There’s no denying that Marvel Studios’ Eternals is the biggest movie to come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).
Not in terms of budget or cast, nor that the 26th film in the billion-dollar franchise is introducing a total of 10 new heroic characters in one film. It’s that unlike the previous three phases of the massive shared universe, this is the first project to involve 10 characters that are relative unknowns, even from the source comic book materials the movie is based on.
And while it stars the likes of Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek, it is also led by Chinese filmmaker Chloe Zhao, who actually directed and completed Eternals before embarking on Nomadland, which won her a Best Director Academy Award earlier this year.
And the genesis of this massive undertaking started with a poem and a photo revealed Zhao at a press conference that Geek Culture attended, along with Marvel Studios head honcho, Kevin Feige and stars Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Angelina Jolie, Don Lee, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kit Harington and Brian Tyree Henry.
“It started with me showing him (Feige) a macro photo of sand and then quoting a poem from William Blake,” smiled Zhao.
“In that poem, Blake was trying to convey that you can see the endless beauty and the meanings of the cosmos within the smallest things you can find on Earth,” she continued.
“The vision of the film was to set out to capture that scale, something that is as large as the creation of the sun and is intimate as whispers of lovers. Going out on location and doing this kind of immersive shoot and having this amazing cast was kind of how we got here today.”
In the film, the 10 heroes are immortal alien beings placed on Earth to protect the planet’s inhabitants from the Deviants, another group of aliens. Both were created by superbeings known as the Celestials, and have been on Earth for over 7,000 years.
Zhao isn’t exactly the first person you’d think of when you want to make a big-action superhero movie. The Chinese director has beautiful, award-winning drama films attached to her name, but something witty, funny and exciting like a Marvel movie isn’t something you’d figure as her forte. But that’s exactly what the movie needed, because Eternals, amongst all the superhero action, is a movie about humanity.
Humans are complex beings and are incredibly diverse, coming in various shades, shapes and sizes and the movie reflects that in many ways that previous MCU outings have not. In Eternals, audiences will see three Asian heroes, a Latino hero, a deaf hero and an LGBTQ+ one. Although these decisions were intentional, it wasn’t at all forced into the narrative.
“In the way that Chloe directed all of us, obviously, diversity of the cast in the steamers is something we talk about a lot, but the way she approached it was so interesting, it wasn’t as if to make a point, it’s as if to say, ‘This is how things should always have been’. It felt extremely natural,” shared Nanjiani, who plays Kingo.
Each star felt a certain pull to their character for various of reasons, from the desire to be the representation they never got to see growing up ala Hayek (Ajak), Lee (Gilgamesh), Ridloff (Makkari) and Henry (Phastos), to resonating with the character’s backstory and values like Jolie and her character Thena.
For Hayek, being a Latino superhero doesn’t only mean young Latino girls have someone to look up to, but also older women of her age who are made to feel unwanted due to their age.
“I’m in my 50s, I’m short with big boobs, I’m not the normal superhero. I don’t have botox, I’m Mexican, and they let me do my action [sequences] myself! They were not afraid of the insurance that grandma might break in the middle of it, and it’s just beautiful,” shared a passionate Hayek.
“Yesterday when I came out I nearly cried because I saw this Latino family – a mother with three little girls – all dressed like Ajak and I wanted to cry. It was so moving that they can see themselves in [Ajak], and Marvel.”
Jolie, on the other hand, felt like Thena was a good representation of what most people, or women in particular, tend to do when faced with difficulties in life. Despite Thena being a warrior goddess who is 7,000 years old, Jolie seems to think that they both have a lot in common, particularly in relation to how vulnerable she actually is.
“She is maybe the most fantastic I’ve ever played as a superhero, and yet my children said she thought it was the most like me that they’ve seen,” said Jolie.
“It’s hard to talk about her but her vulnerability and what she’s trying to balance, and being able to be the same woman who is also considered very strong… I think we often have to present to be fully together to be strong and, and yet, I think she holds both which most people do. And it’s important to see it.”
Pulling off representation, especially one that is seemingly natural, is not an easy job. With plenty of movies that claim representation – look no further than Marvel’s very own Shang-Chi as an example – it’s almost impossible to fully represent every group there is to exist. Human identities are complex, ever-changing and are influenced by many other attributes that are unique to each individual, but with Zhao, all the cast had to do was place trust in her.
“I truly wholeheartedly trusted Chloe. I think about all the images of Black men out there and how we are portrayed and how power was taken from us. It really resonated a lot with how I felt my place in society was. And so what I loved most about Eternals is that Chloe and [producer] Nate [Moore] really just reinstill that power back in me again,” shared Henry.
“I remember the first time they were like, ‘We want you to be a superhero’. I was like, ‘Cool, how much weight do I have to lose?’, and Chloe was like, ‘What are you talking about? We want you exactly as you are’,” recalled Henry.
“And to be a Black man to have someone to look at you and say we want you exactly the way you are, is unlike anything that I’ve ever felt.”
The trust in director Zhao runs deeper than just getting the right representation, but also in trusting that the final product would be worth the tireless time and effort they put in, with Lee spending up to four weeks just to shoot one action scene.
