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Introducing the Eternals

The latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe marks the biggest injection of new superheroes to date. Here’s what you need to know about them.

Disney/Marvel/Ringer illustration

The word “ambitious” is often thrown around when discussing any impending Marvel Studios project, but there is perhaps no better time to use it than when talking about Eternals. The upcoming film features the largest ensemble of new heroes of any MCU film to date: The world’s original superheroes—a group of 7,000-year-old aliens who look exactly like beautiful humans—reunite in the face of yet another doomsday scenario for the poor earthlings who can’t seem to catch a break.

Eternals is the third film in the MCU’s Phase 4, following the conclusion of the Infinity Saga, and clocking in at two hours and 40 minutes, it is the second-longest MCU movie behind only Avengers: Endgame. It’s also helmed by the MCU’s first Oscar-winning director in Chloé Zhao (Nomadland), who has been tasked with telling a story that stars a host of extremely famous actors, introduces an ancient race of superheroes and predatory shape-shifting aliens known as Deviants, and provides a greater explanation of the godlike beings called the Celestials that first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy. The scope of Eternals expands beyond even the most ambitious Avengers crossovers: It spans thousands of years and tells the origin story of the entire MCU. “Eternals explores the very creation of the Marvel universe itself,” Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says in a featurette for the film.

Eternals is due in theaters Friday and already faces an uphill battle at the box office—at least, as much as any Marvel blockbuster can—due to the ongoing pandemic and mixed reviews from critics, many of whom have praised the movie for its diverse cast, but found issues with the lesser-known slate of characters and the plot’s massive scale. With all of that said, an unknown title character didn’t stop Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings from shattering the all-time Labor Day weekend box office record earlier this year, nor did it stop audiences from falling in love with Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Eternals may still succeed on the merits of its star-studded cast and its visionary director, as well as its role as a cog in Hollywood’s most lucrative blockbuster machine.

After the MCU introduced talking trees and rock people and steeped itself deeper into a multiverse of parallel worlds and timelines in Phase 4, Eternals reaches even stranger new heights in the realm of science fiction. So to help you prepare for the upcoming film and familiarize yourself with its spate of new heroes, here’s everything you need to know about Eternals.

Meet the Eternals

Marvel Studios

The ancient immortal aliens known as the Eternals arrived on Earth 7,000 years before present day from the planet Olympia, and they were sent there in order to protect humans from the threat of Deviants (the Deviants like to eat humans). It’s no coincidence that the Eternals’ home planet shares the name with the ancient Greek site, as most of these heroes draw inspiration from—or in the context of the story, serve as the inspiration for—gods and characters found in Greek mythology and other cultures. Fittingly, Eternals travels through the entire course of human history itself, telling its narrative across two timelines—one that traces back to ancient civilizations of the past and one that focuses on the impending present-day apocalypse.

With so many new faces set to debut, here’s a brief rundown of all 10 Eternals featured in the film, plus one human who has the misfortune of getting involved with them:

