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Why ‘Eternals’ underperformed—and what it means for Marvel

Diane Davis

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Part of what makes superheroes super is the aura of invincibility. Armed with mythic powers, they’re the last line of defense when more fallible folks fail humanity.

It wouldn’t be much fun to watch superheroes in action, however, if they didn’t have at least some vulnerability. With the release of Eternals last Friday, Marvel Studios, the long-dominant force for cinematic superheroes, finally revealed an Achilles’ heel of its own.

Eternals, the much-hyped 26th (!) entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), debuted to the worst reviews in the franchise’s history (48% on Rotten Tomatoes), the MCU’s worst-yet CinemaScore rating (a B, one notch below Thor’s B+ in 2011), and lower-than-expected box office ($71 million, down nearly 10% from already-lowered earlier expectations.) As of this moment, the film is by no means a straight-up flop. It’s already grossed $90 million on the increasingly crucial international market, and it may get a bounce from Thanksgiving audiences or late-breaking contrarian word of mouth.

What is certain just from the opening weekend, though, is that Eternals is not a win for Marvel, and it may have a lasting impact on the studio’s plans for the future.

The third film in the MCU’s Phase IV, Eternals tells a story that should feel familiar to fans of Netflix’s 2020 superhero movie, The Old Guard, starring Charlize Theron. In it, divine entities known as Celestials created a group of immortal beings called Eternals, who are tasked with safeguarding the human race, and a separate group of immortal beings called Deviants, who are tasked with being necessary antagonists for some reason. This isn’t a review, so fortunately I do not have to expend keystrokes explaining who all 10 Eternals are and what powers they have. (On the latter score, just about any random guess would prove accurate for one or two of them.)

The cast is high-profile—featuring Angelina Jolie, several Game of Thrones alumni, and Gemma Chan—and Eternals was helmed by Chloé Zhao, who won multiple Oscars directing this year’s Best Picture winner, Nomadland. On paper, it sounds like a blockbuster with brains, the latest line-drive right down the plate for the Marvel juggernaut.

So what went wrong?

The pandemic is undoubtedly a factor, but people have proven themselves willing to leave the house for a hot superhero movie recently, with the Marvel adjacent Venom 2 scoring a COVID-19 era-high $90.1 million opening just a month ago. The runtime is a bladder-testing 2 hours and 37 minutes, longer than most of the Avengers movies. Audiences showed up in record numbers for that three-hour finale, Endgame, in 2019, though, so that can’t be what kept more people away this time.

Here’s what did.

Marvel was simply due for a miss

It was bound to happen sometime. No franchise gets to its 26th entry without incurring a little wear and tear, and only so many superfans will automatically come out for the MCU every single outing without engaging their critical faculties at all beforehand. Marvel Studios achieved something no one else ever had before with its overarching, interconnected superstructure, but just on a statistical level, the franchise was overdue for a bomb, if not an outright fiasco.

Marvel exhaustion is real

Marvel fans are never left hungry for long. They have an infinite supply of comic books, digital content, and podcasts to tide them over between MCU projects. Lately, though, that in-between time has shrunk to nearly nothing.

Eternals is the third MCU movie in 2021, with the fourth one, Spider-Man 3, due in about six weeks. Before then, fans will be treated to the debut of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, which is literally the fourth MCU series to debut on Disney Plus this past year. The deluge of premium Marvel projects was already difficult to keep up with for casual fans before this all-new set of interwoven series began trickling out on a new platform. Now, it’s more overwhelming than ever. Highly acclaimed and widely viewed as new series like WandaVision and Loki have been so far, perhaps Eternals is the first real indication that even Marvel fans have a saturation point.

Too many heroes at once

Watching the endless, aggressive marketing push for Eternals—which made it feel as though the film was arriving imminently just about every day of the past six months—casual Marvel fans were left with one question: Who the hell are the Eternals and why do I care? The most apt comparison in the MCU is 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy, another deep cut from the comics, with a whole new team needing introduction. But the most obvious difference between the two—it would take far too long to unpack the tonal differences—is that while Guardians boasted five new heroes, Eternals has a full 10.

That’s too many!

Even people who have already seen the movie are likely to have trouble keeping straight which one is Druig (Barry Keoghan) and which one is Gilgamesh (Don Lee) and what powers they have. Not to mention that all the powers on hand are so superhero boilerplate as to be scarcely distinguishable from each other. In one scene, a child in the universe of the movie calls out the similarity between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Superman. In response, Ikaris quips, “I don’t have a cape.”

If a superhero movie has to hang a lampshade on the samey-ness of its superheroes, perhaps it should consider simply being a different and altogether better superhero movie?

