Favorite Fictional Characters, #103: Magneto
I came to comics in the early-to-mid 1980s, just as the great Claremont-Byrne run on The X-Men was wrapping up. That was my foundational exposure to the genre, and in many ways that's where my Marvel Universe still exists, in the era of the original Secret Wars, not long after the death of Jean Grey, right before comics began chasing a downward spiral of mega-crossovers and too-frequent seismic events. There was a reliable stability to the Marvel world then, a more sedate and richer storytelling, and when huge events happened, they weren't quickly forgotten, but resonated for a long time. One of the biggest was the attempted redemption of Magneto.
Magneto began as a classic villain, a tin-plated megalomaniac bent on conquering the world. The slightly different slant was that he was a mutant, and his cause was tinged with racial politics, as he sought a world where mutants ruled (and he ruled the mutants). As time went on, layers of nuance were added, and Magneto emerged as the Malcolm X counterpoint to Professor X's Dr. King, a militant advocate for his race in the face of its oppression and persecution. His fears are rooted in his own past, and his own experience with humanity's capacity for inhumanity. Magneto is a mutant, but he's also Jewish, and spent time in Nazi concentration camps, retaining his numerical tattoo as a talisman of what he believes will happen to mutants unless they fight back.
The softening of Magneto began with a glimpse at his possible future alignment with the X-Men in the seminal Days of Future Past storyline. Then, during a fight, he nearly kills Kitty Pryde, and is immediately shaken by how close in age she was to his own long-ago slain daughter. The reality of how far he had strayed from his own dreams forces him into a period of soul-searching that eventually results in his resumption of a very old friendship with Charles Xavier. He attempts, for quite a while, to walk the path of the righteous man, but it is never truly a good fit. Eventually he relapses, and resumes methods most would deem evil.
The casting of Magneto in the Marvel films was excellent - hey, who am I to argue with Sir Ian? - though the movies themselves were bilious. Michael Fassbender is fine, though it's nearly impossible to achieve the immense gravitas of Magneto on screen. It's one of the reasons Doom and other top-tier supervillains are so hard to portray effectively.
This is a lengthy (and incomplete) assessment of Magneto. He is a complex, proud, inherently defiant man with an absolute sense of justice that in his mind excuses his methods. He has always been the X-Men's most powerful, terrifying foe, and his dalliance with the angels only serves to heighten the intimacy and urgency of their rivalry. Magneto is a towering presence in the Marvel Universe, plagued by dread and doubts and yet convinced that only he is willing to do what must be done.