DC’s Legends of Tomorrow might be a comic book show about a group of time-traveling heroes (only don’t call them that), but it also includes some history lessons. Of course, you have to take them all with a giant grain of salt—not only because a lot of events are ignored or changed, but also because the show has shoguns in exoskeleton suits and zombie Confederate soldiers.
There are some stories that we already know well, like the biography of George Lucas or the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the only US-Russian arms control agreement still in use today. However, the Legends delve into some stories that are less known, throw out some surprising tidbits, and then muck up details to the point where we have to try and make sense of it. On the wake of the Waverider returning for the rest of season three, here are some of the people and events that have been included on Legends of Tomorrow so far, along with how “hit or miss” they are about actual history.
Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu
When the Legends found themselves in feudal Japan circa 1641 on a mission to rescue Ray, they came across Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty and ruler of Japan. He was portrayed as a tyrannical warlord who ruled with an exoskeletoned fist and killed anyone who might threaten his reign—plus he had a tendency to murder his wives once he got bored of them, with a woman named Masako as his next target.
The real Tokugawa Iemitsu was indeed the shogun of Japan for decades, coming into power in 1623 after his father abdicated. He was a harsh leader, but not in the way Legends described. Rather, his control came through political, economic, and cultural reforms which affected the country for centuries. He restricted the powers of Japan’s warlords, as well as the emperor, and sought to isolate the country from the rest of the world. Most of his persecution was against Christians, leading to a massacre of thousands during the Shimabara Uprising.
And while he forced his younger brother to kill himself, that whole “murdering his wives” thing is nonsense. He was married to one woman and had several concubines, though it’s widely believed he was gay. (“Shogun,” season two, episode three)
P.T. Barnum’s Roving Museum of Freaks and Hypnotic Hippodrome
When I saw The Greatest Showman, I was disappointed at how badly the musical romp botched P.T. Barnum’s story. Color me surprised when I saw Legends’ “Freakshow,” which managed to do a better job at representing history than the multimillion dollar movie.
Guest-starring Billy Zane as the top-hatted master of ceremonies, the episode takes place in Wisconsin circa 1870, right when and where Barnum had gone into the circus business following yet another disastrous fire at his museum in New York City. The circus, which featured performers, animals, and “freak shows,” started out as “P.T. Barnum’s Grand Traveling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan & Hippodrome,” a name which changed several times over the years (as Zane’s Barnum points out in a running joke).
While I’m sure Barnum (probably) never went around kidnapping superpowered people and forcing them to perform for his crowds, the show did make more of an effort to show that he made questionable choices. The man did a lot of bad stuff over the years. For example, he bought a slave woman as a show act, working her 10 to 12 hours a day until she died... and then held a live autopsy of her body. He also exploited people as “freaks,” claimed his hoaxes were real, and abused animals to the point where it brought the entire circus down in 2017. Barnum may have changed the world, but his life wasn’t always a song and dance. (“Freakshow,” season three, episode two)
Total Lunar Eclipse
The Order of the Shrouded Compass may not have existed in Victorian London, but someone clearly did their due diligence when it came to making the timeline for this episode. There were two total lunar eclipses that happened in 1895, and the one on March 11, 1895 was seen throughout all of Europe. It lasted over an hour and a half, staining the sky blood red and giving the Order plenty of time to fulfill its resurrection plans of Damien Darkh. (“Return of the Mack,” season three, episode five)
I will say the episode is a loving recreation of the Apollo 13 mission, but it leaves a hell of a lot of problems in its wake. The original NASA mission took place on April 11, 1970, and was supposed to be a 10-day voyage with a landing on the moon. However, 55 hours into the flight, an oxygen tank exploded, forcing crewmen James Lovell, Fred Haise, and John Swigert to convert their lunar module into a lifeboat, which saved their lives.
In real life, Swigert was a last-minute replacement for another astronaut, who had contracted rubella a week before the voyage. And in the episode, Swigert is likewise replaced by Eobard Thawne, a.k.a. the Reverse-Flash, who disguises himself as the astronaut and knocks out his crewmen so he can fetch a piece of the Spear of Destiny from the moon. All the moon spear drama happens while these men are asleep, and then it gets resolved right before contact is re-established with NASA. Only there’s one problem: When they wake up, one of their crew members is gone. Given how there’s only three of them, don’t you think that would’ve been worth mentioning? “Houston, Swigert seems to have vanished into space.”
