‘Eternals’ pushes Marvel movie boundaries, from sex to mental health

November 3, 2021
The immortal Sersi (Gemma Chan) embraces a more human side – including boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington) – in "Eternals."
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Signing on for her first superhero role, Angelina Jolie didn’t know if she had one scene or several, if she’d be a voice or maybe play a raccoon. She just wanted to play a part when Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao broke the mold of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

“This is a representation of the actual world we live in,” Jolie says of “Eternals” (in theaters Friday), the MCU’s most diverse chapter yet.

“Eternals” tackles 7,000 years and 10 cosmic personalities (played by Jolie, Salma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani and more) sent to Earth to protect humanity. After going their own way several centuries ago, these immortal heroes have to come back together to battle an existential threat to them as well as the planet.

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Here are the various ways that Zhao, who made history earlier this year when she won best director at the Academy Awards for “Nomadland,” brought freshness to a grand movie universe:

The Marvel Cinematic Universe gets its first love triangle

Sersi (Gemma Chan), one of the focal points of the film, is an Instagram-loving Eternal living in present-day London with co-worker/boyfriend Dane Whitman (Kit Harington). “She’d happily live amongst mortals and forget that she’s got any powers,” Chan says. But a Deviant attack coincides with the reappearance of Ikaris (Richard Madden), the ex with whom she spent 5,000 years as a couple.

Compared to Ikaris, “Dane is quite a pure entity, really. He’s been around 34 years,” Harington adds. “He seems unfazed by realizing his girlfriend is an Eternal and by meeting this man who flies out the sky and shoots lasers from his eyes. He equips himself well in the moment.”

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An Eternal couple brings sex to the Marvel world

The Marvel movies have tackled love and romance before, usually just sealed with a kiss, but “Eternals” is the first to feature two characters, Sersi and Ikaris, making love. Zhao says it was important “for audiences to see people showing physical affection for each other in a way that is loving and compassionate, and to express a sexual encounter that way is a very positive thing.”

The director notes that Disney and Marvel “were very supportive of filming it. And then once we finished it, we showed it to (Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige) and to the folks at Disney and everyone thought it was really beautiful, and that was the end of the conversation.”

Being gay is key to Phastos’ character arc

Disney and Marvel films have gradually added more gay characters but “Eternals” makes one hero’s sexuality an integral part of the narrative: The inventive Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) has both a loving husband and a young son to think about when reuniting with his old teammates. The relationship “had to be felt. It can’t just be there for the sake of being there,” Zhao says. “That was the bigger challenge than getting a checkmark to say, ‘We’re doing it!’ ”

Zhao ties it into one historical moment in 1945 Hiroshima, where Phastos fostered hope that mankind would advance with the technology he gave them rather than destroy. “We disappointed him,” the filmmaker says. “And so he had to narrow his vision down to the smallest thing, not looking at humanity as a whole but one lover, one child. And that’s how he can regain his faith.”

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Makkari quickly makes her mark as a deaf Eternal 

A “big part” of what drew Zhao to “Eternals” was how Marvel took Makkari, a white guy in the comics, and turned him into a woman of color and also the MCU’s first deaf superhero. Plus, they got “lucky” casting deaf actress Lauren Ridloff, who helped her co-stars with American Sign Language and “educated us so much” about what the role should be.

“Something that she talked about was deaf gain if something actually isn’t seen as a less,” Zhao says. “They are able to have life experiences and an understanding of the world we live in that we don’t because we’re not deaf.”

Angelina Jolie’s heroine struggles with her mental health

Thena is the Eternals’ resident goddess of war, but Jolie’s ferocious character also wrestles with PTSD and memory issues after centuries of conflict. And “she’s strong enough not to be afraid to lean on the shoulder of a strong man,” Zhao says of the massive Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena’s close friend and support system. “I fight and I cook for her. It’s my two jobs,” Lee adds with a laugh.

Just because someone struggles with mental health issues “doesn’t mean you aren’t also a great protector and a strong individual,” Jolie says. Her children “were very moved in the moments when (Gilgamesh) said, ‘I’ll take care of her.’ It’s one thing seeing your mom fight, but it’s another thing seeing your mom broken and somebody saying they’ll take care of her.”

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Director Chloé Zhao let the actors be natural as well as super

The director told her cast from the beginning “to come as you are” and look how they think their character should look. Nanjiani hit the gym and sculpted a heroic physique, but for others, it meant eschewing makeup and instead embracing imperfections such as wrinkles.

“Friends taught me lines on my face are stories, they’re stories of my life and I think as human beings, we need a reflection of that,” Zhao says. “And to be able to do as much as possible on a scale of a Marvel movie is deeply meaningful. I’m grateful for the actors and actresses who are open to go there.”

Human connection is as important as saving the world

The main theme of “Eternals” feels “resonant now more than ever,” Chan says. “If the last 20 months has shown us anything is that we’re so connected. We can’t really get anything done just by ourselves.”

Nanjiani appreciates how Zhao brings “a big, philosophically dense, morally gray sci-fi epic into the MCU” while Jolie calls “Eternals” a “love letter to Earth and humanity. That’s how (Zhao) saw the core of what these flashy superhero movies are. They’re really about something else.”



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