watoday– Though superhero stories are, at their heart, stories of transformation, change has been slow to come to the big-budget superhero world. In just a few short years, the 2018 film Black Panther and the 2021 film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings did more for non-white visibility in the genre than the decades of superhero movies that preceded them.
Now, in Marvel’s newest “cinematic universe” offering, Eternals, the studio has double-doubled-down, featuring Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek as the healing Ajak, African-American actor Brian Tyree Henry as the inventive genius Phastos (cinema’s first gay superhero), Lauren Ridloff as super-fast Makkari (cinema’s first deaf superhero) and Pakistani-American actor Kumail Nanjiani as the energy-wielding Kingo.
They join Angelina Jolie as the warrior goddess Thena, Gemma Chan as the empathetic Sersi, Richard Madden as the sun-powered Ikaris, Lia McHugh as the illusion-wielding Sprite, Barry Keoghan as the mind-manipulating Druig and Don Lee as Gilgamesh, the strongest of the Eternals, a group of super-superheroes who have, until now, largely stayed in the shadows while the Earth was saved (over and over) by their mortal cousins, the human Avengers.
While comic books in their published form have a much longer and richer history of creating (or re-creating) heroes of varied ethnicities and sexualities – the most recent being a bisexual Superman – their big-screen counterparts have been slower to do the same. Back in the 1980s, the addition of made-for-television DC Comics heroes such as Apache Chief and El Dorado to the Superfriends was considered groundbreaking even if, in hindsight, the characterisations were a little too cliche for comfort.
What is more, Eternals flips the gender card not once, but thrice, rebooting characters who were male when they appeared first in comic book form – Hayek’s Ajak, who is described as the wise and spiritual leader of the Eternals, Lia McHugh’s Sprite, and Ridloff’s Makkari – as female.
From its opening frames, it is clear Eternals is cut from a slightly different cloth to the two dozen or so films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that precede it. That is, in part, because the Eternals are something closer to gods in a world of mortal superheroes. But also because the film’s director, Chloe Zhao, has worked predominantly in independent film, notably last year’s awards-laden Nomadland, for which she won Oscars, BAFTAs and the Director’s Guild award.
Zhao says while some of those gender-flipping decisions were made by the conductor of the Marvel orchestra, producer Kevin Feige, she felt they came from a narratively sound place. “When I came to the process, I read a treatment the team at Marvel Studios put together, and those decisions were made,” Zhao says. “And it wasn’t just, let’s swap a bunch of characters, it was very specifically chosen, for example, for the leader of the team [Ajak] to be a mother figure.”
For her part, Hayek describes the experience as “humbling”.
“I dream big, and if I had not, I wouldn’t have gotten here at all,” she says. “But in my big dreams, I wanted to be a superhero. I wanted to work with the best directors, to have big blockbuster movies, but also movies that are art, that are made from very deep places. You cannot ask for more. But it didn’t happen for me. You fight for it in your 20s, in your 30s, and in your 40s, you go, screw them, they don’t get it.
“So it’s very humbling when, in the middle of your 50s, a brilliant director gives you the opportunity to do both. To do something that comes from a deep place. That it’s also a big blockbuster. I was wrong. Everything is possible. And when you think about it, I’m short with big boobs. It’s not the normal superhero. I’m not muscular. I don’t look like that. I don’t have Botox. I’m Mexican. I’m Lebanese. I’m Arab, also. I’m in my 50s and they let me do my action movie.”
For Nanjiani’s part, Zhao had to play a game of misdirection to secure him, by promising there would be no dancing, even though the script Nanjiani saw contained several Bollywood-inspired sequences. (In the film his character, Kingo, spends part of his eternal life on Earth as a Bollywood star.) Nanjiani tells the story a little differently. “I can’t swear, so put in a swear word here; Chloe lied to me,” Nanjiani says.
“When we first talked about the movie, she was like, ‘There’s a Bollywood dance sequence’, and I was like, ‘Chloe, I don’t think I can do that’, so she said, ‘OK, we’ll make it a Bollywood action scene,’” Nanjiani says. “And then as soon as I got to London, she was like, ’It’s a dance sequence. ‘So, I said, ‘Get me a dance teacher right now.’ And [choreographer] Nileeka Bose was wonderful, and worked with me for months because it was so outside my comfort zone.”
For Nanjiani, his wobbly moment over the question of dancing became a metaphor for the entire project: it worked because he surrendered his trust to Zhao’s vision. He said he felt excitement initially, then fear. “And then after meeting Chloe, I was like, ‘Oh, she’s not going to let me suck in this thing. So if she wants me to do something, I’m going to do it,’ because I completely trusted her.
