At the end of 2008’s Iron Man, the movie that kicked off Marvel’s ascension to pop culture dominance, a man wearing an eye patch and a leather coat predicted the future. “Mr. Stark, you’ve become a part of a bigger universe,” Nick Fury told Tony Stark, stepping out from the shadows of a dimly lit living room. “You just don’t know it yet.”
The Infinity Saga began in earnest with that post-credits scene, as Iron Man became the first crucial piece in the blockbuster machine that would become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Spearheaded by Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige, a master plan charted the company’s path a decade into the future. Across 23 films produced from 2008 to 2019, Marvel Studios wove together an interconnected series of stories that collectively earned an astonishing $22.5 billion at the global box office, including five of the 12 highest-grossing movies of all time.
Feige and Co. crafted an infallible formula to keep audiences coming back and to keep the overarching plot hurtling forward. Even occasional misses couldn’t slow the machine’s momentum—the critical flops still had value as cogs for character or plot development in Marvel’s bigger picture. Films introduced new title characters in isolated environments to grow their individual arcs, while crossover movies brought those characters together. And every installment ultimately built toward the climactic two-part Avengers event: 2018’s Infinity War and 2019’s Endgame. After being promised and hyped in every Marvel film for a decade, the dual Avengers blockbusters played like an epic series finale with a story that looped in every major superhero from the franchise and saw half of all life in the universe disappear and reappear.
“[The Infinity Saga] definitely sets the bar high because the culmination of those 23 films was so successful, both commercially, but also just from a storytelling point of view,” says Eternals cowriter Patrick Burleigh, who also did production writing for 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp. “Say what you will about if you’re a fan or not of Marvel, it’s an incredible storytelling accomplishment.”
But with great accomplishment comes great expectation. “Everyone is now making films with that sort of looming over their shoulders,” Burleigh adds. The record-setting success of Marvel Studios’ Infinity Saga and its model of serialized storytelling has had every other major studio in Hollywood searching for ways to create its own self-sustaining cinematic universe. But as much as Endgame set the bar and applied pressure on Marvel’s competitors, it did the same for its own filmmakers and creative teams, who now face the daunting task of leading the studio into a new era.
After 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home served as an epilogue to Endgame, Phase 4’s cinematic reboot began this summer with an untold story from Natasha Romanoff’s past in Black Widow. In September, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings introduced a brand-new superhero in a self-contained story that included only brief nods to the recently transformed world around it. Meanwhile, Marvel brought the MCU to TV with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, and What If?, four series that filled in the stories of preestablished characters while laying spare tracks for the future. With the release of Eternals, audiences now get their first real chance to see what that future might look like. “In these early films in Phase 4, you do have to be aware of it because everything is in the shadow of Infinity War and Endgame, and the loss of the Avengers,” Burleigh says. “But it’s also a real opportunity to turn a new page. In a way, there’s almost less interconnectivity to have to labor over because we’re not starting over, but we’re reinventing ourselves. It’s both a challenge—where do we go from here? How do we incorporate what happened into the Eternals?—and an opportunity.”
To begin anew, Marvel Studios went back to the dawn of human civilization. Drawing inspiration from Jack Kirby’s 1970s comics, Eternals spans 7,000 years of human history and tells the origin story of an ancient race of aliens who were sent to Earth to oversee the development of humankind and defend it from predators known as Deviants. But Eternals also serves as the origin story for the MCU: Cosmic gods known as Celestials created the Eternals, the Deviants, and—through a very long process that requires harvesting the energy from various host planets—entire galaxies.
Although the Infinity Saga included space operas and relied on the invention of time travel in its grand finale, Eternals is steeped in the realm of science fiction more than perhaps any MCU film before it. To tackle these strange and heady concepts, Marvel Studios tapped writing duo Ryan and Kaz Firpo to pen the story, Burleigh to cowrite the screenplay, and Chloé Zhao (Nomadland) to direct and cowrite. By the time the studio had secured its first Oscar-winning director to helm the project, the creative wheels behind Eternals were already turning. “Marvel has something called a ‘creative retreat’ where the producers in Marvel get together to talk about what the next phase is going to be. I believe Nate Moore brought up Eternals after the Infinity Saga,” Zhao says. “That got Kevin excited.’”
