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At Saturday’s D23 celebration, Marvel Studios president, Kevin Feige, announced Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington has joined the cast of Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals as Dane Whitman, better known as the Black Knight. Yes, in a bit of clever synchronicity, Harington will once again don the black, wield a sword and come to terms with an incredible lineage that could either destroy the world or save it. Despite the many similarities between Game of Thrones’ Jon Snow and Marvel’s Black Knight, I expect Harington to bring a new presence to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Whitman. While some were confounded over the decision to cast such a recognizable actor as a character unfamiliar to general audiences, not helped by speculation a day earlier suggesting he’d be playing Wolverine, Black Knight shouldn’t be underestimated. As a member and onetime leader of the Avengers, and one of the best combat fighters alongside Steve Rogers and Logan, Black Knight has deep ties to almost every corner of the Marvel Universe. He, along with the Eternals, may be something of an enigma right now, but there’s a strong chance that he will emerge as one of the breakout characters in the MCU going forward.
The history of the Black Knight in the Marvel Universe is a complicated one, but equally rewarding because of that factor. Dane Whitman isn’t Marvel’s first Black Knight. He’s not even the second. He’s part of a long line of men tasked with possessing the Ebony Blade. The first Black Knight, Sir Percy, predated Marvel Comics. Created by Stan Lee and Joe Maneely in 1955 for Atlas Comics, the five-issue Black Knight comic was a medieval adventure series centered on a knight of King Arthur’s court in the 6th century. Sir Percy wielded the Ebony Blade, forged by Merlin from a meteorite, against Mordred the evil, until his death at the Fall of Camelot. The second Black Knight, Professor Nathan Garrett, created by Lee and Dick Ayers, first appeared in Tales to Astonish No. 52 in 1964. A descendant of Sir Percy, Garrett sought out the Ebony Blade but the sword found him unworthy. He then chose to create his own weapons, a technologically advanced medieval arsenal that he used to battle Giant-Man and the Wasp, Iron Man and eventually the Avengers as one of Zemo’s Masters of Evil. Before succumbing to his wounds after a battle with Iron Man, Garrett entrusted his nephew to restore honor to the family and prove himself worthy of the Ebony Blade.
Dane Whitman, created by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, first appeared in The Avengers No. 47 in 1967. He became an interim member of the Avengers after proving his worth by pretending to be his uncle and infiltrating the Masters of Evil. His early adventures saw him working alongside Doctor Strange, the Defenders, Captain Britain, Namor and Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau). It wasn’t so much Whitman who proved to be popular and sought after, but his Ebony Blade, which contained a blood curse that drove him closer to madness with every drop of blood spilt. He left the Avengers, and it took the combined efforts of Sir Percy, possessing his descendent, and Doctor Strange to rid Whitman of the curse. After that, Whitman abandoned the Ebony Blade and fashioned a new lightsaber-looking sword, and rejoined the Avengers.
It’s Whitman’s second tenure as an Avenger that may be most important to Zhao’s Eternals. During the Avengers adventures in the early ’90s, Whitman became the team’s leader and fell in love with the Eternal, Sersi, who had also joined the Avengers. But their love story was doomed, in part because of Whitman’s wandering eye for the Inhuman, Crystal (who was married to Quicksilver), and in part because of the arrival of a villain named Proctor. Sersi began to slip into madness as Proctor toyed with her. In order to save her, Ikaris mentally bonded Whitman and Sersi in a process called gann josin, a connection that only worked between soulmates. But Whitman wasn’t sure if he was up to the commitment. With the state of Sersi’s mind on the table, Proctor revealed himself to be the Dane Whitman of an alternate dimension, one driven mad by his possession of the Ebony Blade and Sersi’s rejection of his love. He’d spent years traveling across the multiverse, with a captive Watcher in tow, and killed every iteration of Sersi, until he arrived at his final destination, Earth-616. Whitman was forced to retake the Ebony Blade and kill Proctor, an event that led to him and Sersi escaping to an alternate universe, the Ultraverse, in order to restore their sanity.
While Whitman’s story continues beyond that point, and he and Sersi eventually make their way back to the Marvel Universe, it’s this aforementioned mythos that will likely weigh most significantly on Whitman’s role in The Eternals. It has already been revealed that the Marvel film, more science-fantasy epic than superhero movie, will take place across thousands of years and take us through the history of the Marvel universe as witnessed by the god-like figures known as the Eternals. Sersi, confirmed at D23 to be portrayed by Gemma Chan, is known for her desire to live among humans, which puts her at odds with some of the older Eternals. A love story is said to be essential to the film, and there’s little doubt that Sersi and Whitman won’t be at the center of that. It’s possible that Harington’s Whitman only appears in the present day, but given the emphasis on an millennia-spanning emotional journey, it seems equally likely that Harington will also be playing his ancestor, Sir Percy, or that Whitman’s comic history will be altered so that he is granted immortality by Sersi. This latter concept may be the most narratively sound for film, and provide an opportunity to see the Black Knight evolve over the ages. An evolution that hopefully ends with him wielding an energy sword and wearing a bomber jacket over his armor, ’90s style.
Given Harington’s casting, and Feige’s reported longtime fandom for the character, I expect the Black Knight to be a key part of the MCU beyond The Eternals, and a possible Avenger in the future like his comic counterpart. Speaking about the casting on Good Morning America on Monday morning, Feige said “we were so happy that [Harington] agreed to join, and it is a part that could perhaps grow into something else in the future.”
But what of the Ebony Blade and the madness of Proctor? While most theories for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness rest at the feet of the Scarlet Witch, with her show WandaVision confirmed as a prequel to Strange’s next adventure, perhaps it’s more than that. ComicBook.com reported that it saw the Ebony Blade prop on a set visit to Doctor Strange (2016), but the prop master, Barry Gibbs, revealed the line mentioning it was removed from the script and thus the blade didn’t appear. But given Whitman’s comic history with Doctor Strange, is it possible that a cinematic meeting isn’t far off. Maybe the multiverse of madness Strange finds himself in isn’t created by, or only by, Wanda’s broken heart, but an alternate version of Whitman as well, driven mad by his blade and his loss of Sersi. A few years ago, the idea would have seemed implausible, and too big a concept for non-comic reading audiences. But as the MCU is reaching into more obscure corners and the great expanse of the cosmic, we wouldn’t rule anything out. While the future of Harington’s Black Knight can go in a multitude of directions, we can rest assured that his watch has just begun.
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Santa Barbara International Film Festival