Generally, it’s bad form to suggest Holocaust survivors are Nazis. And yet, Marvel comics appears prepared to do just that.
On a recent cover, Magneto, the X-Men supervillain, is depicted as belonging to the evil Nazi-analog organization Hydra. Magneto is canonically a Holocaust survivor. His experience at Auschwitz led him to lose faith in humanity; mutants must fight against humans, he believes, or they, like Jews, will be exterminated. But now, Magneto, once tortured at Auschwitz, is joining the Nazis. As numerous fans have pointed out, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Also, it’s kind of offensive.
I understand why many fans feel outrage. I can’t say I’m outraged myself, though. Or, at least, Magneto as Hydra agent seems in line with the way the character has been handled over the years. The truth is that Magneto’s status as Holocaust survivor has often felt exploitive and clumsy. Magneto’s writers, more of than not, have used his past as a bid for cheap meaningfulness, rather than as a way to engage with either Jewish identity or the horrors of the Holocaust.
This is certainly true for what is probably the most popular and well known version of Magneto — the one in the X-Men films.
As all Marvel fans know, mutants are superheroes who are born with their powers; they’re genetic anomalies, whose special abilities generally manifest when they reach puberty. Mutants are hated and feared by normal humans — much as Jews were hated and feared by the Nazis. Hatred of mutants is a metaphor for hatred of marginalized groups in the real world — or at least it’s supposed to be.
The first “X-Men” film, made in 2000, opens with a flashback to Auschwitz. Erik Lehnsherr, the child who would become Magneto, is being taken to the camp, when he is separated from his mother. In rage, he uses his magnetic powers for the first time, bending and warping the concentration camp gate, until one of the guards knocks him unconscious with the butt of the rifle.
That moment of separation, and the horror of the camp itself, is supposed to explain Magneto’s supervillainy. Human beings, he has been taught, are cruel, arbitrary, and bigoted. A Senator is working to pass a law that will force mutants to register; Magneto sees this, understandably as a first step towards genocide. To prevent this, Magneto is willing to commit various atrocities, among them killing children. When asked why he explains, ” Because there is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else.”
It certainly makes sense that Auschwitz would give you a bleak view of humankind. But what rings oddly in the movies is that Magneto’s loyalty is completely displaced from his identity as a Jew to his identity as a mutant. In the first film, (where Magneto is played by Ian McKellen) he plans to turn everyone on earth into a mutant, a dangerous and traumatizing process. In the process, he will, presumably, hurt many Jews — an eventuality that neither he nor the film seems to consider.
The erasure of Magneto’s Jewish identity is made even more explicit in the 2011 semi-reboot “X-Men: First Class,” where Magneto is played by Michael Fassbender. Much of the plot is devoted to Erik’s quest to find and kill Sebastian Shaw, the Nazi doctor who experimented on him in the camps. Shaw is a mutant-supremacist; he sees mutants as the fulfillment of Nazi genetic theories.
In the climactic scene, Erik, the Jew who Shaw experimented on, positively agrees with his tormentor that eugenics are awesome and mutants should rule the world. “Everything you did made me stronger, made me the weapon I am today,” he says. “I agree with every word you said. We are the future.” Magneto thanks the Nazi doctor for transforming him from a victimized Jew into a Superman. He abandons his experience as a Jew to identify as Homo superior.
Marvel’s decision to make Magneto part of Hydra, then, isn’t an innovative bad idea. It’s a bad idea that’s been part of the character for decades. There have certainly been more thoughtful versions of Magneto. But having the character spout garbled Nazi ideology is pretty common.
The truth is, superhero comics are not well-equipped to deal with the Holocaust. The superhero genre is about empowerment, and the awesome spectacle of superior humans hitting each other. The Holocaust, on the other hand, is an ugly reminder of the horrors that result when some people consider themselves superior and more empowered than others . A super-powered genetically superior Holocaust survivor in spandex was maybe always a bad idea. Given that, it’s hard to care too much whether that bad idea is explicitly a member of Hydra or not.