Considering that she was coming off of her Best Picture win for Nomadland, Chloe Zhao was a little bit of an unconventional choice to move into the MCU. She had just skyrocketed into the public eye as the first Asian American woman to win Best Director, and the slow, sweeping plot and visuals of Nomadland categorized her squarely as a social issue prestige filmmaker. That’s not to say that prestige filmmakers shouldn’t be brought into the MCU, it’s just that considering Martin Scorsese’s comments about superhero films “not being cinema,” there seemed to be an obstacle remaining for superhero films before they could be brought into the highly coveted pantheon of films that will be looked on as classics for years to come.
Representation At All Levels
If I had to pinpoint where Marvel Studios turned a corner with their film production model, I would say that Black Panther was probably that moment in time. Not only was it one of their most popular films and marked a major change in the way that different people could be represented on screen as superheroes, the film also won three Oscars. The two historic wins were nabbed in the Best Costume Design and Best Production Design categories, both winners being the first women of color to win either one. The Afro-futurist superhero aesthetic wasn’t something that had been seen before in mainstream action films, and by delving so fully into the style, structuring the film around those visuals instead of trying to mold it down into the typical militaristic-action-movie aesthetic of their previous films, they were rewarded.
Chloe Zhao is exploring another relatively uncharted territory in superhero films: landscape focus and location filming. Not only does this make for a beautiful film, it perfectly positions the Eternals as the protectors of the Earth and makes a statement about the importance of environmentalism.
In the past, some environmentalist themes have trickled into films, but it’s been hard to empathize with the characters fighting for the Earth considering that they are Thanos is Infinity War and Endgame who tries to save the environment by wiping out half of the human population, and Ultron in What If…? Who tries to save the environment by wiping out all of the human population. In Eternals, the heroes are pitted against “Deviants,” a species of creatures set to destroy the Earth. Normally, they are “sworn to not intervene in matters” (a plot device meant to cover the fact that they didn’t stop Thanos when they very well could have), but they are the only group who can do it, so they make the decision to fight.
Chloe Zhao’s signature style adds purpose and emotional weight to the task that the Eternals have. Filming on location so that the audience absorbs the landscape to the fullest extent while watching the film is a genius move of a powerful, smart filmmaker. It provokes a level of gratitude as I watch these fight scenes and realize the importance of their task. The Earth is beautiful, and we are so lucky to live on a planet that provides us so much and gives us sweeping landscapes to roam.
When the world is in danger, how can we as humans take action to protect it outside of the movie screen?