Marvel Decoded: WTF Are ‘The Eternals’ Anyway?

Confused about the next big MCU epic? Here's everything you need to know to catch-up.

A collage of characters from the Marvel "Eternals" movie

Marvel manages to keep us pretty excited about its new films and TV offerings. There’s a new Spiderman film coming this December — and next year we’ll have more Dr. Strange, Thor, and Black Panther. But each of those films gets to play with characters that audiences know, and maybe have come to love. This summer, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proved that a relatively unknown character can grab people, too — and draw a $257 million-strong crowd. In November, Marvel is hoping this strategy of introducing new characters pays off for them again when The Eternals hits theaters.

Let’s be real: outside of hardcore comic book fans, nobody’s read The Eternals comic books. There is no Eternals between Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina on my nerdily alphabetized bookshelf. If it’s neither an ignored classic of the genre or a critically-acclaimed indie darling, what’s the deal with Marvel’s $200 million film and its team of unknown superheroes? Well, for most families, The Eternals is probably gonna be like the Guardians of the Galaxy was in 2014; nobody has any idea who these characters are, but in theory, we’re poised to love them because they’re in a Marvel movie.

But, WTF is actually going on with this movie? Here’s the breakdown on The Eternals.

Who the heck are the Eternals?

The Eternals are a group of humanoid aliens who came to Earth some 7,000 years ago to watch over and protect us, Earthlings, from intergalactic nasties called The Deviants. Like the Deviants, the Eternals were created by some god-like aliens called The Celestials–more on them in a minute. While the film’s heroes are new to the MCU, the movie’s cast itself is chock full of familiar faces. Selma Hayak, Angelina Jolie, and Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington are marquee names atop a deep ensemble that also features Gemma Chan, Kumail Nanjiani, Brain Tyree Henry, and Richard Madden. In the comics, the Eternals all have similar superpowers–flight, super-strength, laser beam eyes–but as the film’s trailer showcases, we get to see each character use them in different ways, and at different levels of power.

Where Does The Eternals Fit In the MCU Timeline?

If you’ve been keeping up with your Marvel Disney+ TV shows you’ll maybe know that WandaVision took place a few weeks after the events of Endgame, with Falcon and the Winter Soldier falling about five months after that. The Eternals takes place over the past 7,000 years, since their arrival on Earth — but most of the action takes place in the MCU’s version of 2024. This places it around the exact same time as the events of Shang-Chi, Hawkeye, the post-credits scene of Black Widow, and the forthcoming Spider-Man: Far From Home fall. Essentially, the MCU version of “the present.”

What Is The Eternals Plot About?

While details remain scant, the latest and final trailer paints the basic picture: while they sat out past Marvel invasions and galactic genocides, the globally-scattered Eternals reunite to fight off a return of these new bid bads: the Deviants. In Endgame, when Hulk snapped and brought back all those lost in Infinity War, he also sparked something called “the Emergence.” And it’s this Emergence that seems to have brought the Deviants back. While the Eternals were forbidden from interfering with human affairs that didn’t involve the Deviants — the explanation we’re given as to why they didn’t get involved in, you know, the other world-ending battles on the Marvel silver screen–they reunite to face this new threat.

The Wonky Comic Book Origins of The Eternals

The Eternals was created by Jack Kirby back in the 1970s. A near mint copy of issue #1 will fetch a good $3,000 bucks–closer to $10,000 if you have found one that’s been signed by Kirby himself. He’s been called “King Kirby” because of just how many comic books and characters he was involved in creating: the Fantastic Four, Captain America, and the X-Men. While all comics can be said to be of their time, some do age better than others. And The Eternals carries some problems at its core. Kirby acknowledged that his The Eternals comic was inspired by Erich von Däniken’s mega-bestselling, and mega-racist, book, Chariots of the Gods. In his book, von Däniken posits that non-European marvels of civilization and engineering in the Middle East, Africa, and South America were only made possible through the intervention of…aliens. In their treatment of Shang-Chi, and before that, Iron Fist, Marvel has worked to address aspects of their comics’ racist past before. It will be curious to see how they’re able to do that with the Eternals.

The Eternal’s’ Ace in the Hole

Without tent-pole characters like Black Panther or Captain America, The Eternals is counting on our love of the MCU, and its wonderfully talented and diverse cast to get us to the theater. But there’s also the film’s director. And at the heart of the film is Chloé Zhao, the Chinese-born Academy Award-winning director of Nomadland–the first woman of color to win an Oscar for Best Director. Known for her evocative filmmaking style mixing documentary and fiction, Zhao’s involvement alone teases a reinvigoration of the sometimes-maligned comic book movie space.

What will the impact be of Zhao’s involvement? We’ll have to wait and see. Maybe the love triangle between Gemma Chan’s Sersi, Kit Harrington’s Dane Whitman, and Richard Madden’s Ikaris will be one of unexpected emotional complexity. Perhaps the film’s diverse cast will not only translate into international ticket sales but also take some steam out of the malignant white supremacy poisoning us in the United States. It’s possible that Zhao will be able to turn Kirby’s oddball crew of long-underwear-wearing-ancient-aliens into characters that tell us curious truths about ourselves in this strange reality we movie-watchers find ourselves inhabiting.

But maybe it’ll also be just a good ‘ol comic book movie where we, you know, get to see Richard Madden shoot laser beams out of his eyes at alien dragony things. Because that’s pretty darn fun, too.

Eternals hits theaters on November 5, 2021