Who are the Eternals and what can the Marvel comic books tell us about the Phase 4 movie?

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Marvel has finally announced their Phase 4 schedule, and fans have been busy pouring over every announcement to find clues about what could come next for our favourite on-screen superheroes. Among the upcoming projects is the Eternals, which will be released on November 6, 2020.

Like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Eternals will - pun intended - be alien to many film fans. However, this cosmic band of superheroes has a colourful comic book history that’s ripe for adaptation, and the groundwork for their MCU arrival has already been laid in previous flicks.

To prepare you for The Eternals, we’re here to give you an in-depth look at their comic origins, MCU ties, and much more.

Who are The Eternals?

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The Eternals are a powerful cosmic race who has existed for millennia. They look exactly like humans but they possess superhuman abilities, granted to them by the Celestials – a name you should recognise because they’ve been mentioned in the MCU before, back in Guardians of the Galaxy (more on that later). 

In short, the Celestials are the ‘Space Gods’ of the Marvel universe who visited Earth five million years ago and conducted experiments on humanity’s earliest ancestors, known as proto-humans. In doing so, they created two races – the Eternals and the Deviants. Eternals are immortal, immune to extremes in temperature, disease and poison, and are extremely hard to kill.

Each Eternal possesses a range of superpowers thanks to the cosmic energy they were imbued with. Superhuman strength, durability, flight, teleportation, accelerated healing, and firing cosmic rays from their eyes or hands are abilities that all Eternals possess, but the strength of their powers vary.

So what makes them different to, say, the X-Men’s varying mutants? Or even The Inhumans? Well, Eternals can combine to wield powers that they otherwise can’t; they can bring together their physical and mental states into a Gestalt being known as the Uni-Mind. As few as three Eternals can transform into the Uni-Mind, and this powerful psionic being can use any of the Eternal abilities that it’s made of.

There’s an extensive list of Eternals in the comics, so we’ll stick to the ones that have been confirmed for the movie. So far we know that Ikaris (Richard Madden), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ajak (Salma Hayak), Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Phastos (Bryan Tyree Henry), The Forgotten One (Don Lee), and Sprite (Lia McHugh) will appear. Ikaris is the most well-known, and he has psychic abilities that, among other things, let him plant thoughts in peoples’ minds and create illusions to protect his true identity.

Ikaris isn’t the only Eternal to have unique abilities or weapons. Thena carries a spear and bow that emit hot and cold energy, respectively. Ajak can communicate with any nearby Celestial, while Sprite – who never grew out of their pre-adolescent body – can induce amnesia in people. Makkari is the Eternals’ speedster, and his obsession with superhuman speed means that he channels every ounce of energy into this one ability. As a result, he’s lost the ability to fly and weakened his other powers.

Phastos and The Forgotten One don’t possess powers outside of the core Eternal abilities, but use physical weapons like clubs and hammers imbued with cosmic energy. Kingo also uses practical weaponry in the form of a sword forged by Phastos. Unlike his fellow Eternals, though, Kingo refuses to use his powers in battle and uses his Samurai fighting skills instead.

The Deviants, meanwhile, are genetically unstable, unattractive mutants who have waged a millennial-long war against the Eternals. Among their number is Thanos, which shouldn’t be a shock considering his less-than-pleasant appearance and crazed ideologies. Superpowered beings who are vengeful and who enjoy causing wanton destruction, the Deviants are likely to be the primary antagonists in the movie, but we don’t yet know who will show up.

The Eternals' comic book history

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Strange as it seems, the Eternals actually began life at Marvel’s biggest comic rival. Jack Kirby, the iconic Marvel comic artist and illustrator, created the New Gods franchise during his stint at D.C. Comics. The series failed to get off the ground and, following its quick cancellation, Kirby rejoined Marvel and reworked his ideas into what became the Eternals.

Making their debut in 1976, the Eternals didn’t fare much better at Marvel and the saga was scrapped before it was completed. The final issue saw Ikaris stop his evil cousin Druig from firing a Celestial-killing weapon, but it lacked a definitive ending due to the series’ abrupt cancellation.