Before they became an integral part of a $200 million Marvel project, the Firpo cousins had only just arrived on the Hollywood scene. Ryan previously made a feature-length documentary about the rise and fall of online poker, while Kaz had made films for organizations like UNICEF that highlighted human stories of hope in conflict zones around the world. Without agents, managers, or Hollywood connections, they wrote Ruin in 2017, their first feature script together, a Nazi revenge thriller that quickly gained traction around town. That was the script that put the Firpo cousins in front of Marvel Studios producer Nate Moore. “We had a really great meeting with Nate and we talked all about Phase 4 and what they could do with that,” says Ryan Firpo. “At that time, they hadn’t shot Endgame yet, but they knew where it was going to go. … They were looking to expand outside of that formula, and try new things and take risks.”
“Ryan and I spent about five weeks figuring out what this story would be,” Kaz Firpo adds. “We picked the characters, we wrote the story, we figured out where we wanted to go in time, in human history, in space. And we sort of used this opportunity to say, ‘Let’s take people places they’ve never been before, show them things they’ve never seen on screen.’”
Eternals has no shortage of ambition in its vision and storytelling approach. The film makes stops in modern-day London, Chicago, and Mumbai, and travels back to crucial moments in human history, from Mesopotamia in 5,000 B.C. to the fall of Tenochtitlan in 1521. At one point, we even learn that the Deviants were responsible for ending the age of the dinosaurs. Within these flashbacks, Eternals introduces 10 new superheroes—the largest ensemble of new title heroes for any Marvel Studios film to date—who, in the context of this sprawling story, provided inspiration for gods and characters of classic mythologies that have existed throughout time and the world’s cultures.
But the aspirations of Eternals goes beyond the confines of human history—it delves even deeper into the connection between humans and nature, and the creation of all life itself. It’s this dynamic that drew Zhao to the project in the first place, and also what helped get her the job in the end. In her pitch to Feige and Marvel Studios, she presented a close-up photo of sand and recited William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” a poem that finds beauty and greater truths in the smallest things on Earth. “The exploration of humanity’s relationship with this planet and with nature—having made three films exploring that changed me as a person, and it’s the key component to Eternals,” says Zhao, who wrote and directed Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider before helming her Oscar-winning Nomadland.
“It’s very important that we understand our fate in the cosmos,” Zhao continues. “Whether you’re religious or not, we’re just a part of an exchange of energy in this great universe. It’s important that we stay humble and look at this beautiful and giving planet that we’re on and ask ourselves: Do we have the right to do everything that we do in the name of progress and advancement?”
Historically, concepts like existentialism, contractualism, and utilitarianism have not been primary areas of concern in the MCU, and in turn, Eternals couldn’t be made in the mold of Iron Man or Captain America. Much to the shock of Kevin Feige, Zhao pushed for filming in actual locations rather than in front of green screens and on soundstages. And though MCU alum Ben Davis served as the film’s cinematographer, Zhao also tapped her frequent collaborator and partner Joshua James Richards to be the project’s camera operator. Together, they shot the vast majority of Eternals with the same type of camera and filming style used in Nomadland. “When crazy action scenes are happening, or you’re going through space and time watching the creation of a sun, the camera does something so simple,” Zhao explains. “It just drifts. It lingers and drifts, observes. We call it a National Geographic or anthropological way of capturing things. ... It gives an audience a feeling of immersion that makes them feel like they’re actually there.”
Zhao and her team’s methods shine through in the film’s quieter moments: in scenic establishing shots of a South Dakota landscape or while capturing the everyday lives of ancient civilizations. At the same time, Eternals isn’t an episode of Planet Earth—it’s a $200 million movie that involves a superhero who can shoot lasers out of his eyes fighting a massive alien-like wolverine whose every sinew has been constructed using CGI. Marvel is taking risks and expanding its moviemaking formula in Phase 4, but the push-pull relationship between any given project’s creatives and Marvel’s big-picture vision remains. For better or worse, when you enter the Marvel machine, you become a part of something much bigger—a standard process and a mostly predetermined future. “The gift of Marvel is that you have this incredible sandbox, this playground that’s been invented and you can add whatever you want,” Kaz Firpo says, before adding: “as long as it doesn’t destroy what’s already there.”