  • Sersi (Gemma Chan): Sersi has the power to manipulate non-sentient matter, and perhaps more than any other Eternal, has a deep love and respect for humanity. In the film’s present-day timeline, Sersi works at the Natural History Museum in London and is romantically involved with Dane Whitman, a human.
  • Ikaris (Richard Madden): Ikaris is one of the most powerful members of the Eternals and can fly and shoot beams out of his eyes. He also has a centuries-long on-off relationship with Sersi. As Phastos’s son points out in one of the film’s teasers, the guy is pretty much the Superman of the MCU.
  • Ajak (Salma Hayek): Ajak is the leader of the Eternals, as well as the matriarch to this dysfunctional family of ancient aliens. She has the power to heal, as well as the unique ability to speak directly with the Celestials. “She’s the bridge between the Eternals and the Celestials, and it’s never easy to hold two sides together,” Hayek said of her character in an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
  • Thena (Angelina Jolie): Thena is the goddess of war, one of the elite fighters in the group, with the ability to manifest various weapons. (After all the blockbusters Jolie has starred in through the years, how is it possible that this is her first superhero movie?)
  • Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry): Phastos is the inventor in the Eternals, a thinker who can assemble anything out of any kind of technology—he’s the OG Tony Stark, thousands of years before Iron Man came to be. He’s also the first openly gay superhero in the MCU.
  • Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani): Kingo is a warrior who can manipulate energy with his hands, but he also happens to be a Bollywood star in the film’s present-day timeline. Nanjiani even has an elaborate Bollywood number in the film that the actor spent several months training for.
  • Druig (Barry Keoghan): Druig has the ability to manipulate other people’s thoughts with his mind. The comics version of the character tends to use this power to a villainous effect, and is a longtime rival of Ikaris.
  • Makkari (Lauren Ridloff): Makkari has super speed, not unlike DC’s Flash or Marvel’s Quicksilver, and is the MCU’s first deaf superhero. In the comics, Makkari was originally a male character, and he, not Ikaris, had an on-off relationship with Sersi.
  • Gilgamesh (Don Lee): Like his character in Train to Busan, Lee (whose Korean name is Ma Dong-seok) uses only his fists to fight his foes as the ancient brawler Gilgamesh. He’s the strongest warrior of the group, and Lee was able to incorporate his own experience as a longtime boxer in Gilgamesh’s fighting style.
  • Sprite (Lia McHugh): Sprite uses illusions to confuse her enemies and allies alike, not unlike the mischievous trickster god Loki. She is unique in that she is the only Eternal to look like a child, despite being thousands of years old like her cohorts.
  • Dane Whitman (Kit Harrington): Whitman works at the Natural History Museum in present-day London alongside Sersi. And while Dane is set to play a minor role in Eternals, in the comics, a man with that same name was an Avenger known as the Black Knight, the wielder of a powerful and cursed sword known as the Ebony Blade. (If you’re keeping track, you’ll notice that, yes, Eternals reunites Harrington and Madden, the eldest Stark brothers in Game of Thrones, and places them in a love triangle around a woman named Sersi, no less.)

Zhao’s Eternals focuses on almost all of the most prominent characters from the comics, with the notable omission being Zuras, Thena’s father and the original leader of the Eternals. The decision to write out Zuras likely came about due to the character’s similarities to Thor’s father, Odin, and is a choice that makes sense for the film considering Ajak’s intriguing role as the sole communicator to the Celestials. Like Zuras, there were plenty of other Eternals who Marvel Studios could have elected to introduce, but the MCU version of the team was designed to feature five fighters and five thinkers. “The idea came about from how human society was structured back then,” Zhao recently told Fandango. “There were fighters, generals, warriors and gladiators, but there were also philosophers, inventors, priests and healers. ... Half the team will protect the humans from the Deviants and will protect the gate so they have a safe environment to develop. The other half will nudge them so they can advance and become strong enough to protect themselves one day.”

In the Comic Books

While the Eternals may be new to many Marvel fans, Ikaris and his race of godlike heroes first appeared as a creation of Jack Kirby in 1976. The concepts behind these ancient alien protectors of Earth and the titanic Celestials who spawned them, however, took root in his work at Marvel’s longtime rival, DC Comics.

In the early 1970s, Kirby left Marvel Comics for DC to create the iconic Fourth World and New Gods saga, a series of cosmic tales in which he conceived some of the company’s greatest villains, like Darkseid. A few years after Kirby’s Fourth World run ended in 1973, he returned to Marvel and carried over many of the themes and concepts he was exploring at DC, tackling existential questions around the creation of Earth and the universe itself with The Eternals. The series was unlike anything else that Marvel was publishing at the time, but even from the beginning, the Eternals and these massive robot-like gods known as the Celestials were a bit of an odd fit next to the other heroes in the Marvel universe.

