The X-Men succeed in spite of their actual content. I recently reread the entire run of Uncanny X-Men and let me tell you, most of it is terrible. The X-Men are so beloved and important because they are a bunch of hot mutant freaks who have crazy soap opera sex, catty fights, and TONS of kink, all with a backdrop that allows anyone to connect their struggle to it. Seriously, what else do awkward teenagers want? The X-Men comics are terrible at reflecting the real history of civil rights, but the fans are great at transforming the X-Men into something that does (while also thinking way too much about which mutants they would have crazy soap opera sex with). I know far, far too many people who love the X-Men but have never read an issue because the comics are impenetrably convoluted. More than any other comic franchise, the X-Men have he largest divide between fans of the characters and fans of the actual comic.
But it makes the characters fun to talk about! Slight spoilers for the newest X-Men movie and some X-Men comics from 2001.
Magneto (Erik Lehnsherr) is one of comicdom’s greatest villains. He can be played as a tragic figure, an abusive madman, a desperate man failing to overcome his demons, a dictator with illusions of nobility, a reluctant hero, and many more all without violating his central character. Magneto was the X-Men’s first villain, but it wasn’t until Chris Claremont began exploring Magneto’s backstory as a holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier that the character became much more than a generic ranting lunatic.
Even his first re-appearance in Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men issues holds on to his past appearances. He locks the X-Men up to in science chairs that reduce them to the mentality of children and builds a robot nanny to humiliate them while he stands to the side and rants. Not exactly the Magneto most people think of. It wasn’t until one of his schemes ended with him almost killing the newly-recruited Kitty Pryde that Magneto began opening up and trying to change. Could Magneto really be capable of redemption? Was his villainous past a reflection of the oppression he faced? Despite his terrible methods, does he really only care about his people’s liberation?
The answer is: no. Magneto is an abusive villain through and through. His skill is in convincing everyone, even the reader, that THIS time he has changed.
Magneto likes to present himself as a tragic, noble figure but look at his history. Magneto is a murderer, and has no problems including fellow mutants into his list of targets when it suits him. Hell, one time he got so angry at his son he crushed him to death (luckily for Quicksilver it was undone by his reality-warping sister who then uh you know what? Never mind). Magneto treats his friends like crap and his lovers as disposable. The people who know him the best and care about him (Toad, Xavier, Rogue) all accept that he is not capable of truly caring for them back, but those who flock to his banner learn the hard way how disposable he considers everyone else. His children admonish him for caring more for his cause than for his family, but to be honest he can be just as likely to screw over his current cause to help out one of his children if it suits him to do so. He will quickly forget his hatred of humanity when he wants to get laid, and then just as quickly remember it as justification for abandoning his newest lover (or to present himself as the victim when in reality she just got sick of him talking to her as if she were garbage). Magneto isn’t entirely heartless, he does genuinely want a world where mutants are safe, but more than that he wants a world where HE gets what he wants. More than anything else, Magneto cares about himself, and everything else will always come second.
Magneto is the Hugo Schwyzer of the mutant-rights movement. He is every sketchy dude at the protest speaking over everyone else. He is every abusive activist who uses “community” as a means of finding new victims. He is someone who will throw anyone under any bus (or with his powers, the reverse) if he thinks for a second it will help him. Worse yet, he gets away with it because he is so manipulative and so charismatic. I mean, have you seen that dude? He is the hottest octogenarian in history! He’s stylish as hell! We all WANT to believe that he didn’t really mean to try and kill us and that this time he’s changed and isn’t THE CAUSE more important than our silly little anger at him?
People often like to compare the Xavier and Magneto dynamic to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Let me rephrase that: WHITE people often like to compare the Xavier and Magneto dynamic to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. This is a facile and insulting comparison for a number of reasons. For one thing, MLK and Malcolm X aren’t a binary, and it is certainly troubling to compare real world people to fictional super heroes and villains. When people make that comparison they are basically saying “Malcolm X’s philosophy is evil because Magneto is evil” and that is some straight up bs right there. Malcolm X made some people in power uncomfortable, but he never waged genocidal war in response to the very real racism of his country. MLK advocated cooperation and diplomacy, but he also had no problems calling out bs from those of privilege, making a lot of noise, and going against the law when the law was unjust. This is one of the problems with a franchise designed to call back to the history of our country’s racism being written by young white dudes with no real desire to understand that history (before you start on me, I know! #NotAllXMenWriters! Ok?). Reducing MLK and Malcolm X to a binary does a disservice to the entire civil rights movement, and honestly it doesn’t even serve the X-Men mythos anyways.
Xavier’s history isn’t really that much better than Magneto’s. He’s a psychiatrist who dates and uses his patients and a teacher who lusts after his teenage students. He throws children in dangerous situations (not just the X-Men, but his long history of throwing mutant kids into dangerous, decades-long deep-cover missions). He had no problem controlling minds, erasing memories (including once wiping away Cyclops’ memory of one of his own siblings because it was easier to do that than say “hey I think I got one of your brothers killed!”) and violating he minds of entire planets. As a teacher, he tends to treat his students like crap. He will ditch his students and his cause to run off to the other side of the universe if it means getting to have sex with a hot bird alien, and then has no problem ditching his lover and her people when he gets bored of that. He’s a great speaker, yes, but how can you not be when your mutant power involves knowing EXACTLY what your audience wants to hear? Xavier is just a narcissist as Magneto, and the thing that eventually saves him from becoming as much of a sociopath as Erik is the nature of his power.
