It took 13 years and two “Phases,” but friends, those crazy fiends at Marvel have finally done it: In Eternals, the latest dispatch from our most prolific purveyor of spandex cinema, two people finally got to have sex.
I just really wish they hadn’t.
The scene itself ends almost as soon as it begins, so a “detailed” description would be difficult to conjure. Let’s try it this way: Have you ever seen a 6-year-old lay a Ken doll on top of a Barbie doll and then just kind of stare at them because they don’t really know what happens next? That’s basically what we’re working with here.
It’s not just that the scene is awkward—although it definitely is. Or that it’s comically brief and bereft of any actual passion. It’s not even that Richard Madden and Gemma Chan, whose characters we’re supposed to believe have been in love for 5,000 years, share about as much chemistry as a gynecologist and their patient during a Pap smear throughout the film. (But seriously, how do two people that hot produce such a chilly, clinical vibe the second they touch?!)
At the risk of sounding like one of the Marvel obsessives who will likely whine about the sex scene on Reddit for completely different reasons, it was the purposelessness of this moment that made it so mind-numbing to watch. It seemed to exist solely to make people stop making fun of Marvel for never doing these scenes in the first place—which might be why everything about the moment, from the bored expressions on the actors’ faces to the dull, lifeless cinematography, land like a deep sigh muttering, “Well, here you go.”
The discourse surrounding Marvel’s apparent allergy to intimacy has existed for about as long as the MCU, as have conversations surrounding the films’ general lack of diversity and squeamishness around portraying openly gay characters on screen. Eternals seems determined to right these wrongs and continue Phase Two’s promise to improve on the limitations of Phase One. (You know, now that the series has already made its creators billions.) If only the film had anything to say.
Eternals revolves around a group of quasi-immortal beings who cosplay as humans on Earth while essentially serving as the crappiest babysitters in the galaxy. They’re here to make sure things run smoothly but not to protect humanity from itself—a goal that makes little sense even to this puny human brain but that these millennia-old beings never bother to so much as question. When the group finally realizes their real purpose on Earth, however, they’re left with some Big Questions about what to do next.
At the center of it all, ostensibly, is an exploration of humanity—its nobility and its monstrosity. This is where the aforementioned plasticine sex scene comes in.
The lack of intimacy between Chan’s matter-shifting Sersi and Richard Madden’s Superman-adjacent Ikaris highlights a deeper problem within both Eternals and the Marvel canon more broadly.
There are actually three romances in Eternals. Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos is one half of the MCU’s first same-sex couple, and Lauren Ridloff and Barry Keoghan’s Makkari and Druig share an ongoing flirtation throughout the film. Just like Sersi and Ikaris’ supposed love affair, however, none of these relationships feel believable—in part because the film itself seems so uninterested in them beyond whatever implications they might carry for the plot.
Calling the MCU a plot-oriented machine feels hacky at this point—like pointing out that a lot of Star Wars takes place in space. That these films tend to lack emotional depth with only some exceptions is not necessarily a problem on its own; plenty of genre films root themselves in other corners of storytelling. But it does seem a little strange for a film that supposedly wants to say something about humanity to seem so uninterested in a crucial human experience.
Maybe it’s nitpicking to wonder why, at the possible end of the world, Brian Tyree Henry’s character is kissing his lover without tongue—or why despite the actual chemistry Ridloff and Keoghan’s characters share, their relationship seems to receive the least attention from both the script and director Chloé Zhao. Just like the film’s awkward attempts to time-jump its way through human history, these relationships unfold through broad-strokes storytelling that erases any possibility for texture and nuance—qualities that set Zhao’s previous work in the indie world apart.
Marvel’s brand is tackling “big themes” via superhero metaphor, a strategy its fans frequently invoke whenever another bad-faith discussion about Martin Scorsese ensues. WandaVision is all about grief, Black Widow is about trauma, and so on. But metaphor can only express so much, and at times Marvel’s abstraction can feel like a cop-out: Are the Eternals, a group of superhuman beings whose conversations revolve around whether or not humanity is worth saving, really the best vehicle for a nuanced commentary on humanity itself? These “people” apparently can’t even have sex right!
If Eternals feels especially empty, perhaps it’s because it reveals the extent to which this cinematic universe’s “big themes” are mere window dressing. The ideas these films claim to explore feel increasingly like packaging for the actual product—a never-ending plot machine designed, above all, to sell movie tickets and Disney+ subscriptions for as long as people will keep paying.