10 IMMORTAL HEROES 7,000 YEARS ONE OSCAR WINNING DIRECTOR MARVEL'S BOLDEST MOVIE YET
Total Film|October 2021
THE NEXT MOVIE IN MARVEL’S PHASE 4, ETERNALS IS SET TO BE MARVEL’S BIGGEST S W I N G Y E T . COMBINING MILLENNIA-SPANNING SWEEP WITH INDIE SENSIBILITIES AND ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING ENSEMBLES YET ASSEMBLED FOR A SUPERHERO FILM, CHLOÉ ZHAO’S SUPER-FAMILY EPIC COULD CHANGE THE COMIC-BOOK MOVIE LANDSCAPE FOREVER.
MATT MAYTUM

Since Jon Favreau helmed Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios has been fearless in hiring directors not typically associated with blockbusters. Kenneth Branagh, Shane Black and Taika Waititi are just a few of the names you wouldn’t have previously considered for big-budget capes-and-spandex adventures. The latest pleasant surprise in the fold is Chloé Zhao, the Chinese filmmaker known thus far for Songs My Brothers Taught Me, The Rider and Nomadland, the latter earning her Best Director and Best Picture Oscars (among countless other accolades). It makes her the first Best Director Oscar-winner behind an MCU movie, even though her pitch was made just before she hit the road with Frances McDormand.

“I actually pitched Eternals to Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios President] and Nate [Moore, Vice President of Production and Development] the day before I got into my van and drove to do Nomadland,” Zhao tells Total Film with a laugh. “I remember, as I was leaving, Victoria [Alonso, Executive Vice President of Production] said, ‘Make sure you come back. It’s going to be a long journey.’ I drove away the next morning to the desert.”

Her filmography might mark Zhao out as an unusual choice, given that her films have been defiantly character-driven, naturalistic, intimate affairs, but this garlanded filmmaker is also a proud genre geek. Growing up in China, she didn’t have access to Hollywood movies until her teens (True Lies is the first US movie she remembers seeing). “Earlier on, it was a lot of anime and manga, and also the Chinese wuxia genre of TV shows and things like that,” she recalls. “But my early exposure was definitely like Star Wars and James Cameron’s movies.” Zhao made sure the word got out via her agent that she’d love to do a Marvel Studios movie.

When she did end up getting a meeting, Zhao gravitated towards Eternals, despite not knowing the source material. “I was not familiar with them,” she laughs. “I think not a lot of people are familiar with them.” But she saw something there. “I loved the idea that it’s an ensemble film,” Zhao continues. “And it is a film that allowed me to really explore a lot of the inner struggles and questions that I have about us as human beings, and our place in the universe, and our purpose, and things like identity. When I read the treatment for Eternals, I thought, ‘What an incredible way to explore that in an allegorical and fantastical way,’ which is the type of storytelling that really excites me.”

The scope of Eternals also held its own geeky appeal. “To be a fan of the MCU, and to be able to go back in time to sort of explore the mythology and history of the MCU as a fan, was definitely a treat,” she adds. Ever since casting Robert Downey Jr. as a second-tier superhero back in 2008, Marvel Studios hasn’t been afraid of a hard sell, going on to make heroes of a Norse god, a goateed sorcerer and a trisyllabic space tree. But the title characters in Eternals represent the biggest swing the studio has yet taken with its heroes…

PROTECT AND SERVE

As Zhao sums up the premise, “They’re a group of immortal aliens, really. They came from outer space, they were sent here by the Celestials 7,000 years ago to come and protect humans from the Deviants. We’re going to see this group of people, this family of 10, throughout history, and how they are affected by that experience. They have one more very important mission to do.” Got that? The Celestials are an ancient race outdating most other lifeforms. As seen in the trailer, they’re imposing mechanical-looking giants with glowing red eyes. The Deviants, meanwhile, are monstrous creatures in various beastly forms. Seems they’ve been pretty quiet, for long enough at least for the Eternals to drift apart.

However, when Tony Stark reversed Thanos’ blip and brought back the half of the population that had been wiped out five years earlier, the resulting surge in energy kicked off ‘the emergence’, which seemingly finds the Deviants back on the prowl. Time for the Eternals to stage a reunion. Because the threat levels here are big, even in comparison to Thanos’ finger-snapping genocide. “After Thanos, it does make you think, ‘What else?’” says Zhao. “Again, what excited me is the idea of going back in time, and exploring [the time] before Thanos was born, before anyone was born. Where does the MCU go back in time? And that brings us to the mythology of the Celestials. Anything involving the Celestials is going to be at a huge scale level of complication, let’s put it that way.”

The film will answer the question of why this group of Earth’s so-called protectors didn’t step in as Thanos was amassing Infinity Stones. “[The audience] will understand why,” assures Zhao, “and not only why, but how complicated not interfering made them feel. We explore that. You’ll see that in the film. The Eternals were instructed not to interfere with any human conflict unless Deviants are involved. There’s a reason why that’s the case. And that was the instruction from the prime Celestial Arishem.”

When it came to assembling the ensemble that forms this 10-strong family of unbelievably powerful aliens, Zhao and her team were looking for “unique individuals”. They ended up with one of the most varied and impressive lineups yet seen in a superhero movie, or any blockbuster for that matter, with several characters heavily revised from their comic-book incarnations.

Kevin Feige has previously said, “If there was a lead in this ensemble, it is Sersi, it is Gemma Chan”. Chan actually has Marvel previous, having played Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel.

“The characters in the films couldn’t really be more different,” Chan tells TF over Zoom. “It was a nice surprise to be asked back.” It probably helped that Minn-Erva was killed off (and that the role saw Chan smothered in blue make-up). Chan understands the protagonist comment “because she is the one that has this real connection to human beings, because she is living amongst them – she’s kind of the audience’s way in, I suppose. So it made sense to me, in that way, that she’s your window into relating to these beings.” Chan sees the Eternals as “kind of like a big, slightly dysfunctional family”.

At the head of the family is leader Ajak, played by Salma Hayek. “Chloé decided to take on the concept of leadership from the perspective of motherhood,” says Hayek, a blast of unfiltered energy over Zoom. “I’m not a mother. I’m an alien. I can’t have kids. However, my character used to be a man in the comics, now it’s a woman. So instead of just changing the gender, I proposed to [Zhao] to really bring something that is very specific from womanhood.” Ajak is the mama bear of the group, and that influences her every interaction. “I need to guide them into things,” she explains. “We have a mission in life, in the world. A mother also needs to guide her kids. When they misbehave, she will reprimand them, but always from the perspective of motherhood… There’s an empathy to it – although I’m not allowed to have empathy, because I’m an alien. So that makes it interesting.”

Angelina Jolie makes her superhero debut as warrior Thena in Eternals (she previously appeared in comic-book movie Wanted, but as she says with a laugh, “it wasn’t super”). “Really, it was this particular family of Marvel I wanted to join – this particular group of people, this cast,” she explains. “I really wanted to join that family. And I also was a fan of Chloé’s films. I had a faith that she would bring something special to the MCU.” As for Thena’s role in the family, Jolie is nervous about dropping spoilers. “I have to check my notes about what I’m not allowed to say,” she laughs, looking off to the side of the screen. “You know what’s funny? You read the thing that says what your character is, and you think, ‘Is it [right]? That I’m often ‘surly and aloof’! I suppose she is.”

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