The child watches as his parents cross into the gates of death at a Nazi concentration camp. The bars close separating him from them. Then suddenly, in a fit of emotion, Erik outstretches his arms attempting to bend open and break the gate with his unique and secret gift.
In the new movie “X-Men: First Class”, we go back in comic book lore to learn how a young boy, Erik Lehnsherr, grew up to become the metal moving Magneto.
Witnessing this show of super power is the evil Sebastian Shaw, played by Kevin Bacon, a Josef Mengele-like character, who wishes to experiment with and exploit young Erik’s gift. In a following scene, Shaw threatens and then shoots Erik’s mother in front of the boy, all because Erik refuses to do a circus trick and move a Nazi coin with his powers. That coin will come in handy later.
Cut to the early 1960s and we see Erik, all grown up, with numbers tattooed on his arm. He’s become a Nazi-hunter seeking out vengeance for the murder of his mother and his people. (In a twist of casting fate, the actor who portrays him was also in “Inglorious Basterds,” another fantasy film that swore vengeance against Nazis.)
Not until he meets his chum and eventual rival, Charles Xavier, does he hone his rage (somewhat) and control his unbridled force.
Created in the early 60s, the duality between Xavier and Magneto have been compared to the two-sides of the same coin that are MLK and Malcolm X. JTA’s Ami Eden has made the case for years that they resemble Rabbi Meir Kahane and Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg.
But the makers of this latest film do more than endow Magneto with manipulative powers over metal. The sympathetic character manipulates us too. He wins over the audiences’ heart throughout (unless you side with Shaw who is out to destroy humanity.)
The break point comes when missiles from Soviet and U.S. ships are launched at an island and at the mutant X-men, as the superpowers seeks to annihilate those who are different (yes, the mutants are all together now on one tiny piece of land), does Erik stop them, turn them around and aim them back at the U.S. & Soviet fleets. He even utters the words, “Never Again.”
Unlike other comics, Marvel’s creators relished in ambiguity. Their characters were not drawn in black and white. It’s also why, in the end of the film, we’re left cold when our hero becomes the anti-hero and Magneto allies with a hot devil and dons his own horns. Has he gone rogue? Or, is he still to be admired?
Simcha Weinstein’s book “Up, Up And Oy Vey!” explains it was Jewish writer Chris Claremont who gave Magneto the back-story we’re now witnessing on the big screen. Claremont writes, “Once I found a point of departure for Magneto, all the rest fell into place, because it allowed me to turn him into a tragic figure who wants to save his People.”
In some of Claremont’s work, he has Magneto be a double agent for Mossad – hunting Nazi war criminals for the CIA then secretly turning them over to Israel for trial. In “Days of Future Past”, he has mutants rounded up and put in camps throughout the US.
What this prequel provides in background, it also hints at what’s to come for the mutant X-Men. Humans will seek them out, hunting them in the hopes of destroying their race.
Back to that coin. If you were given the opportunity to avenge a family member’s death by Mengele knowing (seeing) what he did, what would you do? Thought so. Yes, not everyone in Nazi Germany was a Mengele. But how many of them were witnesses to what happened? How many people throughout the world today would willingly stand there and see it all take place again?