So how should we view the Master of Magnetism – is Magneto a villain? Or is he a hero? Or is he, perhaps, something inbetween?
Well, in his first appearances, Magneto was pretty much your textbook villain – he was created by Stan Lee, and, as wonderful as Stan is, he hasn’t always been good at creating complex villains. I mean, he originally put Magneto as leader of the self-proclaimed Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.
It was under Chris Claremont that Magneto became a three-dimensional character. This legendary X-scribe gave Magneto a backstory steeped in tragedy; Magneto, we learned, had suffered terribly during the Holocaust. Claremont gave us a haunting secondary story in ‘Classic X-Men #12’, and Marvel chose to tell the full story in the superb ‘Magneto Testament’ miniseries, revealing a man who had seen humanity at its worst.
This, then, became Magneto’s motivation. He had already seen what prejudice could do when taken to its logical conclusion; and he believed that he was about to see it again. He believed that he’d see attempted genocide, murder, and internment camps… And the scary thing is, over his lifetime, he’s been proved right. At one point Magneto successfully ruled a mutant nation, but that was wiped out by Sentinels; and in the ashes of Genosha, the Red Skull would ultimately build… a mutant internment camp. When the mutant race was decimated, the Human Council launched a near-successful campaign to eradicate the last remaining mutants during ‘Second Coming’. Everything that Magneto predicted came to pass.
Atrocities have been carried out in Magneto’s name, it is true, but many of them he wasn’t party to. He actually tried to rein in the Acolytes’ brutality, surprisingly enough; and it wasn’t Magneto who took over Manhattan and created camps for humans. As he himself observes, though, that wouldn’t necessarily be beyond him.
However, at various times Magneto has locked himself into a game of ever-escalating violence, never more so than during ‘Fatal Attractions’. This arc included a moment when, furious that humans had attacked his home of Avalon, Magneto released a worldwide electromagnetic pulse.
All over the world, people died. The power supply at hospitals failed; planes were downed; global communication systems were damaged. Often forgotten by readers, this was possibly the single most devastating act of mutant violence ever. And, sure, he’s been goaded; but did he really have the right to take it out on the entire human race?
In more recent times, Magneto seems to have sobered – seems to have, for his reaction to pro-mutant demonstrations in ‘All-New X-Men’ suggests he harbours a bitter hatred of humanity even now. And so he has taken it upon himself to become defender of the mutant race, hunting those who would harm mutants, and dealing with them in a fashion that the Punisher would find acceptable, but that few other heroes would appreciate. Ironically, his reduced level of power is probably helping stabilise him, as Chris Claremont heavily implied that Magneto’s powers damage his own nervous system.
Is Magneto a villain? Well, he certainly was one. I’m sorry, but planetwide devastation isn’t exactly a heroic act, even if the guy has been proved disturbingly right. Nowadays, he’s playing the role of vigilante, but I can kind of understand why S.H.I.E.L.D. are worried – heaven help the Marvel Universe if he’s restored to full power.