Now that I’ve noted what Eternals is not, it’s worth spending some time on what it is. Eternals is a story about the gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And about the gods of those gods. And I can’t help but see it as a parable about organizations with layers of management, and how quickly those layers can become disconnected and unaligned. Maybe I’ve just been a middle manager who has gone through one too many reorgs or acquisitions, but hear me out.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the godlike Celestials charge the somewhat-godlike Eternals with protecting the nascent humans of Earth from an extraterrestrial predator species, the Deviants. The Eternals are not to interfere in any other conflict. But the Eternals live among the humans, and develop sympathy for them. They roll up their sleeves and work with humans, romance them, and build families with them. They chafe against the injunction against protecting humanity against its worst instincts, and are sometimes horrified by what their non-interference AND their interference produces over the span of millennia. In either case, they become emotionally invested. That is, except the leaders among the Eternals, who commune with the Celestials. These upper rung managers know what the Celestials are doing, and know that it’s best not to get too attached.
On the eve of the release of Marvel Studios’ The Eternals, I’ll once again indulge in some speculation. I’m usually dead wrong, but in what’s become a tradition since WandaVision, I’ll own it and update this post with everything I missed. (And maybe something I got right?)
UPDATED with spoilers for Eternals
Marvel Comics’ Eternals are not the most memorable characters. They’re godlike, but with less mythic resonance than Thor and Hercules. They’re cosmic, but without the same gravitas as the Silver Surfer. They’re a found family, but without the addictive melodrama of the X-Men. The Eternals’ enemies, the Deviants, are even less interesting in the comics. Their defining trait is their envy of the Eternals.
My interest in the upcoming movie is less about the Eternals themselves, but their connections to the Marvel mythology of the Celestials–and what that means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. What I’m most excited about can be summarized in one panel.
After letting my speculation run too wild with WandaVision, I’ve resisted dissecting every detail from the Marvel Disney+ shows. But now, one week before the season finale of Loki, I want to put some theories in writing, for shame or bragging rights next Wednesday. SPOILERS for Loki season 1, episodes 1-5… [Updated with outcomes from episode 6.]
SPOILERS for the entirety of WandaVision, episodes 1-9
The mission statement of WandaVision, we now see with 20/20 hindsight, was to take Wanda through her stages of grieving, from denial to acceptance. The finale accomplished that mission. Wanda released the hex, and with it, her conjured husband, children and their domestic sitcom life together where nothing truly bad happens. There was another more hidden mission about Wanda’s new place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: she’s a supervillain now. This show doesn’t have a sitcom ending.
The best supervillains (like Magneto, who has absolutely no role in WandaVision) have points-of-view with which we can empathize, if not sympathize. (Though I can see the “Wanda Was Right” t-shirts already.) We journeyed with Wanda through her loss and grief. But we also saw her inflict horrifying trauma on an entire town, and devise a cruel punishment for Agatha after beating her. Both things seem like plot elements that will rear up again. Wanda is “hated and feared” now (as Marvel mutants frequently are), and rightly so. This isn’t necessarily a terminal state–we know that prior to the pandemic, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness was to immediately follow the events of WandaVision–but it’s a character arc that culminates her biggest beats thus far, from Sokovia, to Lagos, to Wakanda.
Episode 8 of WandaVision was the explainer episode and the emotional payoff. “But what is grief, if not love persevering” could be the tagline for the series. It was sad, beautifully executed, and I loved it. I’ve been enjoying this show on two separate levels: the story it set out to tell, and the world- and mythos-building it offers the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve mostly blogged about the latter, but it’s worth mentioning the former. WandaVision is a really good story.
But I still want to dissect the mythos. I have questions. Questions that may not be answered in next week’s final episode.
SPOILERS for WandaVision through Episode 7, because I want to get some wild-ass theorizing out there before all is revealed.
