Eternal Variation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has attracted increasing attention as an exemplar of blockbuster franchising over the past decade, with milestones that include a Best Picture Oscar nomination for Black Panther (2018) and a (momentary) highest-grossing release of all time with Avengers: Endgame (2019) (a mantle since retaken by the re-release of the 2009 blockbuster, Avatar). The ‘MCU’ is undeniably popular and continues to engage audiences around the world. But the ‘MCU’ phenomenon has also been met with criticism towards its familiar formula and ostensible lack of artistic variation across its slate of twenty-six instalments and counting. Denis Villeneuve is director of the most recent contribution to the ‘Dune’ franchise and he considers that “Perhaps the problem is that we are in front of too many Marvel movies that are nothing more than a ‘cut and paste’ of others.” A popular meme also illustrates this point, which likens the ‘MCU’ to Hallmark Christmas movies that all look the same (Figure 1).

Figure 1

It is in this context that most commentary surrounding Eternals (2021), the most recent release in the ‘MCU,’ has grappled with a tension between sameness and variation in the franchise: adherence to a formula and the expression of something different. While many critics consider that Eternals falls short in many ways, most recognise that Marvel Studios has made a deliberate effort to take the ‘MCU’ in a different direction. Whatever that direction may be is yet to be clear, but in the featurette, “In the Beginning,” Marvel Studios’ president and CCO Kevin Feige signals an intentional new perspective on the ‘MCU,’ where “the impact Eternals will have on the ‘MCU’ will be nothing less than redefining the cinematic universe entirely.” Despite this focus on difference and change in the ‘MCU,’ Eternals also tries to address where the ‘MCU’ has come from and what it has always been: according to Feige in the same featurette, it “explores the very creation of the Marvel Universe itself.” There is thus a duality that comes from the redefinition of the ‘MCU’ together with an exploration into its very existence.

This duality also corresponds with the tension between repetition and variation in the ‘MCU’ formula, and in franchise moviemaking more broadly. The concept of formula in popular media is often conflated with repetition, but this is misguided: by definition, formula is a mechanism that must balance familiarity with variation, otherwise we should just talk about re-watching the same movie on repeat (in the same format and on the same device). A significant part of the success of the ‘MCU’ comes from its balance of familiarity and variation; ‘MCU’ audiences are attuned to this dynamic, which drives their enthusiasm for more and their acuity to identify the distinct attributes of every ‘MCU’ instalment. When a Marvel-literate viewer considers the entire slate of instalments, they rarely see twenty-six generically similar movies, but a complex tapestry of distinct characters, genres, narratives, and styles. That Eternals stands out for so many viewers as different or new signals how its employment of the ‘MCU’ formula has leaned more on the side of variation than familiarity, but this does not mean that the ‘MCU’ has never engaged with strategies of variation before Eternals.

In this discussion I am not interested in whether Eternals is a “good” or “bad” movie (see Rotten Tomatoes for such a debate). Admittedly, I don’t love Eternals, but I did enjoy it decidedly more on second viewing. Nonetheless, my fascination with this instalment is driven by the ways its creative form, style, and franchise mechanisms present a productive springboard for discussing what variation looks like in the ‘MCU.’ A range of creative strategies and systems have worked to inscribe variation and differentiation into the franchise formula of the ‘MCU’ since its early development across Phase One, including genre, adaptation, media, audience, and directors. From here I will discuss each of these strategies with examples from across the ‘MCU,’ including Eternals (spoilers ahead).

Genre

The ‘MCU’ is principally of the superhero genre, which centres around superpowered individuals who fight supervillains in a masked costume (or suit). The superhero genre is, like all genre, characterised by a set conventions and tropes that include key narrative events, patterns, and structures (origin stories, team-ups, death and return, seriality, retroactive continuity, and rebooting), recurring settings and iconography (urban centres, hidden lairs or headquarters, costumes, gadgets, and other accessories), distinct characterisation (superpowers, secret identities, side-kicks, and transformative backstories), and themes (the nature of identity, science versus magic, human ability, personal responsibility, and accountability). As with all genre, variation of convention in the superhero genre is just as important as consistency and repetition of generic tropes; it is this capacity for variation that characterises generic distinctions between superhero movies.

