The X-Men saga is one of the biggest franchises in cinematic history. Originally owned by 20th Century Fox, it has spanned 12 films and three timelines since its big screen debut in 2000.
But in 2019, Marvel Entertainment, now owned by Disney, bought out Fox and absorbed all rights to the X-Men characters. This means that the X-Men franchise could soon be fully incorporated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU), and X-Men characters have already begun to appear in films from the MCU.
All of which is exciting, save for one thing: The modern-day MCU has consistently erased the original Jewish context of the Marvel characters they own from their films. Considering X-Men’s very Jewish roots, it would be a tragedy if this same fate befell the X-Men characters.
The first X-Men film premiered in 2000, and opened with a shocking scene: A young Erik Lehnsherr, soon to become the superpowered Magneto, is being separated from his mother at Auschwitz, a trauma which triggers his latent ability to control metal. His screams echo throughout the iconic title sequence.
It is an opening which solidifies the Holocaust narrative in Fox’s X-Men franchise and emphasizes how its core was formed around the experiences of a survivor. These themes reverberate beyond the explicit backstory: Throughout the saga, the X-Men are constantly targeted and killed by authority for being a different race. The persecution of this superpowered race clearly serves as a way for the comic writers to unpack a fraction of the trauma of the Holocaust and educate new generations about the horrors of what happened.
This emphasis is in keeping with the backstory of many comic books. In fact, the entire superhero genre was built on the backs of European Jews who immigrated to the US in the 1930s. As a result, the majority of both Marvel and DC’s comic books are full of motifs rooted in Jewish persecution, from being a strange refugee in a new world like Superman (whose name, Kal-El, literally means “the voice of God” in Hebrew), to government lists tracking a population of people, which was the main conflict of “Captain America: Civil War.” In addition to these more subtle Jewish themes, many characters are also explicitly Jewish in the original comic books, or heavily suggested to be Jewish.
Unfortunately, when transformed into films, many Jewish Marvel characters have had their Judaism eradicated or minimized. For example, Wanda Maximoff, also known as the Scarlet Witch, is Magneto’s daughter and in the original comic books is raised by a Roma family, yet in the MCU she’s seen wearing crosses and is played by a white, non-Jewish actress. While the MCU has now introduced their first Jewish superhero in the form of “Moon Knight’s” Marc Spector, some fans were disappointed at how the character’s Orthodox background as the child of a rabbi was swapped out for a more ambiguous upbringing. While still Jewish, Marc’s heritage was much less important to his character than in the comics. Spider-Man, one of the MCU’s biggest heroes, has always been Jewish-coded in the comics, as his character comes from Forest Hills, Queens, an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, but there are no hints of this heritage in the movies. Things may soon be looking up for Jewish representation in the MCU with the new addition of Sabra, the Israeli superhero who will be played by Shira Haas, to the lineup of Captain America: New World Order, which is set to be released in 2024. But as it stands today, the MCU has all but divorced itself from its very Jewish source material in favor of more mainstream inspirations.
It is a distressing trend which, thankfully, did not permeate Fox’s adaptation of X-Men. Throughout the X-Men cinematic saga, Magneto, like the original comics, is motivated by a deep need to avenge the horrors of the Holocaust and prevent them from repeating again for Mutants, the other superpowered beings who are persecuted in the X-Men world for being different (and serve as an obvious allegory for any group of people who are different). Magneto and his fellow Mutant Charles, also known as Professor X, are the main protagonists in seven of the 12 films produced by Fox, and in each of those seven, the Holocaust is integral to his identity. For example, each introductory shot of Magneto in each film is a close-up of his forced tattoo from Auschwitz, anchoring the viewers in the reality and significance of his persecution during the Holocaust. In fact, Magneto/Erik Lehnsherr is possibly the only Marvel character depicted on-screen whose Holocaust background is not just subtext, but an explicit part of his characterization.
The Jewish representation in X-Men aligns with the saga’s broader focus on identity: Throughout the franchise, plotlines delve into other multi-layered topics for minorities, such as how some Mutants can pass for regular humans while others cannot. There are many parallels to the LGBT+ community, a reading proudly backed by the openly gay Ian McKellan, who was the first actor to play Magneto.
Though always present, the treatment of the Holocaust varies throughout the films. In “X-Men: First Class” (2011), it takes on a particular focus. Set in the 1960s, “First Class” introduces actor Michael Fassbender as a young Erik Lehnsherr, and catalogs the character’s descent into the chaotic Magneto persona. The film, set not even twenty years after the Holocaust, depicts Erik as on a mission to avenge the Nazi who destroyed his life. Midway through the film he meets Charles/Professor X, who helps him hone his powers by teaching him to focus intently on a memory of love and humanity. Erik draws on an intimate moment of his mother lighting Hanukkah candles. It is a harrowing scene because it brings the audience back to an earlier scene in the film, where Erik’s mother is killed in front of him in Auschwitz, and reminds everyone that Erik’s persecution was because he is Jewish.
Though earlier films in the franchise did not shy away from his Holocaust background, “First Class” gave the story new angles and depth. In the climactic scene, the Holocaust is referenced with chilling dialogue.
“Erik, they’re just following orders!”
“I have been at the mercy of men following orders my whole life. Never again.”
After uttering the words “never again”, a phrase every Jew is painfully familiar with, Erik fully embraces his fury and attacks the government and its foot soldiers who are trying to destroy the Mutants. As an audience, we fully understand Magneto’s motivation, and we fully see the thread between the horrors he suffered and his desire to avenge the Mutants from a similar fate.
That doesn’t mean the depiction in the franchise is without its flaws. In “X-Men: Apocalypse” (2014), Magneto’s persecution verges on being completely trivialized. At one point, the character tries to restart his life in Poland, but his wife and daughter are murdered. Following this, the antagonist of the film manipulates Erik by using his Holocaust trauma against him. In this iteration of the story the Holocaust references feel more tokenizing than empowering. Nonetheless, the franchise in the hands of Fox never lets the viewer forget what Erik has gone through. The idea that Erik wants to build a better and safer world for his Mutant family, and save them from the fate of his Jewish family, is a prevalent theme throughout most of the franchise, and has become a consistent telling of the story.
Though many major comic book figures have Jewish origin stories, “X-Men” is unique in its explicit Holocaust material, and the way it takes the mantra of “never again” so seriously. Even though Erik is shown to have extreme methods, audiences are consistently left with the overwhelming feeling that “Magneto was right,” a phrase that has become a popular hashtag and meme for fans. While it’s true that Erik may not always have been roundly portrayed, he remains an important Jewish character who not only emphasizes that, yes, the Holocaust actually happened, but that hatred and fear must be uprooted by any means necessary — whether its a fictional Mutant registration mandate or a real life one, fear and hatred can lead to genocide.
Now that the character has full license to begin appearing in the MCU, my only hope is that Magneto will inspire a resurgence of the conversation around Jewish trauma and the Jewish roots of the biggest franchise in Hollywood history.