Chloe Zhao’s “Eternals” and the Long Overdue Diversity in the MCU
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
Being a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movie on its own is enough to garner fervent attention from loyal fans, but a unique aspect of the new “Eternals” is the immense number of MCU “firsts” and the extraordinarily diverse cast.
Although the original MCU films predominantly starred White males, the franchise has slowly but surely began to introduce women and actors of color into this cinematic universe, with movies such as Black Panther, Captain Marvel, and Shang Chi And The Legend of The Ten Rings. However, Marvel's “Eternals” has arguably the most diverse casting thus far, from sexuality to ethnicity to gender. Out of the ten featured Eternals, half are women, which is an uncommon, but amazing thing to see in the Hollywood superhero franchise. A detail that makes this even more impressive is that many of the roles were originally male in the comics, but were adapted in order to incorporate more female roles.
The official synopsis of the movie is, “The Eternals, a race of immortal beings with superhuman powers who have secretly lived on Earth for thousands of years, reunite to battle the evil Deviants.”
This newly established superhero team consists of the cast members from all over the globe, and the following list will describe the role they play in bringing diversity to the MCU:
Sersi (Gemma Chan) - She was born and raised in the United Kingdom and her parents are both Chinese, making her British Chinese. In the MCU, she is the first Asian woman to have a leading role.
Ajak (Salma Hayek) - Not only does Hayek defy racial barriers, but age barriers as well. She is Mexican-American, making her the first Mexican to play a superhero in the MCU. At the age of 55, Hayek is one of the oldest cast members to don a superhero outfit in the MCU.
Sprite (Lia McHugh) - McHugh at the ripe age of 14 is one of the youngest superheroes in the MCU, and is a perfect example of why we should teach children to start “dreaming big” when they are young. Another interesting aspect of Sprite is her gender fluidity. Though she is currently portrayed as a girl in the film, comics have often swapped her gender back-and-forth, indicating a sort of ambiguity in her gender.
Makkari (Lauren Ridloff) - Ridloff was born to a Mexican-American father and an African-American mother, yet the most significant barrier she has broken has to do with her being deaf which makes her the first deaf superhero in the MCU. Interestingly enough, this fits into her character quite well, and it is fascinating to see a trait typically deemed as challenging be turned into a superhero’s strength.
Thena (Angelina Jolie) - Jolie is one of the most renowned actresses in Hollywood, and though she may not bring a great deal of diversity to the table, other than gender, she has been very adamant on expressing her feelings on the importance of diversity. She states that it is central to the film because “Part of the original idea is, if you’re going to have Eternals and they’re going to blend into the Earth across the globe, they have to be on the globe.”
Ikaris (Richard Madden) - Madden was born in Elderslie, Scotland, and on the topic of diversity, he says, “I'm a white male actor and not in the majority of this cast. I'm the minority, which is important in terms of diversity in filmmaking”
Druig (Barry Keoghan) - He was born in Dublin, Ireland and he hopes to inspire children from his native country with this new role. When asked why he chose to keep his accent for Druig’s portrayal, Keoghan said “For kids at home, especially from the inner city, there aren't a lot of opportunities where I'm from. To see a lad from a working-class area on screen, it'll give kids that chance, not only in acting but in other things”
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) - Nanjiani is Pakistani-American and he is the first South Asian to play a Marvel superhero.
Gilgamesh (Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee) - Born in South Korea, Lee’s name is added on to the slowly expanding list of the Asian cast of the MCU.
Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) - Henry is African-American and also gay. Though fans have speculated on the sexuality of many characters in the past, Henry will be playing Phastos, who is the first openly gay character in a Marvel film.
Not only is the movie diverse on screen, but behind the scenes as well. The director of this memorable movie was Chloé Zhao, making her the first Asian woman to direct a MCU movie. Zhao, however, is not new to historical accomplishments in filmmaking. Her film “Nomadland'' landed her the trophy for best director, making her the second woman to win an Oscar for director and the first woman of color to receive the prize. Based on the nonfiction book by Jessica Bruder, it follows the journey of a woman in her sixties who, after losing everything in the Great Recession, travels through the American West on a van, living as a modern-day nomad. Zhao’s talents are not limited to directing, however, she also served as the writer, producer, and editor of “Nomadland”. This is a great accomplishment for women filmmakers everywhere, as it shows the progression of their expected role in the movie industry. By taking on multiple positions, she ensures that the project ends up exactly how she envisioned.
Though she was born in Beijing, China, she ventured out to the United States and eventually ended up studying filmmaking at the world-renowned New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, where she wanted the chance to be someone else. According to a Vogue magazine interview, she wanted to “be where Michael Jackson was” and felt constricted growing up within an ancient culture that expected her “to be a certain way”. As an Asian woman in Hollywood, she has had her fair share of obstacles, but in a Variety interview, she had this to say about her identity.
“The one thing that I learned really early on is that you’ve got to surround yourself with the right people. Because you can’t change how people think — you can’t control how they’re going to think, how they’re going to behave. But what you can do is make sure the people that are around you not only protect you but want to be with you because of who you are as an individual.”
Her identity plays a great role in her life and her career. In a Los Angeles Times interview, she says, “I’ve always been an outsider myself, and I'm naturally drawn to them", a trait that is evident in her works. It is refreshing to see a woman of color break barriers in an industry as global as the film industry, and hopefully her success sets a new precedent for the way Hollywood treats marginalized groups.
Regardless of whether or not this movie was the “best of all time”, it is undeniable that the diversity shown has opened the door to even more future acts of inclusivity in the MCU, and the industry in general. It is time for diversity in all aspects of life to be normalized and the “Eternals” is just one stepping stone on this path.
Written by Fiona Wu