Eternals: Cinematic Climate Cowardice
Disney’s Marvel Studios tries for climate storytelling but shies away from the truth.
Eternals (2021) is the latest superhero film to hit cinemas and is also Marvel’s worst-reviewed movie to date, scoring only 48% among critics on Rotten Tomatoes at the time of writing. That’s too bad given everything the film has going for it, such as an inclusive cast of characters portrayed by performers from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds, with an openly-gay superhero as well as a deaf superheroine who communicates via sign language among the mix.
The film also makes an attempt at climate storytelling, though it arguably isn’t the first Marvel movie to contain climate themes. There’s at least one other Marvel title that does so — and it was very problematic in what it ended up saying on the climate crisis (more on that here). Does Eternals do any better on the Climate Test? For those unfamiliar with this new measure of climate representation in fiction, you can get up to speed on the three rules of the Climate Test in our first Medium article here.
Rule One: Does it acknowledge that the Earth’s climate is changing?
Surprisingly for Marvel, yes. Melting Alaskan ice seen in one scene of Eternals is directly attributed to ‘global warming’ of a sort (more on that below). However, it’s worth noting that the story features other natural or environmental disasters, including a global earthquake and an enormous volcanic eruption, both of which are largely unrelated to climate change. This muddies the picture somewhat on whether the story should be interpreted solely as a climate allegory.
Rule Two: Does it portray unchecked business-as-usual as the cause of climate change and as a negative character trait?
No! The rising global temperatures and melting Alaskan ice mentioned above disappointingly do not arise from human causes. Instead, it’s explicitly stated in the film that the Earth is heating up due to the emergence of a god-like alien, known as a ‘Celestial’, from inside the core of our planet — an act of birth which apparently releases lots of heat energy and ends up destroying the whole world. Other villainous creatures called ‘Deviants’ emerge from the thawing ice and are described as wreaking havoc at nearby oil wells — perhaps an attempt by the storytellers to tie the whole phenomenon back to fossil fuels. But if the entire concept can be interpreted as a metaphor for climate change, it’s a very flawed one: In reality, the climate crisis is caused by humans, not aliens. And a significant portion of our greenhouse gas emissions come from the fossil fuel industry, which is among the prime perpetrators of the problem, not the victims.
Rule Three: Does at least one character do something at least once to help solve the climate crisis?
No. The crisis in this story is not anthropogenic climate change but, rather, an entirely fictitious, world-destroying menace merely posing in part as climate change. Moreover, it’s caused by an alien that must and can only be thwarted by the Eternals, who are themselves aliens. Like The Predator (2018) and Venom (2018), climate change (or some version of it) is used as a storytelling excuse to bring aliens to Earth — though in the case of Eternals, aliens are also the cause of the problem. Humanity is thereby absolved of any guilt or responsibility on the climate issue and, indeed, are largely portrayed as helpless to stop it. When our stories continuously fail to acknowledge our role in the problem or to show us a path forward, is it any wonder that we still encounter so much denial and feel so disempowered in reality?
Eternals unsurprisingly fails the Climate Test. So what does this mean for Marvel Studios and its parent company, Disney? We think that their latest attempt at climate storytelling remains problematic, perpetuating common climate myths or misconceptions, and potentially doing more harm than good to the collective understanding.
Disney wishes to be seen as doing something constructive on the climate front but, as we’ve seen in Eternals, the company seems reluctant to ruffle any political feathers or to hurt its profits by saying too much truth in its mainstream movies (e.g., climate change is caused by humans). Granted, a Marvel movie probably isn’t the best vehicle for a climate story — the Marvel Studios business model is to produce screen adaptations of its comics, none of which pit their superheroes against the true causes of climate change, at least to our knowledge. However, Disney has been keeping quiet and vague about the climate crisis in its other film divisions too. As one of the superheroes says in Eternals, cowardice doesn’t only affect humans: It clearly extends to corporate behemoths like Disney.
If you’d like to see Hollywood’s major studios including Disney make films with more truthful and effective climate stories, please support our Hollywood climate storytelling campaign. In collaboration with the Fridays For Future youth climate movement begun by Greta Thunberg, we’re calling on the studios to take a stance on climate change by committing to more, and better, climate stories. You can find out more on our Action Network page: