Eternals: Zhao

Eternals: First MCU to Be Directed by Asian-American Woman, this Year’s Oscar Winner Chloe Zhao

By Emanuel Levy

Marvel Studios’ Eternals, the 26th movie in the Marvel Cinema Universe (MCU) is an all-new adventure, introducing no less than ten Super Heroes, most of whom never seen on the screen before.

Eternals follows a group of heroes from beyond the stars who had protected the Earth since the dawn of man. When monstrous creatures called the Deviants, long thought lost to history, mysteriously return, the Eternals are forced to reunite in order to defend humanity once again.  

As their hero Ajak says: “We have watched and guided. We have helped them progress and seen them accomplish wonders.  Throughout the years, we have never interfered.

Origins of the Eternals 

Jack Kirby’s original “Eternals” Marvel comic books, which were first published in 1976, provided the inspiration  for the film. His stories presented a unique opportunity to explore uncharted periods and diverse characters, and to delve into the rich history of the Eternals.  

Eternals is an epic, sweeping, multi-millennial-spanning story with a diverse team of ten Super Heroes that we I was excited to introduce to the world,” says director Zhao. “Though it continues the tradition of  the MCU, the movie also breaks new ground–seen as a a precursor for what the future of the MCU holds.”  

The screenplay is written by Chloé Zhao and Patrick Burleigh and Ryan Firpo  & Kaz Firpo, from a screen story by Ryan Firpo & Kaz Firpo. 

As a comic hero movie, especially one made by the conservative Disney studio, Eternals is marking several significant milestones for Marvel Studios.

It’s the first title in the MCU to be directed by an Oscar winner and a woman of color, Asian American Chloé Zhao.who is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts.

It’s the first feature film for the studio with such a diverse title superheroes, such as South Asian (Kumail Nanjiani’s Kingo), Latina (Salma Hayek’s Ajak), deaf (Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari) and LGBTQ (Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos).

Eternalss is also the first to feature a same-sex kiss, between Phastos and his husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman).

And it’s the first Marvel Studios movie to feature two characters having sex on screen

Eternals is an ensemble film, its story is built around a central couple: Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), two ageless superheroes who had fall in love over 3,000 years ago during the Babylonian Empire, and then consummate that love on screen in a sun-dappled rocky landscape.

Marvel Studios has always actively sought to work with filmmakers who inspire them and have vision and enthusiasm for the project. For “Eternals,” they chose to work with Chloé Zhao, a talented Chinese filmmaker known for this year Oscar-winning film Nomadland.

PPreviously. she has made two low-budget independent films: The Rider and Songs My Brothers Taught Me, both world-premiering at the Sundance Film Festival to great acclaim.  These two movies were both modern Westerns (traditionally a male-dominated genre) and both featured lead performances from mostly non professional actors (for the sake of authenticity)

Nate Moore, producer Kevin Feige, comments, “Chloé is a rare filmmaker who is as adroit with finding real human moments as she is crating and delivering heady science fiction. We were so excited to see her work with the us and the glorious cast and crew.”

Zhao has captured those special moments that give the MCU fi lms heart and believability, and allowed each of the ten Eternals to have a disƟ nct voice and presence. And she’s not afraid to embrace it with humor at unexpected times, which informed the tone of the film. Her vision and passion for  the project are unmatched.” 

“The scope of the film would be daunting for most filmmakers, but Chloé’s eye for detail combined  with her enthusiasm for pushing the envelope visually has given ‘Eternals’ a palette all its own, both from a  practical locations perspective and how the visual effects in the film are expressed.” 

Joining the MCU and taking the helm of such a huge movie on the scale was a welcomed challenge for Zhao, who has always been a Marvel fan.

“The MCU is full of heart—a world filled with great characters and  epic adventures,” Zhao says. “It’s made by people who truly love storytelling and have immense respect for their  fans. I came into the process as a filmmaker and also as a fan. To be able to make a standalone movie, but also  to celebrate what came before us, to expand the mythology and to shape the future of the MCU, was an exciting  challenge and an honor to be a part of.” 

