How Marvel Studios has made its weirdest, most esoteric super hero pitch to date…
There have been a few times when Marvel Studios, with the help of the entertainment press and its love of a good narrative, has made the case that an upcoming release is truly a departure from what’s come before in its long-running Cinematic Universe. This is in part a reaction to complaints that emerged after several years that many of the movies were mostly the same five themes and plot points. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man have been sold as far-out departures from the established formula, though to what extent they were actually unique is up for debate.
This week’s Eternals has also been presented to the audience as something brand new. In this case it’s not that it’s more of a comedy than previous films but instead that it’s so much more epic, spanning not only the entire galaxy but also thousands of years.
The movie focuses on a team of 10 eternal beings created by The Celestials and sent to Earth 7,000 years ago to protect its native inhabitants from evil creatures called Deviants. So the Eternals stand in the shadows, pledged to not interfere with humanity’s progress except to protect against the Deviants. They are called back to do just that when the Deviants are awakened by the sudden return of half the population, as seen at the end of Avengers: Endgame.
So you can see there’s a lot going on. And the Eternals are not characters that Marvel Comics has prioritized over the years, with fewer than 50 issues of their own title published in total prior to a new series launched earlier this year. Even hardcore fans are likely to be somewhat confused by their various retcons, reintroductions and so on. They’re not on anyone’s lunchbox, all of which has made this one of the harder pitches Marvel Studios has had to make since 2008.
Those Eternals are played by Gemma Chan, Angelina Jolie, Selma Hayek, Kumail Nanjiani, Richard Madden, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Lia McHugh, Barry Keoghan and Don Lee. So it’s an impressive cast that’s been assembled under director Chloé Zhao.
All that being said, let’s take a look at just what that pitch has entailed.
announcement and casting
Rumors and speculation were common between the time Marvel announced the movie as part of its future plans and San Diego Comic-Con 2019, where the full cast and release date were announced. The cast also appeared at Disney’s D23 Fan Expo in August to show off the first looks at themselves in costume, talk about how excited they were and more.
In December of 2019 Feige appeared at Comic Con Experience in Sao Paulo to talk about the movie and share a first look at early footage. Later that month Nanjiani started the thirst by posting a picture of his new, toned body to Instagram.
Disney used the social media app Weibo to release a special poster designed in the style of Chinese tapestries to celebrate Lunar New Year in 2019.
The release date was changed by Disney, moving out several months, when in September of last year it announced several other delays because of the Covid-19 pandemic and related theater closures.
Marvel launched a new “The Eternals” comic series in January, 2021, one that wasn’t intended to tie into the movie but reintroduce the characters and prime the pump. Around that same time it posted a video offering an overview of the property for those unfamiliar with the characters.
In the wake of D23, Feige made the media rounds to hype the upcoming film and tease that one of the main characters – he didn’t specify which – would be openly gay on screen, a big change for the MCU.
Nanjiani talked about the sci-fi nature of the movie in January, at about the same time he appeared on “Late Night” to discuss the diet and fitness regime he was on to get in shape.
As has been common with movies starring doughy comedians who got jacked for a role, a profile of Nanjiani focused on his workout routine along with what sources of inspiration he pulled from for his character. He kept talking about his fitness routine during interviews for The Lovebirds earlier this year.
Zhao was profiled late last year about this and other projects, with the director talking about how she assembled her cast and crew and Feige weighing in on why she was a good fit for the film. Another profile later on covered similar ground, talking about her shift from small- to big-budget features.
In an interview from late last year Chan spoke about how she was approached to play this role after playing someone different in the first Captain Marvel.
Hayek spoke briefly about her role in the film while promoting Bliss earlier this year.
the marketing campaign phase one: this is a movie that’s happening
The first actual footage came in early May, part of the studio’s “Marvel Studios Celebrates The Movies” video that celebrated the theatrical experience and the history of the MCU.
The first trailer (26.8m YouTube views), released in late May, begins as the Eternals arrive on Earth in the early days of human civilization. They’re treated as benevolent gods, helping humans progress in their development but mostly staying out of the way. Something is about to bring them out of the shadows, but what that is isn’t made clear. It’s a decent first look at the vibe of the movie, but there isn’t much in the way of actual story.
A similarly vague but kind of powerful tone is struck on the first poster, which shows the group off in the distance as they walk toward the camera, their faces obscured. The only copy aside from the title and names of the actors reads “In the beginning” as we see what looks like a massive ship hovering in the sky above everyone.
Hayek received a Variety cover story in May that had her talking about how unexpected being cast in a lead role in a Marvel movie was and how excited she was at the prospect. She also commented on the diverse cast and how she thought that would help lots of people finally see themselves as heroes on screen.
Hayek talked about keeping the secrets of production when she appeared on “Late Night” during the The Hitman’s Bodyguard’s Wife publicity cycle.
Fiege revealed a few more character details in an interview where he also praised Zhao’s filmmaking approach and style, though his comments about how amazed he was that natural settings could be as glorious as GGI were widely mocked.
The movie got a full EW cover story package in August that included lots of photos, interviews and other comments from the cast and crew and lots more. Everyone praised Zhao’s filmmaking style while also teasing the kind of story audiences could expect later.
the marketing campaign phase two: mcu connections
The next poster pulls the camera in closer than on the first one-sheet so we can see everyone’s faces, but we still have no idea who these characters are.