Tenuous connection to the larger MCU story

Another major difference between Eternals and Guardians of the Galaxy is that the latter had far more connections to the larger story at hand. Both the plot and characters driving it were carefully woven into the Infinity Saga, which ended with Endgame. While Eternals is the fourth MCU movie released since then, the next overarching plot has yet to be revealed, so audiences have no idea if and how Eternals factors into it.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which came out in September to surprisingly good box office numbers, features a similarly lesser-known hero from the Marvel vault and a similarly self-contained story. However, Shang-Chi at least has appearances from a character essential to the Doctor Strange wing of the franchise, pointing toward future possibilities, while Eternals, outside of its many post-credits scenes, merely references the existence of other Marvel characters, in a cringey attempt to account for why the Eternals never stepped in to help during the events of Endgame.

What might be next for Marvel

Now that Marvel has incurred its first major letdown, its architects may decide to retool elements of its strategy. This pivot could take many forms. It could decide to pump the breaks on the pace of product rollout, and limit the output of series and films per year. It could decide to stop recruiting hot indie directors to bring a touch of prestige to their blockbusters, although that seems unlikely given how Destin Daniel Cretin (Short Term 12) and Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson) have recently delivered the goods (Shang- Chi and Captain Marvel, respectively.) If more Eternals movies had been in the pipeline, they could be jettisoned over to Disney Plus instead of theaters. The possibilities are as endless and varied as the Marvel canon itself.

While the brand’s leaders would be wise to do a thorough forensic analysis in the wake of Eternals’ relative crash-landing, though, the studio obviously has no need to panic.

The MCU is a uniquely and historically successful phenomenon that could withstand several subpar releases before having to do any kind of major overhaul. In the near-future, Marvel is back to basics with rabidly anticipated new Spider-Man and Doctor Strange movies on deck, and the MCU-ification of the Fantastic Four just over the horizon, along with Mahershal Ali’s take on Blade.

Just because the mighty Marvel Studios has shown itself to be capable of weakness, does not in any way mean it has lost its powers.


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MIT Hobby Shop rebuilt | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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wood desk shaped like a wavy lasagna noodle

Smidt says she loves the lathe but is also very fond of a small tool called a French curve scraper, which she used to sand the curves of the desk that was her ambitious first project in the shop. The piece, which Smidt calls her “noodle desk,” consists of a butcher block top that S-curves to the floor for support. It’s made of reclaimed maple from MIT’s basketball court renovation, which the shop had salvaged. “It’s always such a pleasure to use the perfect hand tool,” she says. (Find a link to photos and step-by-step instructions for building the desk here.)

BLONDEGEEK VIA INSTRUCTABLES

Although Smidt was an undergraduate at MIT, she didn’t discover the Hobby Shop until she joined the faculty in September 2021 (after earning her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley). “For that first year, the Hobby Shop was pretty instrumental in my maintaining sanity,” she says, noting that MIT had just begun to relax its early covid restrictions. “I think I’ve now used just about every machine.”

Novices and experts

More than a workspace, the Hobby Shop is also a community—one where people from all corners of MIT can come together to share camaraderie as well as tips and techniques. “I’ve met some of my favorite people from MIT at the Hobby Shop,” Smidt says.

Fischman even owes his marriage to the shop. Thanks to a referral from a contact there, he wound up with a 25-year part-time gig teaching two night classes in woodworking at the Boston Center for Adult Education—where he met his wife. “That was a connection the shop made possible,” he says. 

Novices are always welcome, and the shop’s staff—director Hayami Arakawa and technical instructor Coby Unger—are always willing to provide expert guidance. “It’s encouraged to ask questions,” Smidt says. Classes and workshops provide more formal training on complex machines or in unusual crafts, such as steam-bending wood.

Projects undertaken in the shop run the gamut from simple cutting boards to fine furniture. Fischman says the piece he’s most proud of is a curved-edge walnut console table with hand-planed, tapered octagonal legs. But not everyone makes furniture. “We had a guy who came in to build a machine to put the caps on his yogurt containers,” Fischman says. “We’ve had harpsichords built in the shop, canoes built in the shop. It goes on and on.”

Smidt adds, “It’s really inspiring to see what other people are making.”

Now, nearly 50 years after his bowl was spotlighted in Fine Woodworking, Fischman says he still finds joy at the Hobby Shop. “The shop is fun,” he says. “I think that’s an important aspect of it.”

Another, he says, is knowing that he has created pieces that will live on. “I’m 76. I think about legacy a bit,” he says. “The woodworking gifts that I gave to people that they cherish now are part of my legacy.” 

