimpse into how deeply emotional something as silly as a computer-animated superhero comedy can be. I glanced around the theater. Critics would have been furiously scribbling in their notebooks. Instead, I saw a mother wipe away tears and a father badly pretend not to. I looked further and saw this reflected across the entire theater. Families leaned a foot closer to a screen 80 feet away and cried. I’d already given up on wiping away my own tears.

As an adaptation from a Marvel comic, Big Hero 6 is hilarious and full of creative action. It’s colorfully, brightly animated, written for both children and adults, and let me repeat: it is incredibly funny. It’s also a tremendous film about coping with loss, one of the most difficult subjects to talk about with children.

Big Hero 6 mid

Hiro is a child prodigy. He invents robots in a California-Japan mishmash of a city called San Fransokyo. He’s content to hustle robot fighting leagues until older brother Tadashi inspires him toward college. Hiro is putting it all together until one key cog comes loose, and everything is taken from him. All Hiro is left with is a clue about the man responsible, and his brother’s robotic personal healthcare assistant Baymax, as large and squishy as he is well-meaning.

The two follow the clue, recruiting help from Hiro’s inventor friends and, once they realize they’re out of their depth, recasting themselves as a team of superheroes with Baymax at the center.

If you’ll follow me on a tangent, Disney (like Pixar) runs a short animated film before each feature. Big Hero 6 gives us a treat with “Feast.” It’s the story of a dog rescued off the street who changes the direction of a man’s life. It is easily the best pairing of animated short and feature film either Pixar or Disney has ever made – “Feast” sets the theme and level of emotion for the bigger film that follows. What is Baymax, after all, if not a rescue? Take away the central mystery and the villain and the superheroics, and the emotional effect Baymax’s innocence and unconditional loyalty have on Hiro’s life are much the same.

Big Hero 6 hairy baby

Let’s get to that headline, though. How is superhero adventure Big Hero 6 like fantasy musical Frozen? There’s no singing, there’s no dancing, no talking snowmen or ice palaces. And yet, I felt the same way coming out of both of them. Endorphins had been kicking in the whole movie, I felt happier coming out than when I went in, and I’d been taken on a very complete emotional journey. I’m still feeling overwhelmed and incredibly charged by Big Hero 6 even as I edit this a day later.

Neither Disney film is a cinematic marvel, and they each lack the polish of a Dreamworks (How to Train Your Dragon) or proper Pixar (Brave) movie. Yet Big Hero 6 and Frozen are both more rough-and-tumble creative propositions, less finely tuned and more willing to make mistakes. They each bite off more than they can chew, yet find a way to rise to the occasion. They each make up for some occasionally simplified animation with well-defined characters, improvised elements, and plots that are incredibly full of heart. If there were an Oscar for Best Crowd Pleaser, the two Disney animations would walk away with it two years running.

The Big Hero 6 by the way? That team consists of African-American, Caucasian, Japanese, Korean, Latin-American, and robot characters. Three men, two women, one robot. Including more diverse casts of characters not only provides a wider range of role models for children to look up to, it’s also one of the easiest ways of making the world of a film feel bigger and more real. It’s one less suspension of disbelief rested on an audience’s shoulders. Given the response I saw, I’d say it works.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Big Hero 6 have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Two of the heroes are GoGo, voiced by Jamie Chung, and Honey Lemon, voiced by Genesis Rodriguez. (They all have silly names like that. The hero’s name is Hiro, for godssakes, although that’s lifted from Snow Crash). There’s also Hiro’s guardian, his Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph).

2. Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They talk about science and technology, plan how to foil a villain, and argue over whether they’ll make it out of precarious situations. They also engage in group conversations in which women and men address the group at large.

As I was researching the film, I found an early interview indicating GoGo and Honey Lemon would have a petty rivalry over the boys’ attentions. Somewhere along the line, that got ditched, and I couldn’t be happier. Who are they without that petty rivalry? They’re both inventors, geniuses, technically apt, and good in a fight. GoGo is a laconic daredevil, Honey Lemon a stylish nerd.

When they become superheroes, GoGo uses magnetic levitation roller blades and hurls discs at enemies as if she saw Tron and took it as a challenge. Honey Lemon enters chemical formulas onto a keypad on her purse, which then dispenses the correct concoction. She can toss a ball of ice, sticky goo, or hardened shields at a moment’s notice.

As for the men, Wasabi has energy swords and Fred can jump high and breathe fire. That’s fun and all, but the women are far more exciting. GoGo’s scenes offer a lot of high-speed movement and stunts. Since Honey Lemon uses chemical reactions to fight, you don’t exactly know what she’s going to do – that always makes for an intriguing brand of action. Yeah, she uses her purse, but a purse that creates chemical reactions at will to let you fight as you want? Hell, I walked out of the theater wanting one of those.

Big Hero 6 GoGo

I’ll admit, GoGo is now one of my favorite superheroes. At one point, she tells a fretting Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.) to “Woman up.” This later becomes a catchphrase she uses when she does something especially superheroic. I imagine my niece running around and shouting, “Woman up,” treating the phrase as the absolute essence of toughness and bravery. That is an incredibly big deal.

Additionally, on that diversity I mentioned earlier – Big Hero 6 is based on a Japanese comic in which nearly all the characters are Japanese. Obviously, that’s going to change in an American adaptation. It’s just what happens, and the same thing happens in reverse when American material is adapted in other countries. There’s nothing wrong with that. Cultures adapt and cast specifically to speak to their own demographics.

In this adaptation, however, Hiro’s family is Japanese, GoGo is Korean, Honey Lemon is Latin-American, Wasabi is African-American, and Fred is Caucasian. Where Frozen tackles issues of gender equality head-on and makes it an issue for certain characters, in Big Hero 6, no one ever has an attitude that someone can’t do something because of ethnicity or gender. It’s never even mentioned.

Both approaches are valuable. Frozen forces audience members to confront the way in which traditional media presents women as weak, helpless, and in need of saving. In Big Hero 6, equality just seems an everyday normality, and you get to spend two hours experiencing what that world is like.

That in itself is a powerful statement, and I can’t applaud the multitude of writers, directors Don Hall and Chris Williams, and casting director Jamie Sparer Roberts enough for how they designed this cast and these characters.

As moving as the film is itself, it’s even more extraordinary when you take into account how rare an approach to casting and character treatment this is in something that cost $165 million to make. I can’t recall a big-budget film ever doing diversity this well. Period.

Big Hero 6 team