Monday, June 20, 2011

The Magneto Question

So, I thought I'd just say a few words about the recently released film, X-Men: First Class, which is the 5th film based on the Marvel Comics series originally launched in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.  It's also the second prequel, and essentially relates the origin of the X-Men.

Now, I'm not going to go all fan-boy on you and write about whether the films are true to the original comics in their depiction of characters and plot lines, whether they diverge for reasons good or bad, etc.  As an old, old time comics reader, I have mixed feelings about all that, but as a media scholar I think it clear that when it comes to film adaptations, original texts are nothing more than raw material. 

And comics in general, have served as quite a  productive laboratory for raw material, as numerous authors have worked and reworked the characters and narratives over half a century, or more.  There is a wealth of material to draw on, and the task becomes one of developing a coherent and captivating narrative and spectacle without entirely losing the connection to the original, the character's integrity, the basic story's key elements, etc.

So, X-Men: First Class emerges out of the comics own reworking and revising of its own material, its back story and history, as X-Men leader and mentor, Professor Charles Xavier, aka Professor X, was originally nothing more than an enemy to Magneto, the supervillain and leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (yes, that is what they called themselves!).  But for more sophisticated times, their early history was re-imagined as one of friendship, leading to a split, as along the lines of Martin Luther King and Malcom X.  So Professor X and Magneto, or Charles and Erik, are at once colleagues, friends, rivals, frenemies (to use a recent coinage), and foes, and the film, while featuring a legion of superpowered mutants, focuses on their early relationship, as can be seen from at least some of the trailers:

The main theme of the X-Men comics, especially for the past several decades, has been bias, stereotyping, prejudice, scapegoating, oppression, etc., directed at mutants.   As alluded to above, one source for this is the civil rights movement, and the history of African-Americans in the United States.  The opposition between the nonviolent leadership of Martin Luther King and the militant stance of Malcom X, central to Spike Lee's 1989 cinematic masterpiece, Do the Right Thing, is played out in a less threatening, more distanced manner, through the conflict between the two mutant leaders. 

This requires a shift in the way Magneto is portrayed, from pure villain, an evil mutant, to something significantly more ambiguous.  He becomes the realist to Xavier's idealist, the defender of his people, a classic hero trait.  Indeed, over the past few decades, the comics have shifted wildly in their portrayal of this character, at some points turning him into a reformed criminal, a genuine superhero, and at other points making him out to be a terrorist and mass murderer. 

No doubt, this reflects some of our own ambivalence about terrorists.  As much as we abhor them, especially after 9/11, there is the difficult lack of clarity about how to define a terrorist.  Back when Reagan was president, I remember how many of us found it ridiculous when, in one of his speeches, he spoke about fighting terrorists while supporting freedom fighters.  What a case of semantic confusion!  And given our nation's birth in revolution, within American culture we identify with the freedom fighters, the rebels and revolutionaries, fighting against the evil empire (another Reaganism).  Our anti-authoritarianism supports all that anti-government politics that, most recently, has taken the form of the Tea Party (back in Boston, a revolutionary, and anti-authoritarian action).  And it leads us to make heroes out of outlaws, e.g., Jesse James, Al Capone, etc.  Magneto, then, moves into the outlaw-hero mode, at least at times.

Another, more recent, source of inspiration is the gay rights movement, as for example the line, "Mutant and Proud" is repeated several times in X-Men: First Class.  Along similar lines is the theme of scientists developing a "cure" for mutation, and forcing it on mutants who may not want it.  This appears first in comics, and then makes its way to the movies, for example the most recent of the sequels, X-Men:  Last Stand:

Here we see Magneto as militant leader and as terrorist, most dramatically in the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge.

But there is a third major source of inspiration that cuts close to the bone for me, and that's Jewish history, especially in the 20th century.  The Holocaust is a major touchstone for any discussion of prejudice and scapegoating, and the theme of genocide comes up repeatedly in the comics, as well as actual images of concentration camps (often in alternate future scenarios where anti-mutant sentiment is carried out to its extreme). 

