Photo: Marvel

If you haven’t been living under a rock for 2021, it’s not hard to find something that will make you facepalm or groan at the state of humanity.

Just in Singapore itself, most recently, we have the NOC saga that has lasted almost three weeks and it illuminated the toxic work cultures that some local employees face.

So perhaps it’s serendipitous that Marvel Studios’ upcoming film Eternals debate the worth of humanity through the eyes of Celestials (cosmic beings that create universes) and well, the titular heroes.

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From left: Kumail Nanjiani, Lauren Ridloff, Don Lee, Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, Salma Hayek, Gemma Chan, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry and Barry Keoghan. (Photo: Marvel)

Eternals, directed by Oscar winner Chloe Zhao, follows a group of heroes from beyond the stars who had protected Earth since the dawn of man against monstrous creatures called the Deviants. The Deviants were thought to be extinct, but their mysterious return forces the Eternals to reunite in order to defend humanity once again.

The ensemble cast includes Gemma Chan as Sersi, Richard Madden as Ikaris, Kumail Nanjiani as Kingo, Lia McHugh as Sprite, Brian Tyree Henry as Phastos, Lauren Ridloff as Makkari, Barry Keoghan as Druig, Don Lee as Gilgamesh, Salma Hayek as the leader Ajak, and Angelina Jolie as the fierce warrior Thena.

Kit Harington also stars as Dane Whitman, the current love interest of Sersi and a character who takes on the mantle of Black Knight in the comics.

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Kit Harington (left) as Dane Whitman. (Photo: Marvel)

We won’t say much because of spoilers, but it’s safe to reveal that not all of the 10 Eternals share Sersi’s love for humankind after seeing what they have been up to over the last 7,000 years.

And with so much that has gone wrong with the world, does reel life imitate real? Do Gemma and Richard feel jaded and cynical about humanity?

In a virtual interview with regional media on Oct 29, 38-year-old Chan told AsiaOne: “My feelings change day to day, to be honest. I think I’ve probably had each of the Eternals’ different attitudes at various different points. Some days I wake up and I feel more optimistic, more hopeful about things. And then other days I just say, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re just destroying the planet.’

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“The challenge I found with playing Sersi actually was to play someone who has that optimism and that hope. Yeah, it can be tricky.”

That said, the British actress has faith in the next generation of young people. She finds them inspiring and said they “often have the right instincts” and “have a lot to teach us”.

As for Madden, he tries to look for the silver lining in others, much like his character Ikaris who found the “beauty of humanity” through the lens of his former lover Sersi.

He said: “I think sometimes when you’re not feeling as optimistic about the world, try to look to the good things.”

Photo: Marvel

Can’t wait for diversity to be normalised

While the Eternals aren’t mortal beings, they do represent the breadth of humanity. Apart from race, gender and body size, there’re even deaf and gay representation in the form of Makkari and Phastos respectively.

The two characters mark a first for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, some might argue, a long overdue one.

In fact, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige even previously confirmed Phastos is married with a family.

When asked about prioritising diversity over being loyal to the source material, Madden, 35, said that it was important to find the best person for each role and “that’s what Chloe did”.

Photo: Marvel

He said: “Every actor that’s in the film is chosen for the part because some part of their personality is part of the character. And I can’t wait for the day that we’re not discussing this in an interview because it is completely normalised so I’m very proud for us to be part of that stepping stone to the next phase.

“The story starts around the birth of civilisation and so, I think it’s essential our characters represent the breadth and beauty of human beings.”

And this kind of representation is what makes superhero films have a universal appeal, Chan mused.

She said: “I think there’s something about superhero films, they kind of hold a mirror up to time. We see the best of ourselves and the worst of ourselves in these characters.

“They’re kind of extreme versions of what we feel within ourselves — we’d love to be the hero, but we also have bad traits and, you know, could easily end up being the villain. So I think we project onto them and yeah, there’s something in that I think.”

Madden also spoke highly of Zhao’s ability to mesh an epic story with intimate character moments.

The Scottish actor added: “Chloe has this beautiful skill at capturing the scope and the scale of this epic story of this huge world that we’re creating — these kinds of larger-than-life characters, actually.

“And then being able to transfer from that into these very intimate character moments. I think that’s something that I have not seen before, especially in a Marvel movie. And she does it so elegantly.”

Perhaps this is most evident in the way the Eternals, the god-like beings who have walked the earth for 7,000 years, feel more grounded after undergoing a transformative arc in the film — and some are even more symbolic than others.

Chan shared: “In terms of Sersi and Ikaris, I would say Sersi goes from being the Eternal with probably the most doubts and uncertainty and… she harnesses her power and becomes more of a superhero by the end.

“Whereas I feel Ikaris is maybe the opposite way around. He starts off very much this hero and by the end of the film, he’s the most human that you’ve ever seen him.”

Madden concurred: “Something that you see through the whole film is these superheroes, learning from humanity and becoming like them, despite themselves.”

This article originally appeared in AsiaOne