The Eternals were revived for a time in the ‘Thor: The Eternals Saga’ that ran from May 1979 to November 1980. The 18-issue run saw Thor battle against, and then alongside, the Eternals as they try to stop Odin from attacking the Celestials. Unlike Kirby’s run, which kept them separate from the Marvel’s other superheroes, Thor: The Eternals Saga made the Eternals canon in the Marvel universe. They returned in another limited series between October 1985 and September 1986 to defeat Ghaur, leader of the Deviants’ priesthood, but this run also failed to capture comic book fans’ attentions and seemingly consigned the Eternals to the history books.

It wasn’t until their 2006 miniseries revival – written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by John Romita Jr. – that the Eternals became mainstream. The seven-issue run offered these characters a new lease of life by fleshing out their characters and providing more context to their origins and motivations. Eternals Vol. 3 also retconned how old the Eternals are. Kirby originally conceived them to be tens of thousands of years old, but Gaiman’s limited series puts them at almost one million years old.

Given its status as the most well-known Eternals comic story, it wouldn’t be surprising if this revamp is adapted for the MCU flick. The plot of Eternals Vol. 3 is a tricky one to follow, so we’ve done our best to simplify it for you.

It begins with every Earth-based Eternal – apart from Ikaris – having no recollection of who they actually are. Makkari, Thena, and others are leading ordinary human lives unaware that they are immortal superpowered beings. What follows is a lengthy convoluted story about betrayal, fulfilling your destiny, and what it means to be human.

The Eternals, whose memory loss and warped sense of reality was caused by one of their own – the vengeful child-like Sprite – eventually regain their memories and abilities thanks to Ikaris’ interventions and discovering the Deviants’ plan to awaken Tiamut the Dreaming Celestial. The Deviants believe Tiamut is their saviour and will allow them to enslave humanity. The Eternals fail to stop them from reactivating him, but stave off Tiamut’s immediate judgement of humanity thanks to Makkari’s last-minute intervention. Finally, Ikaris and Makkari set off across the universe in search of other Eternals.

Given how difficult it is to understand – we’d be here all day if we covered Gaiman’s series in great detail – there will no doubt be tweaks to the story, if used by director Chloe Zhao. We don’t know if Marvel Studios will use it, but we already know of a couple of formulaic changes. According to Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, the MCU’s Eternals arrived on Earth 35,000 years ago, which goes against their comic origins of having lived among humans for hundreds of thousands of years.

Zhao has also stated that examining what it means to be human will play a prominent role. Gaiman explored this theme using the Eternal’s human alter-egos but, thanks to the film’s cast, subtle changes are needed. Sprite and Makkari will be females in the movie instead of males, while Makkari – who can hear in the comics – will be played by deaf actor Lauren Ridloff and become the MCU’s first deaf superhero.

Have The Eternals met The Avengers?

Marvel Phase 4 Eternals

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We can’t discuss upcoming MCU projects without examining the Avengers’ relationship with the Eternals. There have been comic book encounters between them, which occur when the supergroups forge alliances to save Earth from cosmic threats. The superheroes have banded together to see off the Deviants, as well as the Deviant-Inhuman hybrid called Maelstrom, at various points.

We’ve already mentioned Thor’s history with the Eternals, but he’s also fought alongside Thena, Makkari, and the West Coast Avengers against Ghaur since The Eternals saga. Iron Man, Ant-Man, Wasp, and Doctor Strange have also met the Eternals. Everyone except the Sorcerer Supreme showed up in Gaiman’s limited series, while Tony Stark and Doctor Strange sought answers from the Eternals about the Dark Celestials during the Final Host comic saga.

There have been occasions when Eternals have joined the Avengers’ ranks too. The mid-1980s saw The Forgotten One join Earth’s Mightiest Heroes for a spell and rename himself Gilgamesh. Sersi also enjoyed a brief stint in the 1990s, but both departed due to physical and mental injuries sustained in battles against the Lava Men and the Watcher known as Proctor.

