In some ways, Chloé Zhao embodies the typical Hollywood trajectory: A filmmaker makes a name for herself on the festival circuit with promising independent films, makes it to the Oscars with her bigger, more ambitious third outing, then captures the brass ring of directing a big Marvel movie.

In Zhao’s case, however, the sequence was scrambled. Yes, she got to the Oscars — and won two, for directing and best picture for “Nomadland.” And she has just directed her first Marvel film, “Eternals.”

But how she got there was more parallel than sequential. After making her feature debut in 2015 with “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” she gained rapturous critical attention for her 2017 follow-up “The Rider,” a fact-based drama about a cowboy returning to rodeo life. Zhao’s gifts for capturing landscape, character and a distinctive mix of sweeping visuals and humanistic detail put her on shortlists throughout the film industry — including at Marvel, where she was considered for the Scarlett Johansson vehicle “Black Widow.”

“But by that time Fran was already on my doorstep saying, ‘Let’s go to the desert,’” Zhao recalled recently. By “Fran,” she meant Frances McDormand, and by “desert” she was referring to the four months the two spent in 2018 filming “Nomadland,” about a woman named Fern (McDormand), who with other middle-aged itinerant laborers lives on the road, seeking work with Amazon fulfillment centers, farms, tourist traps and other seasonal employers dotting the American exurbs.

Zhao took herself out of the running for “Black Widow” when she accepted McDormand’s invitation. But the “Eternals” project — a film based on characters created by Jack Kirby, designed to be part of Marvel’s post-Avengers Phase 4 — intrigued her. So while she set about filming an often gritty neo-realistic portrait of late-capitalist America, she campaigned to make an intergalactic fantasy about immortal beings endowed with cosmic superpowers.

“These two films are twins to me,” Zhao explained, adding that she was in preproduction for “Nomadland” when she was getting ready to convince Disney she should direct “Eternals.” “When I was creating the pitch, I was deep emotionally in creating ‘Nomadland.’ So I think thematically there were shared similarities. And then I went to shoot ‘Nomadland’ knowing I got the job for ‘Eternals.’ I wrapped ‘Nomadland,’ jumped straight into prep for ‘Eternals,’ finished ‘Eternals’ — I still hadn’t finished editing ‘Nomadland’ when we started editing ‘Eternals.’ They grew up together.”

Zhao’s fans will surely recognize some of her signatures in “Eternals,” including a hat-tip to South Dakota, where she filmed her first two films, as well as portions of “Nomadland.” (The state is played by England in “Eternals,” with the help of some subtle visual effects.) Zhao insisted on practical locations when at all possible, giving “Eternals” a more organic, natural feel than most Marvel movies. When she pitched Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige on her concept for the film, she referred to the poem “Auguries of Innocence,” by William Blake.

“ ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And Heaven in a Wild Flower/Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/and Eternity in an hour.’ . . . I think of that with ‘Nomadland’ quite a bit,” Zhao said. “And that’s Fern’s journey, in a way — going into nature and a community to be part of something bigger, and therefore heal from that process. With ‘Eternals’ it’s very much a bigger call to that — to humanity, in a way, understanding our place in the universe, our relationship with our planet, and therefore with ourselves. These are the bigger themes Jack Kirby had explored in his comics, and we were fortunate enough to [explore] in this film.”

Both “Songs My Brother Taught Me” and “The Rider” featured casts of entirely nonprofessional actors; although “Nomadland” starred McDormand and David Strathairn, Zhao cast real-life nomads in supporting roles that gave the movie a sense of grounded real-world authenticity. “Eternals” stars such big names as Angelina Jolie, Salma Hayek and Kumail Nanjiani, but Zhao approached casting the same way she did with “The Rider,” in which character and actor were fused so closely as to be almost indistinguishable. When she found she could demand the same of McDormand, Zhao explained, she gained the confidence she needed.

“ ‘Nomadland’ was crucial,” she explained. “Fran was willing to give a big part of who she is to this character. This character and her coexist.” Similarly, when she initially spoke with the “Eternals” cast members, she told them, “‘You don’t have to watch any movies, you don’t have to study any characters. If you’re willing, look within yourself and tell me who you are and how you relate to this character.’ And that’s what we want to put on screen. That goes to everything from backstories to how they fight and to how their costumes looked — my cast had a lot of input, the same way Fran did with creating Fern.”

As with her previous films, Zhao also made room for spontaneity, especially when it came to chemistry between actors. Early on in production for “Eternals,” she noticed that Lauren Ridloff, who plays Makkari, and Barry Keoghan, who plays Druig, were emitting sparks in an interesting way. What began as a friendship with not many scenes together blossomed into something more substantial in the finished film. “They started chatting with each other and I was like, ‘Excuse me, what’s happening?’ It was so adorable. They immediately were just drawn to each other. So then right away I go, ‘Okay, we’ve got to write more moments.’ It’s the same as I did with ‘Nomadland’ and ‘The Rider.’ I would see how they interact and I would write that into the film.”

Still, for all the DNA that “Nomadland” and “Eternals” share, from their production schedules to their creative processes, there’s a sense among indie film fans that the sucking sound they hear is Hollywood’s Comic Book Industrial Complex taking their favorite auteurs away from personal, adult-oriented movies and co-opting them into making generic franchise widgets.

Zhao gets it.

“I feel like the child of divorced parents sometimes,” she said, laughing. “Which mirrors my real life. But I genuinely feel, having learned and survived on both sides, and having loved being on both sides, that there is a curiosity these two sides have about each other — a curiosity, but maybe also a fear because they don’t know the other side.

“Moving forward, I do believe cinema is for the masses. It’s for everyone. And Marvel does have the ability to reach out to so many. I believe that filmmakers like Taika [Waititi], like Ryan [Coogler] are able to bring the beauty and what they’ve learned from [their independent] films and bring that into Marvel, and that’s going to spread all around the world. I only wish more integration could happen, and we could learn from each other more. I’m hosting a screening of ‘Eternals’ with Kevin and Marvel and the Telluride Film Festival tonight. And we’ll see what happens. Even having them in the same room just means so much to me.”