Zhao had “this whole universe in her head,” Nanjiani says. “I didn’t understand it until I watched the movie but I knew enough to trust her. So for me, I was like, ‘Yeah, this doesn’t feel like something I would do, but if Chloe thinks I can do it, let’s do it.’ [I have] finger-guns and I was like, how do I shoot? [She showed me and] I said, ‘Chloe, that’s so goofy.’ She said, ‘No it’s gonna look awesome.’ And it looks awesome.”
Henry, who plays Phastos, concurs. “It really piggybacks on what Kumail said. It came down to trust, and I truly, wholeheartedly trusted Chloe,” he says. “I thought about all the images of black men out there and how we are portrayed, how power was taken from us, the lack of power or feeling powerful, and what I loved was that Phastos, despite being eternal, still chose love, he still decided to have a family even though he may have to watch them perish.”
“It really resonated with me, and a lot with how I felt, how my place in society was, how, you know, we can be kings and queens, and at the same time, they’ll take our pedestal and take our superpowers from us, like that.
“What I love most about Eternals is that Chloe and [producer] Nate Moore really just re-instilled that power back in me again. I remember the first time that they were like, ‘So we want you to be a superhero.’ And I was like, ‘Cool, how much weight do I have to lose?’ ”
Eternals shimmers on the screen, both in terms of its scale and visual substance. Notably, and unlike most films in the superhero genre that are shot on sound stages and using green screens, Zhao uses real-world filming locations and as much natural light as the production would allow. The result is a film that is deliberately more naturalistic than most films in the genre and certainly many films in the MCU.
“In the film, this planet, our planet that we live on, is a big part of the story, and not just our planet today but our planet 7000 years ago,” Zhao says. “So it’s important for us to really capture the beauty and the reality of our planet. Some things you just can’t quite re-create. And also, when you shoot on location, you are often humbled by how unpredictable things are, whatever nature throws you.
“We are making a film about gods, about immortal beings, so it’s a dangerous thing to then stay on stage because we might just get a bit too self-centred. It’s great to go out there and get shut down because we lost a location or we have 30 minutes to get a scene because the sun is setting. It makes us more human.”
The film was shot in Britain mostly, including London and locations in Buckinghamshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire standing in for locations as diverse as Chicago and Alaska, as well as on location in Fuerteventura and Lanzarote, two of the Canary Islands, standing in for story locations including Babylon, Mesopotamia and Australia.
For the cast, Madden says, the preference for location filming over green screen was a driving factor when the first conversations around the film were had. “When Chloe first talked to us about it, it was, ‘We’re going to try and do as much on location and as little green screen as possible,’ ” Madden says. “And inevitably, you still need to do some green screen and in the studio but that’s what kind of makes this visually very different for me.
“And, as a performer, it creates huge challenges,” Madden adds. “In the studio I can be flying on these wires and the light is controlled, and there is no wind but then you’re on location and hanging off the side of a cliff, and the crane is swaying because of the wind and the rain’s coming, and we’ve got 15 minutes to shoot this because the sun’s going to leave the shot.
“It adds a different level of complexity. But that can lead to something great because there’s a pressure of, ‘We only get one chance to do this.’ ”
The characters in Eternals are drawn from Marvel’s own comic book mythology but they were inspired, at least in part, by Greek myth. Athena becomes Thena, Hephaestus becomes Phastus, Circe become Sersi, Icarus becomes Ikaris and so on. And what makes those characterisations so rich, is that, unlike many other cultural mythologies, the Greek gods were often riven by human-like emotion and internal conflict.
“It’s the most important thing [about the story] because we created these gods, this myth because we want to figure out our problems,” Zhao says. “And I love the genres of fantasy or sci-fi, or superhero films because sometimes it’s easier for some people to work out their issues, understand themselves through an allegorical way, not necessarily just right in my face.
“I think these films mean a lot to people and Marvel Studios are so good at making their heroes human. I want to continue that tradition, especially with this film. So, the key for me was thinking about the aspects of human nature that each of them can embody. And then also finding a cast who is willing to bring a sense of who they are, which is undeniably human, with the characters.”
Gemma Chan, who plays Sersi, concurs. “Chloe certainly brings her signature style and sensibility to everything she does,” she says. “I think one of the beautiful things about this film is that it does have that epic scale and that spectacle, but also really character-driven, intimate moments alongside. Those moments were very raw and grounded, and I think they are rare in films of this kind.
