My mind has a tendency to wander midmovie; I choreographed an entire high school dance team routine during the 1999 film adaptation of Any Given Sunday. It didn’t meander quite so much while watching Eternals over the weekend, but as it became clear that Salma Hayek’s regal Ajak was the leader of the central cabal, I attempted a mental Google search: Wait, how old is she? The same went for Angelina Jolie, who plays the Eternals’ fiercest warrior, Thena; she has a commanding presence, pulling off physical feats of battle like Lara Croft came out yesterday. It turns out Hayek is 55 and Jolie is 46, and while it’s sad to say I’m pleasantly surprised to see them shine in a notoriously ageist Hollywood…I’m pleasantly surprised to see them shine in a notoriously ageist Hollywood.
Eternals is very much an ensemble affair (“Nobody’s film,” as Vulture put it), and there is a strong argument that true-blue movie stars like Hayek and Jolie should have been showcased even more. But standards being what they are (37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal was once deemed “too old” to play the love interest of an anonymous 55-year-old male actor), it feels like a win that neither Hayek nor Jolie appears in a throwaway cameo as some important white man’s mom. No spoilers, but what may be the most crucial battle scene in the film rests on Jolie’s shoulders. Hayek’s Ajak unilaterally rules over the 10 Eternals—including the traditionally expected male hero, Game of Thrones’s Richard Madden, who plays the dashing Ikarus—giving them their marching orders over centuries. Color me shocked that Ikarus isn’t Ajak’s appointed deputy either. That would be (38-year-old) Gemma Chan, as Sersi, the de facto soul of the group. Further post-Eternals googling revealed that another standout cast member—Walking Dead actress Lauren Ridloff, appearing as the super-speedy Makkari, Marvel’s first deaf superhero—is 43.
How ever was this age-defying female casting permitted? I believe the answer rests with Eternals’s groundbreaking, 39-year-old Chinese director, Chloé Zhao, who set out to compile a diverse cast. That diversity was not only inclusive of race (including Black, Asian, and Latinx actors) and a deaf actor like Ridloff but also age. As Variety noted on Twitter of Hayek, “It’s not every day that a Latina woman in her 50s stars in a Marvel movie,” and Zhao knew it. “Aging is a beautiful part of life that should be celebrated,” she told the publication.
Reviews for Eternals are mixed. (And are they mixed because of all the ways the film pushes boundaries? Perhaps!) But the movie succeeds in elevating women as seldom-seen middle-aged superheroes. Sitting in my preselected movie theater recliner for the first time in almost two years, with my own 40th birthday on the horizon, I was grateful to see them lifted up instead of written out.
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