One thing Marvel Studios isn’t known for is trying especially hard to keep too many secrets. While plenty of their films include huge plot-twists not known until they premiere (see: Iron Man 3’s now-infamous switcheroo involving The Mandarin), the superhero studio routinely allows details that might have been surprises at one point in a comic but are widely known otherwise to be revealed freely – as was the case with the true identity of The Winter Soldier in the Captain America sequel of the same name.
One other such mystery was the identity of Peter “Star-Lord” Quill’s father, which was raised as a plot point near the end of Guardians of the Galaxy. While Quill had not known his father’s identity as a child, it was another matter entirely when a Nova Corps DNA scan implied that his mother’s mysterious paramour (previously described, perhaps not as abstractly as it had first appeared, as “an angel made of light”) wasn’t even human – that, in fact, he was an unknown alien being of ancient and powerful origins. That may have explained how Star-Lord and The Guardians were able to touch an Infinity Stone and not die.
It had already been revealed that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 will involve the discovery of Quill’s father as a major plot detail, but if fans were thinking they’d have to wait to find out the actual answer they were in for a surprise of a different kind. Revealed as part of a teaser trailer at Marvel’s news-filled presentation at San Diego Comic-Con 2016 on Saturday, fans worldwide learned that (as many had expected) ’80s tough-guy icon Kurt Russell’s formerly top-secret role in the film is indeed the character who had fathered Peter Quill… and that character is none other than Ego: The Living Planet.
So – who is Ego, then? Allow us to explain.
MAN OF THE WORLD
Let’s get this out of the way straight-off: Yes, the name is quite literal, as tends to be the case with science fiction characters named “Someone The Living Something.” Ego is a planet – a body in space – imbued with a sentient consciousness (or “soul,” if you like) whose atmospheric and geological cycles work akin to the biological functions of an animal (or a human being) and whose surface topography can be rearranged to resemble a humanoid face if he needs to “speak” to anybody – though why he typically decides this face requires a mustache and beard is unknown.
Ego originated in an unidentified sector of (relatively) near-Earth space called “The Black Galaxy” (canonically assumed to actually be a large-scale nebula somewhere within the Milky Way); is capable of traveling through space in a non-orbital trajectory, at one point propelled by an engine gifted him by Galactus; and much like that fellow esoterically-unimaginable cosmic threat, Ego has been known to devour smaller planets, living things and other things that get in his way in order to sustain himself. And since he’s kind of a jerk about the whole situation (the devouring), he’s frequently an enemy of any cosmically-inclined Marvel superhero (or villain, for that matter) who crosses his path; having scrapped with the likes of Thor, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Quasar and Spaceknight ROM.
Oh, and for you philosophy students reading this: Yes, there is in also a “Living Universe” named Super Ego, a twin rival named Alter Ego, a rampaging humanoid “cast-off” named Ego Prime and a related fellow named Id The Selfish Moon – but this is going to be confusing enough without explaining everything about all of them, too.
THE KIRBY COSMOLOGY
Like most of the “cosmic entity” characters that dot the landscape of the early Marvel Universe stories, Ego was a “big idea” character created in collaboration between Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. As with the majority of their characters, it’s difficult to pin down who exactly came up with what, but Ego’s foundation as a broad theoretical-scifi concept blown out to almost absurdly literal proportions the fingerprints seem overwhelmingly Kirby’s; another early glimpse at the kind of mind-bending narrative he’d later bring to self-dictated projects like The New Gods and The Eternals.
In a 1969 Comics Journal interview, Kirby described his creation-process for Ego thusly:
“I began to experiment …and that’s how Ego came about. … A planet that was alive; a planet that was intelligent. That was nothing new either because there had been other stories [about] live planets but that’s not acceptable. … [Y]ou would say, ‘Yeah, that’s wild,’ but how do you relate to it? Why is it alive? So I felt somewhere out in the universe, the universe … becomes denser and turns liquid — and that in this liquid, there was a giant multiple virus, and if [it] remained isolated for millions and millions of years, it would … begin to evolve by itself and it would begin to think. By the time we reached it, it might be quite superior to us — and that was Ego.”
