This article is part of the Beat’s Week of X; a collection of writing looking back at the past few months of the Dawn of X, the new era of mutants – and Magneto! Enjoy and beware of spoilers.
I vividly recall my first time watching the original X-Men film from 2000 at a friend’s sleepover when I was 10. While I wouldn’t become a comic book reader until years later, I was a 90s kid and loved X-Men: The Animated Series, so I thought I knew what I was in for.
Yet the film opens on what I quickly identified as a Nazi concentration camp. As a boy and his mother are marched in alongside many other prisoners, the woman screams bloody murder as her son is forcibly separated from her.
My friends laughed. Since they weren’t Jewish, they may not have understood what they were watching. I suppose it was a bit over-the-top. But I was terrified. Was this the wrong movie? Even at that age, I knew a little about the Holocaust. What could that have to do with X-Men?
That’s what I wondered, until the terrified boy reaches his hand toward a barbed wire fence, which inexplicably begins to bend and twist. “It’s Magneto!” one of my friends gasped.
I don’t recall the rest of the movie going into much detail about Erik Lehnsherr’s trauma at Auschwitz (and considering the allegations against director Bryan Singer, I’m not eager to revisit the film), but the implications were clear, and left an indelible impression on me. To this day he’s my favorite comic book supervillain.
Marvel Comics in particular has always thrived on sympathetic villains, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more sympathetic origin story than “Holocaust survivor.” Of course, that’s not how Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created him, but his tragic retcon under Chris Claremont’s franchise-defining X-Men tenure is inextricable from most variations of Magneto that have appeared since. Even that aforementioned 90s cartoon established it, albeit in a way that went right over my little head as a child. Of course, a show for 7-year-olds would never dare utter words like “Nazi” or “Shoah,” but rewatching his first episode as an adult, it’s impossible to mistake the allusions thereof. In that same episode, Professor Xavier goes so far as to defeat Magneto by forcing him to relive his childhood trauma.
Weaponizing an enemy’s traumatic memories of genocide is an ethically dubious strategy, to say the least, but Magneto has weaponized that trauma for his own purposes throughout much of his publication history. Sure, Claremont helped elevate him from villain to antihero, but it’s not like that erased his body count as a a terrorist preaching mutant separatism. Not to get all Grant Morrison on you, but that stuff still “counts.”
I’ve always had a hard time accepting Magneto as a heroic figure, and that’s precisely why I’m fascinated by him. Magneto experienced some of the worst cruelty humanity could offer, not just at the hands of giant robot sentinels because he’s a mutant, but at the hands of fascist bigots because he’s a Jew.
The X-Men franchise has long been known for using the Marvel universe’s oppression of mutants as a metaphor for real-world bigotry, including racism, homophobia, and yes, antisemitism. As many before me have pointed out, that metaphor is sometimes obscured by the fact that most of these characters are white, and are rarely portrayed as canonically queer. Magneto, however, is Jewish, while also having the distinction of experiencing a large-scale, historical tragedy.
The fact that Magneto is canonically a Holocaust survivor, while also an over-the-top fictional supervillain with an outlandish costume, a penchant for bombastic speeches, and the power of magnetism, makes him a bit difficult to discuss seriously. Yet if we’re going to engage with the mutant metaphor, we need to engage with the seriousness of the issues it represents, especially when direct references are made to true events, including and especially genocide.
This is a controversial opinion among X-Men fans, but here goes: Magneto suffered some of the worst cruelty humankind ever produced, and he learned the wrong lessons from it. He could have put the energy of his anger and trauma into becoming a peaceful, yet still radical, advocate for mutant rights, yet instead he turned his fury into the whole of humanity. Arguably, that’s even more despicable than the Joker’s nihilism or Lex Luthor’s ruthless greed and egotism. What cruel hypocrisy, I thought.
At least, that’s what I used to believe. I’ve wanted to write this piece for years, but after pitching it and trying to type it out, I realize I’m not sure I believe it anymore. I look at the current state of the world, particularly my home country of the United States, and it’s harder for me to claim, as I have for years, that I prefer Magneto as a villain.
Let me step back for a moment. I’m a huge Grant Morrison fan, and his New X-Men is no exception. It’s a somewhat divisive run, especially for his portrayal of Magneto. After decades of creators tried to rehabilitate him into a principled antihero, Morrison’s take, culminating in the climactic “Planet X” arc, saw Magneto as a vicious terrorist once again. As Morrison described in his prose nonfiction book Supergods, this take was largely rooted in the shock of the 9/11 terror attacks, which occurred early into his tenure on the title.
The horror of that period led Morrison to realize “there’s nothing fucking noble” about Magneto’s methods. And I’ll be clear: I don’t disagree. I don’t believe violence justifies more violence.
But one of the unexpected joys of Dawn of X, starting with House of X/Powers of X and continuing through the flagship X-Men title, has been a Magneto we could wholeheartedly root for. It’s thrilling, in this new era of mutant unity and independence, to watch Magneto represent the marginalized community he belongs to, showing them that they don’t need to live in fear anymore.
I can’t read scenes like that and not think about what marginalized people are going through today. In the Trump age, so many vulnerable populations are told, implicitly and explicitly, to stay in the shadows. To cede power to those who already dominate them. To accept being denied basic rights and humanity.
And I think about anger, and how cathartic it is to see an avatar of your anger finally getting the chance to righteously push back.
I’m not saying marginalized people should use the power of magnetism to destroy their oppressors. But these days, it’s easier than ever to understand Quentin Quire’s perspective on the matter.