Genre Theory and ‘Eternals,’ or Too Many Words on Why Marvel Can’t Make Revisionist Superhero Films

Posted in Blog, Movies, Theatrical by - November 08, 2021
Genre Theory and ‘Eternals,’ or Too Many Words on Why Marvel Can’t Make Revisionist Superhero Films

Some Spoilers for Scream (1996) and Eternals.

I don’t think anyone really realized it until the trailer announcing an upcoming sequel dropped this October, but Wes Craven’s Scream turned twenty-five this year. That I have not seen many retrospectives at this time is perhaps a portent of the fact that the film’s cultural appeal seems to have desperately waned. But maybe, most are holding off on their retrospectives until this January, during the impending release of Scream Kills, or whatever they’re going to name the first Williamson and Craven-less Scream.

It’s tough to talk about Scream for two reasons. One is the ever oppressive 90s flavour of the whole; personally, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a more 90s film out there. After all, in the world of Scream The Exorcist is on cable TV, neutered obviously; Syd calls 911 using her dial-up internet; Henry Winkler is the school principal.

But Scream is also difficult to talk about because it exists at the precipice of the end of a genre, the slasher genre to be precise. Craven’s film is probably most known today for being impossibly meta, the latest in a line of films which attempted to reverse the tropes of the slasher film inside out. Just two year’s prior, Craven had made New Nightmare after all, a film where the malicious Freddy Kreuger comes out of retirement to stalk actress Heather Langenkamp (who played Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Stress). The film’s entire premise acts as a meta-joke, a film within a film world.

You can’t talk about Scream without mentioning its much ballyhooed “rules;” ostensibly, dialogue turned into incessant “hey, did you know that’s a trope?” gesturing. Never mind the fact that Randy is the most annoying type of cinephile. And that his tastes seem to align suspiciously with the 80s heyday of mainstream American horror films. Anyway, Williamson’s script only works because of its earnestness for the tropes that it supposedly deconstructs.

Other characters attempt to mock the rules and pay for it. But Sydney is ultimately able to beat Billy and Stu because she cognizant refutes them. By the end of the film, Sydney crushes Billy with a TV. (She quite literally killing him with his own preferred apparatus). And that’s after losing her virginity to him. This upheaval is what prevents Scream from being parody and keeps it firmly in the revisionist column (or at the very least, keeps the film between both worlds). Ultimately, the film wants to establish its own rule by having its heroine fight back (something that Craven had a penchant for).

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

However, because you cannot talk about Scream without mentioning its much ballyhooed “rules,” the filmprobably killed the slasher genre. We haven’t had a mainstream slasher release (VOD or theatrical) since Sophia Takal’s Black Christmas (2019). COVID probably accounts for some of the lag. But the general lack of slashers in the before times suggests that a pandemic doesn’t account for all of the general lack of slashers. As a genre, the slasher movie has been relegated to a cultural oddity. It’s much like the Western or the big budget musical.

This is because genres go in cycles. It’s a well-known fact that the slasher movie dominated the eighties, with classics such as Prom Night (1980), Friday the 13th (1980), The Slumber Party Massacre (1982), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and countless sequels. Wikipedia lists 226 pages under its category of 1980s slasher films, a number that probably underestimates the actual total. It would not be an incorrect statement to suggest that the eighties were the Golden Age of slasher films.

Ultimately, genre cycles go in four phases: primitive, classical, revisionist, and parodic. To provide an overview of each, the primitive phase is the earliest iterations of a genre, where tropes are solidified. The classical age, meanwhile, encompasses the golden age of a genre, where tropes have been solidified enough that all future films will respond to these tropes in some capacity. Think the John Wayne westerns of the 40s and 50s, the hard-boiled noirs of the same time. Or, the aforementioned slasher movies of the 80s. Next comes the revisionist age, qurestioning those classic tropes (and thereby the ideals and values they espouse). Finally, the parodic stage attempts to spoof those tropes, where the joke is almost always that everyone knows these tropes.

Once you get to the parodic stage, it’s impossible to truly come back, because the tropes that a genre is built upon become the source of outright scorn and derision. All genres go ultimately go through this rise and fall. When a genre comes back, it returns to its golden age, but never as strong as it once was.

However, if slashers were the genre of the 80s, then what, pray tell, was the genre of the 10s. Personally, I think there can only be one answer to this question: the superhero movie. A new question emerges: what phase of the genre cycle is the superhero film presently in?

Ajak (Salma Hayek) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

“Religions have been founded on the Bible, resulting in millions of people deriving inspiration and moral strength from amazing stories about fantastic feats of faith. Hundreds of years from now, our descendants will find inspiration from the story of Cap wielding Mjolnir.”

