The recent news that Marvel Studios brought on screenwriters to work on a film based on The Eternals has diehard fans celebrating and casual ones scratching their heads. Matthew and Ryan Firpo, whose spec script Ruin drew tremendous buzz in 2017, will take a first pass at developing one of comics more obscure stories for the MCU. Ironically, it’s one that original creator, Jack Kirby actually never intended to fit into the overall continuity of Marvel Comics.
When the King returned to Marvel in the mid-70s, after his sojourn with DC which yielded the creation of the Fourth World, one of the new titles he launched was The Eternals . In some ways, the story followed an interconnected theme Kirby had carried across titles, and publishers, over several years.
Toward the end of his Silver Age tenure at Marvel, Kirby had considered wiping out Thor and the other Asgardians in his version of Raganarok, the Norse tale of the apocalypse, to inject energy into the title and take it in a bold new direction. In Kirby’s proposed story, new gods would emerge to take the place of the old ones after the latter disappeared.
Stan Lee resisted the idea of doing away with a stable of popular characters the company had worked hard to establish, so Kirby filed away the idea in the repository of his abundant and fertile imagination. The closest he came to presenting his end-of-days vision, was in a back-up story that ran in the pages of Thor then, Tales of Asgard.
When Kirby left to work at DC, he picked up the thread of his concept and launched the New Gods as part of the Fourth World. The initial panels depicting the conflagration that ended the reign of the old gods follow seamlessly from those he’d drawn over in Tales of Asgard.
Kirby’s storytelling ambition was so great, his creativity and work-rate so prolific, that he initiated too many projects at once, and rarely had the time to see his various ideas through to fruition.
Unfortunately, the readership wasn’t all that receptive then either. DC pulled the plug before Kirby could finish his grand opus. The King ended up returning to a much-changed Marvel, where he launched The Eternals—another story of immortals and apocalypses, and the seeds of life and creation.
As Kirby initially conceived it, the Eternals were the creation of a higher order of beings, the Celestials, who traveled the universe experimenting with early forms of life on viable planets. Arriving on earth millions of years ago, the Celestials experimented on early proto-humans to create new distinct species. Eternals were long-lived, enhanced beings who eventually developed immortality and isolated themselves from the other species on earth. In contrast, the grotesque but powerful Deviants, who had fluid and adaptable genetics, sought to conquer the earth, and perpetually vied with their immortal brethren and regular humans for supremacy. The Celestials would periodically revisit the worlds they’d experimented on to judge their progress: If they felt the inhabitants had not advanced sufficiently, they’d wipe away all life and start anew.
Heavy stuff, with no superheroes in sight to save the day.
Later post-Kirby retconning suggested that Celestial tinkering had also made super-powered mutations possible in regular human genes. Retconning also linked the Eternals to the beings on Titan, including the MCU’s biggest villain to date, Thanos, an Eternal born with a Deviant gene.
None of the aforementioned was part of Kirby’s original plan. Despite having been one of the architects of the interconnected Marvel Comics universe, as well as having launched his Fourth World as a group of linked titles, Kirby bristled at the imposition of adherence to shared continuity across series.
Kirby deliberately created the story outside of the general continuity of Marvel Comics. When pressed to include a guest appearance by an established character to boost sales, Kirby took a novel and slightly anarchic route. Issue #14 featured a rampaging robot that accidentally gets cosmically powered…and happens to look like the Hulk. Comics historians are divided on the cameo. Some groan at the silliness of it, while others laugh along with Kirby, who was likely rebelling against, while seemingly compromising with, the editors who insisted he connect with the greater Marvel Comics universe.
What it means for the MCU
Kirby probably didn’t imagine that in many ways, later retconning would link Celestial experimentation to the existence of all powered beings throughout Marvel Comics. It’s ironic that one of the King’s least known concepts, which may have evolved from an idea rejected during his tenure helping to shape the original Marvel universe, would end up being a foundation of the structure which underpins the whole thing. Moreover, what might that mean for the cinematic universe and its broader worldwide audience?
Kevin Feige, primary producer for the MCU and ostensibly its lead architect, has made few of his plans for the next phase of films clear. He has alluded to the fact that the upcoming fourth Avengers film will close the story the studio has been telling for a decade. By comparing the movies to other film properties—particularly Spider-Man, Batman and James Bond—he left fans speculating whether he was hinting at rebooting characters or recasting them, as all the franchises listed have featured multiple actors in the lead roles.
Fans are agitated, wondering if all those expiring actors’ contracts signal the end of the line for the core characters they’ve loved and followed. What little is known about the upcoming projects is that the scope of the films will broaden; James Gunn will oversee further cosmic expansion, for example. Should The Eternals join the MCU, fans both established and new will find a dense and richly layered story they can sink their teeth into, as well as worthy replacements for the most successful interconnected film franchise ever produced. Not a bad, though unexpected twist, for one of the King’s oddest creations.
Watch: A motion-comic trailer for Neil Gaiman’s take on
The Eternals from YouTube.