There is a new Marvel movie out today. I’m generally a fan of superhero movies, but I don’t know where to start with this one…
Marvel’s The Eternals Clip
…the sudden return of the population provided the necessary energy for the emergence to begin.
So I’m pretty sure that “The Eternals” are like a new outer space version of the Avengers, except they’ve been on Earth and hiding for centuries and didn’t help out any of the previous times the Earth was in danger…? Anyway, I don’t know any of the Eternals. You probably don’t either. But don’t worry, because this is surely only the start of a new arc that will be explained thoroughly over the next six to ten major motion pictures that feature them. You know what I do understand, though? This:
Spiderman (2002) Clip
As the Marvel and Disney Juggernaut moves into its newest era, it’s worth examining where the modern superhero movie began and how unrecognizable it seems compared to its counterparts today. Since Tobey Maguire first dawned a Spider suit, there have been seven soon to be eight Spiderman movies. There have been three different Spider Men, and he’s made a whole host of cameos in larger Marvel Adventures. And every one of those movies and cameos has moved Spiderman further from the story that made the original picture the kind of movie that brought superheroes to the big screen and to the world at large, beyond comic book fans. So how did we get from a kid with a family and some powers and a sense of responsibility to whatever movies like The Eternals have become? Are these projects even movies in the traditional sense? Who are they made for? And is it possible for even that Marvel Juggernaut to reach too far?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is the Big Story. Jeremy Gordon is a journalist and a writer based in New York City. Hi, Jeremy.
Hey, how’s it going?
It’s going well. I wanted to interview you because you wrote a piece for Gawker that said basically that all of pop culture can be explained through how crappy the Spiderman movies have gotten. Where did that idea come from?
Well, I am somewhat embarrassed to say that the quality of the Spider Man movies has been kind of a recurring thought of mind for the last, shall we say, 15 years, dating back to college when Spiderman 3 came out and inspired a lot of vociferous debates among the young men of my dorm who were often very drunk and sometimes stoned and yelled about these things. And then I was a big defender of that film for what I thought were very slightly contrarian but legitimate reasons.
But then in the coming years as they relaunched the franchise and then relaunched it again and kept on putting these alternative spins on it, it really just seemed apparent to me that not only were these movies not as good, which I don’t think is surprising. You can go back and forth on do they make better movies today, yesterday. So it wasn’t so much that the movies weren’t as good to me, but that the ideas in them and the thoughts and the feelings were markedly worse. And obviously there’s a part of me that is well aware of the pitfalls of analyzing pop culture a little too deeply or attributing a little too much authority to what’s essentially a fun time at the theatre for I think most people.
But if you ascribe to the belief that movies like this or pieces of music or books or anything like that, you ascribe to the idea that these bits of culture can galvanize a large amount of people towards thinking about or feeling a certain set of things. This used to be called the monoculture before everything was decimated by the internet and the streaming wars and all that stuff. But superhero movies still remain one of the last gasps of this monoculture, so to speak. And I think the idea that millions of people around the world had kind of been collectively led down this steadily worsening road.
It’s something I wanted to write about with humor and a sense of playfulness. But on some level, it just is kind of a bummer, especially as I rewatched these movies and confirmed that, I don’t know, maybe I take it a little too seriously, but I do genuinely think they’re quite bad and depressing in a way that superhero blockbuster action films don’t necessarily have to be, and we know that they don’t have to be that way because we have better examples within very recent history.
Right. And so I do ascribe to that theory that we can kind of judge the whole of pop culture and maybe even the collective “it” of pop culture by the last remaining tentpoles. And before we get into what happened to the Spiderman movies and superhero movies in particular, maybe set the barometer here. Take me back to 2002. Take us all back to 2002. We’ve probably forgotten it. But the first Spiderman movie on the big screen was a really big deal. Describe the kind of movie it was because it’s almost lost to the past now.
Well, I was 14 then, and I have a very distinct memory of seeing the movie because my father and I went to the theatre near where I grew up and the tickets were sold out because I think it was opening weekend and we hadn’t bought them in advance. And my father did what was retrospectively an incredible move where he asked to validate the parking ticket inside of the theatre because we had parked the car and he was like, ‘Well, the movie is sold out, but we parked, so can we validate this ticket?’ So they let us in to do that. And then he just snuck us into the movie and we sat in the aisles and watched it play out. Nobody said, You’ve got to get out of here. I mean, we just sat down on the floor in the back and had popcorn and watched Spiderman in what was a completely sold out theater.