In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, movies like Thor and Doctor Strange established magic as a technology born of a more advanced science, a means of tapping into primordial cosmic forces. The Infinity Stones, created along with the universe by the Big Bang, are powerful sources of these energies. But possessing an Infinity Stone is not the only way to access a portion of its power. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff were given powers by Baron Strucker, experimenting with the Mind Stone. Carol Danvers got her powers from an explosion of an engine powered by the Space Stone. Some mortals in the MCU seem less accidental about tapping into these forces.
Have you ever noticed that the stories of the Marvel heroines, from Jessica Jones, to Captain Marvel, to Wanda Maximoff, are about overcoming gaslighting? I wonder if Black Widow’s solo story will follow suit, with the other assassins of the Red Room. Anyway…
WandaVision episode 7 absolved our heroine of wrongdoing with the catchiest earworm of revelations: it’s been “Agatha All Along.” While this was presented as a big reveal, was it really? There was a certain joy in the confirmation–sold entirely by Kathryn Hahn’s gleefully wicked performance. But even casual readers of Scarlet Witch comics knew that Agatha Harkness was the likely identity of “Aunty Agnes.” In the comics, Agatha was more ally and mentor than adversary, and the only time she really went against Wanda was when she removed Wanda’s memory of her “children”–who weren’t really her children at all. Ooh, now that sounds like a clue. Regardless, there are now witches in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
SPOILERS for WandaVision, through Episode 6, HBO’s Game of Thrones final season, and Season 1 of FX’s Legion, below. And speculation on the real Big Bad.
WandaVision is one of those shows that knows its audience. The show doesn’t take pains to explain the history of the Marvel Universe–we either know it already or will use our Disney+ subscription to catch up. It serves up slow-burning mystery, and it knows that its viewership includes detectives bringing to bear decades of comic book and movie scholarship. It selects an engaged audience.
So in addition to telling a story that fits solidly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it gives us a categorization game: Easter Egg, Foreshadowing, or Red Herring?
(Implied SPOILERS for WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward.)
In 2008, when Nick Fury told Tony Stark that he’d become part of a bigger universe, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born. It was a slow release of blockbuster movies that introduced Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, brought them together as The Avengers, and kept expanding to a network of interconnected TV and movie franchises to stand in the ranks of vast properties like Star Trek and Star Wars. As of WandaVision episode 5, it looks like Phase Four of the MCU has introduced the Multiverse, and once again, Marvel’s presence on the big and small screens has expanded again.
Assuming Marvel Studios builds an in-house continuity for the X-Men and the Fantastic Four–and I hope they do, instead of importing it from the Fox movies–it feels like it’s time for the MCU to shift its focus off the Avengers. Captain America is old, and has lived a full life. Iron Man, the Black Widow, and (through tragic real-world circumstances) the Black Panther are dead. The Hulk’s days of two-fisted smashing are done. There are still Avengers, but Marvel Studios is giving them the small-screen treatment. It’s time for some new players filling out the blockbuster and tentpole movie schedule. And it should all build on what the MCU has already established.
SPOILERS for the Marvel Studios universe up through WandaVision Episode 5, and speculation beyond.
The Joy of a Slow Watch
I’ve been starved for new live-action Marvel Studios programming taking place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the parallel quantum universe without the coronavirus pandemic, I would have already seen Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi by now. Instead, I get 30 minutes every Friday of WandaVision.
And I love it.
In an era where so much is available online, and entire seasons are released to be binge-watched, I love having to wait. Each episode, questions are answered but deeper questions are uncovered. And I have a week to speculate on the answers. This might be the most enjoyable thing about being in a slow-release fandom, and the reason why many of us loathe spoilers. We are forced to engage with open questions in a story with only our own imaginations and that of our friends. We become active participants in the storytelling process, not just passive consumers. Being a fan of a shared universe becomes an intellectual exercise, where there is a potential thrill both in having guessed right and in being surprised.
The end of WandaVision episode 5 took it to a new level.