Even the biggest MCU fan would have to admit that the movies are a little bit formulaic. I know, because I’m a pretty big MCU fan, and I have to admit it. Origin stories are particularly bad for this, which is why characters are increasingly introduced in other movies first, with the plot threads already in motion before their own story comes to be told. Even then, the MCU loves to pit its heroes against diametrically opposed villains who share a common skill set or origin or history with them, except with twisted morals. Iron Man fought Obediah Stane in his metal suit, while Whiplash is something of a Berlin Wall Tony Stark. Red Skull is the symbol of Nazism as Steve is the symbol of America, while he and the Winter Soldier are practically blood brothers. We see this trend with Scarlet Witch and Agatha Harkness, Vision and Vision, Black Panther and Kilmonger, Ant-Man and Yellowjacket, Dr Strange and Kaecilius, and far too many more to list. We will undoubtedly see it in the upcoming Black Widow. Chloe Zhao gives Eternals some built in credibility that it might be doing things differently for once – so why does the trailer not mention her at all?
The question is largely rhetorical – the answer is China. In some ways, this is an incredibly complex issue with many different facets to consider, but on the other hand, isn’t that what we always say when faced with something ethically murky?
To try and simplify, let’s do a quick catch up. Marvel has had some brilliant directors in the MCU, and the level of promotion around them has varied. Most people know the big personalities, like James Gunn on Guardians of the Galaxy or Taika Waititi on Thor: Ragnarok. That the Russo Brothers were taking on Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War was a big deal. People are generally less aware that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck helmed Captain Marvel, or that Shane Black did Iron Man 3 – not every director gets to be the superstar.
Zhao is not an eccentric character like Gunn or Waititi either – to avoid the spotlight is normal for her, which is why her understated style and apparently shocking preference for natural light is a big reason she could be a breath of fresh air. However, it has been literally just weeks since Zhao won two Oscars for her film Nomadland, and you’d think ‘from two-time Oscar winner Chloe Zhao’ would be quite a big selling point for the MCU, especially with a new movie featuring relative comic book unknowns in a complex origin story we don’t yet know a great deal about. Sure, there’s Angelina Jolie, Gemma Chan, and Game of Thrones alumni Kit Harington and Richard Madden in a stacked cast, but big movie stars are nothing new for the MCU. Cate Blanchett, Jude Law, and Jake Gyllenhaal were each killed off after a single appearance. Zhao is the reason Eternals promises to be different.
Zhao, however, is a controversial figure in her homeland of China. References to her name are censored, as are references to her most recent film, Nomadland. These controversies stem from two quotes from Zhao, one of which was actually a misquote. In the latter, News.com.au reported that Zhao had told them that “the US is now my country,” when asked about Nomadland – she had in fact said “not my country,” which changes the context somewhat. In the former, back in 2013 Zhao told Filmmaker Magazine while discussing her debut film Songs My Brothers Taught Me, “It goes back to when I was a teenager in China, being in a place where there are lies everywhere. You felt like you were never going to be able to get out. A lot of info I received when I was younger was not true, and I became very rebellious toward my family and my background.” This one is a tad more critical, in fairness. Both of these interviews were taken down completely in February this year.
Had the next MCU movie been directed by an uncontroversial figure fresh off two Oscar wins, you have to feel like Marvel would have made that a major selling point. Admittedly, just having Zhao in the chair is progress – in terms of the type of filmmaker she is and because she is a woman of colour. China has become something of a stick used to beat progressive companies with. Don’t like Star Wars adding a gay character? Don’t like when a scary MCU lady does a feminism? Don’t like when Disney goes woke and goes broke to the tune of billion dollar box offices? Just say China!
Look, it sucks when companies compromise on progressive themes to appeal to less progressive markets, but that doesn’t mean things still cannot be celebrated. It’s great that Chloe Zhao is directing Eternals, even if Marvel will probably keep tight-lipped about that in China itself. It’s modern capitalism incarnate – progressiveness only when it’s profitable. If you think about it too much it’ll make you sick.
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