So where does Ego come from in the Marvel Comics mythology? Well, that’s another issue…
IN THE BEGINNING
Ego The Living Planet’s origins are so confusing that even Ego The Living Planet has trouble keeping them straight. And while the idea of a nigh-immortal cosmic being almost beyond human comprehension being as existentially-unsure as any random mortal of the nature of its own existence is a Kirby-esque “big idea” unto itself, in Ego’s case it’s a matter of a cool-looking comic-book monster getting a new loose-fitting backstory to suit the various successive stories he appears in.
Originally appearing in the pages of Thor #132 (though his origins would not explored for some time after that), Ego first claimed to be a scientist whose body and mind had merged with his own homeworld in the heat of an exploding sun. Later stories downplayed that origin, introducing the idea that Ego was mentally unstable (particularly after a part of his consciousness was removed in an experiment by Rigellians to use his unique biology to terraform other worlds – instead creating a rampaging giant in Ego Prime) and the possibility that he was a higher-being who willingly “merged” with a planet early in Creation – which, in Marvel apocrypha, is how Earth was given life by Gaea.
The truth? Ego and his twin brother Alter Ego were created by The Stranger, an even more powerful cosmic being of godlike power (he may or may not be a fusion of the entire population of doomed planet from an earlier version of The Universe itself) who debuted in an early X-Men storyline and was subsequently revealed to be one of the powerful “Elders of The Universe.” His original plan was supposedly for Ego and Alter Ego to be “raised” seperately by The Stranger and The Collector (aka Benicio del Toro’s character Tanaleer Tivan from Guardians of the Galaxy) and then pitted against eachother in combat to see which was superior, but, well… godlike superbeings tend to be easily distracted.
Ego’s early 1960s interactions with The Mighty Thor positioned him more as a cosmic curiosity than an outright villain (it’s probably hard for even a god to conceive of a planetoid having a moral compass), and at one point Thor even aided Ego when he was attacked by Galactus; ultimately allowing himself to become a homeworld for survivors of a planet the Devourer of Worlds had recently consumed… or, rather, he said he’d do that. Thor later discovered that Ego had gobbled them up himself instead around the time of the Ego Prime incident (i.e. the principle Ego storyline of the ’70s).
In a subsequent clash, Thor, Hercules, Firelord and Galactus teamed up to install the aforementioned engine and send The Living Planet hurtling through deep space… unfortunately, he eventually learned how to control the engine himself, which meant Team Thor had only managed to make a ravenous cosmic entity more mobile. A now fully-evil Ego would put that mobility to use in attacking Earth directly, only to find himself repelled by the intervention of The Fantastic Four and the more significant intervention of one L.R. “Skip” Collins, a mild-mannered aging army veteran who had the power to will his every wish into reality but was never made aware of this fact (and thus never actually made any major changes to the world until the moment he wished this particular cosmic-battle into deep space).
Throughout the ’80s, Ego would remain and infrequently-appearing cosmic nemesis for everyone from ROM (a fondly-remembered toy robot whose popularity Marvel so overestimated that they wove his licensed tie-in series deeply into their mainline continuity for a time) to The Silver Surfer to Beta Ray Bill.
Ego didn’t get much play in the 1990s era of Marvel Comics, outside of the “Super Ego” story, which felt designed to remove him from the scene altogether. But you can’t keep a Living Planet down, and Ego eventually came roaring back for the 2000 Marvel event-miniseries, Maximum Security.
The story this time? Fed up at the interference of various superheroes in alien affairs, and consortium of intergalactic governments (mainly The Skrull Empire) vote to quarantine the human homeworld off and use it as a prison for cosmic criminals overseen by future Guardians of the Galaxy villain Ronan The Accuser as warden. One felon incarcerated on Earth? A miniaturized Ego, who of course didn’t plan to stay miniaturized and immediately began consuming the Earth itself in an attempt to merge with it and become more powerful than before.
