Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase: Magneto

September 16, 2016 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

I suppose it would be negligent of me, as a writer of a comic books-themed column, if I didn’t bring up the recent retirement of legendary writer Alan Moore. Now, I’m not sad about him retiring; the man’s been out of mainstream comics for a while now and it’s not like I’m losing the next great Alan Moore book. I also don’t feel compelled to talk about what a great writer he was; his bibliography speaks for itself; Miracleman, V for Vendetta, The Saga of the Swamp Thing, The Killing Joke, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The man’s gift for poetic prose, richly defined character psychology, and narrative ingenuity make the comics among the finest ever written. My personal favorite is the Superman story For the Man Who Has Everything, but you really can’t go wrong with any of them.

The next two weeks, I’ll take a look at Alan Moore’s most famous work: Watchmen. But this week? Eh, not really in the mood. Instead, I want to spend one more week on the Marvel side of things before I spend the next six weeks talking about how much I love DC. But who to cover…

Ah. Yeah, he should do nicely.

There’s a lot of debate over who the greatest supervillain of all time really is, but there are a few that you can always expect to show up in the conversation. Erik Magnus Lehnsherr (or Max Eisenhardt) is both a holocaust survivor and a mutant with the ability to manipulate electromagnetic energy. Having grown up in the worst possible scenario for an oppressed people, Erik refuses to let the fear and hatred of mutants to result in a similar situation. While his friend Charles Xavier prefers a more diplomatic approach, Magneto’s prefers the more direct actions of a terrorist. As one of the most powerful mutants in the Marvel universe, he is more than able to back up his plans to protect mutants through force, even if every “normal” human in the world has to suffer for it.

The character of Magneto debuted in X-Men #1 alongside Charles Xavier and the original X-Men team. Though his plan to control a military base was thwarted by the upstart mutants, Magneto himself was not defeated. Along with his Brotherhood of Mutants, Erik served as the primary villain for the team during much of the 1960’s. He even found time to go toe to toe with the Avengers, a team which included former Brotherhood members Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who were also Magento’s estranged children. Though the Avengers eventually defeated Magneto, it wasn’t long before he came back to do battle with the second generation of X-Men.

Often considered the Malcom X to Charles Xavier’s Martin Luther King, Magneto was a morally complex villain in an age where this wasn’t the norm. The X-Men comics were always intended to invoke the civil rights movements of the 1960’s, and having Magneto’s villainy have a justifiable motive made him stand out. Is Magneto right? Is Xavier’s dream for peace between mutants and humans just a pipe dream, and Magneto’s philosophy is the practical one? Or do Magneto’s extremist views make him exactly the kind of tyrannical bigot he claims to be fight? These questions have allowed Magneto to stay interesting and relevant, and were compounded when his background as the survivor of a Nazi death camp were revealed. They have also made him uncannily well-suited to heroic turns. That he was a member of the X-Men in the late 1980’s and more permanently in the last decade and feels believable in those roles is a testament to the strength of the character.

It’s no surprise that Magneto has been in virtually every adaptation of the X-Men, whether it’s a cartoon series or video games. Most of these versions are basically exact copies of the comic book version, with only minor differences. However, two versions of the character certainly merit their own mention: the two actors who have played by the character in films. The first was Ian McKellen, who brought class and charisma to the role, helping to elevate an overall subpar first film. However large his role, McKellen truly excelled as the character, crafting one of the best comic book movie villains.

But if McKellen’s performance is excellent, then due credit must be given to Michael Fassbender for his take on the character in X-Men: First Class. While I thought Fassbender was sleepwalking through Days of Future Past (a performance even he isn’t happy with), and was downright horrible in the all around awful Apocalypse, I can’t deny his excellent debut. Magneto is the heart of First Class, with the most emotional journey. Here, we get to see a young Magneto, showcasing how a young anti-hero becomes a full fledged villain.

I think what I enjoy most about Magneto is that “magnetism” isn’t just his mutant power; it also defines his personality. His beliefs and powers either attract or repulse. Many mutants almost see him as a savior, and are all too willing to follow him to bases like Avalon or Genosha, or fighting as part of his Brotherhood. But there are others, like a few of the X-Men, who mistrust him so completely that they won’t trust him even when he has a point to make. It takes conviction and charisma to be the kind of controversial, divisive figure that Erik is. It’s no wonder that he’s considered one of the greatest characters in comics.

Special Project Announcement
While I enjoy focusing on one character or storyline at a time, it does mean that I go through characters very slowly. As such, I think it might be helpful to create an easy access reference for who my favorite characters are and where they rank; starting in October, I will be compiling a list of the 52 Top DC Heroes, the first of a series of four lists. However, before I start the project, I want some input from the readers regarding something that DC has a knack for doing. Should the list include anti-heroes like Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Deadshot, etc., or are these characters better suited to a villains list?

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Michael Ornelas and I write weekly on 411, taking turns introducing each other to films the other hasn’t seen. Last week, Michael introduced me to the excellent City of God. This week, Michael joins me as I rewatch the classic comedy film The Graduate.