Recently I watched the latest Marvel movie, Eternals. I’m not sure why. Like a store-bought dessert, after I consume any Marvel movie I feel more nauseated than satisfied, and yet, when I’m offered another a year later, I forget the bad feeling and partake again.
But after the nausea passed, I realized that this movie deserves being discussed, from a Gaian perspective.
For the majority of you who probably didn’t see it, here’s a plot summary (and spoilers):
Some magical God (and the creator of the universe) named Arishem created a bunch of superhuman gods, the Eternals, mostly going by mythic names—Thena (“not Athena”), Ikaris, Sersi, Gilgamesh, etc. (conveying how these ancient myths came to be)—and sent them to Earth to protect it from monsters. Or so the Eternals thought. In truth, that was a temporary gig. Their real purpose was to protect humans until enough intelligence was present to feed the godseed that Arishem had planted in the Earth. This godseed, or “Celestial” would, when birthed, destroy the Earth and make new galaxies—that’s how the universe lives and grows; without Celestials the universe would supposedly die. That’s the backstory. The movie itself is mostly about the Eternals discovering this true purpose and going against their programming (it turns out they’re synthetic beings) to save humanity. Except Ikaris, who stays true to his mission, and when he fails (because of course the Eternals are victorious and humanity is saved) he flies into the sun and kills himself.
See what I mean? It’s like eating a three pack of Entenmann donuts, your stomach knotted and gurgling, your fingers sticky with grease and powdered sugar. But it does need discussing as there are several major problems, philosophically.
Anthropocentrism of Epic Proportions
First, the obvious one: a good portion of the movie is about the Eternals deciding to break mission and stop the Celestial from emerging. It turns out this wasn’t their first rodeo—they had served as midwives to thousands of other Celestials, and thus death doulas to thousands of other worlds (memory erased after each go, except Ajak, the lead Eternal). But it was only with humans that she saw such intelligence, such amazingness that she wanted to kill a galaxy-making god and rebel against the creator of the universe.
Now I know this movie is written by humans, so perhaps I should be more forgiving about the epic levels of anthropocentric hubris embedded in that discovery. Of all the thousands of other worlds the Eternals destroyed, each with their own sentient beings farmed to feed the Celestial,1 only humans are that remarkable? And not because of our technology as all that was seeded by yet another eternal, Phastos. No, it was the fact that humans defeated the deviant Eternal (Thanos) who erased half the life in the universe, or some nonsense like that.2 Sure, I get it, humanity has to be portrayed as being savable or there’d be no movie, but for all the viewers eating popcorn, sipping soda, and consuming the planet mindlessly (and yet at the same time voraciously), this reinforces an idea that is deeply dangerous: human society in its current form is more valuable than anything, even a million new worlds, and certainly a living and thriving Earth.
Let a Million Worlds Bloom
Worse than this is that the Eternals regularly point out the value of humans but never once, not even as an aside, point out the beauty or worth of Gaia, the Earth, biodiversity, or Life. I would have even been content with a jokey aside like “I’ll sure miss the Redwoods.” But there was nothing. Earth was just a backdrop for humanity and whether it lived or died was not in any Eternals’ calculations.3 In fact, I bet if their first plan of putting the Celestial back to sleep had succeeded, the Eternals would have then focused on seeding new technology to get humans (and select species that support them) to colonize Mars or some other world and the rest of Gaia be damned.
But here’s the worst problem—and the one that confuses my Gaian identity most: I found myself rooting for Ikaris. Deep down I am a utilitarian. Hence why I value all of life on Earth far more than I do humans (especially humans in their current parasitic form). This guides me as a Gaian. So now, in this fictional twist, where destroying Gaia actually leads to more life, perhaps millions of living planets, I found myself saying, “Ok, I guess I can accept the death of Gaia (and yeah, humanity too, but frankly we’re on our way to that outcome by our own hand anyway) to seed even more life.”
It gets even weirder for me. I believe in a living Earth, and Gaia is at the root of my values and ethics. But in this film, there is a God, creator of the universe and actively engaged (even capturing a few of the Eternals who disobeyed Him at the end of the film). Having this all so black and white, could one disobey God, actively killing one of his celestial beings just to save a violent and self-destructive race of primates?4 I don’t know how Christians, Jews, or Muslims reacted to this film, but were they, too, rooting for Ikaris to be victorious and the Earth to be destroyed so God’s kingdom could grow?
The Emergence of…
There’s a stark contrast with what happens in the film versus what needs to happen in real life. Out of Gaia rises a Celestial, stillborn halfway through its emergence. Instead, what really needs to emerge, out of humanity, is a collective ecological consciousness. One that helps us recognize that at the center of all is a living Earth—not a Celestial, God, or goddess—but a planetary being who we are part of and utterly dependent on. No Eternals are coming to save us and if Gaia is destroyed, it will be we who are to blame. That, unfortunately, is not a message that ever emerges from this Marvel film.
Ultimately, I finished the film in quite an uneasy state. But the result was the same as with the other 25 Marvel movies: just like with a car accident on the side of the road, I really don’t want to look, but I feel compelled to. With millions of people watching, and being influenced by, this portrayal of reality, it is important that we recognize that vehicles like Eternals spread pernicious views of human exceptionalism and a broken relationship with Earth. Hence, how can I not watch and serve as witness to the tragedy? (And yes, momentarily enjoy the fighting and frolicking.) But at the end of the film, as I finally passed by the wreckage, and turned my head, I shuddered as I thought of those victimized by the horrible but attention-grabbing scene that unfolded before me.5
1) To be fair, they were free-range and humanely harvested.
2) No worries if you didn’t realize Thanos is an Eternal. Only researching this essay did I learn that. His desire to destroy half the people in the universe—considering they generate new galaxies—now seems even stranger.
3) Quick aside: this is not the first time science fiction writers have sacrificed Earth to bring about a higher entity. In 1953, Arthur C. Clarke wrote Childhood’s End. This shares an almost identical plot, where children become part of the “Overmind,” a magical consciousness that traverses the universe, and Earth is destroyed in the process. I don’t remember Clarke being overly concerned with the death of Gaia either. The main difference between these two movies? Childhood’s End lacks sexy superheroes.
4) That certainly seems no harder a moral choice that sacrificing/executing your own son, as God told Abraham to do, and he was ready to do that! (And let’s not even bring up the poor ram who just happened to be on scene to substitute for Isaac. From an ecocentric perspective that seems less than fair!)
5) Maybe victimized feels like too harsh a word but the further we go down this path of human exceptionalism the harsher the collapse and the worse the suffering of billions in the aftermath of the failed consumer economy and the transition to life on a degraded hothouse Earth.