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Past the helmet: The psychology of Magneto in ‘X-Men: First Class’

What makes this complex character tick?

Since their debut in 1963, the X-Men have sworn to protect a world that hates and fears them, but here at AiPT! we’ve got nothing but love for Marvel’s mighty mutants! To celebrate the long-awaited return of Uncanny X-Men, AiPT! brings you UNCANNY X-MONTH: 30 days of original X-Men content. Hope you survive the experience…AiPT! Science is going all-in for Uncanny X-Month, and following the most detailed look at X-Men biology anywhere, EVER, we’re finishing our three posts of psychology!  Ben Stover, co-host of the Popcorn Psychology podcast, tries to get in the head of X-Men:  First Class Magneto.

In the beginning of X-Men:  First Class, we learn that Erik Lensherr, later to be known as Magneto, was a child victim of the Holocaust, forcibly separated from his parents and taken to Sebastian Shaw. Shaw wants to experiment on Erik after the first appearance of his mutant power to control metal, bringing Erik’s mother in and shooting her in front of the child, blaming him for being unable to move the coin.

Erik’s powers then explode, and Shaw takes from this that anger and pain are what enable Erik to use them. It’s inferred that Shaw utilized that information to torture the young mutant for the remainder of the war, for his “study.” Undergoing extraordinary trauma such as this at a young age would change the way Erik’s brain developed, likely resulting  in enlargement to the insula region in the cerebral cortex, impacting his emotion regulation, sensory awareness, and interoreceptive processing.

In other words, in addition to being a mutant and having suffered unimaginably, his ability to self-regulate will likely be permanently altered.  Magneto has clearly experienced multiple traumas, although more information would be needed to diagnose him with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Anger and pain from these multiple complex traumas become the driving force behind Lensherr’s sense of meaning and purpose for most of the rest of his life. Viktor Frankl (a Holocaust survivor himself, and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, about his experience) believed that when human beings create meaning and purpose in life, especially from suffering, we’re able to overcome impossible situations and find fulfillment. For much of his life, Erik found purpose in destroying those that hurt him, and that is what drives him to survive, until he meets Charles Xavier.

When Magneto meets Xavier, he’s initially in a dark place, full of anger and focused solely on revenge, with no regard for his own life. His ability to ignore all sensory input while nearly drowning, trying to sink Shaw’s sub, supports the insula region discussion above.

Charles later uses his telepathy to help Erik find a place “between rage and serenity,” to focus and unlock his power, without being triggered solely by anger. This approach is effective, and not dissimilar from the goals a trained mental health practitioner would have.

Magneto demonstrates a significant drive toward bettering the world. Throughout the film he teeters on his belief that mutants are superior and the next phase in human evolution, although he still seems willing to buy into Charles’ vision.

However, due to his history of trauma, the second the humans turn their guns and fire on the mutants, his reaction is based in hyper-vigilance and survival, and he turns from antihero to full villain.  He has seen the consequences of actions like this before, and states, “I’ve been at the mercy of men just following orders. Never again.”


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