WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for the live-action Fullmetal Alchemist movie, now available on Netflix.
A shadowy group is secretly pulling the strings in the fictional nation of Amestris, and its members aren’t entirely human. That’s the premise of Fullmetal Alchemist, the new live-action adaptation of the hit manga and anime, which sees two brothers set off on a whirlwind adventure to right some phenomenally massive wrongs. They’re not alone, however: The members of this dark cabal, called Homunculi, are keeping tabs on the duo every step of the way. These Homunculi are fearsome foes, possessing powers far beyond that of the typical State Alchemist. So, who are they exactly? And, perhaps more importantly, what are they?
A quick warning: If you want to understand the history and motivations of the Homunculi, you’re going to have to dip into spoiler territory. The film’s director, Fumihiko Sori, has gone on record as stating that he wanted to bring as much of the original manga to the screen as possible, which means a spoiler here is a spoiler for the source material. Considering that the history of the Homunculi is one of the series’ biggest, most closely guarded secrets, if you’re genuinely curious then you might want to wait for the sequel, track down Hiromu Arakawa's bestselling manga or watch the faithfully adapted anime, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. If you don’t mind getting a glimpse into the future, though, then here’s what's really going on with the Homunculi.
The history of the Homunculi predates modern Amestris, the empire in which Fullmetal Alchemist takes place. There’s no telling when the first Homunculus was created, but the most important Homunculus was created roughly 400 years before the movie starts, in the kingdom of Xerxes. That Homunculus was born from the blood of a slave who would go on to become the powerful alchemist Van Hohenheim.
The Homunculus, then a shapeless, pitch-black creature, taught Hohenheim about the science of alchemy, and in time the slave was elevated to the rank of Emperor Xerxes’ right hand. The Homunculus and Hohenheim were tasked with using alchemy to bless the emperor with immortality, something the Homunculus insisted was possible. The Homunculus was lying, though, and instead used a kind of cataclysmic alchemy to destroy the kingdom of Xerxes, kill the emperor and give both itself and Hohenheim “everlasting” bodies.
Those bodies are actually cleverly disguised Philosopher’s Stones, repositories of unfathomable energy that are produced via a process involving an alchemically aided massacre of human souls. So, Hohenheim and the Homunculus, which from that point on began calling itself Father, look indistinguishable from normal human beings, but as humanoid Philosopher’s Stones they can conduct alchemy without the aid of a transmutation circle and they can break the Law of Equivalent Exchange. In Hohenheim’s case, he lays low and starts a family that changes his life. In Father’s case, though, he goes off to create the state of Amestris and become a pivotal figure in the culture’s history -- the Philosopher of the East, the man who brought alchemy to the world.