The trust did not come easy though, especially when actors were pushed out of their comfort zones. For Nanjiani, the discomfort came from needing to perform a dance sequence and shoot finger guns in the air. Nanjiani even hired a dance teacher and practiced dancing for months because he was out of his element.
“I’m gonna put Chloe in the spot. Chloe lied to me. When we first talked about the movie she was like there’s a Bollywood dance sequence and I was like ‘Chloe, I don’t think I could do that’ and she’s like, ‘Okay, we’ll make it a Bollywood action scene’, and then as soon as I got to London, she’s like, ‘It’s a dance sequence!’,” exclaimed Nanjiani.
“It’s so outside my comfort zone but ultimately for me, all that came down to trust. I was like, ‘Oh she’s not going to let me suck in this thing’, so if she wants me to do something, I’m going to do it because I completely trusted her. She had this whole universe in her head. I didn’t understand it until I watched the movie, but I knew enough to trust her.”
And the finger guns?
“Oh yeah, this doesn’t feel like something I would do but if she thinks I can do it, let’s do it! I was like ‘How do I shoot?’ and she was like, ‘You do that!’ and I’m like, ‘That’s so goofy!’ and she’s like, ‘No it’s gonna look awesome’,” laughed Nanjiani.
“And it looks awesome!”
Actress Lia McHugh, who plays Sprite, was probably the most nervous out of the cast. At age 14, the actress is the youngest on set, and Eternals is not only her acting debut, it’s also her first introduction to the MCU.
As an immortal, Sprite is also one of the more complex characters out of the Eternals, since she is physically the youngest but also technically one of the oldest. Which is way beyond McHugh’s age, so the actress had to do a lot of homework to portray the character to the best of her ability.
“There’s a lot of layers to Sprite. In every scene, she goes through a lot of emotions but she expresses them in a sort of sassy temperamental way like an old lady would. Chloe said I should watch Judi Dench and Maggie Smith, and sort of be like an old lady, but also have the wonderment of a child,” explained McHugh.
“She wants to be part of this world but can’t so she deals with a lot of emotional stuff that the Eternals don’t really deal with being in the body of a child.”
Out of the cast, Richard Madden likely is the most comfortable with his role. However, it didn’t mean he was let off the hook either. The Game of Thrones star has always played a leader and/or a lover of some sort and for the first time, he explored performing a character that plays both ends of the stick.
“I really loved it, I’m kind of used to playing lovers and to play someone who’s such a soldier, but is completely driven by love, all his decisions are driven by love and it’s actually him that’s wrestling with that. I’m used to characters who are very focused on their love and that comes out, and with Ikaris he’s the opposite of that. He’s kind of trying to bury that love, because it gets in the way of his duty and he’s constantly wrestling the two,” said Madden.
“That’s kind of what made it really interesting for me, to pull out that relationship with all the characters from Sprite to Sersi and kind of work out what this relationship is when you’re trying to stick to duty, but your feelings get in the way. This kind of Eternal soldier wrestling that.”
With each Eternal having to deal with issues of their own – Ikaris and his love, Sprite and her age for example, what about plain old Dane Whitman, played by Game of Thrones alum Kit Harington fit in all of this?
The Eternals movie has hinted via its post-credits scenes that Harington’s Dane has much more in store for him in the MCU, but in the movie itself, Whitman has a smaller role compared to the cosmic-powered beings who are busy saving the world from death and destruction.
In fact, one can sum up that Whitman’s only role in the movie is to exist in a love triangle with Sersi and Ikaris, except that Whitman is human, while Ikaris is the super ex-boyfriend she’s spent 5000 years loving. Whilst it looks as simple as that, Harington argues that Dane’s role is largely important because he represents the kind of people that the Eternals are trying to save.
“He’s a nice guy!” defends Harrington.
“I feel like I’m representing humanity. You know it’s me and Phastos’ husband and their kid, representing humanity and I felt that from the beginning I had to represent something that was worth saving. I hope that Dane comes across as a nice stand-up guy, and one thing I really respect him for, is that a man flies out of the sky, and he’s shooting lasers out of his eyes and steals his girlfriend and he’s kind of cool with that,” continued Harington.
“So yeah, that’s Dane. I come in at the start of the movie and then the movie goes its own direction with these wonderful people in this wonderful cast, so I felt separate from [them], but I think the advantage of that is that you have a glimpse into the humans at the start, and you get a glimpse into who is these guys are really trying to save.”
Despite some early reviews from critics that felt the movie didn’t quite fit well in the MCU, the fans have indicated otherwise. The M18 rated, almost three-hour long Eternals had a rather successful box office premiere in Singapore, earning over S$424,000 on its first day, making it Singapore’s most successful M18 debut in cinemas.
Meanwhile, online critic aggregator Rotten Tomatoes has recorded an 86% rating based on audience score, which is much higher than the 49% rating based on critical reviews.
Still, both fans and critics have noted several strengths in the film, including the beautiful diversity in the cast, and how each character was able to reflect a trait of humanity’s even when they’re God-level beings.
“You can’t do the history of humanity without the heroes looking like a cross-section of humanity, and that was really what the goal was,” said Feige.
So maybe, just maybe, whatever Zhao envisioned is working. And to think it all started with a macro image of sand.
Eternals is now showing in cinemas.