A central question in Eternals, as posed by Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), is one fans often ask of supernatural characters: If the Eternals are immortal aliens sent to protect humans, why didn't they intervene to save them from war, “or all the other terrible things throughout history”?
The answer given by Sersi (Gemma Chan) is simple—though she and her fellow Eternals have protected humanity for 7,000 years, they only protect humans from the evil race of Deviants, not each other.
People need to fight their own battles, make their own mistakes. It’s a problem superhero writers have reckoned with for decades, ever since Superman failed the eye test when he tried to enlist in the army during World War II. When blending fantasy and reality, these sorts of explanations are necessary. There have to be reasons why terrible things happen when caped crusaders live around the corner. It’s a disbelief suspended until the final page, the final credits. Or, at least, it was until Eternals included the bombing of Hiroshima.
Eternals doesn’t hit theaters until Friday, but already critics have homed in on the moment when Phastos, a “technopath able to create any invention or weapon,” stands in what appears to be the ruins of the recently bombed Japanese city and cries, “What have I done?” Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) isn’t saying he bombed Hiroshima in 1945 himself, but rather is lamenting that the technology he helped foster led to such an atrocity.
For many critics, this scene was misguided, both because Phastos is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first gay superhero, and because tens of thousands of people died when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and countless others continue to live with the trauma. Instead of being a moment to reflect, the scene comes off as an attempt to use a terrible real-world tragedy to inject a moment of pathos into a superhero movie. An example of what not to do when trying to merge fiction and reality. This moment of pathos feels like an attempt to elevate Marvel’s output and could be seen as a response to critics, chief among them Martin Scorsese, who argue superhero movies are not “cinema.”
In that sense, the scene is simply part of a wider trend, one where our increasing distance from the 20th century’s historical atrocities makes them attractive playthings for fantasy screenwriters. In 2018’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, J.K. Rowling wrote a scene in which the eponymous villain argues that wizards must rule over non-magical humans to prevent atrocities; vignettes of tanks, the Holocaust, and atomic bombings play at the same time. The Fantastic Beasts franchise is set to run for five movies, and it is as yet unclear how Rowling will explain away the fact that wizards could have prevented the Holocaust but chose not to. Arguably, though, it is a problem she shouldn’t have introduced.
A year before Beasts, Diana ran through No Man’s Land in Wonder Woman, deflecting bullets with her indestructible bracelets (somehow, no one bothered to fire at her bare thighs). This year, Disney’s Jungle Cruise introduced a magical healing petal the movie’s heroes hope to use to help soldiers in the trenches in World War I. (Though they secure the petal, the movie ends before they use it in the war effort, something that may be depicted in the upcoming sequel.)
Inserting magic or technology into history and pretending it caused or prevented an atrocity is a dangerous game, one that arguably robs humanity of its autonomy and culpability (the atomic bomb, after all, had a non-immortal, non-alien inventor—one whose remorse is subject to historical debate). Worse, inserting these scenes for quick pathos and not exploring them in depth can feel distasteful and cheap. A World War backdrop can, says researcher Kees Ribbens, make a story “less vague, less unapproachable,” but sometimes these scenes become a shorthand that’s too short.
“There is perhaps also some laziness on the part of the creators,” says Ribbens, who teaches courses on popular historical culture and war at Erasmus University Rotterdam. “They know that both world wars almost always appeal to contemporary audiences, because the wars are not only highly recognizable but also act as moral benchmarks for right and wrong.”
Yes, featuring atrocities in popular culture can raise awareness of historical events, but it can also be exploitative, says Agnieszka Soltysik Monnet, a literature and culture professor at the University of Lausanne who also specializes in representations of war in popular culture. Because these films are commercial ventures, Monnet argues, “their motive for using atrocities is basically to touch a nerve in a way that moves people but doesn’t actually disturb them.”
Moreover, introducing fantastical elements or superheroes can lessen people’s sense of agency, or, in Ribbens puts it, “suggest that people are actually not capable of dealing with the evil that was, after all, created by human hands.”
Yet, is this actually anything new? Superheroes and World War II have always been entwined. Ben Saunders, director of comics and cartoon studies at the University of Oregon, says monthly comic book sales doubled between 1941 and 1944, with almost half of enlisted American men reading about superheroes battling against the Axis powers (Captain America even punched Hitler in the face in 1941). “The superhero fantasy is one in which the pleasure of moral righteousness and the pleasure of aggressive action become entangled,” he says. “Naturally, then, it was a particularly popular fantasy during the war, when the cultural need for messages of justified aggression was very great.”
Paul Brians, author of Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1895–1984, also notes that writers have long entwined nuclear brutality and fantasy, adding that some science fiction writers in the Soviet Union depicted nuclear war on other planets in order to explore the theme while escaping censorship. Yet Brians notes “the vast majority of popular fiction on the subject cheapens it.”
But there is a difference between contemporaneous media and that which we create today, and if there’s a line in the sand, it might be that it’s one thing to set a fantasy film during a real war, and another entirely to entangle characters with a real-world genocide. Yet Kees notes that drawing these lines can be incredibly difficult, noting that “there are no unambiguous, unchanging criteria” for what is and isn’t appropriate.
“We in the West find it OK to wear a T-shirt with a portrait of Mao, but a T-shirt with the image of Hitler—another 20th century mass murderer—is much more sensitive,” he says. Though he’s personally not a fan of the Nazi zombies present in modern video games and comics, he doesn’t find them distasteful, adding “the imagination and appropriation of the past is not exclusively in the hands of historians.”
It might not be exclusively in the hands of historians, but should it be in the hands of superheroes? Ultimately, it is perhaps a matter of personal taste. For me, using the deaths of hundreds of thousands of real people to provide character development for a fictional immortal alien just feels crass. Blending fantasy and atrocity like this feels jarring and insulting—a quick, cheap, emotional way to give heroes gravitas without properly reckoning with the brutal reality faced by ordinary men.