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The citizen scientists chronicling life at a neglected but vital Mexican river

Diane Davis

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Since the fall of 2021, Viaje al Microcosmos has organized walks on the river to encourage the general public to explore the space and make new connections with this misunderstood body of water. In the last few years, participants have created their own microscopes to study water samples they’ve collected; created an immersive art installation to showcase the species that live on the river; produced a podcast; developed a template to help people document water quality; contributed to the Río Santa Catarina’s Wikipedia page; and more. Each activity helps build a community of city dwellers who believe the river is a natural resource worth protecting. The effort seems only more urgent against the backdrop of a regional drought, rising temperatures, and a government that continues to place environmental issues on the back burner. 

A woman peeks into a microscope at Viaje al Microcosmos’s stand at the citizen science event.

LORENA RíOS

Viaje al Microcosmos’s goal is multifaceted and ambitious. The activists want to build a community of citizen scientists that pushes back against the belief that the river is for sale. They want to produce information about the river that can shape public policy and aid in its preservation. But perhaps most important, they want to instill the revolutionary thought that the Santa Catarina River can, in fact, be just that: a river. 

Lorena Ríos is a freelance journalist based in Monterrey, Mexico.

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What Luddites can teach us about resisting an automated future

Diane Davis

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A story in comic format. In this first panel, two figures in silhouette look out at a modern city skyline.  The text reads, "The future is here already. AI art has arrived. Simply write a prompt..."

A person's smiling headshot being uploaded.  The text reads, "Or allow a company unrestricted access to your likeness..."
The headshot from the previous panel with distroted features and a wavy new background. The text reads, "...And ta-da! Some absolutely serviceable hotel lobby art. But calling this 'AI art' uncritically buys into the AI hype machine."
Two people look at the blank space where the framed picture of a flower has been stolen by a giant robot hand. The text reads, "Algorithmically generated art theft" might be more accurate.

Two panels. In the first, a scrabbly line resembling a signature. The text reads, "Machine-learning software is "taught" by feeding it existing art without consent, credit, or compensation. To the extent that mangled signature remnants remain visible on AI art." In the second, the text reads, "Artists have begun to push back." over the image of protestors led by Matthew Butterick, co-counsel in a class action lawsuit brought against AI art by artists, who says, "Everybody would creates for a living should be in code red."
The text reads, "A common refrain from defenders of AI art has been to label these naysayers:"  above multiple speech bubbles saying "Luddite!" "Luddites!" and "Luddism!"
Text across the top continues, "...a term synonymous with technophobia, anti-progress, and reactionism. It's even used to describe being hapless with new tech." A group of people eating dinner together, and one person is saying, "Oh, I can't use TikTok! I'm such a Luddite!" The below the image reads, "In truth, the Luddites were skilled with machines. They were simply fighting for better worker rights."

A man in a cravat holding a plume at his writing desk smiles, while behind in shadow are two women at textile machines. The text reads, "In 1799, the British government passed legislation that prohibited trader unions and collective bargaining. Mill owners introduced more machines in their factories, reducing wages."
A man with his shirtsleeves rolled up, raising a sledgehammer.  The text reads, "And so, in 1811, after years of frustrating negotiations, a spate of coordinated attacks on mill frameworks erupted across the United Kingdom, led by "King Ned Ludd."

Sheets of paper flutter down to a gallows in the foreground as soldiers with bayonets raised corral a crowd of civilians behind.  The text reads, "But them, 14000 soldiers were sent to protect the mills and quash riots. New legislation made frame breaking a capital offense. Eventually, key Luddite organizers were identified, arrested and executed.
Lord Byron reciting from "Song for the Luddites" says with his eyes closed, "This is the dew, which the tree shall renew Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!"  The text above reads, "Yet the movement lived on. Outbreaks of machine breaking continued for years in the UK and beyond.
A woman smashing something with a sledgehammer. The text reads, "In 1837, a spinning jenny in Chalabre, France was destroyed by workers. The women workers 'made themselves conspicuous by their fury and violence.' From local newspaper, L'Aude."

