Captain America won World War II? How this year's blockbusters are reimagining the past.

By Anthony Breznican
June 10, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT

What if pop culture vandals traveled back in time to destroy Dan Brown‘s only manuscript for The Da Vinci Code? Then they stopped off in 2009 to swipe the Hitler-killing final reel from Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds? The course of alt-history would be forever, well…altered. While fanciful interpretations of the past have always existed in Hollywood, those two titles helped fuel the industry’s current passion for taking true-life events and twisting them. Where sci-fi and fantasy have traditionally focused on the future, the new trend is to backtrack and reenvision world events — with films adding mutants, monsters, and robots to the historical record.

The latest example? X-Men: First Class, which is set during the Cold War in the early ’60s, with a pre-nemesis Magneto (Michael Fassbender) and pre-hair-loss Professor X (James McAvoy) joining the U.S. government to help defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis. ”There’s something automatically compelling about it. You’re saying to the audience: ‘You think you know history, but the real story is this,”’ says Simon Kinberg, a producer of First Class and the currently shooting Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which imagines slave-devouring bloodsuckers as the secret reason for the South’s secession.

Whether young moviegoers know much about the U.S.-Soviet clash over nuclear missiles in Communist-led Cuba, Kinberg says using the true-life conflict ”adds real menace. In a lot of comic-book movies, the menace feels fake. Either the stakes are too big, with the villain trying to blow up the world, or it’s too personal and esoteric,” he explains. ”We wanted something with big global stakes that also felt real and grounded.” If X-Men‘s prequel series continues, other ’60s-era strife could figure into new plots, says Kinberg. ”It is arguably the richest decade in American history, with the Kennedy assassination, civil rights, Vietnam.” (Of course, given First Class‘ soft opening — underperforming with $55.1 million — the mutants may be done with the decade.)

In the coming months, other eras will also be getting extreme makeovers courtesy of the movies: John Cusack goes back to the 1840s in an as-yet- untitled mystery in which author Edgar Allan Poe hunts a serial killer; Nazis pop up again in Captain America: The First Avenger, which has the hero helping turn the tide of World War II by battling Hitler’s (fictional) high-tech force HYDRA; and Joel and Ethan Coen are developing a drama based on Michael Chabon‘s 2007 novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, in which Jewish refugees from World War II were not relocated to Israel, but settled in Alaska. The Cold War space race features prominently in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with the Apollo 11 moon landing revealed to be a secret mission to recover a crashed Autobot spacecraft before the Soviets. ”There’s also an alternate explanation for the Chernobyl incident we worked in as well,” says screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Arlington Road, The Skeleton Key), who claims these historical flourishes appeal to the conspiracy theorist in all of us. ”We’re just living in an age where people are a little skeptical of what they’ve been told. They know there’s a spin on everything.”

It also appeals to our innate desire to rewrite history. ”People love Monday-morning quarterbacking,” says Jeff Goldsmith, who runs the screenwriting podcast The Q&A and is adapting his own script from the 1983 sci-fi cult novel A Rebel in Time, about a racist who travels back in time to arm Confederate soldiers with machine guns. Since Hollywood already has a shoddy reputation for historical accuracy, he believes there’s little chance these more outlandish fictions will confuse young minds. ”If any student really thinks the Cuban Missile Crisis ended because of mutants, God bless them,” Goldsmith says. ”I hope they’re doing well in their other subjects.”