Who Are The Eternals

When Marvel was eyeing Chloé Zhao to direct Black Widow back in April (among others like Amma Asante and Deniz Gamze Ergüven; the job eventually went to Cate Shortland), the pairing seemed like a long-shot. A unique voice like Zhao’s doesn’t immediately seem like it would gel with the Hollywood studio system. We’ve seen Edgar Wrights and Lord & Millers a-plenty — Ant-Man and Solo would go on to be directed by Peyton Reed and Ron Howard respectively — but on the other hand, Disney’s own recent efforts like Black Panther (Ryan Coogler) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson), which both fit the mold of blockbuster filmmaking while allowing their creators a personal stamp, make speculating from this side of the studio gates a fool’s errand.

When it was announced on Friday that Zhao would not only be tasked with a Marvel movie, but with cosmic opera The Eternals of all things, reactions were understandably mixed. Some were enthusiastic, while others lamented a distinct eye being lost to the Marvel machine (this writer is optimistic, albeit cautiously) because alas, speculation is all we have in this 24×7 Disney-dominated news cycle. One can hardly begrudge anyone their extreme responses — for every Patty Jenkins leaving Thor: The Dark World due to creative differences, there’s Patty Jenkins knocking Wonder Woman out of the park and negotiation a seven-figure salary on the sequel — so the best we can do is look at the what’s what and the who’s who and hope for the best behind-the-scenes. Every creative partnership is different, after all.

Chloe Zhao

Who is Chloé Zhao?

It’s been almost a year to the day I watched The Rider at the New York Film Festival, and I’d be hard-pressed to say I’ve seen a better film since. Zhao’s debut feature Songs My Brothers Taught Me was one of the best films of 2016 (both films tell modern Native American stories in ways we seldom see on-screen) and her next project sounds equally potent: the story of Bass Reeves, the first Black U.S. Deputy Marshal. With just two films under her belt and a third on the way, Zhao has carved out a unique space in global cinema, finding culturally-driven Western (or Western-adjacent) stories in places one wouldn’t normally think to look.

The Beijing-born, London-L.A.-New York educated Zhao has rightly become a festival darling, though for those unfamiliar with her style or sensibilities, it can be hard to fully grasp why this news feels like such a head-trip. The neo-realist Songs My Brothers Taught Me is an understated tone-poem about a handful of Native American half-siblings meeting to mourn death of their father, Carl Winters. Some embraced the identity given to them and took Winters’ last name (like teen protagonists John and his eleven-year-old sister JaShaun) while others refused to do so, resenting his absence through their lives and feeling left behind.

The film was a much-needed antidote to Hollywood’s one-note portrayals of Native American characters. Set on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it captures the joys and struggles of Lakota Indians in all their various hues through an authentic blend of tradition and modernity, playing like a metaphor for modern Native Americans’ complicated relationship to America today. In the process of making the film, Zhao met horse-wrangler and former rodeo-star Brady Jandreau, who would go on to be the subject of her sophomore film. The Rider, which features Jandreau in the lead role of Brady Blackburn (along with his real-life father and sister filling those fictional roles respectively), tells of a critically-injured rodeoer and his struggles with losing his very identity, not unlike Jandreau’s real-world struggles, blurring the lines between fiction and documentary in the process. The rodeo is all Blackburn knows and all that makes him who he is; he loves it deep in his bones, but the next time he gets on a horse, it could very well kill him.

Blackburn, a modern Native American cowboy, faces the distinctly modern struggle of having to question where he belongs when he’s robbed of an old-world, traditionally masculine sense of self. Re-orienting his outlook borders on impossible when the cuts are so deep (in literal terms, they require dozens of stitches on his forehead) and it’s in the quiet moments where this realization dons on Blackburn that Zhao and The Rider truly shine. Which, of course, sounds entirely at odds with a bombastic, often space-set Marvel property about Gods and aliens spread far across the universe, but the optimist in me can’t help but draw parallels between Zhao’s work and this bizarre 1976 Jack Kirby creation.

The Eternals

Who are The Eternals?

A talking tree and a gun-toting raccoon may be the weirdest things to show up in a Marvel movie thus far, but they’re the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the last several decades of Marvel comics. Marvel’s alternate-history spans billions of years, going all the way back to the origins of the universe itself; we’ve seen part of this history with the Infinity Stones, though the particular (and peculiar) Eternal-centric chronology begins with an ancient God-like species known as The Celestials. In Guardians of the Galaxy, the severed head of a Celestial forms the space-station Knowhere (another Celestial, Eson ‘The Searcher,’ is shown wielding one of the Infinity Stones in an expository hologram) though the first substantial appearance of one of these beings is Ego The Living Planet in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Since Ego wasn’t a Celestial in the comics, he’s untethered from much of the Celestials’ larger comicbook history. Ego plants life on various worlds in the hopes of creating a superior being, but the Celestials actively experimented with life on different planets, creating ‘Eternals’ or super-powered beings with unnaturally long lives (Thanos, for instance, is a mutant Eternal of Titan; the X-Men, the Kree and the Skrulls are all descendants of Celestials’ genetic meddling too) though their experiments also yielded evolutionary off-shoots The Deviants, i.e. the Eternals’ primary antagonists, an unstable race of destructive monsters.

It all feels a bit retrograde a la Kirby’s own Inhumans, in that not only physical ability, but moral and ethical alignment are determined by genetic predisposition. And yet, The Eternals has the potential to be one of the most out-there and effective steps for the Marvel Cinematic Universe going forward, as the MCU establishes what it wants to be once the original Avengers are (presumably) out of the picture. Why make more run-of-the-mill, Earth-bound superheroes when such a vast array of cosmic characters is available for use? What’s more, there’s a specific take on The Eternals that could very well fit Zhao’s wheelhouse.

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