Chloé Zhao’s The Eternals will be a quantum shift for Marvel

Marvel’s decision to hand Chloé Zhao the reins to The Eternals, the studio’s sprawling, millennia-spanning tale of godlike superheroes, looks like a stroke of genius after the Chinese film-maker won the best director and best picture Oscars for her film Nomadland this week. What was it that Marvel president Kevin Feige saw in the director’s intimate, sober yet ultimately spirited work that inspired him to think that she could become the film-maker to spin the Marvel Cinematic Universe into its most far-out venture yet? It could not have been Nomadland itself, for all reports suggests that Zhao worked on The Eternals (due out in November) concurrently with the best picture winner.

More likely it was Zhao’s previous film The Rider, a poetic tale of poverty and desperation among the Lakota Sioux of the Pine Ridge Reservation which, like Nomadland, used untrained actors for authenticity. This was the movie that inspired McDormand, also Nomadland’s producer, to approach Zhao about working on the eventual Oscar-winner.

Feige told Variety it was only when watching Nomadland in combination with an early sample reel of Eternals, cut together for studio bigwigs, that he realised how perfectly Zhao’s “signature style”, an ability to capture the wonder of the natural world and America’s great, wide open spaces, had translated perfectly to the swirling VFX of the Marvel universe.

“I had to keep saying, ‘This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all,’” Feige told Variety. “Because it was a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore on this giant cliffside – really impressive stuff.”

Feige describes Zhao as fighting constantly for practical locations during the making of The Eternals, which will star Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Richard Madden as members of Jack Kirby’s titular race of humanoids. In the comics, the Eternals are creatures who were part of the same process that led to the creation of sentient life on Earth. They spend much of their time flitting between planets, warring among themselves while also occasionally protecting humankind from their nemeses, the monster-like Deviants.

If this all sounds like a blend of Ridley Scott’s Engineers from the ill-fated Alien prequel Prometheus, and the Transformers, the truth is that the Eternals pre-dated (and perhaps inspired) both. Kirby, who also created DC’s similar New Gods, first introduced them in 1976, along with their creators, The Celestials. We’ve already met one or two of the latter in the MCU, namely Star-Lord’s father Ego the Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy 2, while it’s possible we’ll meet others such as Arishem and Nezarr in Zhao’s film.

How will the Beijing-born director’s uniquely delicate film-making translate to the widescreen cosmic chicanery of the latest Marvel project? It’s likely she’ll bring the same emphasis on truth-telling and realism, as well as a fondness for modestly-sized creative teams. Zhao told Variety she received the studio’s full backing when it came to shooting the movie her way. “Props to Marvel – from early on, they knew the way I wanted to make this film, how I wanted to shoot," sy het gese. “It can’t be hundreds of people standing around. So they very much adapted how to run the set the way that I wanted to work. I’m still surrounded by 25 mense. They just have armies, and each of them knew they needed to keep the army away.”

It will be fascinating to see the results of what does at first glance appear to be an almighty culture clash of film-making styles. Although it’s worth pointing out that Marvel has already experimented with a more humble mode of storytelling with its Disney+ hit Wandavision, a show that spent much of its run as an old-school two-hander when not exploding into fits and starts of superhero spectacle.

Zhao’s unique eye and fondness for a kind of modern-day cinéma vérité are not the only quantum shifts that Zhao might bring to the Marvel table. At the film-maker’s behest, The Eternals will feature the universe’s first deaf and gay superheroes.

Lauren Ridloff stars as Makkan, an Eternal who survives the enormous sonic booms she is capable of creating by dint of her lack of hearing. Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry will play Phastos, an Eternal whose secret efforts as a genius inventor have helped humanity’s technological progress over the centuries, and who will have a husband and family in the film. Intriguingly, both characters were heterosexual males in the original comics.

Is Marvel going out on a limb by handing Zhao the keys to its kingdom? If Edgar Wright, a film-maker with a natural knack for spectacle, was the wrong choice to direct the original Ant-Man movie, it initially seems bizarre that a film-maker whose down-to-earth vision seems a million miles from Marvel’s starry-eyed fantasy universe is apparently right on the money.

Op dieselfde tyd, any studio worth its salt should be well aware that constant innovation is the only way to avoid falling into a repetitive rut, especially when we’re talking about a superhero saga that will soon run to 25 movies. Those who have seen The Rider and Nomadland will be well aware that Zhao’s Eternals will be like nothing we’ve seen before in the MCU.

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