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.”