Have The Eternals appeared in the MCU before?

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The Eternals haven’t physically shown up in the MCU, but Marvel has been hinting at their arrival for some time. The Celestials were mentioned in Guardians of the Galaxy when the Collector told Star Lord and the gang about the Infinity Stones’ creation. You can see one Celestial, known as Eson the Searcher, wielding the Power Stone during this sequence, while one of the movie’s locations – Knowhere – is situated within the severed head of a long-deceased Celestial.

Thanos is the other major link to the Eternals that we’ve seen in the MCU. Considering The Mad Titan’s Deviant genes and his successful quest to wipe out half of the universe in Avengers: Infinity War, it wouldn’t be a big shock to see The Eternals film tie into the MCU’s Phase 3 movies and the fallout from Thanos’s masterplan.

Avengers: Infinity War also offers a couple of Easter eggs that tie into the Eternals’ comic history. When Thanos and Gamora visit Vormir to secure the Soul Stone, Red Skull greets Thanos as the “Son of A’lars”. A’lars is the leader of the Titan Eternals which, coincidentally, is Thanos’ home world and the location where Iron Man, Doctor Strange and others try in vain to halt Thanos’s villainous scheme. We could see A’lars show up in a flashback during the Eternals movie, and this would tie the MCU’s multiple plot threads together nicely.

How will The Eternals will fit into the MCU?

Marvel Phase 4 movies

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Marvel might have some explaining to do if the Eternals have existed in the MCU since its inception. Where were they during the Battle for New York? Or when Ultron almost rid the Earth of humans? Or when Thanos successfully wiped out half of the universe?

This is where Gaiman’s limited series could provide the answers. If the Eternals’ memories were erased by Sprite pre-Iron Man, they would have no idea that they’re an ethereal race with superpowers. As such, they wouldn’t have been able to step in and help the Avengers.

With Thanos eventually being beaten in Avengers: Endgame, his appearances on Earth could awaken dormant memories within Eternals like Ikaris and Ajak. This would bridge the gap between Endgame and their MCU emergence, and provide a believable reason to film fans about why they haven’t featured until now. If Marvel followed this storyline, they could also introduce parts of the Eternals’ back story in flackbacks. These could include their creation by the Celestials or how the Eternals made their home on Earth.

If Marvel choose not to follow Gaiman’s story, what else could they adapt? Feige has spoken in the past about “doing an ensemble movie from the start”, which could explore Kirkby’s original 1976-78 run. One such storyline might look at the City of the Space Gods, a network of ancient temples built by the Incas to worship the Celestials and where Ajak resides. 

In the comics, Ikaris travels to this lost city, masquerading as a cameraman for archaeologist Dr. Daniel Damian, to find the Cosmic Beacon that would alert him to the Celestials’ Fourth Host arrival. The Deviants, who were also after the beacon, could get there first, use it in the movie to speed up the Celestials’ arrival on Earth, and it would be up to the Eternals to stop them. Adapting this story would enable Salma Hayak to feature prominently as Ajak and, judging by set photos supposedly taken at Pinewood Studios where the movie is being filmed, it appears that an Incan temple is being built for this very purpose. 

If Marvel give Angelina Jolie top billing, they could look at Thena and Ikaris’s comic book conflict over their position as Prime Eternal. The duo have clashed often in the comics, and their dislike for one another came to a head when Thena was appointed Prime Eternal following her father Zuras’ death. This comic run eventually saw Thena relinquish her position to Ikaris after she’s brainwashed into thwarting the Eternals’ attempts to fight the supervillain called Kro. This could set up future Eternals films as it could allow Thena to be redeemed in a potential second or third MCU outing, providing the first movie is successful (which, with such a stunning cast, it inevitably will be).

Want more on the MCU? Why not check out our Marvel timeline, or read about how the comic books will influence the forthcoming Thor: Love and Thunder.