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20 years ago, X-Men's incredible first scene set the course of Marvel movie history

By Phil Pirrello
X-Men first scene

“Rows and rows of fences topped with barbed wire all designed to create a separator for the thousands of Jews who pour through each day.”

Those were among the first words in the script for the first live-action X-Men movie, which was one of Hollywood’s riskiest bets at the time and turns 20 years old today. That opening sequence — written by one of the screenplay’s uncredited writers, Christopher McQuarrie (Mission: Impossible - Fallout) — kicked off the Marvel mutants franchise with a scene set during the Holocaust at the  Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944 Poland, which certainly added to the risk. 

The bold, can’t-look-away opening scene made it to the final cut, and in doing so set the tone for nearly two decades worth of X-Men movies. In fact, the scene would once again open another future X-Men film, further solidifying that McQuarrie’s “small” contribution to the franchise would serve as its foundation’s most essential cornerstone. Without it, it’s likely there would be no franchise. At least not one worth 20 years of fandom’s attention. 

Audiences are first introduced to the big-screen world of the X-Men through the eyes of a young Erik Lehnsherr (Brett Morris), aka Magneto, a mutant with the power to manipulate metal to his will forced to see the world and humanity during one of its darkest and inhumane times. Erik displays his abilities, seemingly for the first time, when Nazis separate him from his parents. In protest, in a scared rage, the helpless boy reaches out and, to the shock of the guards prying him away, twists the barbed wire fence into uselessness. The boy gets a rifle butt to his head for his troubles — a permanent emotional scar inflicted upon him by humans who will one day see him as both too inferior to matter but too dangerous to ignore. 

Thematically, the scene perfectly underscores the movie’s big ideas, as Professor Xavier’s mutants struggle in the modern day (of 2000) to carve out their space in a world full of humans that fear and hate them. It's a world that the X-Men will, time and time again, be forced to save from threats stemming from both mutant and non-mutantkind. Visually, the bleak opening scene introduces us and the uninitiated not only to the movie’s villain and his unique power set in a very economic, easy-to-grasp way, it also does so through a very empathetic lens. The best villains, even in comic book movies, are ones whose actions you definitely deplore — but you can’t help but think "I can see where they are coming from. I can see why they hurt." You know what’s motivating these horrendous acts.

According to McQuarrie, that was the plan.

“The movies I’ve worked on, like X-Men or The Wolverine, you have to tether them to — no matter how fantastic they are — you have to make sure they exist in a very real world,” McQuarrie told me in a 2015 interview that was never published. “And that’s where the idea for that opening scene [at the concentration camp] came from.” 

As you can imagine, this was not the easiest of sells for the studio execs over at 20th Century Fox. It was their first Marvel comic property, and while its reported budget of roughly $75 million feels small compared to those of recent Marvel Studios/MCU fare, it was a big deal then. Big enough to ensure that a lot of cooks would be in X-Men’s kitchen. When the powers that be weren’t giving notes or second-guessing the ones they already gave, they were finding corners to cut and pennies to pinch. (Kevin Feige, who now runs Marvel Studios, was just establishing himself in the producer ranks on this movie.) While X-Men comics fan David Hayter eventually went from being a production assistant answering phones on the movie to having sole credit for writing it, 10 other writers (including the film’s director and one of its producers, Tom DeSanto) participated in script revisions throughout the project’s lifecycle. It’s (pun so intended) astonishing that the movie turned out as good and unified as it did with that many creatives helping shape it. 

“We helped establish what would make a successful comic book film, outside of Batman or Superman,” Hayter said in a 2018 interview. 

Their success, and the film’s, can largely be attributed to Magneto’s opening origin story. It’s the screenwriting equivalent of a mission statement. It firmly establishes tone and mood and dares, even inspires, every scene following it to measure up to — or, at the very least, not fall short of — the dramatic aims it needs to achieve for audiences to want to pay to see it again and again.

X-Men: First Class (2011) - Opening Scene

Its reappearance and recreation in 2011’s X-Men: First Class further underscores its value and importance to the franchise’s legacy. Director Matthew Vaughn’s First Class follows a twenty-something Magneto (Michael Fassbender) hunting Nazis in the 1960s. In order for Magneto’s vendetta to resonate with audiences brand new to this world, this reboot/prequel goes back to the moment that started it all. In a brilliant creative choice, Vaughn’s movie peels back the curtain on the scene to reveal it as part of a larger context.

After young Erik is pried away from his screaming parents, First Class reveals that the villainous Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) was watching the scene unfold from behind the window of a Nazi office. From here, Shaw forces the boy to use his powers to move a Nazi coin — as a gun is put to the head of the boy’s mother for motivation. Shaw wants to unlock the secrets of Magneto’s “gifts.” The boy cannot help him, even under the duress, until Shaw orders Erik’s mother to be executed. Magneto’s arc is a tragic one, as further proved by films in the series that devote considerable run time to it. Before the MCU came, the X-Men franchise was the premier one for a splash page-worthy shared universe of comic book heroes. 

2000’s X-Men had to crawl so the MCU could run. We wouldn’t be where we are now with superhero movies as a genre today if it weren't for McQuarrie’s scene work then.