As the second trailer (33.1m YouTube views)begins we’re given a recap of how half the population was wiped out by Thanos but then brought back, apparently creating enough energy to begin something called “The Emergence,” which will begin in just seven days. After that comes an explanation of how The Eternals arrived on Earth 7,000 years ago to protect people from The Deviants. They haven’t gotten involved in human wars because they were ordered not to unless Deviants were involved, but now they’re being activated to help save the planet. It’s a *lot* of exposition, but still little in the way of character introductions or anything like that.
Nanjiani was part of a joint interview with Awkwafina about not only making their first MCU appearances but also bringing more Asian representation to the super hero movie genre.
Zhao shared how she presented her vision for the movie to Disney execs in this interview.
TV advertising began in early October with spots that cut down the trailer but feature the same mix of action and humor.
The first cross-promotional campaign from Lexus also started with a commercial for its Lexus IS 500 model that has Kingo driving his car to where the other Eternals are engaged in battle but he’s running late because he can’t find a parking spot. That spot was part of a bigger tie-in push from Lexus that ran across digital and other media.
Additional TV spots expanded on previously seen footage a bit but kept the same basic themes and ideas going.
A very open and honest Nanjiani was interviewed about the movie, sharing how his life has changed since he first showed off his more muscular physique. That change, he said, has led to people treating him differently, sometimes in very aggressive ways since they now want to challenge him after seeing him all buff.
the marketing campaign phase three: the characters finally get their due
The backstory of who the Eternals are and what their mission is gets explained a bit in a featurette that starts to introduce the characters and how they operate as kind of a family unit more than a super hero team.
Hayek and Nanjiani appeared together on “Kimmel” to talk about joining the MCU and tease what fans could expect in the film.
The first clip released in mid-October shows the team fighting one of the Deviants who is attacking a human.
The movie was selected as the closing night feature of the Rome Film Festival in late October.
The world premiere event took place in Los Angeles in mid-October, with the cast and crew along with others who have been, are or will be part of the MCU in attendance. Lexus’ partnership with the film was represented by the unveiling of 10 character- and movie-themed cars on the red carpet.
Around this time the studio couldn’t hold back the flood of reports that music star Harry Styles made an appearance in a post-credits sequence and so went ahead and admitted that yes, it was happening, at the premiere.
Another event hosted by Elle was held shortly after the premiere and featured much of the cast and crew save for a few who skipped it because of possible Covid-19 exposure.
A featurette released at this point finally took the time to introduce the characters, with each actor explaining who their character is, what their powers are and what the group relationships and dynamics are. Another featurette focused on Zhao, with Feige talking about how she was the perfect fit for the story the studio wanted to tell and the director sharing what challenged and excited her.
Marvel put out another ”101” video to help explain who the Eternals are and what they’re doing on Earth. Along those same lines a series of videos like this one for Sersi came out that introduced each individual character and how they fit into the group. Another explainer came later specifically for The Deviants.
Other more lighthearted videos had the cast reacting to Nanjiani’s voiceover that puts Kingo at the center of the action, them talking about what kind of food etc they would choose for eternity if they had to, explaining the story in 60 seconds, trying to explain the film’s plot solely through emojis, engage in a staring contest with Jolie and play some Marvel trivia.
More seriously there was a featurette with the cast once more introducing their characters and praising not only their costars but also Zhao and the others involved behind the scenes.
There was also coverage of how Henry’s Phastos is the first gay superhero in an MCU-produced show or movie, openly so and married to Ben (Haaz Sleiman). Harrington was interviewed later about moving from “Game Of Thrones” to the world of superheroes.
A new AR app allowed those who downloaded it to see the Eternals and Deviants in their own home or wherever they were.
Because of the multicultural cast and especially because of Zhao’s involvement Gold House and CAPE got involved to coordinate the One Open campaign to try and turn out relevant audiences and make opening weekend a big event.
Early screenings were scheduled for tonight, the day before the official release.
Another clip focused on Kingo as he’s brought into the new mission by others, who find him performing in a Bollywood musical. That kind of portrayal was hailed by Nanjiani on social media and when he appeared on “The Tonight Show.”
Another extended commercial once again spent considerable time revisiting the earlier phases of the MCU, positioning this as the evolution of what’s come before.
Before looking at anything else, there are two things going on.
First, the reviews to date have not been overly kind. At present Rotten Tomatoes has it as just 53%. That’s resulted in a number of secondary stories about how this is the lowest-rated entry in the MCU series. At the same time there’s been widespread review-bombing of the film’s IMDb entry by non-critics upset by an openly gay super hero in their comic book movie.
Second, those reviews don’t seem to be tamping down audience interest given tracking estimates project a $75 million opening weekend. That’s about what Shang Chi brought in when it opened, solidly in the middle of the field since theaters reopened a few months ago.
If that estimate comes to pass it would indicate that audience interest in the MCU is strong enough to overcome what has at times been a…difficult…campaign. There’s been so much that’s been unclear, overwhelming and even confusing. So many characters with so dense a backstory and that’s not surprising. And, as stated previously, these aren’t heroes that have a lot of existing foundational awareness in the general audience.
That’s why the most effective part of the push has been the effort to tie this movie into the events of the last phase of the MCU. By reminding people of how much they loved Iron Man and Thor and everyone and saying this is what happens next they made this something akin to essential viewing instead of something wholly new and unfamiliar.