“Chloé Zhao came in with a great pitch,” Feige confirmed, “and we immediately were drawn to her vision. Her  passion for the project combined with her directing style and ability to see the big picture for ‘Eternals’ made her  the perfect choice to direct. It was thrilling to work with her and see her vision unfold to bring ‘Eternals’ to life.”  

Zhao’s vision for the film was unique, based o her world view, on how she sees the world through her filmmaker’s lens. She explains,  “My initial vision for the film can be summed up in the opening of William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence.’ ‘To see the world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an  hour.’ Blake meant that you can fi nd meanings and the endless beauty of our universe inside the smallest things  on earth, and with the most intimate moments between human beings.”

She says the ambitious goal was two-fold: “We set out to capture both—something  as epic as the creation of a sun and as intimate as the whispers of lovers. To find a way for these moments to  coexist and to use them to explore our relationship with our planet, the cosmos and ourselves was a challenge  that we loved deeply.” 

Oscar winner actress and director in her own right Angelina Jolie (Unbroken), who plays the Eternal Thena, says, “Chloé is an extraordinary choice. I knew she’d bring something different, but I really didn’t know how since this is a huge movie. It is huge in scope and the span of time. It’s huge in the effects and new-world  creation. It’s huge in that you have ten different brand-new characters that you’re introducing and creating,  and everything about them and their personalities, their backgrounds, their histories, even their style of fighting.”

Continues Jolie: “When I saw the film, I didn’t know how she did it. I didn’t know how she was able to balance so much. What  I wasn’t surprised by is how authentic it was. But this epic feels very personal and very emotional and very  human. I believe that’s her gift .” 

Love and Sex in Disney Movie?

Zhao said that the scene was originally “in the treatment” for Eternals that she read, even before she committed to direct the movie.

“You can’t tell a mature love story if you’re not gonna do some kind of sex. “It’s lovely to see two people show physical affection for each other — a kiss, foreplay, make love.”

Zhao filmed the scene between Chan and Madden on location, at the end of the day of production. She says: “Gemma and Richard did such a great job with the last bit of light we have.”

She elaborates: I made sure that the sex scene is integral to the story, and that it’s done in a very discreet and tasteful way. I wanted to convey the genuine, long-lasting love the couple have for each other–against all odds.”

Exception? Anomaly? New Trend?

Sex in studio feature filmmaking has become rare, if not totally absent, over the past two decades or so. One reason: the PG and PG-13 ratings, which are dominating as storytelling, appeal family friendly franchises, especially children and kids.

Sex has been absent particularly in superhero cinema. In the MCU, there’s been an (unseen) one-night stand between Tony and journalist Christine Everhart (Leslie Bibb) in Iron Man, made in 2008.

Marvel Studios is owned by Disney, which has been protecting its family-friendly brand for decades, with great artistic acclaim, and immense commercial appeal all over the world to prove that trend.

Yet Chloe Zhao says she got no pushback–“not even slight doubts or questions”–from the studio about the sex scene between Sersi and Ikaris in Eternals.

“When we put it together, we showed people at Disney, and they really loved it,” she said. “It was beautiful. And there was no discussion of taking it out.”

With superheroes continuing to dominate mass culture for the foreseeable future, it’s unclear whether the sex scene in “Eternals” is the exception to the genre’s chastity, or a harbinger of a more liberated approach to sexuality on screen.

Banned in Gulf Nations due to Same Gender Couple

The movie has been banned in several Gulf nations, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, after Disney declined to make certain edits.  The decision of these countries was likely made over the inclusion of a same-gender couple in the film and the MCU’s first gay superhero. In one scene, the character, Phastos (Henry), and his onscreen husband, Ben (Haaz Sleiman), share a kiss.