Updated: Nov 11, 2021
Eternals is the most profound, intellectually engaging, and visually captivating of all of the Marvel movies. It represents a watershed moment for MCU when viewed from an archetypal perspective.
Granted, it's coming from a comic book series, but let's not be too hasty in dismissing what it has to say. The artist class has always been either a source of or reflection of the ideas within society as it now is or as they want it to become. Mankind's moral, political, and cultural direction has always sprung from the musings and teachings of prophets, poets, and philosophers - the "idea people".
Homer inspired Solon.
Virgil inspired Caeser's successors.
Mohammed inspired Nizam al-Mulk.
Moses, Jesus, and Cicero inspired Jefferson and Madison.
Hegel, Marx, and Engels inspired Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot, hooks, Foucault, Derrida, Delgado, DiAngelo, Sensoy, and Kendi.
Look at what the idea people say today and you'll have an idea of the likely direction of society in the future. And of course, there are always competing voices and directions to make things interesting - and complicated.
Similarly, society is informed and enriched (or enfeebled) by poetry, song, dance, theater, fables, and food (or lack thereof) inspired by the the moral systems and origin stories the idea people promote.
Consider, for example, the enormous swaths of art, literature, and music of the past two millennia that have flowed from the Judeo-Christian conception of right/wrong, justice/mercy, love/hate, purpose, love, forgiveness, and its depiction of ultimate beings that personify good and evil. Characters in stories are typically very good (God archetype), very bad (Satan archetype), or flawed (human journey archetype). A character’s death is typically used to illustrate evil/tragedy or as a deserved consequence of a character’s flaws (justice).
Now, consider the MCU movies prior to Eternals. Arguably, they have sprung from that same Judeo-Christian well of traditional good vs. evil. The first movie chronologically is about a fiercely patriotic, God-fearing American determined to save the world from great evil. For the more than two dozen movies that follow, the archetypal blueprint is pretty consistent - fight the demons within and without and may greater good triumph. As soon as Steve Rogers bows out, however, the ethos those movies embodied bows out as well, with only Chang-Shi separating Endgame from Eternals.
The ideas within Eternals flow from a different metaphysic than its predecessors - a different worldview. It's worth asking what that worldview asks of us and whether it is reflective of something to come, or something that's already here, or both.
Eternals' scope is sweeping. It doesn't just deal with a present-day crisis, it encompasses all of human history. Moreover, as we see in the closing credits, all earthly representations of deity throughout that history are encompassed in the “Celestial” apex being, Arishem the Judge (deity archetype), who is introduced as the distant and mysterious, yet benevolent creator of the universe who interfaces with humankind across the millennia through the lead “Eternal” (prophet archetype) who, along with subordinate Eternals (disciple archetype) warn and protect humans against Deviants (Satan/destroyer archetype). Within this cocoon, so to speak, humans are watched over as they try to advance and figure things out. In other words, it starts out with the typical Judeo-Christian ontology and cast of characters.
Except then (spoiler alert), the archetypes are rewritten and undone. The are revealed to be a malicious, dangerous fiction. Ultimate good becomes betrayer and liar. Benevolent creator of the universe becomes selfish tyrant, reproducing at the expense of mankind. Devil becomes victim, creation and casualty of the Creator’s error. Furthermore, the lead “prophet” knows the truth all along and therefore shares in the Creator's betrayal of both the “disciples” and all of humanity.
The lesson? The Gods cannot be trusted and must be killed if mankind is to survive. Prophets who were in the know must die (justice), and those that didn’t must join the humans bereft of any divine calling. Mankind must save itself (enter Nietzsche).
All of this in opposition to the Judeo-Christian ethos of a omni-benevolent God who exists and even sacrifices himself, to enable human flourishing, goodness, justice, mercy, etc. (e.g. “for God so loved the world…”, “this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man…”)
In this sense, while Eternals is a departure from MCU's previous two dozen films, it is much more one that reflects the prevailing ideas of our day. A number of scenes reflect the non-traditional values that many alternate-prophets, poets, and philosophers of our day have been preaching for a long time. Except for the love scene in the sand - that seems so impractical and uncomfortable. But I digress.
It's worth asking, is a story with such an ethos simply fantasy? Or does it perhaps reflect a world its authors want to live in? Or does it reflect a existing worldview they've adopted and are in turn advocating?
I see within this story the reflection of the Hegelian metaphysic, the 200 year-old quasi-religion that seeks Utopia without God, and has given birth to dozens of denominations including Marxism, cultural Marxism, identity Marxism, socialism, communism, Critical Theory, Wokeism, and others. I see the philosophies of Naturalism (Rousseau & Hobbes) and Existentialism (Hegel, Sartre, & Kierkegaard). I see Dewey, Skinner, and Nietzsche.
And maybe I’m reading too much into it. After all, in the Marvel Comics Multiverse mythology upon which this movie is based the actual creator of the universe is the First Firmament, who then creates Aspirants (not in the movie) and Celestials. There’s a lot more to it than is shared in this one film. But, I don't think so. There's too much that's familiar to be wholly original, a mere fanciful contrivance, or "just for fun". It's a story well told and with purpose, but its moral I reject.
All in all, the CGI is stunning and beautiful. The storyline is engaging and sweeping. The actors/actresses are gorgeous, of course. This is Hollywood, after all (and Bollywood), where the constant employment of beauty (or humor) privilege is an article of faith, or more accurately, an appeal to the epistemology of aestheticism (i.e. beauty bespeaks truth).
So, why is there such a love/hate reaction to this film? Do some who revel in it do so because they applaud the advent of a truly secular world and moral philosophy? Do some who hate it do so because it aims a blow at the Judeo-Christian archetypes and concepts that are foundational to western civilization?
We take cultural cues from the artists and thinkers among us. Is Eternals entertainment or indoctrination? Is there really a difference between the two? Or are there always doctrines they would have us adopt, embody, proselytize, and perpetuate?