Magneto and the Jewish Question

On the political subtext of one of the most entertaining action films of the year.

Doron Fishler
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Doron Fishler

Things a viewer can expect to find in a Hollywood summer superhero blockbuster: digital effects, flimsy scripts, one-dimensional characters, absolute good and evil.Things you do not expect to find in a Hollywood summer movie: a discussion about the history and character of the State of Israel.

But that, at least according to one reading, is what you get in "X-Men: First Class," the film by Matthew Vaughn now playing in Israel. Make no mistake: "X-Men" is as far as you can get from Israeli political films. It's one of the most entertaining action films of the year and a full-fledged comic-book movie - colorful, frenetic and with plenty of humor and knowing winks to the fans of the original comics on which it is based. But amid all this a subtext floats to the surface which, once spotted, is hard to ignore. Certainly when it comes to Israeli eyes.

James McAvoy (left) and Michael Fassbender in the latest X-Men film.Credit: AP

The X-Men have always been a little more political than your average hero in tights. Superheroes are perhaps the most escapist genre in existence: fantasies of power played out in a universe of absolutes in which a lone hero takes the law into his hands and personally saves the world - usually from equally fantastical threats.

In the past few decades, some of the characters featured in the comics have acquired more political awareness, and lately this has begun to trickle into the movies, too, in a small, suggestive way. For example, "Iron Man" started out as Tony Stark, a ruthless American arms manufacturer. He changed his ways after discovering that the deadly weapons he made had fallen into the hands of terrorists and tyrants, and became a hero in a flying armored suit, determined to help the very people he himself had put in danger. "The Dark Knight," starring Batman, drew mountains of interpretations which saw him as a reflective summation of the Bush years. To cope with the Joker - a mad terrorist lacking all reason or motive - Batman resorts to increasingly extreme measures, including torture and an invasion of the privacy of the inhabitants of Gotham City.

But these are the exceptions. Superhero movies are expensive commercial Hollywood products, and no investor would want to risk an outlay of hundreds of millions of dollars by angering one segment or another of the public. Usually, then, they play it safe, fighting aliens and mad scientists instead of existing countries, and carry no more complex message than "War is bad."

But things are more complicated in "X-Men." The first issue of the comic book bearing that name appeared in September 1963. The people belonging to the group are mutants, people who were born with special abilities. Like every deviant minority, they are ostracized and suffer discrimination and hatred; indeed, they can easily be seen as an allegory for every such group.

According to Stan Lee, the co-creator of the series, the inspiration for the group came from the blacks' struggle for equal rights in 1960s America. The two leaders, Professor X and Magneto, are the mirror images of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. When the series reached the big screen in the last decade, under the direction of Bryan Singer, the most blatant evocation was of the situation of gay people. "X2," the second film in the series, has a coming-out-of-the-closet scene in which the brokenhearted parents ask, "Have you ever tried not being a mutant?"

"X-Men: First Class," a prequel set in the 1960s, focuses on one character, Erik Lehnsherr, who later calls himself Magneto. In the comic books and in the previous films, Magneto is the bad guy. He leads the Brotherhood of Mutants, a militant and murderous group against which the "good" mutants, led by Charles Xavier (known by his nickname, Professor X ), do battle.

Before evidencing the usual knee-jerk response - they're all anti-Semites, the whole world is against us - we should bear in mind that the creators of the comic-book series, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, as well as Bryan Singer, the director of the first two films in the series and the producer of the new one, are all Jews. Besides which, Lehnsherr-Magneto is far from being an anti-Semitic caricature.

The cinematic Magneto was never a villain for villainy's sake, along the lines of "Heh, heh, heh - and now for my malicious plan to take over the world!" He was a reasoned, charismatic villain; yes, he had an extreme agenda, but an understandable one. The new film - the prequel - further elaborates and buttresses Magneto's backstory. Actually, he is the hero of the film; only later does he become the bad guy.

The first of the "X-Men" films, released in 2000, opens with a scene in which the boy Erik Lehnsherr is separated from his parents in a Nazi death camp, though Magneto's ethnic identity is not specifically revealed (maybe he's a Gypsy? ). The new film reprises this scene and makes it clear that Lehnsherr is in fact Jewish. As an adult, he spends a few years hunting Nazis in South America, before joining Xavier's group of mutants.

The high point of the movie (beware: spoiler ) occurs at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. The American and Russian forces attack the mutants with missiles. Lehnsherr, a master of magnetism, reverses the direction of the missiles and tries to aim them back at the naval destroyers that launched them. Xavier tries to stop him, though with an unfortunate choice of phrasing: "There are thousands of men on those ships, good, honest, innocent men. They're just following orders."

That remark might go by unnoticed in an American movie theater. In Israel, there is a palpable buzz in the audience. It's clear that nothing good can come of this. "I've been at the mercy of men just following orders," Lehnsherr replies. "Never again!" Thus, as he articulates the slogan of the Jewish Defense League, Erik Lehnsherr is transformed into the villain Magneto.

A bit earlier there is an even more disturbing scene, when Lehnsherr meets Sebastian Shaw, the Nazi scientist who abused him as a boy (and is himself a mutant ). Shaw explains his approach: The mutants are the next evolutionary stage, they are naturally superior to ordinary humans. Therefore, humans will always hate the mutants and fear them, and attempts at coexistence are out of the question. Magneto disposes of Shaw, but not before telling him that he himself completely agrees with his outlook - and turning himself into the Nazi's successor.

"Killing will not bring you peace," Xavier tells Lehnsherr at one point. To which Lehnsherr retorts: "Peace was never an option."

Commentaries on foreign blogs see Magneto's story as a critique of Israel, which itself became a bad guy at some point, after the trauma of the Holocaust. An article by the film critic Devin Faraci surveys Magneto's history in comparison to the history of Israel and asks whether "Israel has gazed too long into the abyss."

Others, like Saul Sudin on, note that it's not fair to attribute Magneto's way of thinking to all of "Israel" as such, because his approach represents, if anything, only the extreme right. This idea did not start in the new movie. In 2005, Avi Arad, the former Israeli director of Marvel Comics, the publisher of "X-Men," gave an interview to The Jerusalem Post in which he first compared Magneto to Menachem Begin and Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and afterward to Meir Kahane.

For local viewers, the film appears to posit an alternative which most Americans will not likely notice, because they have never heard of the existence of an Israeli left (and who can blame them ?).

Lehnsherr, who views the mutants as a "chosen people," is a faithful representation of the Israeli right, while the other leader, Charles Xavier, Professor X, represents the left. He is also not treated with kid gloves. We know that Xavier is destined to become the "good guy," but in the meantime he is the embodiment of all the leftist stigmas. Xavier, the pampered scion of a rich family who never lacked for anything, is an idealist who believes in the spirit of man almost to the point of self-deception. He insists on a solution through negotiations even when the other side attacks him with violence - not to mention missiles.

Even more important, with respect to a film based on a comic book: Xavier is just not as cool as Lehnsherr. Lehnsherr wanders the world settling accounts like James Bond; Xavier would like everyone to join hands. At the end of the film, not all viewers will agree on the question of which path is the right one. In other words, it's all a messy business.

Is this allegory intentional? It's hard to know. As already noted, the idea that an expensive Hollywood movie would attempt to convey a complex political message - or any message that will survive after six different screenwriters have had a hand in it, fixing, revising and patching it up - sounds even more off-the-wall than the idea of people being born with the ability to control the weather. Maybe this whole interpretation lies in the eye of the beholder, and viewers elsewhere will see the same characters as representations of different situations. That is exactly what makes characters like Professor X and Magneto iconic: You look at them and see yourself.



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