-Kevin Smith

The MCU held court over the rest of the mainstream cinematic landscape for close to a decade. But the 2020s have not been kind to the franchise. A global pandemic meant that not a single Marvel film was released in 2020. This creates an artificial break which probably came at the worst possible time in the grand MCU story arc. Endgame offered an artificial break to some filmgoers, a conclusion to a decade long storyline that feels extra conclusion-y with a prolonged break. Marvel’s return to theatres was this summer’s Black Widow a film which failed at the one of the two most important metrics Marvel films have—the box office.

To make matters worse, star Scarlett Johansson engaged in a very public spat with Disney over these results. She alleges that the film’s day and date release (the film was briefly a Disney+ exclusive) was a breach of contract that hampered the film’s potential earnings. In response, Marvel moved Shang-Chi to a full theatrical release, which yielded only slightly more financial success. I have no data to back this up. But I have a feeling that there’s a genuine fatigue surrounding these films. Right now, my local arthouse theatre is more full than my screening of Eternals was.

(L-R): Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) and Druig (Barry Keoghan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

No matter, all of that could be explained away! Black Widow came out in a pandemic and was offered digitally, which hampered the box office. Shang-Chi starred a new character and came out in what is normally a moviegoing dead season. Those don’t really matter, because Chloe Zhao’s and her Eternals will save us! If you’ve been to a theatre in the last month or so, Zhao has been all over pre-show promotional material. Alongside her is MCU showrunner and corporate overlord Kevin Feige, assuring us all that this is her movie. Additionally, Feige has made innumerable references to the fact that Eternals is not like the other girls, that this ushers in a whole new stylistic idea for the MCU—phase four in full glory.

I think it’s important to pause here before jumping into talking about Eternals, because this rhetoric feels crucial to me. I spent way too much time yammering on about slasher movies to set-up the concept of a genre cycle. That’s because this rhetoric screams to me a conscious desire to move into a pseudo-revisionist phase. You don’t bring out someone at the peak of their cultural cache. (I’m not entirely certain that Chloe Zhao’s name is actually Chloe Zhao, and not “Oscar winning filmmaker Chloe Zhao”). You don’t bring someone whose work is diametrically opposed to your entire form of pop-art. And that’s because it sudenly feels like you need to shake things up.

The larger problem is that the MCU’s much ballyhooed formula is inherently resistant to revision, because that’s how formulas work. Put it another way, you can’t decide that you don’t like pressure as a variable in the ideal gas law. Because if you remove “P” from “PV=nRT,” it’s no longer the ideal gas law. Although to be fair to the MCU creative team, that’s not really what the purpose of Eternals is. They don’t want the formula to cease to exist, so much as they want criticism of the formula to cease to exist. Superhero films might ultimately be on the precipice of a new phase, but it’s hard to say that Eternals really is in that phrase of the genre cycle.

Hence, all of the “change” in Eternals are superficial at best. Zhao’s skillset favours natural landscapes, something that the MCU has been reticent to use in the past. Here, she gets to use natural locations and light. It’s as if she’s combating criticisms about the fact that most MCU films look like Xbox cutscenes. If you’ve ever seen the sand dune that Vormir was based on, and compare it to its digitally augmented counterpart, the results are appalling. Allowing Zhao to use both natural locations and light definitely goes against company policy. That policy, by the way,wants to be able to malleably alter the visual aesthetics of each film in post.

Zhao’s touches are easily discernable in Eternals. There’s a shot towards the film’s conclusion involving god Sersi (Gemma Chan) and sort of boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington). In that shot, they go for a walk in the park. All that’s visible is their silhouettes, while the background of the extreme long shot emits a pleasant mixture of various hues: fuchsia, light blue, forest green. Zhao shoots the scene beautifully, but that image also seems ephemeral. The film’s beauty only shows up whenever the film needs an establishing shot, and those are fleeting. Marvel movies are never allowed to actually ponder. These films cut so much it’s distracting, and for all the talk about how Eternals is a more mature version of one of these things, all of the emotions are provided to us in the form of portentous monologuing.

(L-R): Sprite (Lia McHugh) and Sersi (Gemma Chan) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

One such example of this comes in the form of Sprite (The Lodge’s Lia McHugh), an Eternal made in the image of a perpetually teenaged maker. Sprite’s character turns on the group due to conflicted feelings for fellow Eternal Ikaris. (Playing Ikaris is Richard Madden, who seems impressively disinterested in being in this film). Sprite also expresses a frustration at never being able to experience the ability to grow up. I’ve talked about child acting in the past, most notably while discussing John Crowley’s disastrous Goldfinch film, but I’m quite reticent to critique child actors. Instead, I like to question why film’s use their child actors the way that they do. Here, it genuinely baffles me why so many emotional moments in this film are provided at the hands of a teenager monologuing.

