The Eternals, Hollywood, and an alternative grand narrative

I recently saw “The Eternals”, one of the latest Hollywood blockbusters in the cinema. The movie is part of the “Marvel Universe” series, with that title itself suggesting something supernatural. Expecting an entertaining challenge to my faith, I was not disappointed, though I came away somewhat disturbed.

The basic plot has elements that resonate with Christian viewers. It features a god-figure, Arishem, sovereign creator of good and evil. Arishem has created the Eternals as his agents to combat the Deviants, forces for evil. But the Eternals are deceived by Arishem, not realising that they are implementing his ultimate plan to destroy the earth as part of a re-creation process.

The influences and implications of the movie will strike those who watch it critically.

Footprints of Hinduism are clear, with the multi-billion-year cycle of creation, preservation, destruction, re-creation, reflecting the roles of the Hindu Trimurti gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva). These themes are enriched by a hotchpotch of character names adapted from a collage of grand tales: Greek mythology, ancient Mesopotamia, India.

The film seems to have two overriding intentional motives: entertainment (perhaps the lesser of the two), and social engineering, to shape the audience towards liberal American values.

A mixed-race cast is carefully selected to reflect prevalent 21st-century themes of diversity and inclusiveness, with actors representing Hispanic, Afro-American, Indian, Caucasian, and East Asian ethnicities. A key message is woven into the dialogue towards the end of the movie: “We are united in Tiamut” (the Celestial creature designed to replace Earth). When this phrase is pronounced, the movie screen contains four characters: one Caucasian, one Eurasian, one Afro-American, and one Indian. Yet the film ironically demonstrates that, in a global context of racism condemned, the moviemakers are profoundly race-conscious, ensuring that there is a mix of races on the screen at any one time. Furthermore, all these ethnically diverse characters reflect liberal American values, raising the question: though mixed-race, are they really culturally Western liberals?

A couple of other themes will resonate with observers of the march of Western liberalism. The hero Sersi is female and Eurasian. She replaced Ajak, an Arab female, murdered by the lead male (Ikaris, a Caucasian) because she was trying to save humanity. The Caucasian male is ultimately humiliated and destroys himself. Moreover, the film features only a few couples: a female heroine with Eternal lover Ikaris; same female heroine with human lover Dane Whitman; gay couple (Afro-American and Arab male partners with a “son”). Read prominent liberal Western themes of serial monogamy and gay relationships.

The film seems to have two overriding intentional motives: entertainment (perhaps the lesser of the two), and social engineering, to shape the audience towards liberal American values. But a third result of this movie is more subtle but powerful: no longer are the masses given the grand narrative of Biblical salvation history. Rather an alternative grand narrative is presented, shaped by Hollywood and its liberal American context. Based on familiar themes of creation, conflict between good and evil, salvation, and divine sovereignty (though challenged), this movie represents highly effective replacement theology at its most subtle.

Hollywood audiences of the mid-20th century were treated to blockbusters that reinforced biblical narratives and themes, such as Samson and Delilah (1949), David and Bathsheba (1951), The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959), Solomon and Sheba (1959), The Story of Ruth (1960), King of Kings (1961), The Bible: In the Beginning (1966). Samson and Delilah was a huge box-office success, becoming the highest-grossing film of 1950. The Ten Commandments is one of the most financially successful films of all time. Simply put, audiences flocked to such movies on biblical themes, even though some films exercised a certain degree of creativity in their interpretation of the biblical accounts.

In the early 21st century, Hollywood has found it to be far more lucrative to present alternative angles on the supernatural. Of the fifteen top-grossing films of all time, five are from the Marvel Universe series of movies while two are Star Wars films. “The Eternals” enjoyed the second-largest worldwide opening weekend in the COVID-19 pandemic for a Hollywood film and became the tenth-highest-grossing film of 2021.

There is no doubt that 21st century approaches to movie-making in Hollywood are highly entertaining. However, the potential for shaping minds and social attitudes in the mass entertainment industry is profound.  “The Eternals” movie shows that, while there remains a thirst for spiritual and supernatural themes among society at large, biblical themes have been shunted to the margins by Hollywood and displaced by alternative spiritualities and science fiction.

Professor Peter Riddell is Senior Research Fellow of the Australian College of Theology