Plus, it’s unclear what happened to the real Swigert of the show. Given how Eobard didn’t give a shit about history, it’s easy to assume he killed him. This means Swigert would’ve never become Executive Director of the Committee on Science and Technology for Congress, which seems like a bit of an issue. (“Moonshot,” season two, episode 14)
William Henry Scott
Who would’ve thought the Civil War would be invaded by a bunch of zombies? That’s the premise of “Abominations,” where a futuristic virus infects some Confederate soldiers, changing the tide in the war. An early victim of the undead Confederate wrath was William Henry Scott, a spy for General Ulysses S. Grant who was tasked with stealing battle plans from a Mississippi plantation. Unfortunately, he died from a stab wound, leaving Jefferson—half of the hero Firestorm—to take his place.
Legends gets a fair amount of General Grant’s story right, but Scott’s story... not so much. It’s true that Grant was leading troops in Mississippi in 1863, and his victories at Champion Hill and Big Black River paved the way for a major Union win at Vicksburg. Of course, my husband (who’s in the middle of reading the new Grant biography) wasn’t happy with how they portrayed Grant as a hot-headed disciplinarian, but what are you gonna do? However, there’s little way Scott would’ve been involved.
Scott served in the Union army alongside quartermaster sergeant Loring W. Muzzey, but that kept him in more northern states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, and I couldn’t find any proof he did any secret missions for Grant. And in July 1863, just two months after the events of “Abominations” would’ve taken place, Scott was at the Battle of Gettysburg—over 1,000 miles away. Plus, if Scott had died (like he did on the show), the aberration would’ve been catastrophic. Scott was a major advocate for civil rights throughout his life, serving as one of the founding members of the Niagara Movement, a group whose work helped pave the way for the NAACP. (“Abominations,” season two, episode four)
In this season three episode, actress Hedy Lamarr is passed over at Warner Bros. for a hypnotic woman who turns out to be a time-displaced Helen of Troy. Lamarr actually worked with MGM Studios—and wasn’t replaced by Helen—but the rest of her story is relatively on target.
Lamarr wasn’t just an actress, she’s one of the 20th century’s most-celebrated inventors. In the 1940s, she and composer George Anthil developed a “Secret Communications System,” which was a method of changing radio frequencies so German Nazis couldn’t decode messages. Her research into what’s called “spread spectrum” technology led to basically every form of wireless we use today, like GPS, Bluetooth, and WiFi. Of course, that doesn’t mean she would’ve automatically known how to make Firestorm work, even though Stein and Jefferson had switched bodies, but she was such a badass I’d bank on it. (“Helen Hunt,” season three, episode six)
The Spear of Destiny
The Holy Lance, also known as the Spear of Destiny, was the Magical MacGuffin the Legends needed to keep out of the Legion of Doom’s nefarious hands. In the show, the Legion wanted the spear because it was believed people could use it to bend reality to their will. In real life, it was used for something quite different.
The Spear of Destiny was the name given to the spear a Roman soldier used to stab Jesus of Nazareth during his crucifixion to make sure he was dead. It is referenced in the New Testament, and it’s since become legendary. Several rulers claimed to have carried the spear over the centuries, including Charlemagne, and modern legend says Hitler (long obsessed with religious and occult objects) obtained the spear after annexing Austria.
Of course, none of those were likely to be the actual Spear of Destiny, and there’s no definitive proof it still exists. Unless, of course, you count the Curse. It’s believed that once you’ve wielded the power of the spear, you’ll soon die. Guess what happened to Charlemagne, Hitler, and yes, even Eobard? I guess Sara Lance was exempt because she’s already died once. Loophole! (Most of season two)
J.R.R. Tolkien and the Green Knight
“Fellowship of the Spear” is probably the most historically accurate episode Legends of Tomorrow has done so far. It’s all about the Legends traveling back to the Western Front during World War I in order to find J.R.R. Tolkien. They believe he can lead them to the final resting place of Sir Gawain, who may have had a vial of Jesus Christ’s blood, the only thing that can destroy the Spear of Destiny. Of course, this whole plotline is totally fictional—Tolkien never wrote a book about Sir Gawain called The Burden of the Purest Heart—but a lot of the episode is actually based in fact.
It shows Tolkien’s history in the military, right down to his rank, company, and battles he fought. It shows his struggles with “trench fever,” a form of typhus-like infection. And while he may have never written The Burden of the Purest Heart, he is known for the definitive translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And since the Green Knight is considered by some to be an allegory for Jesus, with the holly on his head representing the blood of Christ, the parallels fit perfectly.
It’s worth a repeat watching of “Fellowship of the Spear” to really get a handle on how well the episode represents Tolkien and his work. It’s clear the writers, Keto Shimizu and Matthew Maala, or their researchers knew a great deal about the author and respected the worlds he created. The episode is full of clever Easter eggs and deep-cut references that both novices and Tolkienites can appreciate. Out of all the trips through history we’ve gotten on Legends of Tomorrow, this one is definitely the best. (“Fellowship of the Spear,” season two, episode 15)
Legends of Tomorrow airs Monday nights on the CW.