During its San Diego Comic-Con panel, Marvel Studios finally confirmed that it’s making a movie based on Jack Kirby’s The Eternals, giving us one our first post-Endgame (and post-Far From Home) glimpses into what the MCU is going to look like now that Marvel has wrapped up the story it’s been telling ever since the stinger for The Avengers introduced a purple bastard named Thanos to the world. You can find out who’s starring in the movie here (Angelina Jolie, Richard Madden, and Salma Hayek!) as well as what characters they’re playing, but who really are The Eternals? The MCU has proven that it can turn obscure comic characters into household names, but—in all fairness—The Eternals make Groot look like Spider-Man. They’re not exactly superstars.
To explain what The Eternals are all about, we have to go back millions of years… or at least to 1976, when legendary comic creator Jack Kirby released the first issue of The Eternals. Like a lot of the so-called “cosmic” stuff that Kirby worked on (especially the New Gods over at Marvel’s Distinguished Competition), The Eternals are built on a weird and wild mythology that goes back to the very dawn of humanity. At the risk of destroying everything that we know about evolution, the first issues of Kirby’s original Eternals run reveal that an ancient race of supreme beings (referred to as “Space Gods,” though comic fans know them better as The Celestials) came to the Earth and created three divergent races from a common ancestor called humans, Eternals, and Deviants.
You’re probably already familiar with humans (it’s what you are, probably!), but the Eternals are essentially very beautiful humans who live forever and possess various superpowers (including the ability to shoot eye lasers and reconfigure matter at will). The Deviants, to put it bluntly, are very ugly people who don’t live forever and don’t have a consistent pattern of superpowers. Each generation of Deviants is different from the one before, preventing them from having a consistent identity or culture beyond “we’re jealous of the Eternals.” Despite hiding their general specialness from humans, the Eternals and Deviants have periodically lived among mankind throughout history, influencing them in various quiet and unquiet ways. That is where the best hook from Kirby’s run comes in.
When ancient humans were introduced to beautiful people who could fly and shoot eye lasers, they didn’t see potential superheroes. They saw gods. When ugly people with red or green skin crawled out of pits and fought those gods, the humans saw demons and monsters. As Kirby gradually reveals in his brief original run, the Eternals aren’t just like mythological figures from history, they sometimes actually are the mythological figures from history that people told stories about and built statues of—though there’s a running gag in Kirby’s comics that humans have a bad tendency to misspell or mispronounce Eternal names, which is why we refer to the Eternal named Zuras as Zeus or Makarri as Mercury.
The main hero in Kirby’s run starts off posing as a student named Ike Harris who leads some scientists to the ruins of an Incan temple. He eventually reveals that he’s actually the Eternal Ikaris (Icarus), and his presence in the temple—which the Incans built to honor the Eternals, believing them to be gods—summons a group of Deviants and calls one of the Space Gods/Celestials down to Earth so that it may judge whether the planet is worthy of continued existence.
Given these apocalyptic circumstances, Ikaris calls on the other Eternals, including a woman living in New York named Sersi (who once turned a group of oafish sailors into pigs, for all you Homer fans). In addition to Zuras and Makarri, the story also introduces Sprite (a young Eternal trickster who once appeared to William Shakespeare), Thena (the daughter of Zuras, and probably the least creative use of the “misspelled name” shtick), and a bad Eternal who is primarily identified as The Forgotten One who was excommunicated from Eternal society for meddling in humanity’s affairs too often (you may know him as Gilgamesh).
As the tale of the judgmental Celestial is wrapped up, the Eternals and Deviants come to a truce and realize that—despite being ugly!—the Deviants aren’t really inherently evil. In stories after that, some Eternals were accepted into human superhero society, with a handful of the more famous ones (especially Sersi) even working with The Avengers in the ’80s and early ’90s whenever Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had to deal with The Celestials of angry Deviants. However, the larger Eternals society and their own ongoing drama never really managed to break into the mainstream Marvel universe.
They got another shot in 2006, though, when The Eternals returned with a new series by Neil Gaiman and John Romita Jr. that made the larger Marvel universe more of a factor and opened with most of the Eternals having no memory of their past lives as immortal gods—or their past adventures with Earth’s other heroes—thanks to a scheme by Sprite that allowed him to become human. This was just after the Super Hero Civil War, when people with powers were forced to register with the government, so the idea that these immortal people were just walking around among normal people does get addressed by a very frustrated Tony Stark (who does remember working with Sersi when she was an Avenger).
