Magneto was the very first X-Men villain when the comic book series debuted in 1963. Since then, he has evolved along with the comic book characters and has long been much more than a simple villain.
When X-MEN came to movie theatres in 2000, Magneto, then played by Ian McKellen, was a natural choice for the bad guy. But even on the big screen, the Master of Magnetism was three-dimensional, with a history rooted in the Holocaust and a fierce desire to protect mutants. Now, in DARK PHOENIX, Michael Fassbender’s version of one of the great X-Men characters may get to fly in new directions.
More Than a Villain
Marvel Comics honcho Stan Lee once said he “did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist … he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly, he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course … but I never thought of him as a villain.”
One of the big developments for Magneto in the comics came in 1984, with the prototype crossover event “Secret Wars.” An alien whisks costumed heroes and villains off to a custom-created world, where they’re meant to battle one another. Understanding Magneto’s intent to fight for the rights of mutants, the alien put him in the “good guy” camp, causing a stir amongst the heroes and readers.
That principle has been in play ever since, as Magneto has reformed, been stripped of his powers and lived on both sides of the line between good and evil.
Back to School
To look at Magneto’s future, we have to scan back through his past. The current version of Magneto, aka Erik Lehnsherr, played by Michael Fassbender, was introduced in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. That film drew on several different comic book ideas as it cast Fassbender as a younger version of Lehnsherr than the Ian McKellen version in the original X-MEN films. Fassbender’s incarnation can be persuaded to work with Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and other lawful forces, so long as the interests of mutants are prioritized.
But when Lehnsherr is given the chance to avenge the death of his mother at the hands of a Nazi researcher, he takes it. Violently. In so doing, he tips himself toward villain status. The end of each film sees him seemingly having learned something about himself and retreating toward the margins to regroup. After FIRST CLASS, he tried to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy and failed. Imprisoned as DAYS OF FUTURE PAST begins, Magneto nearly killed Richard M. Nixon but was talked out of the action, which helped avert a dire future for mutants.
Following those intense events, which also revealed Magneto’s status as a mutant to the entire public, Lehnsherr fell back to his native Poland, where he married and had a daughter. His identity is revealed during X-MEN: APOCALYPSE, however. His family is killed, and the powerful mutant ultimately sides with Apocalypse. With his destructive power amplified by Apocalypse, Magneto causes worldwide devastation but is ultimately pulled back to his senses. Rather than staying to work with Charles Xavier and the X-Men, he heads out on his own again.
Rising Like a Phoenix
As DARK PHOENIX begins nearly a decade after the end of APOCALYPSE, Magneto has taken control of the island sanctuary Genosha. In the comics, this is a nation of mutants, which Magneto has ruled in more than one storyline. While the character has led bands of fighters in all of the X-MEN movies, now he is finally a true leader. Writer/director Simon Kinberg (above, left) says, “It’s like Magneto’s Israel — a land built for mutants, a homeland where they can be safe and self-sufficient.”
Sophie Turner’s Jean Grey, having lost control of her powers, seeks out Genosha, in the hopes that Magneto might act as a mentor. After all, he has done his own share of evil in the past and now stands as a positive figure.
But when Jean goes fully out of control — perhaps manipulated by Jessica Chastain’s mysterious character — Erik Lehnsherr has to go into battle against her. Ironically, this puts him in the position Charles Xavier was in against him many times before. He’s trying to stop a former friend who has been driven to the edge of sanity by her own power.
Meanwhile, the X-Man Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is, unbeknownst to Magneto, the son of the Genosha leader. We don’t know if their relationship will be revealed to Lehnsherr, much less how he’ll react. We just hope the troubled survivor can find some kind of peace, at last.
DARK PHOENIX opens on June 7.