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"That is not dead which can eternal lie / And with strange aeons even death may die..."
The concept of an ancient god bursting out of the center of our planet sounds like something ripped straight from the Cthulhu mythos, but if you can believe it, the cosmic terror of H.P. Lovecraft had nothing to do with the central problem plaguing the titular heroes in Marvel Studios' Eternals.
Recently chatting with SYFY WIRE over Zoom, two of the film's screenwriters — Kaz and Ryan Firpo — revealed they were influenced by three distinct comic book runs, which helped them craft "the craziest movie of the year," according to Kaz. "It's one of those movies," he said. "It's so ambitious, it's so big, and that's what I love. I love stories that take me somewhere new."
The first ingredient, of course, was the Jack Kirby title from 1976 that originally introduced the immortal race of alien beings into the Marvel mix. "I think for the Kirby stuff, it was more about the overall vibe and tone and sort of no holds barred, 'Let's just put all the ideas in there and nothing is too wild,'" Ryan recalled. "But clearly, there [aren't] very strong narrative elements from the Kirby stuff. So, that was just about getting us in the world or in the mindset of talking about immortal space gods."
"You have this incredible foundation from which to draw from," Kaz continued. "We wanted to do justice to the truly gonzo nature of 'King' Kirby's work. He's tapping into thousands of years of human history and crazy ideas. He's really the godfather for everything that we're seeing in the MCU. So, this really is a love letter to him and his universe."
Second up, the screenwriters looked to the 2006 run from writer Neil Gaiman and illustrator John Romita Jr., in which the Eternals have forgotten their true identities. "It was different because they didn't know that they were Eternals and it's about them learning that," Ryan explained. "But they're living in modern day and they were interacting with humans and living these human lives. That's something we really responded to and knew that we wanted to explore."
Rounding out the creative stew was 1999's Earth X storyline conceived by the triumvirate of Alex Ross, Jim Krueger, and John Paul Leon. This book in particular provided the origin of Earth serving as a Celestial incubator, which the Firpos thought was "super cool," Ryan admitted. "We sort of mixed all those things together and then put in our own spin, put some gender flipping of the characters, and just played a little bit with their dynamics of the family and made it our own."
"We really love Lovecraft, but I think the Celestials are a uniquely Kirby invention," Kaz explained. "That sort of crazy idea of, 'If the planet was a gestating place for a space god...?' That's the kind of question that only Marvel gets to ask themselves. They're gods in space that are larger than planets that create suns and galaxies ... We knew from the beginning that if you're dealing with the Eternals, you are gonna have to bring the Celestials front and center. They're also great metaphors for creation — they're also great, mysterious cosmic forces and I think that's a big part of what we're looking forward to exploring with the cosmic universe with Eternals 2 and everywhere else that we might go."
The end result was a sprawling cosmic tale "unlike any other" Kaz continued. "There wasn't an immortal space god love story that we could literally watch and be like, 'Oh, that's how they did that before.' Eternals is its own thing, it's its own universe, it's its own beast. And so, it was both an honor to try do something different in Hollywood in 2021, but it was also this great challenge to sit up and say, 'How do we make this story work for everyone and try to do something different?'"
Like the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Eternals were an obscure group of heroes that didn't have the instant brand recognition of, say, Spider-Man or the X-Men. While the prospect of introducing little-known characters to a global moviegoing audience might have seemed incredibly daunting to some, the Firpos were excited.
"I would say that the fact that they were obscure to the public wasn't really a factor for us because we're storytellers and we create a lot of original IP and we have a lot of original ideas," Ryan said.
He continued: "If you're deep in the MCU and you're doing Thor 4, then you have a lot to build on. But we always pictured it as being this original movie. We obviously understood that it's part of the MCU and this is a Marvel property, but it's so siloed off from everything ... We really approached it as, 'This is just a space epic.' It's its own thing and so then it's about, 'What's the story about?' Very early on, we hooked into this idea of doing this epic love story between Sersi and Ikaris as the center point and then having everything build off of that ... The short answer is basically that we were just younger in our careers and didn't really see this as being such a crazy story at the beginning. We were just like, 'Yeah, they're space gods and they're here for 7,000 years, and they're in love. What's the big deal?'"
"We love science fiction [and] this is a sci-fi movie. It's a sci-fi love story, it's an epic love story, and for what it's worth, Ryan and I are both lovers of history," Kaz added. "We really look back at the ancient world. If you want to be able to know what's gonna happen in the future, you just look back at what happened in the past. We live in these cycles and so this was a story that from its beginning, was thematically about responsibility as a solider to your mission and then you're love for your family. The people that you're here to protect. And how do you juggle those two things? I think if you're an immortal space god or if you're a dad in Los Angeles, those things are still part of your life every day."
The project was also a way to broach big existential topics. "We wanted to make it something that was both deeply, deeply human — which I think is a big part of the storytelling that we're attracted to — but also something that asked really big questions, which is also another part of storytelling we're attracted to. Human evolution, the value of the human experiment on this planet, and who better to explore those big, heavy, existential questions than the Eternals?"
The Firpos spent close to six months writing and rewriting the film before acclaimed indie director and future Oscar winner Chloé Zhao (The Rider, Nomadland) was brought on board to both helm the movie and rework the screenplay alongside Patrick Burleigh (Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway). "Her pitch just so completely aligned with ours," Kaz said. Funnily enough, Zhao's co-producer on The Rider had also produced his thesis film while he was a college student at New York University.
"As she walked in the room, there was this synergy right away," Kaz continued. "We always knew she was gonna put her stamp on the film and I think she really did. But we had a lot of conversations for maybe or four or five months in this room with Chloe, doing drafts with her. Really what they did is I think they brought it to the real world. A movie gets touched by ten thousand people, especially a Marvel movie."
"Film is a collaborative medium, you create a big Uni-Mind, essentially," Ryan concluded. "Like a collective brain that you're all sort of sharing and so, in the end, it almost becomes really hard to say who did what and 'this and that.' Because it's all just one big love-fest of ideas."
Eternals is now playing in theaters everywhere. To date, the film has made $118.8 million at the North American box office and is closing in on $300 million globally.