Erik Was Right: Revisiting Magneto In a Post-Killmonger World

Benjamin Netzorg
Benjamin Netzorg
August 3, 2021
4
INCLUVIE SCORE
4
MOVIE SCORE

Well, I guess Marvel is back. After throwing its hat into the television ring with miniseries Wandavision, Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and Loki, the superhero media assembly line has returned to the silver screen with Black Widow. So is this a review of the long-overdue solo feature for the only woman in the comic behemoth’s original Avengers cinematic lineup? Of course not, silly. It is a retrospective on one of the first Marvel properties to be immortalized on film, 2000’s X-Men, which set the stage for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (despite being produced by 20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios).

The X-Men franchise is about mutants, people who have gained superpowers through accelerated genetic mutations. The 2000 movie features a strong ensemble cast: Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, Anna Paquin as Rogue, Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, Halle Berry as Storm, James Marsden as Cyclops, Famke Janssen as Jean Grey, Shawn Ashmore as Iceman, Rebecca Romijn as Mystique, and Sir Ian McKellen as Magneto. The gruff, immortal Wolverine and the anxious young Rogue find themselves in the middle of an ideological battle between Professor X with his school where he teaches mutants to control their powers, and Magneto’s ring of mutants hell-bent on protecting mutants’ rights, by any means possible.

A poster reading X-Men at the top, with silhouettes framed by a large X

The poster for 2000's X-Men

It’s a fairly straightforward premise, but its lasting cultural impact is so much more complicated. The main value of the movie is as an allegory for real-life oppression, with strong parallels between anti-mutant sentiment and actual ableism and homophobia. Professor X is one of the most powerful and well-known wheelchair users in cinema history and Cyclops must wear a visor over his laser eyes. The fear, shame, and secrecy of the mutant community mirror emotions felt by so many queer people discovering their identities, and sometimes the avarice from non-mutants seems referential of the stigma around the AIDS crisis. 

The subtext is no accident. The X-Men comics feature a large handful of explicitly queer characters, so the movie is actually toned down in comparison. Gay icon McKellen gives an incredible performance, and he and Stewart make Magneto and Professor X out as lovers torn apart by tragic irreconcilable worldviews. Wolverine and Cyclops have a combative kind of chemistry as well. The film’s unapologetic melodrama, aided by the stage-acting experience of McKellen, Stewart, and Jackman, makes it delightfully campy, which is, as my lesbian sister-in-law said about a dozen times when we watched the film last month, gay culture. 

A bald man in a wheelchair and an old man in a cape and helmet walk towards the camera, followed by a man with spiky hair.

Patrick Stewart (L), Hugh Jackman (C), and Ian McKellen (R) walk together on the set of X-Men. Are all acclaimed actors who lend serious chops to the cheesy superhero film.

And director Bryan Singer is gay! That’s a good thing, right? WRONG! Singer is a terrible representative of the gay community! He has been accused of sexually harassing and assaulting numerous young men and boys over the course of his career, including on the X-Men set, triggering something of a mutiny behind the scenes. So many queer people have found comfort and visibility in X-Men, and I would also be complaining if a straight director was given the reins, but it’s a total shame that Singer still has a career and there is no excuse for enabling a predator.

In addition to being hella gay, X-Men is also extremely Jewish. Magneto, AKA Erik Lehnsherr, is a holocaust survivor, and several other mutants in the comics are confirmed to be Jewish. It’s somewhat suggested in the movie that Magneto’s harsh methods (ie. turning a senator [Bruce Davison] who introduces anti-mutant legislation into a mutant, and trying to sacrifice Rogue in a plot to do the same to world leaders at a U.N. event [why is it always U.N. events?]) stem from his trauma, which is an uncomfortable implication. And even if they were, is that a problem?

A young white woman is seen in portrait. She has long dark hair with a stark white streak in the front.

Anna Paquin as Rogue in X-Men. Rogue is a young woman who has just discovered she has the power to suck away people's life force, which turns out to be useful for Magneto's plots.

I’m not the first person to notice that Magneto is maybe more justified than the narrative we are fed suggests. “Magneto Was Right” has been a pretty common Hot Take among X-Men fans since long before the movie came out. But comparing Magneto to another Marvel “villain” in Black Panther’s Erik Killmonger reveals some of the ways a character can subvert the moral high ground and transcend past the expectations of the movie’s writers.

Where X-Men takes on homophobia, ableism, and antisemitism, Black Panther is all about anti-Black racism and the legacy of colonialism. The latter does so directly, as opposed to the former’s attachment to metaphor. While Wakanda’s King T’Challa (Chadwick Bozeman) wants to protect the country’s vibranium and keep its wealth secret, his diasporic cousin Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) wants to use those resources and technologies to extract wealth from the Global North as repayment for the violent extraction of Africa in the colonial and neocolonial eras. X-Men’s protagonists want to use their powers in ways that are accepted by society, and fight anti-mutant-ism with legislation and diplomacy, while their enemies use their powers to keep each other safe in a way that embraces their abilities and refuses to water them down for the comfort of non-mutants.

Both movies hit a point where they struggle to keep justifying the good guys’ approach, and the perspectives end up frustratingly liberal-centrist, afraid to break the eggs of the status quo to make the omelette of liberation. It’s no shocker that Fox and Disney would be afraid of radicalism. But audiences aren’t stupid enough to think that T’Challa building a community center in Oakland will solve global racism. Killmonger was right that real, material reparations are the only way to begin healing from the damage of colonialism. And Magneto was right that capitulating to pressure to assimilate is a dead end, doomed to lead to more and more restriction and fear. These truths are so obvious that the filmmakers have to push the characters to absurd superficial extremism to make them seem in the wrong.

A Black man scowls and points a spear at the camera. He is shirtless, revealing many scars.

Michael B. Jordan challenges T'Challa's claim to the Wakandan throne, and also challenges my heterosexuality, as Erik Killmonger in Black Panther. Killmonger and Magneto are both radical visionaries who are framed as dangerous extremists.

This strange dynamic actually ends up working in the corporate studios’ favor, much in the same way X-Men’s implied gay agenda does: by presenting two options for progress and then ambiguously supporting the more mainstream one, they can appeal to a huge audience. Most people will watch and root for T’Challa and Professor X without a second thought, but people like me are so starved for glimpses of revolution that we accept it in the form of condemned antagonists -- much like the dozens of infamous villainous queer-coded icons. In the age of “cancel culture” that’s the white whale of big-budget movies: a story that anyone can watch and convince themselves it’s politically aligned with them.

Giving X-Men an Incluvie score is difficult, because its creative vision comes from a problematic director, and because it holds great revolutionary potential but hedges it in subtext, which was bold when it was released but a bit of a cop-out now. Film is subjective, so ultimately the implicit representation makes it an enjoyable classic, even if it plays it safe on the surface level.