Marvel Studios shocked everyone with the announcement of The Eternals, perhaps diehard comic book fans most of all. Even the series’ biggest supporters can recognize how difficult a series it is to adapt into a coherent 2-hour film. The Eternals is arguably The King’s last opus, and, frankly, far from his best, so Marvel Studio’s confidence in the property is rather surprising. But Kevin Feige clearly believes there’s something special enough there to make The Eternals the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s tentpole film for Phase 4.
For all the Kirby energy that pops in every panel, the very foundation for The Eternal is shaky. As with Fourth World before it, Kirby desperately needed a co-writer or a more attentive editor on the series. But he either wasn’t provided or refused one. Because of that, it’s up to Marvel Studios to translate his ideas and characters into a satisfying movie-going experience, and that’s a daunting task.
Marvel Studios faces a number of challenges in adapting The Eternals to film, but they largely can be broken down into three categories: concepts, characters, and the comics they come from.
The Eternals and its spinoffs and relaunches are full of messy, convoluted concepts with hints of brilliance. Some aspects of The Eternals aka homo immortalis are so complicated that I still find it difficult to explain them even after writing about the series’ most memorable storylines.
Marvel writers have wrangled with the concepts introduced in The Eternals for 30+ years. All of them struggled to streamline Kirby’s ideas into something more coherent. The basic concept that the Celestials experimented on mankind, finding success with the Eternals and failure with the Deviants, is simple enough. But everything around that basic conceit is needlessly difficult to wrap your head around, even for comic book fans.
Marvel Studios has to decide what elements from The Eternals to modernize, and which to throw out entirely. In the comics, Eternals can tap into the Unimind together to transform into pure energy. That’s reminiscent of the (rather campy) ending to the first Guardians of the Galaxy film, where their combined might grants the team control over Power Stone. That climax bordered too closely on the Guardians tapping into the power of friendship to save the day. Marvel should be reticent to retread the same ground, so the Unimind might be best to throw out entirely.
In the original run, Jack Kirby established that hosts of Celestials traveled to Earth on four occasions, during different stages of human society, first to experiment on humankind and later to check on the status of the species they created. The Celestials may visit Earth the same number of times in the movie, or less to save time and simplify the plot.
At this stage, it’s difficult to know how Marvel Studios will rejigger Kirby’s concepts into something more digestible. The movie obviously needs to scale down the King’s grandiose, often wacky ideas, but hopefully not to the point that readers barely recognize them.
Marvel built its brand on relatable characters. Even with great power, Marvel protagonists have very human fallibilities. Tony Stark is a superhero billionaire but also a drunk with father issues. Peter Parker became Spider-Man, but only learned Great Responsibility after losing his uncle. The list goes on and on.
But the Eternals are immortal gods. They don’t share the humanity of other Marvel characters because they aren’t human. No comic has successfully challenged that perception, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s a tall order to evoke sympathy from readers towards winners of the genetic lottery.
The immediate relatability of Marvel’s heroes obviously came from Stan Lee, not Jack Kirby. The King’s solo creations, included The Eternals, have complicated backstories and complex motivations. As a result, they lack the instant appeal of other MCU heroes.
There’s little doubt Marvel Studios plans to change that for the Eternals film. While immortal and powerful, expect the Eternals to have more prominent flaws and fallibility. Kevin Feige already tipped his hand with Ego, the first Celestial introduced to the MCU. Jack Kirby’s Celestials are gargantuan, unfeeling metal monoliths. Meanwhile, Ego is personified by Kurt Russell as a titan who is curious, selfish, and prone to rage. Going off of Ego’s interactions with his son Peter Quill/Star Lord, Celestials will have entirely different relationships with their offspring than they do in the comics.
Feige clearly realizes that the characters introduced in The Eternals need to be more sympathetic to the film’s audience. We’ll see how he makes that happen next year.
Other Marvel films benefitted from a storyline over the characters’ histories that served as a template to build a movie from. Not one Eternals storyline can serve that same purpose. The closest is the original series, but I can’t see Marvel telling a story about Ikarus recruiting the Eternals. Seeing the character awakening one-by-one isn’t interesting, let alone engaging.
Audiences will want to see The Eternals as a society, but that requires the film to create something whole-cloth. Olympia is known as the home of The Eternals, but no comic has spent a significant amount of time set inside of it. The Eternals film is tasked with creating a lot of the plot from the ground up.
None of the Eternals storylines are translatable into a film that appeals to the masses, because the comic never even appealed to the masses of comic book readers. It was also a niche title, which allowed it to be bold and try things other comics didn’t. But those bold ideas don’t translate into a movie that matches the tone of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Fitting into the MCU
With all of that in mind, how will producers intertwine the Eternals with the rest of the MCU? An obvious tie the Eternals have to the past movies is Thanos. In the comics, Thanos is a Deviant-Eternal hybrid, a blend of the noble race and the ugly one. That will probably hold true in the MCU.
Given Thanos’ ancestry, his genocidal actions will surely play into the Eternals film, though it’s difficult to guess exactly how. Was The Eternals’ population cut in half, like the rest of the universe, or were they somehow exempt? Do Eternals even care about the welfare of lesser beings, or is the film about how they begin to empathize with humanity?
Thor and the Asgardians share a complicated history with The Eternals in the comics, but they’re unlikely to play a big role in the film rendition of homo immortalis. With a fourth film in the works, the Norse gods might be on their way out of the MCU. In contrast, the Eternals are just making their grand debut.
Speaking of Ego, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 revealed that Peter Quill is half-Celestial. Where does that put him on a power scale compared to an Eternal. How about culturally? Will he be embraced by homo immortalis because of his ancestry, or reviled?
Fans have endless questions and few answers. All we can do is wait, cross our fingers, and hope Kevin Feige and friends create something that defies expectations and is utterly spectacular.