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From Guarding the Galaxy to Protecting the Multiverse: An Inside Look at ‘Eternals’

November 4, 2021Ben MK

Ever since Robert Downey Jr. first donned Iron Man's iconic armor in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been pushing boundaries. Whether it's redefining the big screen superhero genre itself through its trademark mix of action, humor and drama, or bringing the big screen experience to television screens with the Disney+ series WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and What If...?, the MCU has raised the bar — not just for comic book movies, but for cinema in general.

Now, with the release of director Chloé Zhao's Eternals, the MCU is pushing boundaries yet again. The story of a group of immortal, super-powered beings sent to Earth to protect humanity from a vicious alien species known as Deviants, the film marks the beginning of a new chapter in the mega movie franchise, as it sets out to explore the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. Yet, when it comes to comic book legend Jack Kirby's original vision for this superhero team, it's the way that Eternals reimagines these classic characters that proves the most compelling, as it follows in the footsteps of Black Panther and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

"We wanted to [take] a bold, new step and say you don't know everything about the universe yet. That there are these ten spectacular heroes who you haven't met, who've been here the whole time," explains Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. "And you can't do the history of humanity without the heroes looking like a cross section of humanity. That is really what the goal was."

"It started with me showing [Kevin] a macro photo of sand. And then quoting a poem from William Blake," adds Zhao. "In that poem, Blake was trying to convey that you can see the endless beauty and the meanings of the cosmos within the smallest things you can find on Earth. So the vision of the film was to capture that scale — something as large as the creation of the Sun and as intimate as whispers of lovers."

It was an ambitious vision that also captivated each and every member of Eternals' cast, but none more so than Angelina Jolie, who plays the group's most fearless and skilled warrior, the legendary Thena. "When they first talked to me about the story, I just wanted to be a part of this family," says Jolie. "But a lot of us were cast to bring out something from our own lives, and then let it live and grow within the film. So [Thena] may be the most fantastic [character] I've ever played, yet my children said she [is] the most like me."

Similarly, Brian Tyree Henry, who plays the technopath Phastos, also brought some of his own personal experiences to his role. "When I was coming to this project, I had lost faith in humanity, just looking at the images of Black men [out there] and how we were being portrayed, and how the power was taken from us," recalls Henry. "And what I really love the most about Phastos is that, [although he's] eternal, he still chose love. It just really resonated with me. That is the one thing I hope everyone takes away from this movie — that the heart of humanity is still worth saving, and we can still bind and mend and do everything we need to through love."

As for Gemma Chan, whose character Sersi has the ability to manipulate non-sentient matter, playing a superhero was surprisingly relatable. "Sersi is a superhero, but her powers are not the most obvious or the flashiest," notes Chan. "She's not the best fighter, but what she does have is empathy and a real affinity for humankind and the Earth. That was one of the enjoyable things about the film, going on that journey with [Sersi]. It's her coming-of-age, even though she's probably thousands of years old. But she learns to trust herself and to grow into her own power. And that was a really interesting thing to explore."

The same was true for Richard Madden, who found an intriguing counterbalance between his previous roles and his portrayal of the high-flying, laser beam-shooting Ikaris. "I'm used to playing a lover," comments Madden. "And to play someone who's such a soldier, but [whose] decisions are driven by love — I really loved it. I'm used to characters who are very focused on their love, [but] with Ikaris, it's the opposite of that. He's trying to bury that love because it gets in the way of his duty, and [he] is constantly wrestling [with] the two."

"Ultimately, [it] all came down to trust," adds Kumail Nanjiani, speaking about getting outside of his comfort zone for his role as superhero-turned-Bollywood-superstar Kingo. "[First with] Kevin, because he's made so many MCU movies, and then with Chloé. I completely trusted her. I didn't always understand this whole universe in her head until I watched the movie, but I knew enough to trust her."

As for what it's like to finally be a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe? "It's a really humbling experience, because I dream big. And if I hadn't, I wouldn't have gotten here at all," remarks Salma Hayek, who plays the Eternals' leader and maternal figure, Ajak. "But in my big dreams, I wanted to be a superhero. And it's very humbling when, in the middle of your 50s, a brilliant director gives you the opportunity to do both — to do something that comes from a deep place, and that's also a big blockbuster. Everything is possible."

Eternals is in theaters November 5th.

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