It seems the theme of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4 so far is ‘expect the unexpected’.
Since Avengers: Endgame wrapped up the Infinity Saga at the close of Phase 3, the MCU has given us suburban comedies (WandaVision), gritty euro-romps (Falcon and the Winter Soldier), espionage thrillers (Black Widow), identity-twisting mind benders (Loki), and sci-fi martial art movies (Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings).
But when Eternals producer Nate Moore told us the next Marvel movie — directed by Chloé Zhao, the Oscar-winning director of Nomadland, in cinemas November — was going to be ‘an epic romance’ that spanned 7,000 years of human history, was partly inspired by The Notebook, and with the narrative structure of The Godfather Part II, we were still taken by surprise.
Read more: First Eternals trailer wows fans
“We've made 25 movies now at Marvel,” Moore told Yahoo and an assembled group of journalists at Pinewood Studios on the last day of shooting back in January 2020, “but this is the first movie that's really built around a romance as the centre of the relationship.
"This, if we can do it right, is an epic romance.”
Eternals is set to be the biggest, most ambitious debut for a MCU property ever. With ten lead heroes, it’s the largest job lot introduction of new characters since 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy added Star-Lord, Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot to the already massive Marvel roster.
“It's a big cosmic crazy movie set on Earth over 7,000 years,” adds Moore. “It is our most ambitious first film.”
Created by Jack Kirby in 1976 and reinvigorated by a hugely popular Neil Gaiman comic arc in 2006, the Eternals brand is a deep cut for casual comic fans, but beloved by the hardcore faithful.
Taking cues from the Gaiman run, but largely inspired by Kirby’s original take, in the MCU the Eternals are immortal aliens from a planet called Olympia who've been asked by the Celestials to come to Earth to rid the planet of creatures called Deviants.
“The Deviants are these parasitic aliens who go from planet to planet,” explains Moore. “And as they kill the apex predators on a given planet, they take the characteristics of those predators and wipe out intelligent life.”
The film shows the Eternals coming to earth thousands of years ago to eradicate the Deviants in order to allow humanity to thrive. After achieving their mission, the ten Eternals fracture as a team and go their separate ways, living their lives in disguise as humans.
Read more: Every Disney movie confirmed up to 2028
Cut to present day and the appearance of a Deviant in London after 5,000 years of peace kicks off two of the team going on a globe-trotting adventure to get the gang back together.
The Eternals — each one powered in a different way by cosmic energy — come in unofficial pairs.
Ikaris (Richard Madden) a perfectionist with Superman-like laser vision and flight, and Sersi (Gemma Chan) who can change matter with a touch of her hand, are the romantic duo at the heart of the film.
Gilgamesh (Don Lee) is the strongest Eternal. He uses cosmic energy to create an exoskeleton and is paired with Thena (Angelina Jolie), an incredible fighter who uses her powers to create any weapon she can think of. He acts as her protector, as — for reasons that will come clear — she’s too dangerous to be around humans.
Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani) is a formerly demure character who has made a career for himself as a Bollywood star in the present day, and his vain energy bounces nicely off the world-weary Sprite (Lia McHugh). An incredible storyteller, Sprite has the unfortunate of being stuck in the body of a 12-year-old girl.
“She wants to feel like she's the adult because she is,” McHugh tells us.
Druig (Barry Keoghan) can control minds using cosmic energy, but has become disillusioned by humanity (“He’s the dark one who is always overthinking everything,” Salma Hayek later explains), and he’s juxtaposed by Makkari (Laren Ridloff), the fastest woman alive, who spends her time on earth reading books and accumulating knowledge.
Finally there’s Ajak (Salma Hayek), the leader - gender-switched from the comics - with healing powers, who is paired up with Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) the technological whiz of the Eternals.
Rounding out the core cast is Kit Harington as a character called Dane Whitman who — in the comics — ends up as beloved comic character the Black Knight. He has a history with Sersi that will bring him into confrontation with his former Game of Thrones sibling Richard Madden.
“I don't know that we'd be good filmmakers if we didn't reunite the Stark brothers!” jokes Moore.
Wrangling this massive cast is Chloé Zhao, whose previous film Nomadland had yet to become an awards juggernaut when we visited the set. Despite having won acclaim with The Rider, she seemed an outside choice for a behemothic Marvel movie at the time.
“She doesn't seem to be the kind of filmmaker who necessarily wants to tackle this giant visual effects blockbuster,” conceded Moore. “But a couple of things we learned when we met her [changed that]. One: she grew up reading Manga, she grew up in Beijing, China, so comic book storytelling is in her blood.
Read more: Chloé Zhao makes Oscar history
“Two: she's a huge MCU fan. She's seen her movies countless times, she loves them, she loves Captain America especially, and she blew us away with her infectious energy.”
“In talking to her early on, we realised this was a true storyteller, a writer, director, who did have a very strong vision of what the movie could be. And it's been proven true. She's been writing on the script every day, she's great with actors, she pushed us, I think, as a filmmaker to make Eternals feel aesthetically different than any other Marvel movie.
"She likes to shoot a lot of natural locations and natural light, so this film, actually, of any Marvel films, has shot outside exteriors more than anything else. And I think it's lent it a look that's unlike anything we've ever done.”
Trailers for the film back this claim up. The footage shows a naturalistic lighting and colour design unlike any other MCU film, despite the multi-coloured costumes of the ten main heroes.
“[Chloe Zhao’s] done very naturalistic very kind of new look lighting,” production designer Eve Stewart told us as we toured the Domo, the Eternals monolithic spaceship.
“She hasn't done the traditional cinematic Marvel route. It’s very bluey, daylighty. Quite harsh but really good looking.”
Watch a trailer for Eternals
Echoing this naturalistic approach of the director was Frances Hannon, Hair and Makeup Designer: "Chloé's brief was everybody had to be natural. She didn't want a superhero look. She wanted them to be accessible to every age. And everybody and nobody to feel that they could never look like that or be like that”
Another way Eternals differs to previous MCU movies is the sheer diversity of its cast. The franchise has made great strides forward with Black Panther and Shang-Chi, but Eternals goes even further. Beyond the ethnic, gender, and age diversity among the cast, Lauren Ridloff’s Makkari is the MCU’s first deaf character, and Brian Tyree Henry’s Phastos is openly gay and has a husband.
“It's beautiful because it's such a really diverse cast,” said Salma Hayek. “And I think in a way, when you are used to being the diverse part of something, then it's something that unifies you so it looks… We're all very different, but at the same time, we were all the same, because we're used to being the diverse part of everything.”
“I think as filmmakers, we want our audience reflected on the screen” added Moore. “And I think the great thing about Eternals is, it's just part of the narrative without having to talk about it, that Eternals were to some degree selected for this mission partially because they could integrate into an Earth that does have a sprawling identity and a very easy way because they do look like not everybody, but there is a nice cross-section there.
“So we want it to feel both like a natural extension of the storytelling, but also just a way for audience members and kids especially, to see themselves on screen maybe for the first time.”
Eternals arrives in cinemas on 5 November. Watch Richard Madden hypes up Eternals.