After ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Eternals’ is the most important movie of Marvel Studios’ existence

by Mima M

No one, save for a few die-hard fans (me included), cared about Eternals before Kevin Feige officially announced it in Hall H at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con, bringing out heavy hitters such as Salma Hayek and Angelina Jolie as confirmed members of the film’s cast. Who could blame them, really—it’s not a particularly popular property to begin with. But you wouldn’t have thought that if you were in Hall H on that fateful Saturday, where 7,000 attendees who were privileged enough to get a glimpse of Marvel Studios’ Phase 4 slate of movies and shows screamed their heads off when Feige introduced the film that that the world will be seeing on November 6, 2020. 

The screaming, however, is warranted. While Eternals isn’t necessarily the most innovative series in the comics universe, the actors that Feige and director Chloe Zhao have brought on to bring the characters to life suggest something wildly different for its cinematic counterpart. It would have been easy for Marvel Studios to fall into the stereotypical traps about telling a story about a race of immortals who live among humans—after all, they have so much financial and social capital to basically do whatever the hell they want after Avengers: Endgame that they could, to some degree, get away with it. But it’s clear from the impressive line of actors on stage at Hall H that the status quo is not the direction that Feige and Zhao decided to take.

We don’t know much about Eternals just yet, but we know that Ikaris (Richard Madden), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), and Thena (Angelina Jolie) will be gracing movie theaters in what is expected to be a full-on Kirby visual spectacle late next year. All that star power packs a wallop to be sure, but the real story here lies in the characters that these stars have been selected to play. 

The director and cast of Eternals with Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

What jumps out immediately after you recover from shock at seeing all those big names attached to a virtually unknown property is the diversity of this group of superheroes. Ikaris is so far the only character to be played by a white man. An Asian man will be an Eternal whose storyline in the comics involves being mistaken for figures such as Samson and Hercules. One character’s original race has been changed: Kingo, who in the comic hails from the Japanese settlement of the Eternals, will be played by a South Asian-American man. A total of three characters have been genderbent: Makkari, a blonde, blue-eyed male, is now an African-American woman; Sprite, originally a young boy, will be played by a young female actress; and Ajak, the male leader of the Eternals, will be played by a Latin American woman. Even more impressive is another change that casting has brought to Makkari: from being a hearing male, the character will now be a deaf female—the first ever deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Lauren Ridloff (Makkari) and Brian Tyree Henry (Phastos) at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

Marvel Studios has been heavily criticized for the lack of diversity in its roster of superheroes, and rightly so. After all, it took over 10 years and 17 movies before the studio released one that was led by a person of color, which was followed a year and two more movies later by the studio’s first solo female movie. In turn, studio heads haven’t been shy about their intent to diversify the Marvel Studios properties. Kevin Feige told Variety in its Playback podcast last December that Black Panther was “[…]the beginning. That it worked out as well as it worked out has encouraged us to head into the direction we were going to head anyway. But you look at the film—it is incredible. That movie would not have been what it was if everyone sitting at the table looked like you or me… When you have diverse voices, you get better stories and you get more exciting stories, you get more surprising stories. And that is something that is very clear.”

Over the past year, Feige and his fellow executives have continuously teased a diversified MCU. At the premiere of Captain Marvel, Executive Vice President for Production Victoria Alonso, who is a lesbian, said that “the world is ready” for a superhero who identifies as part of the LGBT+ community, and that the studio is “actively working on making our universe as diverse and inclusive as we can,” asking fans to be patient. The confirmation of the Eternals cast and other Phase 4 projects at the studio’s unparalleled panel at San Diego Comic-Con this year proves that they were serious about keeping their promises. 

So it’s no surprise that big names such as Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek signed on to such an obscure project, even if it is being made by a behemoth studio. Both stars are well-known for their advocacies—both are vocal feminists, with Hayek being heavily involved with fighting for more Latin American representation in the entertainment industry and the #MeToo movement, and Jolie having worked on human rights, women’s rights, and the refugee crisis with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) since 2001.

Salma Hayek (Ajak) and Lia McHugh (Sprite) at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

The significance of their roles, and perhaps the movie, in the greater scheme of things is clear to them, as evidenced by their appearance at San Diego Comic-Con. When Hayek was asked about how she felt about portraying Ajak, the leader of the Eternals, she responded: “I feel very honored to be a part of a movie that is going to allow people who never felt represented in superheroes, or in this case Eternals. I am proud to have a diverse family.” Angelina Jolie echoed that sentiment, saying: “What it means to be a part of the MCU, what it means to be an Eternal, to be a part of this family—I know what we all need to do. We’ve all read the script, we all know what the task ahead is, and we all know what you deserve, so we are all going to be working very, very hard.” 

Angelina Jolie (Thena) at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

And it’s only right that they’re working hard. While the bonanza at Hall H was met with wild cheers, many are still questioning why it took Feige and company this long to diversify its roster by not just introducing more superheroes of color, but also superheroes of different abilities and sexualities. For a studio with all the financial and cultural resources at their disposal, some see that taking this new direction only after 23 successful movies is perhaps too little, too late. To some extent, it is absolutely fair criticism—but it’s also important to put some things into context. For one, development for Eternals began after 2015, which was the year Kevin Feige almost quit Marvel Studios.

Marvel Studios without Feige? Unthinkable. But the conflict with his boss at that time, then-CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, had reached a fever pitch, and Feige had no choice but to effectively stage a coup to protect the integrity of the studio. Thankfully, the House of Mouse listened to the embattled Marvel Studios president, and Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Iger approved a reshuffle in late 2015. Kevin Feige would now report to Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn, which meant that he would finally be released from Perlmutter’s financial, and by extension creative, choke hold. It meant freedom to develop projects as he saw fit.

Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

Perlmutter’s penchant for being a cheapskate is widely known within the industry, but he has also allegedly said and done some more questionable things. The Financial Times reported back in 2012 that Perlmutter had said that no one would notice the major casting change between Iron Man and Iron Man 2 (Terrence Howard was replaced by Don Cheadle as Rhodey) because black people “look the same.” The Sony hack of 2014 revealed Perlmutter’s aversion to female superhero movies because, as he reasoned, they don’t make any money. In addition, Vanity Fair also reported that Perlmutter was directly responsible for the lack of Black Widow toys during the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. With Feige reporting to Alan Horn, he would no longer be subject to this kind of thinking, and therefore be more faithful to what the franchise and its fans need and deserve.

The Phase 3 slate saw a lot of changes post-reshuffle. Black Panther, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Captain Marvel all received new release dates. Inhumans—which was purportedly pushed by Perlmutter to compete with the X-Men franchise—was officially removed from the studio’s lineup. The property resurfaced as a TV show under Perlmutter’s control at Marvel TV, but it was critically panned and ultimately canceled after one season. But more important than some release date changes is the fact that Perlmutter’s imprint on the MCU finally had a sunset date. Avengers: Endgame is effectively the last Marvel Studios movie developed during the Perlmutter age.

Which is why the diverse cast of Eternals shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. As one of the first movies developed in the post-Perlmutter era, Eternals is more than just a Guardians of the Galaxy-esque experiment with bigger stars—it is the tentpole movie for Marvel Studios’ new creative and governance era. Not only has Eternals been bombarded with star power, it has also been given an unconventional creative team: critically acclaimed independent filmmaker Chloe Zhao, whose second feature length film The Rider is arguably one of the best films of 2018, will be directing; documentary photographer and screenwriter Matthew K. Firpo, whose debut documentary Refuge about the Syrian refugee crisis was screened at SXSW and won Best Documentary at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, was tapped to write the script. 

Eternals director Chloe Zhao at San Diego Comic-Con. July 20, 2019.
© Gage Skidmore. Used under Creative Commons license.

By putting together a stellar cast and an exceptional creative team to tell this particular superhero story, Feige is showing fans and the rest of the industry how serious Marvel Studios is about keeping their promises. It is a particularly heavy responsibility to place on a property without name recall or an existing fanbase, but this is not exactly new territory for Feige. The studio’s cardinal movie, which featured what some cynics branded as a “B-list character,” carried the entire future of the studio and the genre on its shoulders. Iron Man eventually became a box office and critical success, changing Hollywood as we know it. 

But unlike Iron Man, Eternals is no accidental revolution. Each change in a character’s canon, each casting choice, each creative decision, is a calculated move. It is a deliberate show of trust and confidence in a direction that would not have been possible before the reshuffle of 2015. But more importantly, it can be seen as a challenge, a dare to an industry that just isn’t moving fast enough to address issues regarding gender equality and diversity on and off the screen. Iron Man was a gamble that gave Marvel Studios a very big and prosperous place in our social consciousness; Eternals is among the first of a long line of movies and shows in the next two years of the MCU that will serve as an unofficial referendum to determine if they still deserve to keep that precious real estate.

For a movie, that’s a heavy burden to carry. The cast and crew of Eternals, however, seem determined to carry it. When asked what drew her to the project, Chloe Zhao said at Hall H, “it’s about this group of incredible immortals, and through their journey we really get to explore what it means to be human, and humanity, and our time on this planet.” Telling a powerful and truthful story about the human experience requires that its cast of characters actually reflects humanity. Marvel Studios is, at least, serious about that. But there is a long road between now and November 6, 2020. Until then, we’ll have to wait and see if Eternals lives up to its promise and responsibility.

7 thoughts on “After ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Eternals’ is the most important movie of Marvel Studios’ existence

    1. I’m struggling to find a point to your question other than a contempt for the creative decisions surrounding the production of Eternals, but just in case you misunderstood the point of the article—

      Eternals is the first movie developed in the post-Perlmutter era, during which Marvel Studios governance was entirely different. The creative decisions made for the Eternals, including casting choices and changes in character canon, were made under an entirely new creative and governance structure. This is what makes Eternals a significant movie post-Avengers: Endgame. Whether one likes these changes or not is beside the point.

      Perhaps being a little more open-minded to creative decisions made about a property that no one really knew about until the Hall H panel would do good for comprehension.

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  1. I’m betting most of the people who are bitching about the race and gender swaps here have never read an issue of The Eternals and probably didn’t give a rat’s ass about these characters before that Hall H announcement.
    This not exactly like making Superman a Latina.

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  2. This is going to be a risk for the studio. You can already hear the chirping in the comment section here and I doubt THAT sort of thing is going to lessen.. But good for Kevin Feige and the studio for using their earned cashet to shoot for something “next level” and maybe capture some zeitgeist relevance.

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  3. You say “it took over 10 years and 17 movies before the studio released one that was led by a person of color”. Do you not know of the Blade franchise, the first of which was released in 1998? One could almost say that the success of Blade is what helped launch the widespread superhero movie phenomenon, especially the MCU. So, really, it long of all began with “a person of color”.

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    1. Blade was not produced by Marvel Studios—it was “packaged and licensed,” meaning Marvel was paid by another studio to make the movie, and Marvel slapped its logo on it but had almost no creative control over the product. This is completely different from the Marvel Studios that we know today, which produces each and every one of the movies (including Disney+ shows now) in the MCU. I stand by what I wrote—the Marvel Studios did not release a movie that was led by a person of color until Black Panther.

      I wrote a little more about the history of Marvel Studios here, and mentioned Blade: https://discussingfilm.net/2019/04/22/what-marvel-studios-set-out-to-do-was-a-gamble-then-it-changed-hollywood/

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