How Auschwitz, “X-Men” and its Jewish director changed comics

March 18, 2010

Director Bryan Singer, who is credited with launching the “X-Men” film franchise did so with an unexpected Jewish twist: he set the opening scene of a comic book adaptation at Auschwitz.

It’s the last place you’d expect to find emotionally tortured mutants with superpowers, but the move wove a box office gamble into gold. And as a result, the comic book genre was given grit, severity and seriousness in popular culture.

Singer, who was raised Jewish in New Jersey is largely responsible for the change and is will soon reclaim the franchise he built with “X-Men: First Class.”

According to the L.A. Times:

From those first moments, “X-Men” set itself apart from the entire Hollywood history of comic-book adaptations and marked the beginning of this current era of fanboy cinema, which has dominated the box office and elevated San Diego’s Comic-Con International into something resembling a Cannes for capes.

“The opening, it really was a declaration of intent,” producer Lauren Shuler Donner said of that sequence, which showed a terrified young boy exhibiting mutant powers as his family was separated by German guards. “It said to the audience this is a serious film, grounded in the realistic and the historic and somewhat dark. It was so smart. And it was all totally Bryan.”

That would be Bryan Singer, the director of “X-Men” and its first sequel, who was sitting next to Shuler Donner in her office on a recent afternoon. The pair both had big smiles on their faces—they had been reunited by an invitation to reminisce about the legacy of the July 2000 release, which they were happy to do, but the conversation kept veering into giddy plans for the future. Singer is returning to the “X-Men” universe, it’s clear now, for a project called “X-Men: First Class”; it’s all just a matter of timing.

Singer not only brought the Holocaust to the comic book world, he used social and political allegory to shine a light on homosexuality. 

How did Fox respond to Singer’s plan to start a superhero movie with a Holocaust scene and infuse it with subtext about the struggle of homosexual teenagers in modern America?  Singer said there were really no battles to be won. “There was no particular expectation, really, or pressure—it wasn’t an enormous budget—and there was no template because these characters were not Superman or Batman. There was no issue of content or even tone.”

Singer, who is both gay and Jewish, understood the outsider status of “X-Men’s” mutants and infused his films with depth and metaphor. Although the first film made the least amount of money, Singer proved his artistry in an otherwise formulaic genre. The Times writes, that although both Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood gave “X-Men” a shot, The New Yorker’s film critic David Denby valued “the liquid beauty and the poetic fantasy of Singer’s work” over the others.

Below is a 2006 profile of Singer written by Jewish Journal contributor Robert David Jaffee:

Bryan Singer’s first real understanding of evil came when, as a boy of nine or 10, he dressed up as a Nazi one day while playing a World War II game with his German neighbors in Princeton Junction. He came home wearing a swastika.

Singer’s mother admonished him, but it wasn’t until a few years later, when his junior high school social studies teacher, Miss Fiscarelli, taught an entire unit on the Holocaust, that he gained a greater understanding as to why his mother had been so troubled. That class changed Singer’s “whole perception of what people are capable of anywhere,” he said.

It also left a mark on a boy who would grow up to become a Hollywood director whose films, including X-Men, X-2, and this summer’s highly anticipated Superman Returns, deal with the human capacity for evil and for persecuting outsiders, whoever they may be.

“Whether you’re an immigrant or you’re born in the heartland,” said Singer, “at some point we all feel like an alien.”

Of the famed Man of Steel, first introduced to comic book readers in the 1930s, Singer said, “He’s kind of the ultimate immigrant. He comes from a foreign place, adapts to the value system, and has a special relationship with his heritage.”

That might sound like heavy baggage for a film about a superhero, but Singer wouldn’t be the first to read deeper meanings into comic book adventures.

Singer sees Superman, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — two Jews who were sons of immigrants — as a Judeo-Christian hero, part Moses, part Jesus. Like Moses, Superman is the boy dispatched down the metaphoric river to be discovered in the cornfields, if not the reeds, of the Midwest. Like Jesus, he has a kind of doubling with his father, voiced in the new film as in the 1978 Superman by the late Marlon Brando, who says, “The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.”

Superman first entered popular culture when the Nazis were beginning to assert their power in Germany. He “never cleared up the problems in Europe,” Singer said. “He handled small problems; he served by example.”

Over the decades, however, through numerous incarnations in comic strips, television shows, and films, Superman began tackling worldwide catastrophes, as he does in Singer’s new film.

As Michael Chabon suggested in his novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, Siegel and Shuster, in conceptualizing Superman, may very well have been inspired by the Golem, a mythic figure in Jewish folklore who could vanquish all evil.

The 40-year-old Singer calls Superman Returns a “dream project” and said “it was a fantasy of mine to have Kryptonian blood,” not surprising for a man who in the 1970s loved watching reruns of the Superman TV show starring George Reeves. But Singer did not read comic books as a child. To this day, he suffers from dyslexia, which still impedes his efforts at reading. He does like to read short stories, but he did not even know about the X-Men until he was assigned to direct the first movie of that franchise.

Like Superman, the mutant heroes and antiheroes in the X-Men movies are not simply stand-ins for illegal immigrants. They are heroic, if in some cases demonic, fantasies of the outsider in all of us.

As a gay, adopted, agnostic Jew, Singer has always been drawn to the otherness of these superheroes, though he chuckles when asked about a recent Los Angeles Times article that highlighted Superman’s gay appeal. “If you look at my career,” he said, “I’ve probably never made a more heterosexual movie before.”

A graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School and the cinema school at the University of Southern California, Singer had his breakthrough with The Usual Suspects, in 1995, which was hailed for its plot twists, subversion of the noir genre, brilliant ensemble cast, and an Oscar-winning performance from Kevin Spacey.

Singer followed that with 1998’s Apt Pupil, in which Brad Renfro plays a high school student obsessed with the Holocaust and with a former Nazi.

Then came X-Men and X-2, anti-McCarthyite allegories that featured Sir Ian McKellen, the Nazi in Apt Pupil, as a Holocaust survivor, who, like Darth Vader, has turned to the dark side.

Superman Returns is a film with a long and troubled past. Over the last decade, numerous actors and directors were attached to the film, whose budget, like its superhero, seemed to know no bounds. None of that history worried Singer, who got a chance to reshape the storyline. It also helped that he used some of his regular repertory of actors, such as Spacey, playing yet another notable villain: Lex Luthor.

While Singer wants as broad an audience as possible to enjoy the film, he particularly wants “older people and women to have an emotional experience,” he said. Superman Returns opened June 28 nationwide.

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