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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Chloé Zhao Upends the Marvel Formula With 'Eternals'

Chloé Zhao was, she admits, nervous.

It was summer 2018, the day before the director was supposed to hit the road to film her next small indie film. Zhao was in a conference room at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, pitching a Marvel movie. The studio’s top brass were there—Kevin Feige, Nate Moore, Louis D'Esposito, and Victoria Alonso—and Zhao was defending her vision like a PhD thesis. Nothing impromptu, lots of visuals. Maybe a bit too formal.

Just in time, the History Channel show Ancient Aliens came to Zhao’s rescue. Part of her idea for Eternals hinged on a saga of extraterrestrial contact on Earth—just like Ancient Aliens. That’s when Feige, architect of the vast, intertwined Marvel Cinematic Universe, piped up: “I was just watching that the other day!” Spurred on, Zhao hit her groove. She spieled her vision, incorporating not just ancient aliens but also manga, Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, and the visual similarities between Final Fantasy and the films of warrior-poet Terrence Malick.


In Hollywood parlance, Zhao sold it in the room. “It wasn’t until that pitch that we solidified that we were even going to do Eternals,” Feige says. Zhao just had to go shoot that other movie first—a quiet film with Frances McDormand called Nomadland, which would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar. According to Zhao, “At the end of the meeting, Victoria said to me, ‘Make sure you come back, OK?’”

Fortunately, she did. After a few months in the American West, Zhao returned and started working on Eternals, the epic story of a race of immortals sent to protect Earth by cosmic beings known as the Celestials. That may sound like pinnacle popcorn fare, but Zhao aims to move far beyond cinematic junk food. An auteur with an eye for natural settings and a sensitivity for intimate, personal stories, she pushed to make sure her Eternals wasn’t just another computer-generated superhero movie full of coiffed crusaders with “Man” in their monikers. She shot much of it on location in England and the Canary Islands. She diversified the mostly white, all-straight cast of the original comic. Moore, a coproducer on the film, says Zhao has deconstructed who gets to be a Marvel hero—and reinvented the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The myth of the Marvel movie goes something like this: Somewhere deep in the bowels of Disney, a brain trust dreams up the arc of the MCU’s phases. Stand-alone superhero flicks get seeded with the Easter eggs and MacGuffins that will propel them toward big team-up movies like Captain America: Civil War or Avengers: Endgame. Along the way, the studio gives wildly creative, big-talent-but-not-yet-big-name directors the keys to a race car but keeps strict control of the shape of the track. Feige rejects the notion that they all end up cogs in a Hollywood machine, but let’s be real. There’s a reason MCU movies have made some $9 billion in just the US and Canada. People know what to expect when they walk into the multiplex: sweet-looking suits, the destruction of New York City, guys named Chris.

This time around, though, there’s no infinity-sized punchfest on the horizon. Without an Endgame endgame, Marvel’s filmmakers have fewer limits and more paths they can take. Each movie can be different thematically, visually, emotionally. Fans got a taste of this in September with Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which, yes, had punching, but also more 1970s-style kung fu in its cinematic DNA than any Marvel movie before it.

Eternals ventures even further from the Marvel formula. Once Zhao came on board, she reworked the script and made a plan to shoot it in her style: minimal green screen, lots of location shoots, natural light, wide-angle lenses that can capture both close-up intimacy and vast landscapes within the same frame. (This is where the Final Fantasy and Terrence Malick influence comes in. Think Tree of Life with swords.) If that sounds like a departure from Marvel’s house style, that’s why they hired her. “I’m not going to try to do something different for the sake of doing something different—that’s not interesting to me,” Zhao says. “There’s no reason for them to get someone like me just to shoot a movie on a soundstage.”

As Moore puts it, hiring Zhao to make a film that looks more like her 2017 modern Western, The Rider, than Iron Man 3 comes with the kinds of changes Marvel always says it wants to make “and then in the crunch of the schedule are the first things to get stripped away.” Zhao, he notes, is not dissimilar to her former Sundance Screenwriters Lab classmate Ryan Coogler, director of Black Panther, in that they both “challenged our very system as to why we were doing things a certain way.”

Instead of shiny, primary-colored razzle-dazzle, Eternals, in Zhao’s care, occupies more muted, subtle tones. Some Marvel films may need big CGI worlds, but because her movie is about heroes who have been on Earth for 7,000 years, she wanted her cast to be able to interact with real physical spaces. And while Eternals’ central characters must save Earth from the Deviants (you know, hero shit), according to Moore the film also challenges assumptions about what comic book characters should look like.

When it hits theaters in November, Eternals will be the first Marvel movie with a deaf star—Lauren Ridloff as Makkari. It will also feature Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, one of the MCU’s first openly gay superheroes. Several characters are a different race or gender than they were in Jack Kirby’s original 1970s comics. Eternals are immortal cosmic beings, Moore notes, not supersoldiers. They don’t all have to have six-pack abs. For Zhao, that’s the point. Talk of inclusion gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, but it often devolves into box-checking; she wants to honor her characters’ diversity by making their personal identities part of the plot.


“There are many different ways a human being can be heroic,” Zhao says. “I want to explore as many as possible, so that more audiences can see themselves in these heroic moments and feel they can relate.”

This, too, speaks to Zhao’s strengths. Feige likens her to an anthropologist, someone who studies her subjects and then makes films showcasing their abilities. She did it with the real nomads featured in Nomadland and the Lakota rodeo cowboy at the heart of The Rider. For Eternals, she cross-pollinated the tale of human evolution in Harari’s Sapiens with Marvel’s own mythology to explore how extraterrestrials would have integrated with humanity over the course of millennia. It’s the kind of thing, Feige says, Marvel has to do to avoid repeating itself. “I told her during some dark, grind-filled days in the middle of production,” he says, “that it was her vision for this movie that made me think that, post-Endgame, the MCU could survive.”

It might also be a way forward for Zhao. One of her next projects is a reimagining of the Dracula story that’s being described as “a futuristic, sci-fi Western”—another canon (coffin?) for her to blow up. At one point in our conversation, I ask if she’d ever want to direct a Star Wars movie. Zhao showed up at Comic-Con International a few years ago in a T-shirt emblazoned with a crying stormtrooper and the message “I had friends on that Death Star,” so it seemed likely. She demurs on the question but immediately follows up with a confession: “I’m definitely on the dark side.” That might be exactly what the franchise needs.

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