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.)