The text reads, "In the 1870s, English textile designer, author, and socialist William Morris began taking an interest in the production process of his designs. He was disgusted by the poor living conditions of workers and the pollution caused by the textile industry." William Morris in profile saying, "Why does a reasonable man use a machine? Surely to save his labour. Under capitalism, machines were primarily used to increase production, thereby increasing the worker's drudgery."
The text reads, "People have been making similar arguments against AI art." A tweet from CatBastardQuinn, @QuinnCat13 reads, "We could automate menial jobs so people have time to make art and music but apparently we'd rather automate art and music so people have time for menial jobs."
An office worker at a laptop with face in hands and an Amazon worker in a pile of shipping boxes. The text reads" Likewise, Morris was interested in what he called 'worthy work'.' He wanted people to take pleasure in their work rather than 'mere toiling to live that we may live to toil.'"
The text reads, "He understood that machines were only as progressive as the people who used them." Morris facing us from a field of app notifications, says "[An unfree man is a] slave to machinery; the new machine MUST be invented, and when invented he MUST - I will not say use it, but be used by it whether he likes it or not."
Frederick Taylor overseeing factory workers standing around machines with a stopwatch.  The text reads, "In America, mechanical engineer Frederick W. Taylor began using what he called the 'Scientific Management' in his factories. Taylor timed each worker's every movement, breaking down their work into a set of discrete tasks. Then demanded workers speed them up."
The text reads, "Taylorism, as it became known, was less a science than a political ideology concerned with remolding workers into pliant subjects. Taylor faces us to say, "A complete mental revolution on the part of the workingman...toward their work, toward their fellow men, and toward their employers."
The text reads, "But the spirit of Luddism lived on. Seemingly out of nowhere, there was a rash of mechanical breakdowns at Taylor's factories." An angry Taylor tells us, "These men were deliberately breaking their machines." while two men stand behind him shrugging and smiling slightly while a plume a smoke rises from an unseen area.

A cover of a  book entitled, "Sabotage: Its History, Philosophy & Function by author Walker C Smith. shows a black cat climbing atop a bag of money.  The text reads, "Despite setbacks and intervention from Congress, Taylorism spread. The Industrial Workers of the World responded by publishing two tracts on the topic of sabotage in 1913. 'The aim is to hit the employer in his vital spot, his heart and soul, in other words, his pocketbook.;"
Hands reach to an assembly line where the words "Automation - as it was later dubbed by Delmar Harder, vice president of Ford Motor Company, in 1947 - continued unabated." repeat on each panel of the conveyor.

The text reads, "The legacy of the Luddites lived on in the latter half of the 20th century. Confined to the lowest-paying jobs, black workers were the first to be targeted by the midcentury push for automation.  Robert L. Allen quotes from his book, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969) "Not only is the economic situation of the masses of blacks grim, but the prospects are that it will not improve, rather it will deteriorate. This is due partly to the unregulated impact of automation."
The text reads, "The Black Panthers were also quick to recognize <a href=technology and automation were not politically neutral." Huey Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party says from a podium, "If the ruling circle remains in power it seems to me that capitalists will continue to develop their technological machinery because they are not interested in the people…Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle."” class=”wp-image-1088535″ />
A group of Black Panthers standing together.  The text reads, "The Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program was updated in 1972. 'People's community control of modern <a href=technology‘ was added to the demands for ‘land, bread, housing, education, clothing, justice, peace."” class=”wp-image-1088536″ />

A conveyor belt with a chart, titled "Overrepresentation of African Americans in 3 occupation categories with the highest expected displacement, %" The statistics are Office Support e.g. secretaries with a displacement rate of 36%, Food Services, e.g. fast-food cooks with a displacement rate of 35% and Production work e.g. machinists with a displacement rate of 34%. The text reads, "A 2019 McKinsey Global Intitute report found that: 'African Americans are overrepresented in occupations likely to be the most affected by automation.' And the 2030 outlook doesn't look much better."
A crowd of students holding a sign that says "STRIKE" and a button that says, "I am a human being: do not fold, spindle, or mutilate" The text reads, "The introduction of the computer in the 1970s only exacerbated growing tensions. Punch cards used in universities, similar to cards used for drafting recruits for Vietnam, were seen as a symbol of bureaucracy and alienation. Students burned, vandalized, and otherwise destroyed punch cards for course registration."
Lisa Gitelman, author of Always Already New: Media, History and the Data of Culture (2008) says, "Many people simply stopped drawing distinctions between one card-enabled system and another. Whether the cards registered draftees or pupils, they helped 'the system.""
Men in a warroom facing a map. The text reads, "Vietnam had become the first computational war, bringing a shift toward strategies rooted in quantitative data collection and automated analysis."

A fighter plane with the name, "Tom Cat" on the side. The text reads, "Sensor arrays and unmanned drones became a big part of the war. An ongoing experiment with the intention of the eventual replacement of human pilots. American soldiers were sabotaging equipment, staging protests and refusing to fight. Automation of war as with the automation of industry, was a political strategy designed to, once again, reassert control over rebellious workers."
A person at the self-checkout frustrated by the machines error message which says, "Unexpected item in the bagging area!"  The text reads "Now, as more of our daily lives are automated, people are finding that it doesn't always make our lives easier."
The text reads, "In 2016, a study revealed that physicians spend two hours of computer work for every hour spent speaking with a patient face to face." Atul Gawande, surgeon and public health researcher tells us, "I've come to feel that a system that promised to increase my mastery over my work has, instead, increased my work's mastery over me."

