Shortly before Chloé Zhao won Best Director at this year’s Academy Awards — and made history in doing so — Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige was raving about the “spectacular” filmmaker in interviews. Zhao’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Nomadland, of course, was already set to be Eternals, one of Marvel’s most sweeping and mysterious films to date.
Speaking to Variety, Feige especially discussed Zhao’s determination to shoot Eternals practically — no small feat for a globe-spanning blockbuster. The director wanted the film to shoot on location as possible, a demand that Feige admitted was difficult for Marvel to meet.
But the first Eternals trailer, which premiered online this morning, proves just how right Zhao was to insist on practical filmmaking and avoid Marvel’s modus operandi. It’s the kind of exciting break with tradition that should signal the start of a new era for the studio.
Opening with shots of a restless sea, waves crashing against rocks, and ancient humans wandering barefoot through cliffs and deserts, Zhao’s film appears to place a premium on real locations. The approach gives Eternals a uniquely grand feel.
Even as more CGI creations (like the Eternals’ massive green-and-gold ship) appear throughout the trailer, these more conventional touches don’t detract from the beauty of the film’s physical settings either. Through Zhao’s camera, these forests, deserts, and oceans still feel strikingly naturalistic.
There’s a substantial, even tactile quality to these environments that already makes Eternals feel undeniably refreshing in an age where the worlds of countless superhero blockbusters are created entirely on computers.
The practical quality of Eternals feels particularly exciting as the MCU returns after Avengers: Endgame, a film in which CG environments took center stage; the climactic blockbuster was criticized in some quarters for what was seen as an over-reliance on visual effects, though this isn’t a new problem for Marvel.
The Disney-owned studio is known for shooting its films and TV shows on studio lots and around the same neighborhoods in Atlanta, Georgia, using CGI to fill in entire fantasy worlds. Marvel’s established filming methods have made it easy for the studio to keep its location costs down. Indeed, thanks to recurring production locations, the studio has created a kind of factory line that its shows and films can be run through easily.
There’s no denying Marvel’s commitment to behind-the-scenes efficiency has cost the MCU opportunities to showcase the visual splendor of more natural worlds – the kind of spectacle one could argue cinema was created to capture in the first place.
The Inverse Analysis — During the same interview where he spoke of Zhao’s talents as a filmmaker, Feige discussed the moment he and the other Marvel creatives cut together a reel of Zhao’s early Eternals footage to show their Disney bosses.
“It was so beautiful, and I had to keep saying, ‘This is right out of a camera; there’s no VFX work to this at all!’” Feige recalled. “Because it was a beautiful sunset, with perfect waves and mist coming up from the shore on this giant cliffside — really, really impressive stuff.”
The Marvel head was promptly criticized on Twitter by legions of cinephiles for what was seen as his apparent astonishment at discovering the rewards of shooting a movie in real locations. But given Marvel’s track record of reluctance when it comes to shooting films this way, it’s not hard to see why Feige’s comments were received so poorly.
The world is a big and beautiful place. On paper, so is the MCU. It’s about time Marvel’s movies and TV shows did a better job of reflecting that reality.
Eternals will be released in theaters on November 5, 2021.