X-Men vol. 1 #112 © 1978 Marvel Comics. COVER ART BY GEORGE PÉREZ AND BOB LAYTON.
Ian McKellen as Magneto in X2: X-Men United (2003).
Magneto (pop culture)
Magneto has been the X-Men's foremost nemesis from the very beginning, and one of the greatest supervillains in the Marvel canon. Created by editor/writer Stan Lee and artist/co-plotter Jack Kirby, Magneto debuted in X-Men vol. 1 #1 (1963) when he commenced his war on the human race by taking over the American missile base at the fictional Cape Citadel, only to be thwarted by the XMen in their first public appearance. One of Earth's most powerful mutants, Magneto has the mental ability to manipulate the forces of magnetism, enabling Magneto to levitate and reshape iron and steel at will, including adamantium, the steel alloy bonded to the skeleton of XMen member Wolverine. Theoretically Magneto can control all forms of electromagnetic energy, including light. At the height of his abilities, Magneto has proved capable of creating an electromagnetic pulse that paralyzes electronic technology throughout the planet. Some stories even attribute psychic abilities to Magneto, including astral projection. Magneto also possesses advanced knowledge of genetic engineering and has thus artificially created superpowered mutants. Whereas the X-Men's founder, Professor Charles Xavier, dresses in an ordinary business suit, Magneto in the comics adopts a regal costume including a helmet, apparently adapted by Kirby from those worn by ancient Etruscan warriors. The X-Men movies and comics from the 2000s assert that the helmet shields Magneto from Xavier's telepathic powers. Lee and Kirby established that the long-standing war between Magneto and Xavier's is based in ideological conflict over the strategy that the emerging race of super-powerful mutants should adopt in a world where they are a minority. Xavier pursues his “dream” of peaceful coexistence, but Magneto contends that only through force can mutants will attain freedom from racial oppression. Lee and Kirby created X-Men and Magneto in the early 1960s, during the rise of the African-American civil rights movement, and Bryan Singer, the director of the first two X-Men movies (2000, 2003), has compared Xavier to Martin Luther King, Jr., who advocated peaceful demonstrations for civil rights. However, in the first movie, Singer pointedly has Magneto quote another African-American leader, Malcolm X, when he asserts that he will achieve his goals “by any means necessary.” Lee and Kirby were also members of the World War II generation, and they may have conceived Magneto as a neo-fascist reminiscent of the Nazis: Magneto has often maintained that mutants, “Homo superior,” are a master race whose superior power proves their worthiness to rule “inferior” humans. In X-Men #4 (1964) Magneto returned as the leader of a team with the unlikely name of the “Brotherhood of Evil Mutants,” a sinister counterpart to the X-Men, whose original membership comprised the Toad, Mastermind, and the siblings Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Through the Brotherhood and the subversive organization Hydra, Lee and Kirby foreshadowed the rise of contemporary terrorist organizations, independent of national borders, with Magneto as the charismatic ideological leader. In X-Men #5 (1964) Lee and Kirby created Magneto's original “Asteroid M” base, which orbits Earth as the villain's headquarters. In X-Men #11 (1965), the alien Stranger removed Magneto from Earth, supposedly forever, but Magneto escaped to menace the X-Men repeatedly in their series' original run. Though X-Men was canceled in 1970, Magneto continued to appear in other Marvel series, battling the X-Men and other heroes, including the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Defenders. Over the decades Magneto has guest starred in Fantastic Four, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and Captain America, among other series. At the conclusion of The Defenders #16 (1974) a mutant called Alpha reverted Magneto to the form of a helpless infant, and Xavier took him into custody. Shortly after the mid-1970s revival of the X-Men comic, Magneto returned to adulthood and renewed his war with Xavier's mutants (X-Men #104, 1977). However, the X-Men's new writer, Chris Claremont, wearied of the traditional depiction of Magneto as irredeemably evil. In various stories, notably The Uncanny X-Men #161 (1982), Claremont filled in Magneto's backstory. Magneto's “real” name was Erik Magnus Lehnsherr. (One story established this to be an alias, but Marvel has since ignored this fact.) As a child Magneto was imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp in Auschwitz, Poland, during World War II; although Claremont did not make it explicit, the comics and movies have established Magneto as Jewish. (Magneto's ethnicity makes his later embrace of a neo-fascist “master race” philosophy particularly ironic.) After the war, Lehnsherr and his new wife, Magda, had a daughter named Anya. When a crowd refused to save Anya from dying in a