The text above people using computers reads, "In the rush to claim success with new AI software, this invisible human work becomes even more insidious. Researcher Jathan Sadowski calls it 'Potemkin AI.'  Sadowski says to us, "There is a long list of services that purport to be powered by sophisticated software, but actually rely on humans acting like robots."
Writer and filmmaker Astra Taylor calls these modern-day Mechanical Turks an example of "fauxtomation" which she says "reinforces the idea that work has no value if it is unpaid and acclimates us to the idea that one day we won't be needed."
A sad person hold s a robot mask to their face. The text reads, "As a 2019 report by the think tank Data & Society concludes, 'Automated and AI technologies tend to mask the human labour that allows them to be fully integrated into a social context while profoundly changing the conditions and quality of labour that is at stake."

The text reads, "Opposition to 21st century tech can be found in unlikely places. Silicon Valley executives are restricting their own children's screen time and sending them to tech-free schools." Taewoo Kim, chief AI engineer at machine learning startup One Smart Lab, tells us from in front of a Waldorf school, "You can't put your face in a device and expect to develop a long-term attention span."
A bullet shaped robot outside near grass has sauce on it. The text reads, "In San Francisco, security robots sent to harass the homeless have been repeatedly assaulted, with one being covered in BBQ sauce and wrapped in tarp."
An autonomous vehicle with a broken window.  The text reads, "In Arizona, people are slashing the tires of driverless cars after Uber struck and killed a woman in Tempe." A quote from Douglas Rushkoff, author of Team Human (2019) reads, "People are lashing out justifiably. There's a growing sense that the giant corporations honing driverless technologies do not have our best interests at heart."
A pie chart with the words, "A pew research poll found that 85% of Americans favored the restriction of automation to only the most dangerous forms of work."

People standing around and looking at their cell phones. The text reads, "We're all living through an era in which we have become the product."  Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) tells us, "The age of surveillance capitalism is a titanic struggle between capital and each one of us. It is a direct intervention into free will, an assault on human autonomy. To tune and herd and shape and push us in the direction that creates the highest probability of their business success. [There's no way] to dress this up as anything but behavioral modification."
A facial recognition target over the face of a Black person next to a hand pointing at the word "Error." The text reads, "Many are also drawing attention to the biases of software made by an almost entirely male, predominantly white workforce."  A quote from Timnit Gebru, cofounder of Black in AI says, "I'm worried about groupthink, insularity, and arrogance in the AI community, [...] If many are actively excluded from its creation, this <a href=technology will benefit a few while harming a great many."” class=”wp-image-1088552″ />
The text reads, "VPNs, the dark web, and plugins like RequestPolicy are arguably Luddite responses to new <a href=technology. Computer science students have already developed Glaze- a tool to prevent AI models from mimicking artist styles." Maxigas, in Resistance to the Current: The Dialectics of Hacking (2022) says, "A retrograde attempt to rewind web history: a Luddite machine that, as they say ‘breaks’ the essential mechanisms of websites."” class=”wp-image-1088553″ />

Gavin Mueller in Breaking Things at Work (2021) says, "Luddism contains a critical perspective on <a href=technology that pays particular attention to technology‘s relationship to the labor process and working conditions. In other words, it views technology not as neutral but as a site of struggle. Luddism rejects production for production’s sake: it is critical of ‘efficiency’ as an end goal."” class=”wp-image-1088554″ />
Above a person tearing a line chart, the text reads, "'Degrowth,' 'slow living,' 'quiet quitting,' and the 'I Do Not Dream of Labour' movements could all be described as forms of modern neo-Luddism."  Jason Hickel, author of Less is More: How Degrowth will Save the World (2020)  says, "Lashed to the growth imperative, <a href=technology is used not to do the same amount of stuff in less time, but rather to do more stuff in the same amount of time."” class=”wp-image-1088555″ />

A man with a sledgehammer resting on his shoulder as hi looks out at the horizon. The text reads, "Questioning and resisting the worst excesses of <a href=technology isn’t antithetical to progress. If your concept of ‘progress’ doesn’t put people at the center of it, is it even progress? Maybe those of us who are apprehensive about AI art are Luddites. Maybe we should wear that badge with pride. Welcome to the future. Sabotage it."” class=”wp-image-1088556″ />

Tom Humberstone is a comic artist and illustrator based in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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