But there is more than metaphor at work here, as Magneto is depicted as having been sent to a concentration camp as a child, losing his parents there, and being shaped by the traumatic experience.  This is shown in the first X-Men movie, at the very beginning, where we see Magneto as a boy, reacting to the loss of his parents with an initial, sadly limited display of his magnetic powers.  The same scene is shown in X-Men: First Class, now fleshed out as he suffers at the hands of a mutant-obsessed Dr. Mengele-type Nazi doctor, whose brutality permanently scars the young Erik.  That same doctor becomes the villain of the film as the action shifts to 1962, eventually intersecting with JFK's Cuban Missile Crisis.

Interestingly, I've come across a fan-film on YouTube, put together from scenes from the first X-Men movie and its sequels (but not X-Men: First Class) in 2009 that's called X-Men Origins:  Magneto Trailer.  It's intended to give a sense of what that sort of movie would look like, and in a sense that's what X-Men: First Class really is, but it's useful in this context because it brings together key moments from Ian McKellen's portrayal of the contemporary, old Magneto from the first 3 films:

You might note that, apart from the Holocaust setting, there actually is nothing Jewish about this character who is presented to us as Jewish.  If anything, Ian McKellen provides a very British counterpoint to Patrick Stewart, as does Michael Fassbender as the young Magneto (he was raised in Ireland) to James McAvoy's young Xavier (he was raised in Scotland).  I mean, absolutely nothing Jewish about him, aside from the fact that he is identified as Jewish, and sent to a concentration camp.  Being Jewish, then, is reduced to a symbol, first of being a victim, then of the idea of never again (the slogan of the Jewish Defense League founded by extremist Meir Kahane, who some saw as a terrorist), of an "Old Testament" (from a Christian point of view) eye for an eye approach in contrast to Xavier's turn the other cheek (no crucifixion in this instance, but he does lose his ability to walk, the wheelchair having been a symbol of leadership in the postwar era, as FDR's disability became widely known), of going too far.  And I can't help but wonder if his character doesn't, in this sense, reflect the negative view that all too many hold of the State of Israel today, of employing unnecessary force, disproportionate responses, occupying territory and oppressing the inhabitants, etc. 

Is Israel like Magneto?  No, of course not. But the contemporary character of Magneto reflects, in certain ways, popular negative views of the Jewish state, misconceptions and ignorance about the historical, cultural, political and military context of the Middle East, and ironically enough, bias and prejudice against the Jewish people (some of which is held by Jews themselves, a not uncommon phenomenon among groups subjected to this sort of treatment).  You know, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jews were seen mainly as victims, and the question everyone seemed to be asking was, how could you (meaning us Jews) let it happen?  And specifically, how could you let them march you off without a fight to the concentration camps to be killed?  There was not only incredulity in the way the questions were posed, but also a hint of ridicule. 

At that time, it was not well understood how manipulate the Nazis were, how deceptive they were about where they were taking their Jewish captives, and how weakened the Jews were by a prolonged prelude of deprivation.  Nor was it well known that there were some groups that did take up arms and fight against the Nazi war machine.  But as far as I can recall, no one praised the Jews for our long history of nonviolence, as they did in making a secular saint out of Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, or countless Christian martyrs and clergy.  Maybe people only esteem nonviolence when it's successful?  Or maybe that's the problem with prejudice, whatever you do or don't do, you're wrong.

Back in the days when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, both Jewish, were making the Marvel Universe from scratch, Magneto was not Jewish.  He was a concentration camp survivor, yes, but Jews were not the only ones who were interned there.  He was not Jewish, but you can understand that the character reflected some aspects of Jewish experience, as did Spider-Man (early on identified as Woody Allen turned superhero) and the Fantastic Four's The Thing, aka Benjamin Grimm (a rough and tumble lower east side type), as did Superman earlier on, and The Spirit, and much of the comic output at mid-century.  But there were no characters identified as Jewish until recently, in some ways reflecting Jewish reticence (keep a low profile, and one bag packed for that matter), no doubt also the feeling that the mainstream reader could not relate to or sympathize with Jewish characters, but maybe perhaps too the sense that prejudice would distort the message that the characters are meant to convey.