In the ‘MCU,’ genre variation occurs not only within the superhero genre, but also in dialogue with other genres. All movies of the superhero genre tap into the action genre as an effect of superpowered fight scenes and high adrenaline narrative events. Moreover, while the superhero genre has its own conventions, it often overlaps with compatible genres such as science fiction and fantasy: we see this in the distinction between the movies Spider-Man (2002) and The Amazing Spider-Man (2012). The ‘MCU’ expands this scope for genre hybridity in the superhero genre with instalments that are inflected with the tone and conventions of other genres in tandem with superhero narratives, such as Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) (historical war genre), Captain America: The Winter Solder (2014) (political thriller), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) (space opera), Ant-Man (2015) (heist movie), Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (teen movie), Thor: Ragnarok (2017) (comedy), Black Widow (2021) (spy thriller), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) (kung-fu), and Eternals (drama).

Genre hybridity is therefore not new in the ‘MCU’ with Eternals and has functioned as a system for differentiation since Phase One. However, Eternals stands out because it blends the superhero genre—with its associated fantasy, science-fiction, and action conventions—with the tonal qualities, stylistic aesthetics, and narrative form of drama and art cinema through the influence of its director, Chloé Zhao. For this reason, Eternals is a compelling experiment that pushes the boundaries of genre hybridity in ‘MCU’ formula and works in tandem with other differentiating strategies, such as adaptation and directorial style (to be discussed further below).

Adaptation

Adaptation is fundamental to the formation of the ‘MCU.’ As a franchise based on superhero comic books published by Marvel Comics, the ‘MCU’ works in dialogue with pre-existing narratives that provide an in-built audience who are already familiar with the source material. Popular commentary and criticism generally measures adaptation by its similarity or fidelity to a source text, but narrative variation is also central to the relationship between a source and its adaptation. In the ‘MCU,’ deviations and the reimagining of Marvel Comics play an important part in how its audience discerns variation in the franchise’s formula.

Tales of Suspense #39 (Marvel Comics 1963)

Variation in adaptation has always existed in the ‘MCU’ since it adapted the setting of Iron Man’s origin story from the Vietnam War in the comic book, Tales of Suspense #39 (Marvel Comics 1963), to the Afghanistan War in the first ‘MCU’ instalment, Iron Man (2008). There are many examples of variation through adaptation in the ‘MCU,’ especially concerning characterization. For example, the ‘MCU’ features characters not initially conceived in Marvel Comics, such as Agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), and Luis (Michael Peña). Moreover, many characters have also been adapted with varying degrees of modification from their comic book depictions, such as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who, in Marvel Comics, are mutants and have at various times been Magneto’s biological children; these details have been adapted for the ‘MCU’ because of pre-existing licensing agreements over the ‘X-Men’ property and so this variation also reflects the intersections of creative variation and industrial conditions in franchise production.

Other variations in ‘MCU’ characters from Marvel Comics include Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who in the comic books was trained by criminals and a star attraction in a circus, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who exists on earth in the host body of a human, Dr Donald Blake, and Captain America (Chris Evans) is discovered frozen by an already-formed Avengers team and his primary love interest is Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), not Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Even the origin of the Avengers is adapted for the ‘MCU,’ since in Marvel Comics the first roster includes Ant-Man and the Wasp instead of Captain America, and the ‘Avengers’ name is coined by the Wasp, Janet van Dyne, not in honour of Carol Danvers’ aviator callsign as is revealed in the ‘MCU’ instalment, Captain Marvel (2019). On some level, these adaptations might just seem like trivia, but every variation through adaptation puts the ‘MCU’ on multiple creative directions towards the unfamiliar.

