Eternals Director Chloé Zhao On Superhero Movies As The New Westerns, Examining Humanity Through Marvel [Interview]

There's something about the great open expanse of the American West that captured Chloé Zhao's imagination. The endless possibilities, the romance of the untamed wild, the tininess of humanity in the face of the grandness of nature. It's something that Zhao has explored in her exquisite award-winning indie films like "The Rider" and "Nomadland." And it's a characteristic that Zhao brings over with her to direct Marvel's "Eternals."

But what could Westerns and superhero movies have in common? More than just a "finite time in popular culture," as Steven Spielberg has said. And it's more than just a fondness for gauzy shots of prairies at dusk, though "Eternals" has plenty of those. It's that "curiosity" for the unknown, Zhao told /Film in an interview ahead of the release of the new Marvel Studios film.

"Today, since we've explored most of this planet, our curiosity is about what's above us in space," Zhao told me over Zoom in an interview for "Eternals," Marvel's most cosmic superhero adventure yet. "And our curiosity about our relationship with machines and robots I think gave birth to the emergence of the superhero genre and sci-fi films these days and they have become very popular. I can see that parallel, actually."

I chatted with Zhao about how superhero movies might be the new Westerns, the humanist streak that runs through her films, and whether humanity is worth saving.

"It's humanity's curiosity about what's beyond the horizon."

So, your first three films are all Westerns in some way or play on the imagery of the Western. What is it about the image of the American West that is so appealing to you as a filmmaker, especially having been largely raised in China and the U.K.?

Well, it's interesting that you mentioned the Western, right? I think the Western genre intrigued people from all around the world and I think that even that genre has reference cinema from Asia as well. We share similarities and it's humanity's curiosity about what's beyond the horizon. And out of that curiosity an entire genre of movies was born. And today, since we've explored most of this planet, our curiosity is about what's above us in space. And our curiosity about our relationship with machines and robots I think gave birth to the emergence of the superhero genre and sci-fi films these days and they have become very popular. I can see that parallel, actually.

Yeah, I've heard the superhero genre be described as the new Western in a way, both in the sort of how prolific it is now as the Westerns were back at the height of the Western so I think that's a very good comparison.


There's also a deeply humanist streak that runs through your films as well. Something that through in "Eternals," which follows our heroes as they question whether humanity is worth saving. How do you go about tackling such a big idea within the format of a superhero movie?

Well, we pay tribute to Jack Kirby who has always explored the gray area of this genre. You know, the comic books are always so ahead of the movies. And also, since we're talking about genres, every genre after a couple decades will naturally enter a revisionist period and I do believe we're on the edge of that right now for the superhero genre. And there's a desire from the audiences, from the filmmakers, from the studios to try to challenge and redefine some of the fundamental values that this genre is born out of. One of them is humanity is dramatically worth saving. Anything that's threatening humanity is absolute evil and bad, like a lion, for example. We have to kill lions off so we could be safe, right? Wilderness is dangerous. Let's chop down trees so we can build safe houses. Are these the right things to do? So we try to explore that in an allegorical way in this film.

"What does strength look like?"

So what do you think "Eternals" is in terms of that revisionist approach to the superhero genre?

Well, for example intellectually we have the idea of having more ambiguity in heroism. And again, our humanity is worth saving. What does strength look like? Celebrating feminine strength, not just the traditional masculine strength, in a woman. Things like that. It's just out when you've done something over and over and it's natural it's almost organic, so to say, but what if? You know? So we ask a lot of those questions, what ifs.

In addition to a more location based, naturalistic form of filmmaking you've also brought to Marvel a maturity that the MCU hasn't seen before, namely the sex scene. Was that something that you had to fight to include in " Eternals" or was that something that was part of the story from the beginning and they were just happy to have that be part of the new phase of Marvel?

Well, as you know the filmmaking process that from the day you write something on the page to showing it to an audience, people come in and ideas and accidents, good and bad. I think for this specific idea it was in the treatment, it was in the script, we planned on shooting it and then once we shot it, we edited it we showed it to Disney, we showed it to Marvel everyone said, "Oh, this is beautiful," and that's the end of the conversation. So it's actually a very smooth process.

Also, if you have seen the film you know the love between these two in a way defines the fate of humanity, of our planet. So I like to show them not just loving each other intellectually, emotionally, but also physically. And to show a sexual encounter in a compassionate, loving way, I think it's a very positive thing to do.

So was there ever any pushback from Marvel for any of your filmmaking ideas or choices while making "Eternals"?

No, because when I pitch the film I spent half of the time talking about what this is going to be, the other half how I want to make it. Sometimes that "how" is not discussed early on, that's big films and smaller films. If you are not honest about how you want to do it early on and make sure not only they agree with you but they're excited about it, you're going to have a problem down the line and we've seen that. But from the beginning everyone at Marvel was very excited about how I wanted to make this film and they supported me all the way through.

"Let's just say I am not leaving the immortality sandbox anytime soon."

So given the scope of the cast do you have any thoughts on which character might warrant a standalone project, either through a film or on Disney+?

We were very much encouraged to make this as a standalone movie, leave everything on a table, make as good of a movie as possible. And then once it's done, right now this film is more yours than mine, right? It's really the audience's movie. We have to see how this child of ours grows in the world and to decide what the next steps are. But because they've been here on Earth since the beginning I like to think if there's anything in the future, in the movies or streaming shows are set in the past, maybe some of them can make an appearance. That would be my hope. That would be fun to watch.

Now that you've dipped your toes in the blockbuster pool and you have other projects that are also sort of in that field, can you tell me anything about your futuristic sci-fi Dracula film?

Let's just say I am not leaving the immortality sandbox anytime soon.

Well, speaking of the sandbox, anything else in the blockbuster, big budget area that you dream of directing, either franchises or original movies?


All right, I have another question. So I know that "Eternals" was wrapping as you were doing the press circuit for "Nomadland."


Were you able to get a final edit on "Eternals" despite the award's craziness?

Let me tell you something, we finished "Eternals" last week.


It doesn't end. I believe the term we love is called plussing. You have to drag me out of the editing room, you have to drag me out of there because I will not stop until I have to show it.

"Eternals" opens in theaters on November 5, 2021.