As it would turn out, this was all part of an elaborate gambit by the Kree Supreme Intelligence to create a more powerful version of Ego that could be used as a weapon – a plan that was only thwarted when the superhero Quasar absorbed Ego into the “Quantum Bands” that are the source of his powers. Naturally, he didn’t stay there, finding himself released back into the cosmos when Quasar was killed during the massive Annihilation crossover event in 2006.
O BROTHER, MY BROTHER
Following Annihilation, an attempt was made to draft Ego into the Nova Corps (possibly a shout-out to Mogo, a “living planet” of a different stripe created by Alan Moore, who serves as a Green Lantern in the DC Universe). This predictably turned out like every other scenario where someone has tried to “control” Ego: he outgrew his position and tried to consume and supplant everything.
A “global lobotomy” courtesy of Nova would send him into the depths of space, where (in his most recent major storyline) Ego finally learned his true origins and confronted his twin “brother” Alter Ego. Egged into fighting by their creator, The Stranger (the purpose of this, in case your wondering, is so The Stranger can empirically prove whether freedom or captivity creates stronger beings), Alter Ego is mortally wounded but spared by the timely intervention of Thor – and in a surreal meta-development that one has to assume Jack Kirby would’ve heartily approved of, the brothers reconnect as Alter Ego’s remains heal and settle into orbit around Ego as a permanent moon. This has a calming effect on both beings and sets them about a new non-malevolent path through the cosmos.
What will the comics do with Ego The Living Planet next? Who can say. Besides, the pressing question of the moment is what exactly James Gunn, Guardians of the Galaxy and the Marvel Cinematic Universe want to do with him.
EGO & the Guardians
The biggest question for many fans will undoubtedly be what form Ego will take when he actually makes his screen debut. If anybody was going to get away with it, it would be James Gunn (he already got one giant floating space-head into the first movie with Knowhere), but even in his case it’s hard to imagine something as strange as a talking planet with eyes and a beard holding any great length of screentime in a feature film – and if he did, probably not for very long. On the other hand, one has to imagine that the FX animators would jump at the challenge of imagining how things like foliage, sea-level, continental-drift and weather might be manipulated to create “facial” expressions; and who can say what will be “too weird” after whatever oddities Doctor Strange could potential unleash?
Either way, it’s probable that Ego will be seen in “human” form at least some of the time. The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 SDCC trailer reportedly featured Kurt Russell wearing robes and a beard, and one of Ego’s powers in the comics is creating living “drones” in human/alien/etc form and dispatching them across the galaxy – which, of course, helpfully explains exactly how he managed to conceived a child with Peter Quill’s human mother. This in turn raises other, more troubling questions, like whether or not Star-Lord will meet his father only to discover that he’s a bad guy.
The narrative arc of the first Guardians of the Galaxy is largely about Quill (symbolically) growing up out of the childhood he’d been arrested in since being (literally) blasted off into a Boy’s Own Adventure fantasy life at the moment of his mom’s death. How he actually handles that role, coming up against a potential paternal “role model” who’s anything but, would be a prime story point for that kind of arc to hit in the sequel.
This of course is assuming that Ego is a villain (or at least an antagonist) in the film, which feels like a safe bet because that’s the role the character has always filled best in the comics. Then again, he could just as easily be an associate (or a pawn) of someone with a more specifically devious agenda – say one thing for Ego, he doesn’t tend to put the “plan” in Planet beyond continued survival. Until more of the film comes into focus, fans will have to continue to play the waiting game, but one thing is for certain: Whatever role Ego The Living Planet plays, he’s sure to be one of the strangest things anyone sees onscreen next year.
Doctor Strange opens in U.S. theaters on November 4, 2016, followed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.