Riding this summer’s wave of would-be comic book movie blockbusters is X-Men: First Class, prequel to the X-Men series. Under the guidance of writer Bryan Singer, who returns to the franchise after a two-film hiatus, X-Men: First Class will take viewers back in time and work its way up to 1963, filling in the back story of genetically superior “mutants,” who, like Jews, face discrimination and persecution. Based on Stan Lee’s long-running comic-book series, X-Men’s mutants must navigate their otherness in a world much like our own, and fall into two camps: that of the wheelchair-using Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who believes mutants should integrate and use their gifts to benefit mankind, and that of his rival, Magneto (Ian McKellen), who is convinced that mutants cannot trust their fellow humans and should rule over them.
The original X-Men (2000) opened with the shadowy-blue image of a concentration camp, subtitled, “Poland, 1944.” The camera follows a group of prisoners clad in identical, ragged, gray uniforms affixed with yellow stars, as they are force-marched through the gates of Auschwitz. A young boy, Erik Lehnsherr—the future Magneto—struggles as he is dragged away from his parents. When he stretches his arms out for his mother and father, the steel and barbed-wire gates bend toward him. He is clubbed on the head before his strange power can do much damage, and the screen goes black. The movie’s producer, Lauren Shuler Donner, told the LA Times that the opening “really was a declaration of intent,” letting us know that, despite its fantastical premise, this is a serious film, “grounded in the realistic and the historic.”
When the first X-Men comic books hit the stands in 1963, Magneto’s hatred of non-mutants seemed like simple villainy. The publisher—Marvel Comics—operated under the 1954 “Comic Code Authority,” a list of what was and was not acceptable for both authors and illustrators. The first of some 40 rules states that “crimes shall never be presented in such a way as to create sympathy for the criminal.” This meant that writer Stan Lee (born Stanley Martin Lieber) and illustrator Jack Kirby (Jacob Kurtzberg) could not create a relatable back story for Magneto, which would make him into a “tragic villain,” in the words of Lawrence Baron, author of Projecting the Holocaust into the Present.
Under pressure from Lee and other successful comic book writers, Marvel revised the Comics Code in the 1970s, and Jewish writer Chris Claremont introduced Magneto’s Holocaust experience in the 1978 comic book Uncanny X-Men 113. “I endured one death camp…in Auschwitz,” Magneto declares. “I will not see another people fear what they do not understand and destroy what they fear.” His identity, however, was left vague—he was never drawn wearing a yellow star, and had a Roma girlfriend he met in the camp.
It was director and writer Singer who added the yellow star in the first X-Men film, making it explicit that the young Erik Lehnsherr was a Jew. For Singer, who was raised in a Jewish home in New Jersey, Magneto’s Jewish identity is personal. As he told the Jewish Journal in 2003, “my obsession with the Holocaust as a youth plays into many of my views, both personal and creative.” In the world Singer creates, Magneto’s fears of a mutant genocide do not seem far-fetched. The first film jumps from the concentration camp scene to “the not-too-distant future,” where a U.S. senator proposes a “Mutant Registration Act,” once again evoking the Holocaust. Loren P.Q. Baybrook, editor in chief of Film and History, argues that “Magneto’s anger is based in genuine, justified pride,” one which “rings a bell with any minority.” Of course, fear and anger are not the only possible responses: Professor Xavier’s philosophy of coexistence is offered as an alternative to Magneto’s staunchly anti-assimilation approach. The two stances reflect a long-standing real world debate.
Singer directed the first two highly acclaimed X-Men films, but to the disappointment of fans, left the franchise to direct 2006’s Superman Returns. The third film, X-Men: The Final Stand (2006), fell to Brett Ratner, and played down the theme of oppression. (It also fared less well with critics. Ratner “disdains the liquid beauty and the poetic fantasy of Singer’s work,” wrote New Yorker reviewer David Denby.)
By focusing X-Men: First Class on Magneto and Xavier’s formative experiences, Singer can flesh out how two best friends fell out and came to such different world-views. Should Singer pull it off, X-Men: First Class is likely to offer tough competition to the summer’s other comic-book films, from Thor to Green Lantern to Captain America.