After 13 years and 25 movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is still finding new ways to dazzle audiences. Marvel Studios’ upcoming film Eternals is unlike anything else in the franchise.
Eternals may be Marvel’s most daring film yet. It’s more of a standalone picture than most MCU titles, and it’s based on little-known comic book characters. Remember in 2014 when nobody ever heard of the Guardians of the Galaxy? Well, Eternals cast of Gilgamesh, Druig, and Sersi make the 2014 Guardians look like BTS.
However, Marvel Studios’ boldest decision was hiring Academy Award-winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao to direct the film. The indie darling’s jump to tentpole filmmaking came out of left field.
Zhao writes and directs small, intimate arthouse pictures with naturalistic performances by people who’ve never acted before. Her talent is undeniable, but nothing in her acclaimed filmography screamed blockbuster movie director. Bringing a filmmaker of Zhao’s stature onboard meant Marvel Studios was committing to take some big creative swings.
Eternals’ story begins at the dawn of civilization and sees an intergalactic group of heroes arrive on earth to make it their new home. Their mission is to protect the fledgling human race from hordes of man-eating creatures called Deviants. Flash-forward five thousand years and the Deviants have returned, stronger than ever. And after going their separate ways, the Eternals must reunite to save humanity one more time.
Eternals’ ensemble cast presents one of Marvel’s most diverse-looking superhero teams yet. Brown, Black, and Asian comic book movie fans don’t often see themselves represented by the folks headlining these films. “That was the whole idea,” said Marvel Studios’ president Kevin Feige. “Nate Moore, our producer who is not up here with us, really had that driving vision for what this could be and when Chloé came in and pitched it to us and took these very general ideas we had, and obviously the very spectacular Jack Kirby source material, it felt like a very new special step for us.”
Despite Marvel’s stellar track record launching comic book movie franchises, basing a new property on a team of lesser-known characters is still a gamble. But it’s a calculated risk, according to Feige. “In a post-Infinity Saga world, we wanted to make a bold new step,” said Feige. “You don’t know everything about the universe yet, and there are these ten spectacular heroes that you haven’t met, who have been here the whole time.”
Zhao has crafted the MCU’s most mature film yet. Eternals explores an array of complicated themes about empathy and personal accountability. There are also acts of love and depictions of historical violence, unlike anything we’ve seen in these movies so far.
Zhao approached the project with the same mindset she brings to her emotionally harrowing indie films. “It started with me showing him [Kevin Feige] macro photos of sand and then quoting a poem from William Blake,“ Zhao said. “In that poem, Blake was trying to say that you can see endless beauty and meanings of the cosmos within the smallest things you can find on earth. The vision of the film was to set out to capture that scale. Something as large as the sun and as intimate as the whispers of lovers.”
Intimate is a great way to describe the drama on-screen, which is more earnest and introspective than what you see in most comic book movies. The Eternals are thousands of years old, which means they each carry around thousands of years of emotional baggage. These characters love each other and resent one another like only family can. And despite not seeing these characters on-screen before, each performance feels nuanced and lived-in.
It’s the sprawling cast and poignant story that drew Angelina Jolie to the film. Jolie plays Thena, goddess of war, a fearless warrior who finds herself in a battle she can’t punch and kick her way out of. “I’m a fan of [the] MCU, and I was a big fan of Chloé’s,” Jolie said. “When they first talked to me about the story it was the cast, it was the idea of what this family would be, and I just wanted to be part of this family before I even knew very much about who I was going to play.”
Jolie added, “A lot of us were cast to bring out something from our own lives, something within ourselves that maybe we weren’t even aware of, and then let it live and let it grow within the film.”
Gemma Chan’s character Sersi is the heart and soul of the movie. Eternals features an ensemble cast, but make no mistake, this is Sersi’s story. Chan calls Eternals a coming-of-age story for Sersi even though the character is thousands of years old.
“Sersi is a superhero, but her power isn’t the most obvious or the flashiest,” Chan said. “She’s not the best fighter, but what she does have is empathy and a real affinity for humankind. She’s a free spirit.” Chan later added, “She learns to trust herself and to grow into her own power really, and that was really interesting thing to explore.”
Salma Hayek relished the chance to become the Eternals leader, Ajak. Hayek quickly pointed out how few of these opportunities are afforded to women of a certain age. “You fight for it in your 20s, your 30s, and in your 40s, you go, oh screw them. They don’t get it.” Hayek said. “It’s very humbling when in the middle of your ‘50s, a brilliant director gives you the opportunity to do both. Do something that comes from a big place that is also a big blockbuster. I was wrong; everything is possible.”
Last year Kumail Nanjiani made headlines for the physical transformation he undertook for his role as Kingo. But shockingly, the toughest part of filming Eternals wasn’t hitting the gym with a trainer from hell.
“By far, the hardest thing was the dancing,” Nanjiani said. “I’m going to put Chloé on the spot. I can’t swear, so put in a swear word here. Chloé … lied to me.” Nanjiani recounts how Zhao agreed to put him in a Bollywood action sequence but ditched that for a dance number once he arrived in London. The Big Sick star begrudgingly accepted and worked with a dance instructor for “months and months.”
Brian Tyree Henry plays the Eternal Phastos, the team’s deep thinker. Phastos embarks on a remarkable journey, going from a place of frustration and despair early on to finding his place in human society.
“I truly whole-heartedly trusted Chloé,” Henry said. “I think of all the images of black men out there and how we are portrayed, and what I loved the most about Phastos is one, he’s an ancestor, all of us are ancestors, technically. So Phastos predates everything and had to probably go through all these things that make someone lose faith in humanity quickly.
And I remember when I was coming to this project, that I, Brian, kind of lost faith in humanity just looking at all the things we had been through. And just what images of black men were and how we’re being portrayed and how the power was taken from us, the lack of power, feeling powerful.
What I really loved the most about Phastos is that through all of that, him being eternal, never being able to die, he still chose love, he still decided to have a family even though he may have to watch them perish. He still tried to find a way to bring heart and love to everything he did. Even though his genius was used against him.
Henry also stated, “Chloe and Nate really just reinstilled that power back in me again. I remember the first time they were like, ‘so we want you to be a superhero.’ I was like, ‘cool, how much weight do I have to lose?’ Chloé was like, ‘what are you talking about? We want you exactly as you are.’ And to be a black man, to have someone look at you and say we want you exactly the way you are is unlike anything that I’ve ever felt.”
Henry later added, “The one thing I hope everyone takes away from this movie is that the heart of humanity is still worth saving, and we can still bind and mend and do everything we need to through love. And that’s what Chloé showed.”
The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.
Eternals stars Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Kumail Nanjiani, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Ma Dong-Seok, Kit Harington, and Angelina Jolie.
Eternals arrives in theatres on November 05, 2021. Check out That Shelf’s video review here.