Truth be told, we have not figured out how to deal with Jewish characters in these kinds of popular narratives.  Comedy, yes, no problem, and drama, sure, we can work with that.  But adventure, science fiction, fantasy, horror, not so much.  I should note, though, that Marvel Comics did introduce a good Jewish mutant back in the 80s, a young girl named Kitty Pryde who has the power to become intangible. Here's an image from Marvel's Ultimate line of comics, a more recent reworking of their original, ongoing universe, one where her Star of David is more frequently and prominently seen:

Kitty does appear make a brief appearance in one or two of the X-Men movies, I don't recall which off hand, but anyway she is never identified by name, let alone religion.  I also want to honorably mention Willow Rosenberg, from the TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer:

I only saw an occasional episode of the series on reruns until just recently, when I've been going through the entire run, and just started on the 7th and last season.  So, early on, Willow mentions the fact that she's Jewish on occasion, but that's about it.  She still uses crosses to ward off vampires, becomes a witch and therefore identified as a Wiccan in later seasons, and that, along with being a lesbian, dominates her identity.  Oh, I should add that Joss Whedon clearly draws on the X-Men comics at the end of season six, when Willow loses control and becomes Dark Willow, a reference to the well known (in the comics world) Dark Phoenix character and storylines.  That happens after Willow's lover is murdered, so I guess that makes her a bit like Magneto, after all.

So, what's the point of all this.  To be honest, I'm really unsure, and to be honest, I'm not altogether comfortable in bringing it up, but I did feel that I should say something about my discomfort with Magneto's Jewish identity.  Maybe I'm overly sensitive as the child of Holocaust survivors myself, but Magneto is a murderer, whatever else he may be, and I don't know, maybe it's happened, but have you ever heard of a Holocaust survivor murdering anyone?  I tried googling it, but all that I saw coming up, in an admittedly cursory search, were news stories about survivors being murdered.  So for me, this new back story just doesn't ring true.

Maybe it's just that being Jewish works well for the storyteller, we really have been telling some all time great stories for the past four thousand years, but when it comes to being characters in other people's narratives, well, that's where the trouble begins, the bias and the scapegoating, that's when they prick us and we start bleeding, profusely.  Maybe. 

Or maybe it's just that, for me, when it comes to the movies' Magneto, the character just doesn't hold any attraction?


Robert K. Blechman said...

One way to view Magneto's Jewish expience and background as a motivator for evil actions is to see his Jewishness from an Arab (and antiSemitic) perspective. If you deny the Holocaust, if you are ignorant of Jewish culture and philosophy, Magneto's behavior is the perfect encapsulation of Israeli behavior in occupied Arab territories. He uses his persecution as a Jew AND as a mutant as justification for murder, mass murder (or mass mutant transformation in X-Men I) and for genetic warfare and mass destruction (X-Men II and III). Magneto behaves in the ruthless and efficient manner Holocaust detractors (speaking from the comfort of their modern middle class living rooms) expected of Nazi-controlled Jews.

So, in multiple ways, Magneto's backstory is manipulative, political and absolute fantasy as a rationalization for villainous behavior. It is one sophisticated step above traditional negative Jewish stereotypes, now taking into account and deconstructing the Holocaust experience.

Lance Strate said...

Yes, very much to the point, Bob, thank you!

Anonymous said...

OK, so now post something about the Kree-Skrull war.

Lance Strate said...

The Kree-Skrull War hasn't made it to the movies, at least not yet, but, the Skrulls are typical types of alien invaders from 50s SF movies, infiltrators taking the place of human beings, along the lines of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Invaders from Mars, and it has often been noted that they correspond to Communism, or the American view of Communism. The Kree are a martial society, militaristic with fascist tendencies, and I'd relate them to the Nazis and Axis powers of World War II, which was still fresh in the memory of comics creators in the 60s. So it was the Communists vs. the Nazis/Fascists, two opposing groups of bad guys fighting each other, as they were wont to do, with us Earthers, purely American of course, in the middle as the only good guys.

Nick said...

I do like how the character of Magneto has more facets in the movies instead of just being a two-note villain. In the comics, during the Stan Lee era, "The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants" had a nice hyperbolic ring to it -- the bad guys didn't need any further motivation than simply they wanted to take over the world. I give credit for the filmmakers for trying to add some complexity to the story and characters.

Lance Strate said...

I agree that they have created a more well-rounded, deeper character this way, if you look at the film only in terms of fictional narrative. But if you consider it as a cultural document, one that reflects attitudes and beliefs, and transmits memes, that's a different story, and anytime you have a character who is the only representative of a minority group in a popular narrative, that character become emblematic of that group, and typically stereotypical in some way.