“I have always wanted to make films in the fantastical genre, whether it’s sci-fi or fantasy,” says Chloe Zhao, the director of Marvel’s latest spectacular, Eternals. Still, you wouldn’t know it looking at her earlier work, from the highly acclaimed rodeo drama The Rider to 2020’s Nomadland, which this year claimed three Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Zhao. A naturalistic drama, starring Frances McDormand as a widow living out of her van after the 2008 financial crash, it’s light years away from a superhero story.
The seeds were planted early for Zhao, 39. Born in Beijing, she grew up loving Japanese manga. “I wanted to be a manga artist, but I wasn’t very good at drawing. So I had to give that up,” she says. Still, it clearly fostered a love of fantasy, one that led to her enjoying the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that introduced global audiences to Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. “I was a big fan of the MCU. I have been for a decade,” she says. So when Marvel came calling with Eternals, she jumped at it. “It just made sense.”
Created by Marvel comics supremo Jack Kirby, and first launched back in 1976, the Eternals are not exactly in the upper tier of comic book characters. “I don’t think even diehard comic fans know much about [the] Eternals,” says Zhao, who wasn’t particularly familiar with this group of ancient superheroes. Created by cosmic beings, the Celestials, the Eternals were sent to Earth about 7,000 years ago to protect inhabitants from the Deviants, an alien race of carnivorous creatures. These immortal guardians have remained on the planet ever since, forbidden to interfere with earthly conflicts.
Set five years on from the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the Eternals are now scattered across the globe, but when an earthquake happens in London and a Deviant appears in the grimy North London tourist spot of Camden Town, they reunite. Led by Ajak (Salma Hayek), they include former lovers Sersi (Gemma Chan) and Ikaris (Richard Madden), who can shoot cosmic rays from his eyes like Superman; inventor Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry); speed demon Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), who is the MCU’s first deaf hero; and mind-manipulator Druig (Barry Keoghan), who is now living in the Amazon jungle like a deity.
Then there’s the warrior goddess Thena (Angelina Jolie), whose mind is gradually fracturing, putting the rest of the team in danger. Recruiting an A-List star like Jolie for her first comic book movie turned out to be not so difficult, notes Zhao. “I think she’s been a fan of the MCU because her children like them, too. And I think when I first met Angie, she had no idea [what we wanted]. She thought we were going to ask her [to do] a voice or something!” The role, as the acrobatic Thena, turned out to be a lot more taxing than a simple voiceover.
In one of the film’s more amusing asides, the Eternal named Kingo (The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani) is now working as a Bollywood star and is accompanied by his sycophantic valet (Harish Patel). As he’s immortal, he’s portrayed an entire dynasty of Indian actors, right back to his "great-grandfather". “We didn’t just want to do Hollywood – because he could have been a Hollywood star – but we thought it was so much more interesting to go to Bollywood,” says Zhao. Indeed, this may be the first superhero movie with a full-on Bollywood dance number.
With the Eternals as the world’s original superheroes, Zhao’s story also flashes back to India’s Gupta Empire in 400AD, as well as Aztec, Mesopotamia and Babylonian times. It afforded her the chance to explore ancient mythologies too, and how hero narratives have evolved over centuries. In Marvel terms, Zhao says she could look at the bigger picture: the very origins of the superhero. “It felt like a new step into the next phase of the MCU after the Infinity saga … that can maybe hopefully inform where we go from here,” she says.
The film also nods to rival fantasy franchises, with references made to DC Comics’ Superman and Batman. One character even reads a Star Wars book, while The Empire Strikes Back is glimpsed on a TV screen. “I’ve been a fangirl my whole life. I just love everything from The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter to Star Wars … I love these movies. This film touches so much on mythology. And all these films … they’re all modern interpretations of mythology. For some reason, it just felt kind of nice to pay tribute.”
Another way Zhao stamped her own personality on the film is to set Eternals around the world, from Iran to the Australian Outback. “I am a bit of a citizen of the globe,” says the director, who spent her teenage years in England before studying film in America. The film also features a sequence in South Dakota, where her early works, including her 2015 debut Songs My Brothers Taught Me, were set. “How about this?” she says with a laugh. “Every single film I ever do will have South Dakota in [it]! Forever! I declare it right now.”
That sequence also introduces Salma Hayek’s Ajak (on horseback, looking like she belongs in The Rider). “When you think about someone who can portray a leader who is also a mother, who is strong enough to make the impossible choice but also soft enough to choose love ... Salma embodies it all in real life. When you show up on set ... [you ask] where’s Salma? She’s over there with the horses. She loves animals. She was very, very natural.” It’s yet another unexpected element of one of Marvel’s most unexpected movies.
Having set up all these new Marvel characters – including Kit Harington’s briefly-glimpsed Dane Whitman, aka Black Knight from the comics – surely Zhao must be hankering to come back for a sequel? “I think what’s exciting for me about this film was that it stands alone. Just like every independent film I’ve made,” she says. “We don’t know what comes tomorrow, [but we can] leave everything on the table. I think right now this film is more yours than mine. This is not my movie any more. This is yours. These characters are gonna exist in the MCU. In what shape and form we’ll find out. It’s exciting.”
Eternals opens in cinemas across the UAE on November 11