“It is so important to talk about not just what you want to do but how you want to do it. And you all have to agree on that,” Zhao says. “Otherwise, you’re going to have a lot of problems down the line.”
Eternals raked in an estimated $161.7 million at the global box office in its first weekend, the second-best opening for a Hollywood movie this year, behind only F9. That includes a domestic haul of $71 million, a total that ranks fourth in 2021, behind Black Widow ($80.4 million) and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings ($75.4 million), and Sony’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage ($90 million). But the returns don’t tell the full story: Mixed reviews led to Eternals becoming the lowest-rated MCU film on Rotten Tomatoes to date; and audiences had muted reactions on opening night, as the movie was graded lower than every other MCU film by CinemaScore.
Box office numbers aside, Eternals’ lackluster reception serves as a temperature check for the MCU. The pandemic disrupted Marvel’s strategy to reinvent itself after the Infinity Saga, making the layoff between Far From Home and its new era more pronounced. Four TV shows and two movies have yielded mixed returns, with only hints at the multiverse of possibilities that lie ahead in the franchise’s next major crossover event. WandaVision and Falcon and the Winter Soldier focused on lesser-known Avengers in the wake of Endgame and established them as key figures, while Loki followed the trickster god into another dimension after his escape in a previous timeline to build ideas around the existence of parallel universes. With Black Widow retroactively set before the events of Infinity War, and Shang-Chi existing primarily within its own world, Eternals is Marvel Studios’ first massive swing in Phase 4. The hype and intense scrutiny around its release demonstrates what every major MCU project will have to face after the success of the Infinity Saga. Shang-Chi may have succeeded in its more narrow responsibility of bringing an unknown superhero into the fold, but Eternals shows the challenges of introducing a multitude of characters and establishing extensive backstories while still keeping one foot stuck in the past.
Eternals is, as Ryan Firpo says, a stand-alone story. And yet, it’s also a bridge between the Infinity Saga and this new phase of films. “The reason Nate Moore thought Eternals could be interesting is that sometimes we have to look at our past to move forward,” Zhao explains. “That’s why the inclusion of the Celestials and the exploration of the origin of the MCU was a key in this film, because it will help us to move forward as well.”
The approach of “looking at our past to move forward” might as well serve as the tagline for Phase 4’s first crop of TV shows and movies. Every project has had roots in the Infinity Saga to some degree, and its shadow has been cast over each project. Eternals finds itself underneath that shadow—an early scene in the movie features a character wondering where the Eternals were when Thanos was terrorizing the planet—but it also stands as the first real push in a new direction. As Zhao points out, Eternals goes back even further to tackle the timeless question of creation. “It’s a natural evolution for the MCU, because if you just look at humanity and the way that we have told stories throughout time, eventually we start telling stories about the creation of it all,” Ryan Firpo says. “We’re getting to that point where we’re starting to say, ‘OK, well, where did this all come from?’ Like, ‘What was the beginning?’ And Eternals really only scratches the surface of that. As we go into Phase 4, that’s going to continue to expand.”
Among the films on Marvel’s upcoming slate, some will likely take audiences to space (Thor: Love and Thunder, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3), and others that will take them deeper into the multiverse (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania). The concepts that Eternals explores will be drawn out even further, as this Earth becomes just one destination in a multiverse full of them. And as this world expands, there may be more growing pains as Marvel Studios continues to recalibrate the blockbuster dynasty it built over the past decade.
But while Eternals is a sign of the difficulty of continuing such a massive (and massively successful) superhero movie franchise, it is also proof that the studio plans to trudge ahead—Infinity Saga hangover be damned—and continue to expand into uncharted territory. “For us, it was an opportunity to look at the cosmic MCU and say, ‘What else is out there that we haven’t seen?’” Kaz Firpo explains. “Thor, Guardians—we have only just started to touch on those stories. And if you’re familiar with the Marvel universe, I mean, there are just endless stories to tell out there. ... Meanwhile in the cosmos, we’re opening the door to go anywhere.”