Young Xavier is a shit because no one can hide anything from him and he can force his will upon anyone. His powers are inherently manipulative, and it shows in how Xavier tended to treat people. But telepathy is a two-way street. Knowing what everyone was truly thinking meant that, slowly, empathy was thrust onto Xavier. He’s still selfish and self-righteous and not the saint he tends to present himself as, but being unable to NOT be exposed to every possible view meant that Xavier eventually learned to think beyond himself. Magneto’s powers are also manipulative, but on the physical realm rather than the mental. Magneto can force his will on anyone as well, but doing so does not then force empathy onto him the same way Xavier’s telepathy does. Instead, it intrenches his narcissism. Is it any wonder that Magneto sees other people as little more than tools that must be bent and coerced? Xavier may be a self-righteous prick at times, but he at least is now capable of acknowledging other people exist AS people.
This dynamic is expertly played in the newest X-Movie Days of Future Past. This is why Magneto is such a great villain, because is evil is a reflection of a very real form of evil. Ian McKellen played a delightfully vampy and manipulative Magneto in the original X-Men movies, but Michael Fassbender’s young Magneto REALLY highlights how scummy and abusive he is. Watch the difference in how Fassbender talks to Xavier and Mystique. Watch how despite his rhetoric he has no problem murdering any of his people when it seems convenient to do so. Watch how Xavier and Mystique each react as it finally dawns on them that he doesn’t actually care about them. Watch how even as he is in the process of MURDERING HIS FELLOW MUTANTS he expertly convinces a generation of young, disenfranchised mutants to flock to his banner as their savior. Compare that to the fact that James McAvoy’s selfish prat Professor X eventually does grow up to be lovable Patrick Strwart. Fassbender/McKellen Magneto is a dude who would fucking RULE #MutantTwitter and would have no shortage of human allies defending him every time an actual mutant activist points out his problematic behavior or comes forward with a story of abuse.
Wow, seriously, I just realized how great a “human allies defend Magneto and he takes advantage of that to trash the X-Men” story would be! That is another problem with the X-Men being written almost exclusively by dudes who have never actually faced oppression in any way. The idea that humans and mutants would each be a monolith is so limiting to X-storytelling.
In some ways, the X-Men do a terrible job as a metaphor for race relations. A bunch of pretty white WASPs with murder-powers who can hide their mutations is never going to have the same dynamic as real world racism. Arguably the X-Men best represent the battle between generations. Go ahead, take a shitty “millennials” article and replace that word with “mutant” and see what I mean. Each generation fears and hates what will come. At the same time, each new generation resents the previous generation for their failures. Only one writer really explored what then will happen when mutant figureheads like Xavier and Magneto become the “old generation” and a new generation emerges that resents them just as much as terrifies them.
Grant Morrison’s New X-Men run introduced a lot of good ideas that never really got explored further. Mutant culture for one thing. For a community of people with bizarre anatomies, what would their fashion look like? What would mutant music sound like? What about humans who fetishized mutants? Or humans desperate to “look” or “act” mutant? What about young mutants who saw how little either Xavier or Magneto really accomplished and then demanded new solutions?
The way Xavier and Magneto each respond to this challenge is fascinating. Xavier’s challenge comes from a group of students at his school starting a riot and storming the dean’s office. Instantly Xavier’s dream school is transformed into a riot of kids screaming about humans being murderers and mutant isolationism. Xavier continually tries to reason with them, tells them everything his power says they want to hear, but it doesn’t work. The kids don’t care what he has to say. Sure, the kids are all drugged-up punks without any actual plan themselves, but shouldn’t he have been able to help them before they got to that point? Shouldn’t his rhetoric have done something more when it was what everyone wanted to hear? The riot ends in several student deaths and Xavier steps down as headmaster. He resolves to better understand this new generation of mutants before he presumes to command anyone again.
Magneto appears to die in the first story-arc of New X-Men, and is overnight turned into a mutant martyr. His face adorns t-shirts and “Magneto Was Right” graffiti covers every building in the mutant neighborhoods. When he makes his spectacular re-emergence, he has no problem convincing another group of impressionable young mutants to join him. His plan goes perfect and within a day he has captured New York and is penning the humans into cages. But the Magneto who the young kids turned into an icon is not the same as the real Magneto. The mutant crowds get bored with Magneto’s speeches and most of them grew up with at least one human friend anyways. Why do they need to commit genocide? They’re WINNING the culture war! Mutant chic is a thing! Humans are starting to become desperate to be mutant! What does Magneto actually propose they DO other than murder humans? What are his political plans? What programs does he want to spearhead? Magneto’s chosen young mutants grow less and less impressed with him, and rather than see that as an opportunity to learn, Magneto gets pissed. How dare anyone challenge him or expect him to propose legislation. He’s in control now, so why is it so difficult? So he begins taking mutant drugs, murders some of his kids, loses the crowd, comes to the uncomfortable realization that he did more to accomplish his dream dead than alive, and provokes Wolverine into decapitating him.
Sadly this was all retconed almost immediately. Claremont himself was so pissed at this story that he had his very next X-issue in the stands be about Magneto and Xavier hanging out as buds and talking about how ANYONE WHO REALLY GOT MAGNETO would know Morrisson’s Magneto was a fake. How perfect is it that Magneto is so good at being an abusive manipulator that he even convinced the writer who helped define him that he’s really a good person?