Gaiman and Romita’s run ends mid-arc, with some of the Eternals regaining their memory and raising a sleeping Celestial from beneath the Earth. Unfortunately, that also summoned some alien monsters called The Horde to come and destroy the planet, which is made more complicated by the evil machinations of Ikaris’ nefarious uncle Druig (an Eternal with the power to see and exploit people’s fears and weaknesses). The story was picked up by writers Charles and Daniel Knauf and artist Daniel Acuña, following their predecessor’s lead with a story that introduced a significant amount of in-fighting and an interesting depiction of the communication between an Eternal and a Celestial (with the latter “speaking” in an unusual font and with a syntax that makes it clear that they’re working with concepts that are beyond Eternal understanding). The Deviants don’t play much of a factor, though there’s a fun insistence that they be referred to by the more politically correct term “Changing People.”
There’s also a twist to the basic concept of what makes Eternal people special, as they’re no longer strictly immortal. They can live forever, but if they get killed by a sufficiently powerful enemy, they have to be reborn in special pods. Kirby’s Eternals acted a little distant from humanity, as if their immortality made them superior to mortal men, but this revival’s primary focus was grounding the god-like characters with more relatable stakes—even if they still spent a lot of time contemplating their cosmic-level destinies. It’s sort of like a superhero story where everyone is Bran from Game Of Thrones, but most of them are a little less pompous and aloof than he was.
That run, and one of the last main Eternals stories, ends somewhat anticlimactically with Ikaris calling on the X-Men (a clear “please buy this comic” move) to help him fight rebel Eternals assembled by Druig. In the end, all of the Eternals unite to form what’s called a Uni-Mind (a move established in the Kirby books where they basically all merge their consciousness together) and then use their combined brain-powers to ask the once-sleeping Celestial for help against the planet-devouring Horde. He agrees, and using his infinite power, he basically resets the planet to a time before people knew about the Eternals.
They’re still out there, doing stuff that immortal people do, but mankind is no longer aware of them. That is mostly how the group has stood for the decade since (save for a recent reappearance when Horde-infected Celestials came to destroy the Earth and the Avengers once again needed Eternal backup) but it’s also more or less exactly where they’ve always been—quietly waiting in the background until someone new discovers the truth of our planet’s history.
The main saga aside, there’s a wrinkle in all of this that makes The Eternals a bit more confusing than they probably need to be. See, the characters like to take credit for inspiring all of human mythology, but—even in the Marvel universe—it is explicitly not true. There’s a fan-favorite former member of the Avengers known as Hercules, who is basically a super fun version of Thor without the lightning powers, and he also happens to be literally Hercules from Greek mythology. He’s the son of Zeus and everything, but he’s not the son of the Eternal named Zuras. So, even though mankind in the Marvel universe has conflated Zuras with Zeus, they are actually two different people who both really exist.
Then there are the Deviants, who claim to have inspired mankind’s myths about demons and monsters, but that doesn’t explain the existence of Mephisto. He’s a guy in the Marvel universe who lives in Hell, wears all red, and is known for making crooked deals (just ask Spider-Man about his marriage), but he’s totally unrelated to the Deviants—he’s also not technically Satan, but that’s another issue. Speaking of real demons, anyone who has read a Doctor Strange comic knows he meets up with demons all the time, whether its literal Hell monsters or extra-dimensional villains like Dormammu (even good guys like Daimon Hellstrom), none of whom are related to the Deviants either.
The wrinkles don’t even stop there: Earth isn’t the only planet with a population of Eternals—or at least that wasn’t always the case. Thousands of years ago, Zuras had a brother named A’lars who was passed over as leader, causing him and his followers to leave the planet and settle on Saturn’s moon Titan in order to avoid any sort of conflict. If you remember the significance of Titan to the Marvel universe, like which MCU movie it appeared in, you may already see where this is going.
A’lars later became known as Mentor, and he had two sons with an Eternal named Sui-San. The first was named Eros, and he later grew up to be the cosmic hero Starfox (not to be confused with Nintendo’s Star Fox, who is a fox in a spaceship). The other child, unfortunately, was born as one of the Deviants. He had purple skin and a pronounced, bumpy chin, and though he had a relatively normal childhood alongside his brother at first, things eventually took a turn and he grew up to be a genocidal maniac with a fondness for wiping out half of all life in the universe. His name—dramatic pause—was Thanos.
With Marvel’s Eternals movie now officially happening and nobody mentioning Thanos, it sounds like we’ll be spared another appearance from that jerk. We can also guess that director Chloé Zhao’s movie will be somewhat based on a few issues of Kirby’s original run, considering that South Korean actor Ma Dong-seok is playing Gilgamesh. He’s also apparently the villain in the movie, which means we might not be seeing the Deviants at all, but perhaps Marvel Studios figured they were a little too close to the Skrulls aesthetically (Kirby was a master of the medium, but he sure loved going back to green, bumpy skin). No matter what, though, this weird group of Marvel gods is finally getting its moment to shine.