And so that memory, to me, kind of pairs it with, it was a big event. I mean, this was not the first superhero movie of that era, I think Blade was a couple of years before that. Although he’s not really a superhero, he’s more of just a very cool vampire killer man.
Right. But this was the first, like, signature piece of IP brought to the big screen from the comic books.
Yeah. And there was also the X Men movie, but also Superman years before. But I guess this was the first modern superhero blockbuster centred around one character, one person, who’s, I think as someone who grew up reading comic books. I think Spiderman, Superman and Batman are probably the three most enduring characters, Wonder Woman as well. But Peter Parker, in particular, I think, has always been very appealing and attractive to readers and audiences. And maybe that idea is cemented for me by the fact that it made gigantic amounts of money on it’s opening weekend, despite there not really being a precedent for this.
I mean, on some level, it was a curiosity. You have to imagine that it was people who are familiar with the character, maybe people who like the actors, maybe people who just wanted to see a blockbuster. But for whatever reason, they put their faith in it. At a time when the genre was just beginning to take shape in the 21st century, I think they were rewarded. I think we were rewarded. I don’t ascribe to the idea that ‘money talks’ defines everything. But I think the fact that so many people saw this movie and continued to see it meant that something was resonating.
Tell me, though, about the kind of movie that it was because it is fundamentally different. And that’s what caught my eyes from your piece. It’s fundamentally different from what we think of today as a superhero movie.
Well, I think Sam Raimi, the director, he has such an innate sense of comic timing. And when I say comic timing, I don’t mean like literal jokes, but the feeling of cartoonishness that suffuses his films. I don’t know how familiar are with The Evil Dead or The Army of Darkness movies, but those movies walk this very difficult line to walk where they’re very outlandish, but they’re also serious and there is action. But it’s these big, sweeping emotions packaged in what is essentially an action film.
And I think what’s so significant about the first Spider-man movie, and this holds up years later, is that Raimi kind of intuitively understands all that, he understands that you need these big action set pieces. He understands that you need these bold performances by actors who immediately stand out. I mean, Willem Dafoe is so cartoonishly villainous, but also menacing in a way. And James Franco is this handsome playboy character with who’s brooding and depressed and Kirsten Dunst is this perfect, like romantic Girl next door character who also has a lot of depth and Tobey Maguire.
So he kind of understands that even though it’s a Spiderman movie, and no one is coming here to learn about the true heart of reality or whatever you want to call it. You do need these glimpses of real human behaviour sandwiched in between the big fight scenes and the web slinging and all of that. And I think they pull it off. I rewatched a couple of these movies as I was writing the piece, and it’s not just nostalgia or sentimentality colouring my impression of it. I think they hold up fantastically well today, and were so much stronger than the modern films. So I think I was kind of drawn to thinking about why that is.
The thing for me, and your piece touched on this, and this is why I wanted to have this discussion, is I am also a fan of all these movies. Like I watched the last Spiderman movie. I’ll watch the next one. I’ll watch whatever the heck they’re doing with the Marvel Cinematic Universe now. They’ve got apparently The Eternals, which I’m not enough of a nerd to even know anything about. Whatever it’ll be fine. It’ll be fun. I’ll probably watch it. But I could never watch that with my wife or my mom or my little brother who doesn’t care about this stuff because it’s not a movie anymore, right? It’s a link in a continuous chain. And that’s what spoke to me about how you viewed the progression of the Spiderman movies.
Yeah. And I think this was borne out for me when I revisited the most recent Spiderman, the Tom Holland film. I think it’s Far from Home , which I had not seen in theatres, but I watched it with my fiancée and who doesn’t care about any of these movies whatsoever. We were just having a good time, and she was being a great sport as I was doing research for this piece. And what kind of leapt out is how much context she was required to have that isn’t really explained in the movie.
They do a fine job of explaining that half the characters died in one of the Avengers movies, and Tony Stark died in another Avengers movie. They give you that bit of exposition, but in terms of the emotional depth, it’s so fly by night, there’s no sense of resonance or sitting with anything. And again, I’m aware we’re talking about these comic book movies, but in the first Spiderman movies, you have a sense that these actions matter. Characters are really touched by things that happen to them. The poles on them are dramatic and serious.
