The atmospheric debut trailer of 2021’s The Eternals gave MCU fans their first look at the upcoming movie, and it also gave most people their first introduction to the superhero team period. Though the subject of a major film, the Eternals are a relatively obscure corner of the Marvel Universe. As comic book readers know, they’re nonetheless important.
The Eternals were a relatively late addition to the mythology of Marvel Comics but have become more and more important in recent years, thanks in part to one of their most significant descendants, Thanos. Given how important he has been to the movies, it’s likely that the Eternals themselves will be equally important to the franchise moving forward.
Similar To The New Gods
The Eternals and their grand cosmic mythology were created by legendary comic book writer and artist Jack Kirby. How they came to be, mirrored in many ways the creation of the New Gods, including the villain Darkseid, Kirby’s elaborate cosmic creation for DC Comics. Kirby created the New Gods after leaving Marvel in 1970, harnessing his interest in myth and sci-fi.
Kirby created the Eternals in 1976, after returning to Marvel following a disappointing stint at DC Comics where his Fourth World books were all canceled early in their runs. With his grand mythic cycle unfinished, it seems he incorporated some of those ideas into the concept of the Eternals. Sadly, the original Eternals comic was also canceled before he could finish it.
The Origins Of Man
The basic idea of the Eternals stems from Kirby’s interest in grand sci-fi ideas, especially those that supposed an alien influence in the development of early man. The story of the Eternals begins when the Celestials, among the most powerful Marvel cosmic beings, dabble in the evolution of early humanity.
They eventually develop three distinct races. The Eternals, a higher lifeform, the Deviants, a lower one who were essentially genetic cast-offs of the Eternals, and finally, mankind. All of this happened millions of years in the past.
The Eternals look just like humans, as was evident in the trailer. What set them apart were the extraordinary powers. All Eternals are functionally immortal, with their heightened physiology aging them very slowly. All of the main Eternals cast have been alive from the dawn of man into the present day.
They’re also incredibly strong and durable, though there is often significant variation among them individually. Some of them have unique powers that would rank them among the strongest superheroes in the Marvel Universe.
In the beginning, the Eternals genetic superiority is described as a mutation. This makes them very similar to the X-Men and the X-gene. The two are different, however. Homo Superior is a new branch of human evolution, distinct from Homo Immortalis, which includes the Eternals.
The two groups do share some similarities, particularly in recent comics. The Eternals were recently rebooted in Marvel Comics and revelations in the new story appear to echo some elements of the current Dawn Of X era of X-Men and the Resurrection Protocols mutants now use to cheat death.
The Original Team
The Eternals have been active in the defense of humanity for thousands of years, including defending the Earth from the Celestials in the past (though not able to save Atlantis from sinking). The core team of Eternals as Kirby introduced them included Ikaris, Thena, Makkari, Ajak, Sersi, and many more.
These characters would continue through later interpretation of the team and are all represented in the upcoming movie, if in slightly different ways than the comics had portrayed them.
Lack Of Recognition
The first volume of the Eternals comic book by Jack Kirby only lasted two years, from 1976-1978. The characters eventually fell off the radar for many years, resurfacing in a 1985 mini-series and in runs on Thor from the late ’80s. After that, it was a long time before they got any major recognition in the comics.
Neil Gaiman, the Sandman Vertigo comic series creator, wrote a new Eternals mini-series in 2006. Though it updated the team for the 21st century, they have struggled to stay in the spotlight since. Their current comic comes three years after their last was canceled by Marvel and the team was killed off.
Fans of the MCU are likely to recognize the Celestials, who have made sporadic appearances in the Guardians Of The Galaxy movies. These towering figures loom large not just in the history of Marvel Comics but the overall story of the Eternals.
Though they created the Eternals, the two have been antagonistic for eons. The Celestials routinely returned to Earth to test the merit of their creations, leading to devastating battles. It’s possible that this cruel litmus test will be applied to the Eternals in the MCU as well.
It’s not certain who the main villains of The Eternals movie will be, but the speculation is that it will be their enemies from the comics, the Deviants. The Deviants are the results of the same genetic experimentation on humans by the Celestials, except they were unsuccessful in the minds of their cosmic designers.
Many of them still had superhuman strength and stamina, as well as other superpowers, but they were often inhuman in appearance. This alone seems to have been the knock against them as they were extremely intelligent, developing technology and abilities of their own.
Connection To Thanos
The Eternals didn’t make a huge splash in their original run in Marvel Comics, but their legacy was significant. Thanos, perhaps the best villain of the MCU and one of the best in the comics, is a descendent of the Eternals.
He is actually an Eternal-Deviant hybrid from the Celestials machinations on the planet Titan. Thanos’ impact on the Marvel Universe is extreme, to say the least. His efforts with the Infinity Gauntlet led to the death of over half of the entire universe and he didn’t stop there.
The Eternals were reimagined for the 2006 Eternals series by Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr., particularly in their power set. Their cosmic powers were limited and they appear now to be less genetic experiments with their own free will but programmable clones.
The Eternals can’t attack the Celestials or even disagree with them in some cases. If an Eternal makes any antagonistic move against their creators, they are immediately ‘switched off’ like they were robots. It remains to be seen if the movie will keep to this concept or the original Kirby one.