Marvel Comics

After Kirby’s original Eternals run ended in 1978, the Eternals appeared in the occasional miniseries, and characters like Sersi and Gilgamesh joined the Avengers for a time. It wasn’t until 2006 that Kirby’s Eternals got their first meaningful continuation in the comics, when the series was rebooted by two legendary comic book creators, writer Neil Gaiman and artist John Romita Jr. Gaiman and Romita helped reintegrate the Eternals into the modern Marvel universe, reintroducing the heroes against the backdrop of the Civil War series in what was perhaps the most popular Eternals series to date. The story begins with Ikaris being the only Eternal to remember their race’s history, and he awakens members of his kind like Makkari and Sersi to help face a world-ending threat. (There’s always a world-ending threat.)

Most recently, the Eternals received another fresh start earlier this year, similar to how Shang-Chi received a much-needed comic book reboot ahead of the release of its MCU film. Written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Esad Ribic, the new Eternals series reintroduces and resurrects the race of immortal heroes after all of them died in a previous Avengers story line. (That whole thing is complicated, even by comic book logistical standards.) To capture readers’ attention, Gillen and Ribic’s series focuses on the looming threat of Marvel’s most famous Eternal of all: Thanos. The big, purple-skinned villain is an alien from the planet Titan with no mention of any Eternal lineage in the MCU’s Infinity Saga, but in the comics, Thanos is an Eternal with a rare Deviant gene as well. That ongoing run of comics has no direct ties or influences on the upcoming MCU film, but it’s still fun to familiarize yourself with the Eternals in a story featuring Marvel’s greatest villain.

As for how all of the Eternals’ comics lore factors into their big-screen makeup, Zhao and her creative team appear to be drawing inspiration from the cosmic scale of Kirby and Gaiman’s stories, capturing the spirit and scope of the colossal Celestials and depicting what life would be like for these ageless, eternal beings who have been on Earth for eons while human civilization builds, destroys, and rebuilds before them. The crux of the movie, however—most notably its deeply galaxy-brained spin on creation myths—stems primarily from the earliest work Kirby did on the title. “We’ll probably borrow from that,” producer Nate Moore recently told regarding Gaiman’s acclaimed series. “But the truth is we actually are more inspired by the Kirby stuff, so we’re kind of going back to the old stuff, both mythologically and how the movie lays out.”

Expanding the MCU

Following the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals will be the second present-day film in the MCU’s developing Phase 4 of films. And while Shang-Chi did little to address how the Infinity Saga impacted our world of heroes and aliens, Eternals will deal with the aftermath of the Blip more directly. “Five years ago, Thanos erased half of the population of the universe,” Ajak says to Ikaris in the film’s final trailer. “But the people of this planet brought everyone back with the snap of a finger. The sudden return of the population provided the necessary energy for the emergence to begin.”

While Eternals is a stand-alone film that introduces a new group of Earth’s defenders to the MCU, it also follows the trend of Phase 4 TV shows that have one eye looking back on the past and the other on the future. The model has worked so far for the most part, especially with the Emmy-winning WandaVision and Loki, and it appears it will continue in the upcoming Hawkeye series, which finds Clint Barton’s vigilante past as Ronin catching up to him as he takes a protégé under his wing. Marvel has yet to attempt this approach on the film side, though, as this summer’s Black Widow was positioned as an untold story of the past while Shang-Chi focused on telling the origin story of a new hero. Eternals will prove to be a case study for Marvel Studios as it continues to move beyond the era of films that concluded with Endgame and, to a lesser extent, Spider-Man: Far From Home. Gone are the quaint, earthbound tales of Captain America; in their place are stories of massive scope featuring celestial beings and a near-infinite stack of timelines. After capping off an interconnected narrative that spanned more than 20 movies and centered on the disappearance and reappearance of half of the life in the universe, Marvel now looks to raise the stakes by exploring the very origins of life itself.