For example, the origin myth, the heart of Spiderman, is how when Peter got his powers, he just messes around. He’s a teenager, and he forgets his responsibilities. And he ends up inadvertently leading to the death of his uncle, which plays out in this kind of sad resonant scene. But more than that, he explicitly had rebuffed his uncle in the moments before. So that character is just touched by this shame that he could have stopped this thing. But he didn’t. He was too wrapped up in his own emotions. That’s a very simple drive. But I think it’s elegant and resonant enough. And there’s a reason why it’s endured for several decades, much like the Superman origin myth of the last survivor of a dying planet, or Batman watching his parents get gunned down. You need this kind of emotional tension that explains why these characters are motivated whatsoever. I mean, this is just basic storytelling, right?
But, for example, in the newer Spiderman movies, they get rid of that myth entirely. When we meet him, he’s just Spiderman, which is fine. They didn’t need to retell the origin myth for the third time. But now he’s just a superhero. He’s kind of just motivated by nothing other than he has powers and adults are asking him to be a superhero. Now, his primary directive is maybe should he become a global super cop, working with SHIELD, the global law enforcement agency. And so in a couple of movies we go from, he is motivated by the death of an uncle to protect his neighborhood in the city, to he’s motivated by nothing to just protect the world, which is a very vague motivation.
And, of course, some of the pathos is introduced when Tony Stark dies, and they talk about how he was such a formative figure. But with all respect to Robert Downey Jr. That whole relationship is played like a cool older brother. It’s like a guy he knows for a little bit. It’s like a work friend almost. And then he dies in a way that Peter had nothing to do with. So he should feel no particular guilt or shame or even responsibility outside of some vague appeal to like, oh, it’s what Tony would have wanted.
And it’s just a subtle watering. Obviously, I’m not talking about the real cratering of society, but I think the first movies pull on these universal emotions of watching a family member die, feeling guilty about the things you didn’t do that really stuck with people. And these new movies draw on none of that or the way that they draw on it is so much more disposable, given the way that they’ve ballooned the stakes. It’s suddenly become, in these films, everything has to be this world ending threat. It’s a global threat to society, humanity.
What do you think it says about the entertainment industry or even anything beyond that, that over the course of 20 years or so, we’ve gone from city level, neighbourhood level stakes and emotional resonance to global stakes, but no emotional resonance?
I think, without being too prescriptive of an entire industry, but I do think there is some belief that bigger is better. What are we spending money on? What is the audience want to see? They want to see this big spectacle. They don’t want to see two people acting in a scene together. They want to see big explosions and monsters. And if you take that to its kind of most cynical extreme, that’s how you end up with these massive, multi-hundred million dollar productions that are just awash with so much CGI and so much noise and sound. These are not the first movies to do that, but I think there’s a pretty steadily ascending trend over the last 20 years.
I mean, some of this, obviously I’m more than happy to blame Michael Bay, but it also just… I can’t be in the heads of the producers and directors, but it must have to do something about the money that they think they’re able to make if they go bigger and more dramatic like this is what audiences want. They want big blockbuster explosions. Sometimes they do want that. But I have to believe in that people also enjoy emotional content.
I think there was one thing that I was touched by when I was looking up specific clips of the earlier Raimi films on YouTube just to refresh my memory. There’s lots of comments left in these scenes of people saying something along the lines of when I was a kid, I watched these movies for the action scenes, but now, as an adult, I can understand this emotion of what’s going on here, and it pulls on me a little bit more. And I think that kind of multigenerational appeal partly speaks to what you said earlier about how you could watch one of these movies with a parent or a spouse, someone who wasn’t necessarily interested in superheroes whatsoever. But they try to touch at something that is universal outside of that, whereas the current Marvel movies just refer to their own universe. I mean, you have to wash so many of these things. It’s really unbelievable.
There was a leaked report the other day that Harry Styles is cast in The Eternals, has a surprise cameo as a character. And there was some viral tweet from a Harry Styles slash Marvel fan recommending the best way to get into these movies if you’ve never watched them before, but now want to pay attention because of Harry Styles. And her advice, it was a list of here are the 26 movies you need to watch in a row, in chronological timeline order and it’s like, my God, what have we done to ourselves? What have we done to our brains?