burning building, the enraged Lehnsherr struck out at them with his newly emerged magnetic powers. Horrified, Magda fled from her husband and apparently perished soon after giving birth to twins Pietro and Wanda, who grew up to become Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. Lehnsherr's experiences in Auschwitz made him determined that the emerging mutant race would not suffer a similar fate. (The present-day comics version of Magneto does not look old enough to have been alive in the 1940s. The reason is that when Magneto was restored to adulthood in X-Men #104, he became physically far younger than his actual chronological age.) Under the name “Magnus,” he befriended Xavier while both were living in Israel, where they debated the proper course for mutantkind. Ultimately, Magnus decided on preparing for his war against the human race. In Uncanny X-Men #150 (1981), after nearly killing the teenage X-Men member Kitty Pryde, who reminded him of Anya, Magneto suffered a crisis of conscience. Claremont intended to portray Magneto as a terrorist who matures into a statesman, and so Magneto became the X-Men's ally. In fact, when Xavier became incapacitated, he appointed Magneto to take charge of his school for mutants (Uncanny X-Men #200, 1985). This Magneto became the New Mutants' headmaster. In the early 1980s Magneto, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch finally learned they were father, son, and daughter. Other Marvel writers and editors have sharply disagreed with Claremont's treatment of Magneto. Eventually, Claremont established that Xavier's colleague Dr. Moira MacTaggert had manipulated Magneto's mind when the latter had reverted to infancy, thereby “brainwashing” him into eventual reform in X-Men vol. 2 #1–#3 (1991). With Claremont's departure from Marvel in 1991, editors and writers returned to Lee and Kirby's original characterization. Magneto once again made war on all humanity. Following one of his onslaughts, the United Nations sought to appease Magneto by awarding him the rulership of Genosha, an island nation of mutants. Unsurprisingly, Magneto used his new country as a base from which to launch further attempts at world domination. Eventually Genosha was attacked by robot Sentinels dispatched by Xavier's evil fraternal twin Cassandra Nova. Perhaps responding to the dangers posed by terrorists of the twenty-first century, writers such as Grant Morrison (in New X-Men) and Mark Millar (in Ultimate X-Men) have portrayed Magneto as far more ruthless and even bloodthirsty than ever before. In their stories Magneto openly speaks of enslaving or exterminating the human race, or even using them for food. Finally, in New X-Men #150 (2004), at the end of Morrison's stint as the series' writer, Wolverine beheaded Magneto with a swipe of his claws. Or had he? After a decade's absence, Claremont returned to writing books in Marvel's X-Men family of titles, and the first issue of Claremont's new version of Excalibur (2004) ended with Magneto showing up, alive, to aid Xavier in caring for the mutants left living amid the devastation of Genosha. Morrison's Magneto had apparently been an impostor, and Claremont had brought back his kinder, gentler version of Magneto as the Real McCoy. So competing interpretations of Magneto in Marvel comics continue, and it remains to be seen which one will eventually prevail. Magneto has starred in several of his own comics miniseries and has appeared on television in X-Men: The Animated Series (1992–1997) and the animated X-Men: Evolution (2000–2003). But it was the first X-Men movie (2000) through which the character first achieved fame beyond the comic-book audience. Director Bryan Singer persuaded English actor Ian McKellen, with whom he had previously worked in the film Apt Pupil (1998), to play the role. Considered by many to be the leading British classical actor of his generation, McKellen gives Magneto intelligence, gravitas, and even a subtle humor that are lacking in the ranting egotist that so many past comics have depicted. Singer utilized Claremont's backstory that Magneto was an inmate at Auschwitz, but ignored the comicbook Magneto's continuing youthfulness. McKellen, in his sixties, credibly portrays a man who was a child during World War II. In casting another English classical actor, Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, opposite McKellen, Singer helped dramatize Claremont's vision of the two mutant leaders as former colleagues and friends. In the first film Magneto heads a mutant Brotherhood. In the sequel, X2: XMen United (2003), Magneto attempts to bring about the genocide of all non-mutant humans; hence, McKellen's Magneto resembles the most malevolent comic-book versions of the character. A third X-Men movie, including McKellen as Magneto, was released in 2006, and Marvel and Twentieth Century Fox have discussed a Magneto spin-off film, dealing with the character's youth.
The Supervillain Book: The Evil Side of Comics and Hollywood © 2006 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.