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The laboured diversity of Eternals

Marvel talked up the diversity of Eternals in the run-up to its release. But the film's efforts at wider representation are heavy-handed  

Kumail Nanjiani in ‘Eternals’
Kumail Nanjiani in ‘Eternals’

In its search for lucrative new markets, Hollywood is doing what it never had to earlier: trying to make viewers in other parts of the world feel like they’re included. Enter the diverse blockbuster, essentially American but spanning races, geographies and demographics. It’s been particularly evident in the buildup to Eternals: every piece on the new Marvel film has mentioned diversity, and all the cast members have spoken of its importance. 

The problem is that diversity is an executive, strategic decision. It’s difficult to pull it off on a practical, creative level. What studio heads, writers and directors all seem to forget is that viewers don’t like to be pandered to. Marvel fans in India—an increasingly important market for Disney—might feel a little underwhelmed by the overtures in Chloe Zhao’s film. There is a “Bollywood” song sequence, for a film called “Shandaar Daastan-e-Ikarus”—it has lyrics in English, and Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), one of the Eternals, dancing somewhat comically. Zhao describes it in an interview as a “beautiful, joyous dance sequence”, but it plays like parody.

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There’s more. As a comic beat in an action sequence later, Kingo says “dhishoom”—the word isn’t subtitled, so we can assume it’s there for the benefit of Indian viewers. There’s a valet of Kingo’s who tags along on his adventures, who has an “Indian” accent like Apu from The Simpsons or the older folk in Never Have I Ever. There’s also a mercifully brief Hindu wedding ceremony of Eternals Ikarus (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan). None of these moments seemed to impress the audience I saw the film with, though Nanjiani’s presence in general went down well. 

If Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), with its martial arts sequences and predominantly Asian cast, was a bid for the China market, Eternals seems to have the whole world in its sights. The Eternals are a mix of races and accents—Black, Latino, east Asian, Indian subcontinent, Irish. Makkari, who has super-speed, is Marvel’s first deaf superhero (she's played by actor Lauren Ridloff, who is also deaf). Phastos, played by Brian Tyree Henry, is the first LGBTQ+ superhero in the MCU. In both cases, changes were made to the versions in the comics: the original Makkari is male, white and can hear, the original Phastos is married to a woman.

A detail in the Phastos subplot stuck out. Marvel had talked up a LGBTQ+ character in Avengers: Endgame (2019), which ended up being one line in a very short cameo by director Joe Russo. Phastos is a significant advance: he’s the only Eternal with a child, in a happy long-term relationship. But having Emirati-born Lebanese actor Haaz Sleiman play his husband is a decision that screams diversity, as if Marvel had listed all the demographics covered and then added one they’d missed. 

All the talk of representation obscures the real innovation of Eternals: situating superhero action in believable natural settings. Zhao stages conversations and fights in canyons and jungles and beaches, on frozen rivers and tundras, near exploding volcanos. These backdrops have a timelessness that complement the ageless nature of the protagonists, and also form a link with Zhao’s earlier films, which make memorable use of rugged nature.

It’s not just Marvel and Disney that are making their films more diverse. Most modern Hollywood franchises have a similar mix of nationalities, some more convincingly than others. It might seem strange to complain that Hollywood, traditionally the domain of cis, hetero, white men, is becoming more inclusive in its casting. Representation is, of course, vital and powerful. But surely there are less Benetton-like ways to do it?  In The Old Guard (2020), an action film with immortal beings rather like the Eternals, the leads are of South African, Italian, Dutch-Tunisian, Belgian and African American descent. There’s an affectingly realized relationship between two of the male heroes. But the film doesn’t seem to want a pat on the back for its efforts.

Earlier this year, Dev Patel’s turn as Sir Gawain in The Green Knight was met with a welcome lack of discourse. It was an ideal case of colourblind casting—Patel was excellent in the part, and film didn’t try and “explain” why a brown actor was King Arthur’s nephew. Inspiration can also be found in the Fast and Furious films, a surprising forerunner of the modern diverse Hollywood franchise. Little White Lies noted in 2017: “Brian (Paul Walker) is still the all-American white male hero throughout, but from 2009’s Fast & Furious to 2015’s Fast & Furious 7 he’s the only white male hero in a large, increasingly diverse crew comprising Korean, African-American, Israeli and Brazilian actors.” Nine films in, the series’ selling point remains its gleefully silly action—diversity is a side benefit.

One of my favourite moments in Zhao’s film is when some of the Eternals track down Druig, who’s been living, Kurtz-like, in a village by the Amazon. He’s been using his mind-control powers on the residents there—not for evil purposes, but to keep an unnatural peace. Amid all the virtuous talk of representation, here is an oasis of doubt, an allusion to the lies colonizers tell themselves as they colonize. Moments like these justify bringing in talented directors like Zhao to the MCU. Otherwise, anyone can sell diversity. 

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