The Avengers #1 (Marvel Comics 1963)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Eternals #1 (Marvel Comics 1976)

The Eternals also involves variation through adaptation. The Marvel Comics series Eternals #1–#19 (1976–1978), created by Jack Kirby, follows three evolutionary off-shoots that are descendent from apes following experimentation by space-gods, called Celestials: Deviants with unstable biology and every-changing form who live in chaos and dwell below the surface of the planet; Eternals, who are constant and live in the mountains of Olympia, away from humans and closer to the gods; and humans, who are the perfect balance of stability and change, as well as peace and destruction. In this comic book series, Celestials return to Earth every few centuries to observe and judge the progress of their experiment, often with punishment and destruction; the first Eternals series depicts the fourth return of the Celestials, where Deviants, Eternals, and humans try to work together against the Celestials as a common threat.

By contrast, in the ‘MCU’ instalment, Eternals are an immortal cosmic race sent to Earth by Celestials to destroy the Deviants; previously unbeknown to the Eternals, they are revealed to be synthetic beings made by the Celestials and sent to planets to facilitate the growth of sentient life that feeds a Celestial life-form growing inside the planet—the Deviants were first tasked with this mission on Earth before they unexpectedly evolved and became a danger to life and the mission. In this adaptation, Deviants, Eternals, and human are not united: the Deviants wish to destroy the Eternals for killing their kind; humans play minor roles and are merely spoken for and about; and, while most of the Eternals want to save Earth, it is through the discovery of their true (destructive) purpose that this movie explores of what constitutes humanity. This shift in premise alters some of the key questions around evolution, religion, and mythology explored in Kirby’s comic book series but reveals different aspects of the ‘MCU’ for various storytelling opportunities across multiple media platforms.

Eternals #1 (Marvel Comics 1976)
An Eternal fights a Deviant in Eternals (2021)

Media

Adaptation in cinema is commonly associated with novel-to-film translations, but it can also involve adapting narratives between comic books, graphic novels, television, video games, theatre, toys, or theme park attractions; this facilitates relationships between media that alter narration and style in various ways based on the qualities and affordances of specific media platforms. Therefore, the same story told through different media is inscribed with the dynamics of variation: even when an adaptation maintains utmost fidelity to the narrative in its source, variation is still represented by different media. In some franchise examples, such as the ‘MCU,’ ‘Star Wars,’ and ‘Star Trek,’ media variation is used particularly well through strategies such as transmedia narration, which expands storyworlds across multiple media platforms to enrich the overall experience of a storyworld.

In addition to blockbuster movies, Marvel Studios has experimented with multi-platform storytelling in the ‘MCU’ since its conception as it has engaged media to explore different facets of its storyworld: one-shot shorts, such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer (2011), Agent Carter (2013), and All Hail the King (2014); multiple television series across broadcast, cable, and streaming, including Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (ABC 2013–2020), Agent Carter (ABC 2015–2016), Daredevil (Netflix 2015–2018), Jessica Jones (Netflix 2015–2019), Luke Cage (2016–2018), Iron Fist (Netflix 2017–2018), The Defenders (Netflix 2017), The Punisher (Netflix 2017–2019), Runaways (Hulu 2017–2019), Cloak & Dagger (Freeform 2018–2019), Helstrom (2020), WandaVision (Disney Plus 2021), The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Disney Plus 2021), Loki (Disney Plus 2021–), What If…? (Disney Plus 2021–) and Hawkeye (Disney Plus 2021); comic book tie ins, such as Iron Man 2: Public Identity (2010), Captain America: First Vengeance (2011), Black Widow Strikes (2012), and Jessica Jones (2015); and digital series, such as WHIH Newsfront (YouTube 2015–2016) and DailyBugle.net (YouTube 2019; TikTok 2021).

This experimentation with multi-platform storytelling in the ‘MCU’ has involved varying degrees of narrative continuity and cohesion, where the connective tissue between some of the above examples and the blockbuster movies of the ‘MCU’ is not as strong as it is in the more recent ‘MCU’ series on Disney Plus, such as WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki—this has a lot to do with the former organisational production structure that separated Marvel Television (responsible for the ABC, Netflix, and Hulu series) and Marvel Studios (responsible for the blockbuster movies and now Disney Plus series). Nonetheless, media multiplicity plays an important role in how variation has always been inscribed into the franchise formula of the ‘MCU.’