Not to stand on my soap box and pound my feet, but what have we done here, where the entry cost to watching an entertaining film about superheroes is watching 25 movies before it or TV shows, or however you want to put it? And obviously, you don’t need to watch all 25 just to understand this. But it really is about this accumulated emotion and world building that you kind of don’t really get unless you’ve watched all of them, you are missing a piece. And that, to me, is just unbelievable.
It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, and maybe you can explain this, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the most popular movie franchise on Earth is so specifically and purposefully intimidating to newcomers. That seems like bad business practices to me, but it keeps working.
Well, I think. And here’s a recent thought I had, which is that even though the Marvel movies make incredible amounts of money and the Avengers films are I think, the highest grossing movies ever, globally. But what they’ve managed to do is build the biggest audience who’s just into this one thing. And if you want this thing, it’s fantastic. My God, there’s 26 of these movies and TV shows you can watch, and it’s the same formulaic entertainment. And it’s fun to watch. And I’ll say this for these movies, you can watch them all. I mean, I find them bad, but they don’t fall apart narratively in the same way that so many of these awful superhero movies used to. I don’t know if you ever saw, like Elektra or Ghost Rider or the Green Lantern movie, just things that are like, basically not even coherent past having a beginning middle and an end.
The Marvel movies, they figured out what works. And I think there’s this kind of thinking from the producers, which is not unique in this industry, where you’re trying to make sure that your audience spends as much time in your universe as they are willing to give. They don’t want to cultivate viewers who are really spreading around their interests. They want people to prioritize Marvel above everything.
Well, here’s my last question, and it kind of plays into that. Can they still blow it, or is this thing just too big now? I mentioned earlier that I’ll probably watch whatever it is they put out next, but I’m kind of a base level comic book fan who likes these movies. And I have to say the idea of going to see The Eternals who I didn’t read about any of these characters in comics when I was a kid. I don’t know who they are. I’m going to see it if I go to see it, because it’s the next thing in the Marvel universe. And is there a point at which they have to go so far off the map, the barrier to entry is too high and it’s overkill.
I think we’re about to see, basically. Shang-Chi did pretty well at the box office. I guess we’ll see about Eternals. But what’s notable about these characters is that they’re all pretty tertiary as far as the comic books go. I mean, Shang-Chi famously was thought of as this kind of Orientalist stereotype and never really got a firm foothold as an ongoing series. Eternals was a pet project of Jack Kirby that was a notable failure when it first came out. and they kept on trying to revive it in the comics over the years, but to kind of limited effect.
And I think Marvel has had a history where they’ve tried to reform a character in the comic books in order to generate interest that will go towards the movies, which is not a quite direct calculus because the comic book audience is limited. But I do think there is some kind of truth to the fact that you can’t just replace the decades of authentic engagement. You know, the original Eternals comics are quite marvellous, but they were this cult favourite, they were not popular at all. It’s the characters like Spiderman and Thor and Iron Man and Captain America and all the big name brand people that’s who is big.
So now that we’re getting into this tertiary wave, it really remains to be seen how much that will resonate. I think if they’re getting into like characters that are just so objectively closer to the bottom of the barrel, if they really start scraping those and they do well then I guess maybe they really do have the magic touch forever. The Guardians of the Galaxy were not a big deal whatsoever until they came back in the movies.
I was just going to say nobody really, well not nobody, but few people grew up following the Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was a lot of fun.
Yeah, they managed to find the formula to revive it. So I wouldn’t bet against their ability to kind of creatively reform something on a movie level. I think there’s a future in which every studio adopts a hybrid format of being available at home, either right away or within a couple of weeks. And when that happens, the goal posts for what constitutes success are going to change drastically.
Jeremy, thanks so much for this. I will be thinking about it if and when I dive into The Eternals.
Yes. Thank you so much for having me.
Jeremy Gordon, a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him at Jeremygordon.xyz.
That was The Big Story. For more from us, head to the thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime with an email. email@example.com. Look for us in your favourite podcast player. Ask for us on your favourite Smart Speaker by saying, “hey Smart Speaker play The Big Story Podcast.”
Stefanie Phillips is the lead producer of The Big Story. Joseph Fish and Braden Alexander are our associate producers. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, have a great weekend. Stay safe. Stay warm. We’ll talk Monday.
Back to top of page