Do Batman and Superman exist in the Marvel Cinematic Universe? This is a less preposterous notion thanks to two conspicuous lines in the latest MCU film, Eternals. Both times, characters in the film are compared to characters from DC Comics lore. The history of comic books is littered with nods, winks, and even legit crossovers between these two competing stables of heroes.
But in the context of the uber-successful, culturally defining MCU, it’s even more shocking. It dredges up all manner of thorny philosophical questions and makes one wonder if maybe Eternals is, in its own way, a satirical look at DC’s loftier, mythological, godlike superheroes.
On this week’s Galaxy Brains, Jonah Ray and I are joined by Polygon Comics Editor Susana Polo to discuss Eternals’ subtle Superman critique, Jack Kirby, and DC and Marvel’s ever-evolving rivalry.
As always, this conversation has been edited to sound less weird.
Dave: There are two different references to DC Comics characters in Eternals. One would have felt like, OK, that’s kind of a cute thing. Two eems deliberate. Does this mean that DC Comics exists within the MCU?
Susana: Well, how else do these characters know who Batman is? The fictional character of Batman. I don’t think we can say that Batman exists as a person who fights crime in the MCU. I think the only thing we can conclude from this is that Batman comics and Superman comics exist in the MCU. The question is, are they making Batman movies? Did the Snyder Cut happen inside the MCU? Did DC Comics fit the Thanos Blip into the canon of their comics? These are the questions that left me whispering behind my mask in the theater and completely missing the rest of that scene.
Dave: Yeah, I was so blown away by the brazenness of it. Not that it was a negative thing, but just like, Oh wow, you guys are going there more than once. But the central figure, the creator of Eternals, Jack Kirby worked for both DC and Marvel. Can you give us a little bit of backstory and history on Jack Kirby’s significance to those two companies?
Susana: Sure. So we hear a lot about Stan Lee, and Jack Kirby is really the other side of the coin at Marvel. Stan was known for his personality, but Kirby really put his mark on comics through his visual style and not just in the way he clothed characters, but in the way that he choreographed fight scenes and the size of the panels they use. You go back and re-read Kirby’s work and seeing what he did is like being able to see the Matrix. It’s like all of a sudden you realize that everybody who came after this guy has been trying to do the stuff that this guy did because he was just so original for his time. He just pushed superhero comics in a direction that became so indelible that everybody else just tried to do it.
Dave: So Jack Kirby is the kind of forgotten son of Marvel, but then he goes to DC. He turns his back on all of those people and goes to DC as this disgruntled person. What did he accomplish? What did he do when he was at DC?
Susana: So around 1970, Jack Kirby got really fed up with the way he was being treated at Marvel. He felt like he wasn’t even given credit. He felt like he wasn’t being given enough money, and he decided to cut ties with Marvel after co-creating the Fantastic Four and the X-Men. He’s even said to have had a hand in Spider-Man. He defined the Marvel Universe as much as Stan in the 1960s and in 1970. He gets real fed up with it and goes to work for DC exclusively instead.
This is a big coup for DC, obviously. And they’re like, Hey Jack, you can do basically anything. And he’s like, Well, cool, I don’t want to put anyone out of a job. So give me your lowest selling title that you were going to cancel anyway. And then also give me just some books to do whatever I want to do in them.
And so he picks up this comic called Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen, and he starts making this thing called the Fourth World, which is a series of comics that all have interlocking characters. And those characters are in what I call a Shaggy Gods story, which Kirby really liked. I think outside of his visual aesthetic and his comics language that he used, the thing that crops up in Jack Kirby’s work over and over and over again, is he’s really into this idea of superheroes as gods, superheroes that are these immortal beings that have been alive since the dawn of time. They inspired mythology and Fourth World kind of comes out of that.
Fourth World was an idea that he had pitched to Marvel, saying, like, Hey, we’ve been teasing Ragnarok and Thor forever. I want to actually make Ragnarok happen, I want to kill all of the Asgardians and then that will unleash this wave of divine energy. The divine energy will become a new pantheon of gods, and those will be our new characters. So the Fourth World at DC implies that these gods that were created in the Norse pantheon were destroyed. It’s really difficult to compare to anything else because there isn’t a lot like the Fourth World anywhere else in comics, except with the Eternals or the Inhumans, which are Kirby’s other attempts to make these very, very old, super powered characters that may have inspired figures like Medusa and Zeus and Icarus and Mercury.
Dave: So the Fourth World and the New Gods are this thing that Kirby does at DC, and it does sound very similar to the Eternals, the Inhumans and all of these sort of super cosmic characters that exist on top of the tangible world that we understand. So was there ever a point when DC and Marvel were like, Hey, this Darkseid guy...he seems familiar.
Susana: Well, it’s funny you ask that because Eternals was made after the New Gods, Kirby eventually went back to Marvel and they were like, OK, Jack, do your own thing again. Just make us something. And he made the Eternals, who are quite similar to the New Gods. They are like the Inhumans. They have been on Earth for a very long time, and they all have mythological names, but they mispronounced it when they wrote down the myth. And the Eternals never really took off at Marvel in the way that the Fourth World took off at DC. I think in part because the Fourth World always kept coming back because Darkseid became such a compelling Superman villain. Then everybody kept bringing it back. And also, I think maybe because it was the only thing with a super Jack Kirby aesthetic that DC had to play with, and that aesthetic is just really cool and compelling and different and weird.