Audience

Multi-platform storytelling in the ‘MCU’ not only expresses the storyworld through various media but also engages different audience demographics through multiple entry points. This is most explicit in how blockbuster movies, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and Eternals, have introduced the stories of Marvel Comics to a broader audience. This audience breadth is facilitated by the PG-13 rating of all ‘MCU’ movies in the United States—this includes Eternals, despite its more mature themes and the first sex scene in an ‘MCU’ movie since Marvel Studios was acquired by The Walt Disney Company (although Eternals does have a stronger maturity rating in other countries). Despite its PG-13 rating in the U.S., there is a sense that this kind of content in Eternals speaks more directly to the maturer members of its broader audience. However, this is not the first time that the MCU has explored ways to engage with a mature audience: Netflix’s “Marvel Knights” television series, composed of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Defenders, and The Punisher, played a particularly vital role in engaging a different audience demographic since it tapped into the ‘peak TV’ streaming boom and provided darker stories with gritty realism and social diversity. This is also reinforced by the TV-MA content rating of all the “Marvel Knights” Netflix series in the United States (MA15+ in Australia), which is contrary to the PG-13 rating of other MCU entries.

While I suggest that the ‘MCU’ has always inscribed some degree of creative variation or difference into its franchise formula, whether through genre, adaptation, media platform, or style, there remains room for more diversity in its characterisation and key creative talent, including actors, screenwriters, producers, and directors; this provides an opportunity to expand the breadth of stories that may be explored in the ‘MCU,’ but it can also appeal to a broader audience rarely represented in the ‘MCU’ or blockbuster cinema. Examples such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel, WandaVision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Black Widow have demonstrated some movement in this area, but Eternals has contributed variation through diversity of characters, actors, settings, stories, and key creatives, to a degree not seen before in the ‘MCU.’

Black Panther (2018)

Directors

The ‘MCU’ has been shaped by the influence and vision of multiple creators, including (but not limited to) its producers, writers, directors, cinematographers, editors, composers, and actors. As a franchise, the ‘MCU’ must remain committed to the creative and industrial essence of its core property, and some key creatives stand out in terms of creative cohesion and consistency, such as producers Kevin Feige, Victoria Alonso, and Nate Moore, writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely, and directors Anthony and Joe Russo; nonetheless, the multiplicity of its creative workforce is also an important force of variation and differentiation in its formula. Over the course of its development many directors have been engaged to provide the MCU with different tonal qualities, creative perspectives, and aesthetic sensibilities, such as Joss Whedon with The Avengers (2012) and Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), Taika Waititi with Thor: Ragnarok, Ryan Coogler with Black Panther, Cate Shortland with Black Widow, and Chloé Zhao with Eternals.

The signature style of these directors is a form of variation and differentiation in the ‘MCU,’ and also intersects with many of the other strategies for variation mentioned above. For example, Thor: Ragnarok is an exemplar of how genre, adaptation, audience, and directorial vision intersect to achieve effective variation in the ‘MCU’ formula: it adapts elements from a range of Marvel Comics series that are reimagined through Waititi’s creative vision and comedic tone—this not only provides creative variation but may also appeals to new audiences previously unfamiliar with the ‘MCU.’ A similar interaction of these elements is at work in Eternals, which has been influenced by Zhao’s creative sensibilities as writer and director. Prior to Eternals, Zhao had received critical acclaim as an indie director with a directorial style characterised by the delicate juxtaposition of humanity and nature through naturalistic landscapes, thematic questions of aging, memory, and the relationship between identity and place in films such as The Rider (2017) and Nomadland (2020). Zhao also employs elements of an art cinema narrative style in the Eternals, which is in contrast with the classical style of narration used in most other ‘MCU’ instalments. We can therefore see this directorial style work in tandem with genre hybridity, adaptation decisions, representation of character, and a maturer intended audience in Eternals.

As I have discussed, there are many way that Eternals has stood out as different in the ‘MCU.’ However, variation is not new in the ‘MCU’ and has been a crucial part of the franchise since its early development. Where in some ways Eternals has made variation more overt, this is facilitated by creative mechanisms that have always been crucial to the ‘MCU’ formula.

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