“There’s a lot going on in the film, there’s a lot of plot, there’s a lot of story to get through,” Chan adds. “But to be able to have those moments where maybe it’s just Sersi and Ikaris trying to make each other laugh or wandering around the village with the camera just following us. Those are the little kind of special, joyful moments that we try to find.”
MYTH AND MAGIC: WHO ARE THE ETERNALS?
Over the near-century they have been a dominant platform for storytelling, comic book mythologies have borrowed heavily from real-world mythologies and pantheons. Perhaps the most significant example is Wonder Woman, whose alter-ego Diana is the child of the Amazon queen Hippolyte, who, according to Greek myth, did battle with Hercules in Ancient Greece.
The comic book picks up the story there and weaves even more Greek mythology around itself: that Diana was brought to life from clay by the powers of the Greek gods. “As lovely as Aphrodite, as wise as Athena, with the speed of Mercury and the strength of Hercules,” it was boasted in her origin story.
But Wonder Woman was not alone. The Japanese manga comic Yu-Gi-Oh borrows from Egyptian mythology, Marvel’s Thor is based on the story of the Norse god of Thunder, and borrows heavily from Norse legend, including Thor’s brother Loki, and Thor’s iconic hammer, Mjölnir.
The comic book hero Deadman draws some of his power from the Hindu goddess Rama Kushna. Shazam’s powers are drawn from Greek myth, with “the wisdom of Solomon”, a Biblical reference, thrown in for good measure. And the 1970s gave us the made-for-television Egyptian super-heroine, Isis.
The immediate parallel between the Eternals and the Greek myths, on which their stories are partly built, can be seen in their names: the Greek goddess Athena becomes Thena, the Greek god Hephaestus becomes Phastus, the god of speed Mercury becomes Makkari, the sorceress Circe become Sersei and Icarus, the son of master craftsman Daedalus, who famously flew “too close to the sun”, becomes Ikaris.
Ajak (Salma Hayek) was a male superhero in the comic books, and was known, at different times in ancient Peru as either the Incan god Tecumotzin or the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. In the film, she is the spiritual leader of the Eternals and, via a golden sphere, she communicates with the God-like Celestials, who the Eternals serve.
Thena (Angelina Jolie) traces her origin to Ancient Greece where her name was changed to resemble Athena’s to seal the treaty between the Eternals and the Olympian gods and was, at times, mistaken for either Athena or her Roman counterpart Minerva. In the film, Thena creates swords and spears out of cosmic energy.
Ikaris (Richard Madden) was born in Siberia, and is the son of two older Eternals, Virako and Tulayn. In the comic book mythology, Ikaris is a name taken after the death of Ikaris’s son, Icarus, who was killed when he flew too far using mechanical wings. In the film, Ikaris can fly and blasts powerful beams from his eyes.
Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) is, much like his Greek mythological counterpart Hephaestus, an inventor who can build anything. In the comic book stories, Phastos cares more for objects than for people. In the film, Phastos can build anything, combining technologies to create new and powerful items.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is described in his comic book mythology as a samurai, master swordsman, film star and producer. In the film, Kingo can launch powerful bursts of cosmic energy from his hands. He also admires Ikaris, and strives to emulate what he sees as Ikaris’s heroism.
Sprite (Lia McHugh) is described in the comics as an Eternal who was, in order to protect him from the ravages of the world, made to remain childlike for eternity. He became a trickster but has little mind for the consequences of his pranks. In the film, Sprite is 7000 years old but lives in the body of a 12-year-old girl; she uses cosmic power to create illusions.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) is sometimes confused with Mercury, the Greek god of speed. In the comic stories he was born in Olympia and, at different times of his life, taught writing to the Egyptians, but also saw the Trojan War, the reign of Vlad the Impaler and the Alamo. In the film, Makkari is the fastest woman in the universe, running at the speed of sound.
Druig (Barry Keoghan) is, in the comic book mythology, the cousin of Ikaris and is sometimes presented as the most dangerous, or least ethical of the Eternals. In the film, Druig is the most withdrawn of the Eternals, and he uses his power to control the minds of others.
Gilgamesh (Don Lee) was known as the Forgotten One in the comic book mythology, but was also assumed at times to be either the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh or the Ancient Greek hero Hercules. He was outcast from the Eternals for meddling in mortal affairs. In the film, Gilgamesh uses cosmic energy to create a super-strong exo-skeleton.
Sersi (Gemma Chan) is, in the comic books, the daughter of the god Helios and the water nymph Perse. She is also one of the few Eternals who, in the comic books, was briefly an Avenger. In the film, Sersi’s cosmic energy manifests itself as matter transmutation. She can manipulate and change objects.