It’s easy to repeat a winning formula in movies, albeit generally with diminishing box office returns. Less simple is to replicate a formula that includes within it the analog creativity of an authentic auteur. It’s to the credit of Disney, and to Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige in particular, that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has continued to expand the rulebook of the blockbuster while retaining some of the spirit of indie filmmaking.
Feige has regularly sought to use emerging indie filmmakers to helm new entrants in the MCU. They include Ryan Coogler, fresh from Fruitvale Station, to make Black Panther; Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, whose indie fare included Mississippi Grind before making Captain Marvel; and the Russo Brothers, whose comedy starring Owen Wilson, You, Me and Dupree, was the unlikely jumping off point for Captain America: The Winter Soldier; and Avengers: Endgame. (The DC Extended Universe followed suit, notably hiring Patty Jenkins to make Wonder Woman.)
The Marvel boss explained to Variety that the MCU uses so many indie filmmakers because they offer unique points of view that can take you to places you’ve never gone before:
“The real answer is, frankly, continuing what we’ve learned with all of the different types of filmmakers that we have used. When you get people with unique points of views, regardless of the size of film they’ve done in the past, and empower them and surround them with the great artists and technicians that can bring spectacle, that can bring the visuals that a Marvel movie requires, they can take you to places you’ve never gone before.”
READ MORE: Kevin Feige on Chloé Zhao’s ‘Spectacular’ Approach to ‘Eternals’ and Who the Film’s ‘Lead’ Character Is (Variety)
The latest to accept the call is Chloé Zhao, who was tapped to direct Eternals right before she made her Oscar-winning docudrama, Nomadland. That film, set like her previous features in the American Midwest largely using a cast of non-professional actors, couldn’t be more different to the huge production schedules, large star cast and executive micro-management of a tentpole like Eternals. Which is part of the attraction to both director and studio.
“An auteur with an eye for natural settings and a sensitivity for intimate, personal stories, she pushed to make sure her Eternals wasn’t just another computer-generated superhero movie full of coiffed crusaders with ‘Man’ in their monikers,” says Wired.
According to Nate Moore, a co-producer on the film, Zhao has deconstructed who gets to be a Marvel hero — and reinvented the MCU in the process. It’s that regeneration which Feige and Disney know they need if audiences are to keep coming back for more.
Once Zhao came on board, she reworked the script and made a plan to shoot it in her style: “minimal green screen, lots of location shoots, natural light, wide-angle lenses that can capture both close-up intimacy and vast landscapes within the same frame.
“I’m not going to try to do something different for the sake of doing something different — that’s not interesting to me,” Zhao tells Wired. “There’s no reason for them to get someone like me just to shoot a movie on a soundstage.”
Some Marvel films may need big CGI worlds, but because her movie is about heroes who have been on Earth for 7,000 years, she wanted her cast to be able to interact with real physical spaces.
And while Eternals’ central characters must save Earth from the Deviants, according to Moore the film also challenges assumptions about what comic book characters should look like.
So, Eternals is the first Marvel movie with a deaf star (Lauren Ridloff as Makkari) and also features Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos, one of the MCU’s first openly gay superheroes (leading to the film facing censorship in places like Saudi Arabia). Several characters are a different race or gender than they were in Jack Kirby’s original 1970s comics.
For Zhao, that’s the point. Talk of inclusion gets tossed around a lot in Hollywood, but it often devolves into box-checking; she wants to honor her characters’ diversity by making their personal identities part of the plot.
“There are many different ways a human being can be heroic,” Zhao says. “I want to explore as many as possible, so that more audiences can see themselves in these heroic moments and feel they can relate.”
Feige likens her to an anthropologist, someone who studies her subjects and then makes films showcasing their abilities. She did it with the real nomads featured in Nomadland and the Lakota rodeo cowboy at the heart of The Rider.
Wired says, “For Eternals, she cross-pollinated the tale of human evolution in Harari’s Sapiens with Marvel’s own mythology to explore how extra-terrestrials would have integrated with humanity over the course of millennia.”
Feige says he told her “that it was her vision for this movie that made me think that, post-Endgame, the MCU could survive.”
She had to do so without her regular cinematographer, Joshua James Richards, and work with Ben Davis, BSC, an extremely experienced DP whose work includes Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain Marvel.
“It was a totally unique experience,” Davis told me. “It was mostly shot single camera ARRI LF on a Ronin rig usually at magic hour. When you’re dealing with a huge cast, in costume, that becomes challenging.
“All of her films are shot in this very realistic drama-doc style and this was no different in many respects. Her shooting style is very spontaneous. There were no on camera rehearsals, very little blocking out. The actors knew that they were required to respond to the scene in front of them. Chloe would give a direction — the objective of the scene — and it was up to all of us in front and behind the camera to respond to that. It took a while for us all to adjust but it was very rewarding.
“Our characters may be gods but she didn’t want any shot to feel artificial and contrived. For her, as soon as you become over dramatic with the look it feels phony. We had to plant these characters within a truth and honesty so you believe where they are and what they are doing.”