Early reviews of Marvel’s next release, Eternals, are starting to be posted and so far they are mixed (due at least in part to “review bombing“). Most reviewers are loving it, some are reporting feeling bored or uninvested in the film. I have not seen it yet, but I have been a fan of its director for the last few years. I would wager that when people aren’t resonating with this entry in her catalogue of work it may be because they had no idea what to expect from her style of storytelling. Zhao is hardly a blockbuster type and based on her previous work it is likely that Eternals will have a significantly different vibe from other Marvel movies. So in order to help Marvel fans get the most out of the film, here are some things you should know about Zhao before seeing Eternals.
Who is Chloe Zhao?
Zhao is a Chinese female writer/director/producer. She spent her early years in Beijing and then from high school onwards has lived in the US. She is a person who has experienced multiple cultures and perspectives and has a wide range of personal experiences. She directed 3 feature films prior to coming onboard with Marvel, and her most recent film, Nomadland, won Best Picture and made her the first woman of color to win Best Director. She had already signed on to direct Eternals well before these accolades, but they have been an added boost to her artist profile and directing credibility. This also makes her Marvel’s first Oscar winning director in this category (Waititi won a screenwriting Oscar for JoJo Rabbit after Thor: Ragnarok, and Coogler has a producing nomination for Best Picture for Judas and the Black Messiah post-Black Panther, but Zhao is the only director and Best Picture winner)
She loves naturalist performances
Zhao has often worked with untrained actors. Her 2017 film The Rider featured a cast of completely amateur actors and tells the semi-autobiographical story of its lead, Brady Jandreau, a young Native rodeo rider who suffers a traumatic brain injury after being thrown from a horse and must contend with who he is outside of riding. The supporting cast are Jandreau’s real life family and friends. Similarly, there are only a few trained actors in Nomadland and the majority of the cast are actual nomads and van-dwellers. Frances MacDormand won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance, an entirely unique form of acting that required her primarily to have largely unscripted conversations with the untrained cast members while herself remaining in character. The result is warm and authentic performances that at times reveal a lack of polish but also highlight the humanity of the films’ subjects.
While Eternals is much more star-driven, it is her reputation for artistry and representation that enticed multiple cast members of Eternals to sign on to the project. Stars like Salma Hayek who might have been overlooked in the past, and Jolie who did not previously share an artistic vision with Marvel, accepted their roles because they wanted to work with Zhao. We are accustomed to seeing young actors with a specific kind of attractiveness giving conventional performances helming Marvel stories. It could be a refreshing change of pace to see a much wider representation in this cast, artists that likely would not otherwise appear in this genre.
She raises questions about identity, memory and belonging
I highly recommend that you seek out Nomadland, it’s streaming on Hulu. If you do, you should know it’s a slow burn. Because Zhao creates such a naturalistic setting, at times it can feel like nothing in particular is happening. But that is also how real life feels. Many seemingly ordinary moments that build into an extraordinary moment of insight or understanding. The final scene of Nomadland crystalizes the entire film, pulling you into a deeper awareness of what it means to belong and how memory is kept. As mentioned above, The Rider also explores themes of identity and purpose, especially in response to loss. Her films feel very existential, rooting you in the experience of a unique individual which ultimately reveals to the viewer a universal theme that we all wrestle with. Getting to the payoff may require some patience and stillness, but it will be a worthwhile opportunity for introspection.
Her visual style is stunning
The pace of Zhao’s films may feel slow at times, but you always have something beautiful to look at! Part of her approach to rooting people in their stories is to highlight their surroundings and to draw out the beauty in what they are experiencing. All her films are visually stunning with sweeping landscapes and tranquil transitions. She has consistently worked with the same cinematographer, Joshua James Richards (although he did not work on Eternals). They have a rich artistic partnership that creates layers of storytelling both in the dialogue and direction as well as the visual context of the characters. It is not just what the characters do but where they are and what they see that shapes our understanding of them.
What we might expect from Eternals
While I obviously can’t say for sure, I would anticipate that Eternals will have a much more contemplative and existential vibe than most Marvel movies. Be ready for a slower pace and moments of naturalistic stillness in addition to the usual action sequences. Be attentive to ways that the setting and environments interplay with what the characters are experiencing. The story will likely be driven by at least some of the questions that are usually embedded in a Zhao film, so pay attention to themes and reflections. My guess is that the narrative will center heavily on the cosmic implications of “The snap” and what it means to be both powerful and limited. Be willing to sit with and reflect on what took place in the previous Marvel phase and how that has shaped the characters in this moment before we charge deeper into Phase IV. Keep yourself focused all the way until the end and remember that nothing will be wasted. Potentially the stylistic differences will feel boring to you at times because they might not be what we are used to. But let Zhao put her unique lens on the genre and stay present for what she wants to say. Some of our favorite films in the fandom have come from other auteurs (notably Waititi and Coogler). These filmmakers have a strong track record of pushing superhero films into new territory and expanding our understanding of what the genre can be. Give Zhao the benefit of an open mind and the flexibility to allow her to take us to new places.