He’s earned his rest.
Magneto has stood the test of time as one of Marvel’s greatest creations because he’s as flawed and tragic and compelling as any other Marvel character, hero or villain. You may not support his methods, but you darn well understand why he does what he does. But as great a character as Magneto is, even he manages to wear out his welcome sometimes. After 55 years, maybe it’s time for Marvel to finally retire this mutant villain.
I don’t say that lightly. Magneto is easily among my favorite pop culture characters ever. Few things captured my imagination as a kid like reading X-Men #1 and seeing Chris Claremont’s words and Jim Lee’s art bringing the Master of Magnetism to life. I still remember feeling chills watching the Season 1 finale of X-Men: The Animated Series and seeing Magneto wax poetic about the brave always being the first to die. You don’t know whether to hate the guy or pledge your life to his cause. Many of the X-Men have done both.
The problem with Magneto, though, is that he inevitably reaches a point where creators no longer seem sure of what to do with the character. How many times have we revisited his tragic origin and seen Erik shift from hero to villain and back again? How many times can he renew his vow of vengeance upon humanity before his shtick grows tired?
The announcement of X-Men Black is an uncomfortable reminder of Magneto’s increasingly stagnant place in the X-Men franchise. On one hand, the prospect of Claremont himself returning to write a standalone story about Magneto is very appealing. On the other, I can’t help but be reminded that Claremont himself attempted to kill off Magneto in 1991’s X-Men #3, bringing the iconic mutant villain’s story to a suitably tragic close. Marvel, naturally, didn’t allow that death to stick, and he returned in time for the 1994 crossover Fatal Attractions. Later on, Grant Morrison and Phil Jimenez killed Magneto in 2003’s New X-Men #150. In that case, Marvel barely waited a few weeks after the conclusion of New X-Men to resurrect the Master of Magnetism. And in the process, they transformed Xorn from a simple Magneto cover identity into one of the most convoluted characters in the most convoluted franchise in superhero comics.
Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men run is widely regarded as the gold standard for this particular franchise. It’s almost unheard of for one writer to remain onboard a book for 16 years straight. Claremont’s genius was to use that unbroken stretch of time to allow his characters to evolve in significant but organic ways. There was a constant process of characters facing hardships and falling in love and growing older and retiring from the team while younger heroes replaced them. Magneto himself evolved from your typical blustering supervillain to a dignified, death-haunted Holocaust survivor just as likely to side with the X-Men as against them.
Sadly, there was a point in the late ’80s where Marvel editorial began taking an increasingly heavy-handed approach to the X-Men franchise. New spinoff books debuted. Professor X and the original five X-Men were suddenly dragged back into active duty. Flashy artwork began trumping story. Claremont eventually left the franchise because he no longer had the storytelling freedom he once enjoyed. It’s telling that the very first thing Claremont did when he launched X-Men Forever (a 2009 alternate universe series that picked up right where X-Men #3 left off), was to confirm Magneto’s death.
Claremont’s Uncanny X-Men work proves that the franchise functions best when it’s allowed to operate as a long, continuously evolving superhero soap opera. Magneto’s resurrection was one of the more tangible signs that progress had come to a sudden halt in the early ’90s. It wasn’t until Morrison’s New X-Men that a writer came on board who showed a similar determination to bring change and evolution to the franchise. Many fans took umbrage with Morrison’s depiction of Magneto as an unstable, drug-addicted old man long past his prime, but that was the point. Morrison wanted to show that Magneto had outlived his usefulness as a character and a symbol for the mutant race to rally behind. He wanted to finally push the franchise beyond the familiar Xavier/Magneto dynamic that had dominated X-Men stories since the beginning.
Looking back at the 15 years’ worth of Magneto stories following New X-Men, I’m not convinced the franchise has actually benefited much from having him around. Sure, there have been some great stories in that time thanks to books like Brian Bendis’ X-Men run and Cullen Bunn’s Magneto series. But by and large, the character has just sort of chugged along, becoming just another member of the X-Men rather than a pivotal player in the Marvel Universe.
Based on what little we know about X-Men Black so far, it appears that Marvel is trying to restore Magneto to a more traditional costume and status quo. That certainly falls in line with the larger “back to basics” approach we’ve seen from the publisher over the past year. But is even that enough to restore Magneto to greatness? Again, we’ve seen him flip-flop between hero and villain so many times now that there’s no novelty value left. Just look at what a drag he’s become on the X-Men cinematic universe, with Fox seemingly unable to make an ensemble movie that doesn’t feature Magneto as a major antagonist.
At this point, the best thing Marvel can do for the character is to finally kill him off for good. Magneto may hold more power as a symbol and a martyr for the mutant race than he does as an active player in the X-Men comics. Marvel needs to do what it was reluctant to do in 1991 and 2003 and let Magneto die. Let him become a symbol, and let his death serve as a catalyst to push the X-Men forward again.
Granted, I have no illusions about this actually happening. Magneto is simply too popular a character to keep off the table for long, regardless of how stagnant his stories might become. Not to mention the fact that he’s likely going to be making his Marvel Cinematic Universe debut within the next few years. Still, the comic book industry can’t survive without publishers taking big risks now and then. Would it really be such a bad thing for Marvel to bring Magneto’s story to an end and focus on creating the next great X-Men villain?
“Between the Panels” is a monthly column from Jesse Schedeen that focuses on the world of comics. You can see more of his thoughts on comics and pop culture by following @jschedeen on Twitter, or Kicksplode on MyIGN.