Additionally, Zhao includes a sex scene, an MCU first, which goes against another criticism of the franchise. Despite featuring a stable of the some of the hottest people on the planet, sexual desire is rarely, if ever, afforded screen time. In Eternals, Sersi and Ikaris make love towards the end of the film’s first act, if you can call it that.

Sex scenes have become a contentious topic in the film world. That’s because of a prevailing sentiment that there is too much sex in movies, despite statistical evidence to the contrary. Obviously, if cinema is supposed to highlight a wide range of human experiences, sex has a place in cinema. But often lost in this discourse is the fact that there are, in fact, plenty of bad sex scenes, And there are most definitely sex scenes which feel superfluous.

The sex scene in Eternals hits both marks, with what is maybe the worst sex scene since whatever the hell Jim Strugess and Kate Bosworth were doing in 21. It barely lasts thirty seconds, and the mix places too much emphasis on a swelling score. This renders the dialogue difficult to hear. Then, what follows is a few half-hearted thrusts. It’s something so uninspired that it destroys all immersion into the idea that these are really gods. Ya’ll waited five millennia for this?

Ikaris (Richard Madden) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Where Eternals refuses to attempt to play with its formula, is in its plotting. Walter Chaw suggests that the film is simultaneously “too convoluted and too simplistic,” a stance I’m inclined to agree with. Gun to my head, I doubt I could provide a blow-by-blow synopsis of how and why everything happens in Eternals; but, I could almost certainly tell you that it’s a clumsy climate change metaphor. And the studio traps that metaphor inside a film where ten Gods hold a laboriously self-serious rendition of the “man is inherently good/evil debate” from season 1 of Community.

A thought struck me during Eternals. I wondered if this is the most pretentious film anyone ever made. Most will never see it as that, most will not deem a film which is “popular” as pretentious, but Eternals ostensibly posits that the MCU is God, bickering to the end, but still God. It’s the Marvel movie that the studio explicitly made for people who, like Kevin Smith, believe the MCU carries the importance of a holy text. Our introduction to the Eternals involves Sersi giving a small child a dagger. That’s before a match cut to an advertisement of the same dagger as the key piece of a new museum exhibit on technological change. The impetus is that this was the catalyst for technological advancement. Man’s leap into the bronze age sprung by the MCU.

I will admit that I much prefer history as the winking reference as opposed to gauche world building. Not that the latter isn’t present, Harrington asks Chan at one point if she’s the same as Dr. Strange. However, it is at least amusing to watch Marvel recast itself as the cause and effect of human history, culminating in a wildly miscalculated rendition of the bombing of Hiroshima, where everything ends up exactly the same. At least Alan Moore had the wherewithal to make it so that history was altered in Watchmen.

(L-R): Karun (Harish Patel), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Gilgamesh (Don Lee) in Marvel Studios’ ETERNALS. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Eternals’ issue isn’t that it’s different from a Marvel film, it’s that it’s still a Marvel film. As far as revisions go, it’s not a great effort, because it doesn’t matter what haphazard emotions Zhao attempts to shoehorn into the film. Also, no matter how much magic hour natural light she uses, the film still culminates in a gaudy CGI-filled final act. During that final act, by the way, they have to fight a volcano or something. No, Eternals cannot revise the genre, because it is the genre.

Revisionist films do not merely shuffle around genre tropes, they question the very nature of the ideal the genre holds. Scream, for all of its warts, asks us to really consider why slasher movies draw some of us. McCabe and Mrs. Miller asks us to consider on who’s back the west was really won. Eternals never asks us to consider why so many of these stories are about individuals who try, and ultimately cannot change, who they are, because it is a story precisely about that. It cannot interrogate why these movies are all apocalypse narratives, because it too is one. Like other superhero films, it’s about living Gods and not why the hell we should care about Gods this melancholily narcissistic anyways.

There’s the rub. Marvel doesn’t want to interrogate the why. It’s because that is more dangerous to the formula than others realizing that there is a formula. The why gives the audience too many tools. Even if yes, it’ll do what I think art is ultimately supposed to do: ask us to consider who and what we are. The thing about revisionist genre films is that they make it very tough to go back to the classical age. And Marvel has been very, very successful in that classical age.

Eternals is probably the closest we’ll ever get to a true revisionist superhero film, but we could get closer if we were willing to ask why together. Personally, I think the MCU should do this. That’s because the next question isn’t going to be “why,” but rather, “why bother”? When you hit that point, it’s jumping straight to the parodic stage. And it’s eclipsing a space where you could really make an impact.

This post was written by
Thomas Wishloff is currently an MA student at York University. He is new to the Toronto Film Scene, but has periodically written and podcasted for several now defunct ventures, and has probably commented on a forum with you at some point. The ex-Edmontonian has been known to enjoy a good board game, and claims to know the secret to the best popcorn in the world.
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