'Eternals' Is a Masterclass in Representation and Diversity, Despite Its Flaws
There’s no doubt that Chloé Zhao, the first Asian woman to direct a Marvel Studios film, is making a point about diversity in her first Hollywood superhero blockbuster, Eternals. While its predecessor on the Marvel calendar, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, released just two months ago, combines mythical Chinese dragons and Asian warriors who fight using tai chi-like moves, Eternals attempts to represent racial diversity in a less fanciful manner. The Marvel film is fantastical still, of course, but Zhao addresses contemporary social issues in a more realistic way.
*Be warned, there may be plot spoilers ahead*
Eternals follows an immortal race with varying superpowers called Eternals. Thousands of years ago, they battled, and defeated, the evil Deviants to protect humankind, remaining on Earth for more than 7,000 years to ensure humans’ safety, only to find out that they are but the pawns of their creators, the alien Celestials that feeds on the energy of planets like Earth. The film is based on the comic book series created by Jack Kirby in the late 1970s.
The complexity of the story is one reason why the film is the second longest Marvel film to date (soon to be third longest after Spiderman: No Way Home's release in December), at two hours and 37 minutes. But the length is also partly due Zhao’s love of capturing long shots of natural landscapes, and closing up on her characters against a stiller background to focus on their inner thoughts.
Eternals’ visual style is clearly influenced by video games, unlike Marvel’s house style of glossy primary colours. Zhao’s visual style is a combination of Hollywood-meets-Asian video game aesthetics, whether it’s when Gilgamesh (Don Lee) punches Kro the Deviant leader in a bleak, shadowy Amazon rainforest, or Thena (Angelina Jolie) slays a powered-up Kro in a dark misty cave oozing with burning lava; when Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) weeps at the greyish ruins of Hiroshima, or Sersi (Gemma Chan) hands over a dagger to members of an ancient civilisation on the sunset-coloured coast. The director has cited television series Ancient Aliens and Japanese video game series Final Fantasy as inspiration. She also made the point of shooting in real locations—which span continents—rather than relying on CGI, giving the fantasy storyline a foundation in reality.
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The movie’s inclusiveness is most obvious in terms of its casting. British Chinese star Chan takes the lead role as Sersi, who is chosen by Ajak, played by Mexican American actress Salma Hayek, to lead the Eternals. The fate of humanity is left to a team of multi-racial heroes: alongside Hayek and Chan are Korean American Lee, Pakistani American Kumail Nanjiani, African American Henry, and Lauren Ridloff, whose father is Mexican American and mother is Black. White actors Jolie, Lia McHugh, Richard Madden and Barry Keoghan make up the powerful team. Ridloff, a deaf actor, also adds to the diversity as Marvel’s first deaf superhero.
While the combination of Madden and Chan, a white masculine and slender Asian actor respectively, could be criticised for being a predictably beautiful couple, Eternals strives to portray different types of love and relationships, and be daring in the treatment of the subject. As Sersi and Ikaris, Chan and Madden are in the first sex scene to appear in a Marvel movie, about which Zhao told movie website IndieWire, “For us to be able to show two people who love each other, not just emotionally and intellectually but also physically, and to have a sex scene that will be seen by a lot of people that shows their love and compassion and gentleness—I think it’s a really beautiful thing.” Eternals also features the first gay couple in a Marvel movie in the form of Henry and Emirati-born Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman, who plays his husband.
When speaking to Tatler back in March, Zhao outlined her vision for Eternals: “We’re all heroes in our own reality. The hardest thing is staying true to yourself in a world that’s bombarding you with influences.” The director is fearless in subverting the traditional superhero image. Superheroes in Eternals come in all body sizes and not all of them have six-packs.
In setting up the background to the story, this first Eternals film ambitiously (though at times unnecessarily) references many cultural and historical moments: the Greek legends of Icarus and Circe, the ancient Mesopotamia Epic of Gilgamesh, Babylon’s Ishtar Gate and hanging gardens, colonialism and genocide, World War Two, the Bollywood industry, and even a quick mention of K-pop stars BTS. The English-language film also features exchanges in sign language, Spanish, Hindi and ancient tongues. Despite these being obvious efforts to promote diversity, the choice sometimes seems questionable, such as the use of the colonisers’ language in the Amazon forest, the random choice of an Indian-style wedding ceremony for Sersi and Ikaris, or Indian actor Harish Patel’s abrupt delivery of a note of thanks in Hindi even though he otherwise speaks English throughout.
But this criticism doesn’t mean the efforts to promote cultural, racial and gender diversity are a waste of time. Eternals is an early experiment to set a new trend of how superheroes are portrayed in films. And Zhao is clear-headed about her agenda; she told IndieWire: “There was definitely a lot of discussion about how to do it. But I think the desire to do something different is a very natural desire for where Marvel Studios is right now. I think it’s like Westerns coming into the revisionist period of the ’70s. I think it’s happening to superhero films—or at least we’re on the edge of that. And so, these scenes just started to happen naturally.”