The plot’s choice to turn a Japanese character into a Bollywood star, could signal Disney’s shift to the subcontinent
Yes – we saw the new ‘Eternals’ teaser too! And, yes we are as intrigued as you are about what the exact vibe with the whole movie is. We can see that there is a definite Disney meets Ridley Scott’s Prometheus vibe – minus the head-hugging and chest-bursting aliens! And also, after seeing the teaser, we definitely have more questions about Marvel Studios and parent company Disney’s intent with Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase 4.
For one, there is the issue of appropriation. And before the purists start mashing their keyboards – we know that there is a difference between real life and artistic license. But hear us out: we are specifically talking about two instances in the trailer. One is the overhead shot that looks like a set-piece of your everyday Bollywood dance sequence, and the other is an intimate moment between Ikaris (Richard Madden) and Sersi (Gemma Chan), donned up in Indian ethnic wear with a marigold garland to complete the look.
Exhibit A: Kevin Feige waking up?
There are a couple of ways to analyse this – starting with Marvel’s issue with whitewashing some of its more “ethnic” storylines. Thinking back to Dr Strange’s first big-screen appearance, the decision to cast Tilda Swinton in the role of the Ancient One was met with criticism. It definitely was a “dammed if you do, dammed if you don’t” situation. Feige and the studios thought they were breaking stereotypes by NOT casting a “…wizened, old, wise Asian man”. So when Feige said this was his wake-up call – did he mean exactly this with the Eternals?
Kumail Nanjiani – South-Asian descent, second-generation American – what could go wrong? Well for starters – Kingo in the comics is a Japanese samurai and not a Bollywood star. Based on the comic canon, he is a Japanese movie star. Nanjiani’s dedication to the art form, his preparation and hard work put in training for the movie, and being cast in such a huge studio production, aside why did he really decide to play a Bollywood star in the movie? Could this be a subtle hint at Marvel Studio’s disastrous spell in China?
Exhibit B: Mulan’s failure
Sounds like a conspiracy theory – but it’s not all that far-fetched. Disney has had a rocky history in China. Disney’s last non Marvel release in China Mulan didn’t lure the audience. Though huge box-office potential is a no-brainer, China’s censorship laws are another battle altogether. Disney/Marvel’s meteoric rise has credit in its growing young fan base. And further the speed with which “nerd culture” saved the expensive gamble that Feige had chosen with Iron Man, many moons ago! China’s cult of leadership has bested the studio’s tactics – with heavy censorship on freedom of speech, popular social media websites are also monitored, including the word “Disney” which has been added to the censor list.
Exhibit C: Shangi-Chi
Marvel’s blunder with casting decisions had started much earlier with its Netflix show ‘Iron Fist’. Reviews had criticized the decision to cast a white actor in the role. Inconsistent storytelling and a slow screenplay were also added issues.
With Shang-Chi, this time the criticism is from Chinese viewers and their less than favourable response to the movie’s trailer. The complaint yet again is of a westernized experience – viewers are saying that the movie features actors that have grown up in the U.S. and Canada. YouTube stats for the trailer haven’t been favourable either, with a 48% approval rating.
Given all this controversy, Feige is rather bullish about the Indian market. If rumour mills are to be believed, Marvel has tapped Farhan Akhtar (Rock On, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) to be part of the upcoming Ms. Marvel cast. Feige has also mentioned that he’s becoming more acquainted with “Indian film choreography” in a recent interview with Hindustan Times. Plus, there’s Joe Russo’s anecdote from Endgame days, where he would use a recording of an Indian audience reacting to Infinity War as motivation for finishing the final movie
So maybe including a song-and-dance number in the movie is a gamble that pays off? We’re not writing off Nanjiani’s preparation for the role. He has been hard and he’s been on a number of talk shows speaking about body dysmorphia issues he experiences while prepping for the role. We just hope that Disney, Marvel and Feige’s pursuit in representing diversity doesn’t backfire in India like it in China.