The Mythology Behind Marvel’s ‘Eternals’ and Its Villains

“We’re Eternals. We came here 7,000 years ago to protect humans from the Deviants.” Marvel Studios unveiled a whole new mythology at the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, with the final trailer for Chloé Zhao’s Eternals. Illuminating the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s past, and forging ahead with its future, Eternals looks almost like the Biblical epics of the 1950s, and unlike anything the MCU has explored thus far.

More than another building block in a sprawling narrative, Eternals is a passion project for Zhao, an opportunity to reckon with the universe and all living creatures place within it. Those who have followed Zhao’s career will certainly recognize that this has been at the heart of all her films, from the lives of a young girl on an American Indian reservation in Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015), a rodeo rider in The Rider (2017), and a group of nomads in Nomadland (2020), Zhao has been innately concerned with people finding their purpose, sharing those revelations with others, and what happens when that purpose is stolen from them.

As much as there is a sense of visual awe in the final trailer for Eternals, so much of the intrigue comes from seeing these extraordinary individuals together, getting glimpses at the roles they play in each other’s lives, along with the question of what time and distance does to those relationships. This is Zhao’s wheelhouse. And as a self-proclaimed comic book and genre fan, Zhao displays a sense of control and a distinct voice which isn’t always the case for those making the leap from independent features to a blockbuster for the world’s biggest franchise. Even with characters shooting beams out of their eyes, and materializing weapons from the air, Eternals is another opportunity for Zhao to center herself within a culture and explore it as meaningfully as possible. If the MCU was founded on humanizing the great American mythology that is comic book lore, then Zhao, so adept at humanizing American mythology of the post-modern Western, couldn’t be a more perfect fit.

While the teaser trailer, released in May, only hinted at a larger conflict and the purpose of the Eternals, this latest trailer spells out who they are and what’s at stake. Unlike so many of the characters who have populated the MCU over the past 13 years, most people don’t even have a passing familiarity with the Eternals, and that’s true for many a Marvel comics fan as well. The trailer succeeds, by taking a page from fantasy and sci-fi epics like The Lords of the Rings and clearly setting the stage and walking newcomers into what might as well be a brave new world. When so much of superhero movie culture, at least online, has become about arguing whether this or that interpretation of a character is correct, or valid, or better than, it’s refreshing to see a new mythology in which most of that baggage is absent. There is of course, artist Jack Kirby’s work and style to compare it to, but even those differences seem conducive to opening a gateway for a new vision.

While Zhao’s style doesn’t lend itself to the candy-coated colors of Kirby’s artwork, there is great attention given to his composition. Numerous shots in the trailer echo the layout of Kirby’s pages, and while the aesthetic is not the same, there is still that same touch of grandeur, and human emotion found in shared looks that Kirby excelled at. One of the most interesting revelations in the trailer, and an element that, appearance wise, deviates greatly from Kirby’s depiction, are the Deviants. In the comics, the Deviants are monsters of every shade and design, their only consistency is their lack of consistency. In the film however, they are largely grey monstrosities. But given how the Eternals are representations of life and the connection to the Earth, perhaps the Deviants are devoid of that connection, and thus largely devoid of color. There’s also the fact that a number of the Deviants are primitive-looking, sharing traits with dinosaurs, except for Kro, the leader of the Deviants, who in the comics has a romantic relationship with Thena (Angelina Jolie). Kro looks more human than his counterparts, and has more color. There is an underlying question of what separates the Eternals from the Deviants in the film, and perhaps, at one time, the two species weren’t so different.

For as much as the final trailer for Eternals unveils, there is much mystery that remains to the story, and these characters place in a world now without Avengers. From the god-like Celestials to demigods fighting monsters, Eternals, minus a few notable references to Thanos and the Blip, could conceivably exist outside of the MCU. It has all the makings of a fantasy epic unrelated to the trials of Iron Man, Hulk, and Captain America, much in the same fashion it did when in 1976 Jack Kirby created the characters whose original adventures were largely separate from Marvel’s core titles. Yet because it does exist in the MCU, it has the potential to further push the cinematic universe outside of the realms of superhero storytelling.

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