Spoilers for the X-Men movies, particularly X-Men: First Class
“When I was a boy, I saw men executed. Women and children. Each night, I swore to myself, never again. But, we must prevail. Goodbye, Senator. Mutant liberation begins.” X-men: The Animated Series
A man floats down from the sky, surveying the crowd before him. He sees people that have been ostracized, some feared for their monstrous appearances, some hated for their strange, miraculous powers. He sees men and women too scared to venture where normal people may see them and children with haunted eyes, forced to grow up far too soon by the world’s cruelty. He sees his faithful Acolytes, fury etched on their faces by the pain the crowd has suffered, eager for justice to be served. He sees all of this and once more is reminded of his past, of the furnaces, and the camps. And as he begins to speak, Magneto swears to his mutant brethren, “Never again.”
From Auschwitz to Genosha: Magneto in Comics (Backstory)
Callisto: If you’re so proud of being a mutant, where’s your mark?
Magneto: I have been marked once, my dear, and let me assure you, [pulls back his sleeve to reveal the Nazi concentration camp serial number tattooed on his arm] no needle shall ever touch my skin again. X-men 3: The Last Stand
Born Max Eisenhardt*, the boy who would become Magneto had a simple life until Germany launched an invasion of Poland. As a Jew, Max and his family were be sent to a concentration camp where Max was forced to work as a sonderkommando** and his parents were killed. Max was eventually freed, manifesting his powers in the process. Lacking control of his powers, he was captured and sent to Auschwitz where he met his eventual wife, Magda, who he later escaped with during the Birkenau Revolt.***
Adopting the alias of Magnus, Max settled down with Magda in Ukraine, eventually having a daughter named Anya. However, when Magnus used his powers in a moment of anger, the town attacked his family. Restrained and beaten by the KGB, Magnus watched in horror as Anya was burned to death when the townspeople set their house ablaze, and when Magnus lashed out with his powers to avenge her, Magda fled in fear of his power and rage.
Desperate to distance himself from the horrors he had seen, Magnus gave himself a new name, Erik Magnus Lehnsherr, and traveled the world learning all that he could with a particular focus on his powers of electromagnetism. During his travels, he met his greatest friend and enemy, Charles Xavier.
They discussed several things, most importantly the mutant phenomenon. Charles, ever the idealist, thought that humans and mutants could coexist, but Erik feared that mutants would be made to suffer the same horrors as the Jews. They parted ways as friends, but would next meet as enemies.
The Brotherhood of (evil) Mutants: Magneto in Comics
“No more Magnus… No more!! Logan shall be the last! No one else will ever suffer! You caused the deaths of hundreds today, Magnus – deaths I could have prevented had I stopped you years ago! You have killed too many, Magnus – and I have had enough!! I will make sure – here and now – once and for all – that you never kill again!!” -Charles Xavier before mindwiping Magneto
Having seen humanity’s hatred for mutants, Erik finally decided to protect mutants by any means necessary. Gathering several like-minded mutants, he created the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants in an attempt to conquer the world. He and his brotherhood would wind up fighting Charles’ own group, The X-Men. Though never managing to defeat them for long, Magneto still fought for mutantkind, even regaining his youthful strength when the High Evolutionary (a mad scientist and enemy of Thor) regressed him back to a child (he would later be regressed back to about 30 something).
Magneto would eventually join the X-Men after wounding Shadowcat, a fellow Jewish mutant, and realizing how far he’d fallen. While he remained good for a time, Magneto eventually returned to villainy, if somewhat mellower about it. Since then, his morality has been like a revolving door. He is sometimes good and sometimes bad, but always does what he thinks will help mutantkind.
Magneto would eventually be given the island nation of Genosha by the U.N., which he turned into a sanctuary for mutants. While attempting to incite the population into war with the humans, he had his powers telepathically severed, weakening him severely. This proved a perfect opportunity for Cassandra Nova (Professor X’s evil twin sister) to unleash a horde of Sentinels to commit mutant genocide, destroying Genosha, and seemingly killing Magneto, who was later revealed to have survived.
Powers and Ideology
True to his moniker, Magneto has control over the forces of electromagnetism. He can manipulate metal with a thought, has a limited amount of telepathic abilities, and has studied multiple fields of science, which allows him to use his powers in rather unconventional ways. (Or just lets the writers do whatever they want and justify it as “magnets. How do they even work?”)
Using his powers at their full potential does screw with his mind however, so if he wants to remain sane or good, he has to dial back his powers. This is why he’s able to fight a full team of X-Men evenly, but needs their help to stop threats as a hero.
Perhaps his greatest feats of strength are pulling Professor X’s mansion out of the ground, trapping Red Skull underground and nearly driving him (even more) insane, and using his powers to literally tear the adamantium from Wolverine’s bones.
Having suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, Magneto will do anything to keep them from happening to mutants. While some might point out that Magneto‘s ‘mutants first’ policy is similar to the Third Reich’s ‘Aryans first’ policy, Magneto justifies it by saying that he only does what he does to protect mutants and has limits to what he will do, such as refusing to harm children or those he finds ‘innocent.’ His ideas of defending mutants are often compared to Malcolm X’s “defense by any means” policy, while conversely, Professor X’s dream is often compared to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The Actors Who Portrayed Magneto
While Magneto has been portrayed by several actors in various adaptations, the most well known would be Sir Ian McKellen (X-Men 1-3 and Days of Future Past) and Michael Fassbender (First Class, Days of Future Past, Apocalypse). The two of them portray a rather interesting dichotomy between Magneto in his youth vs when he’s older. While Fassbender’s Magneto is more intense, McKellen’s Magneto is calculating and manipulative. Where Fassbender is rash and desires vengeance, McKellen is patient and understands his true goals. And where McKellen is weaker but more experienced, Fassbender is unrefined but at the height of his powers.
Didya get all that?
While he has suffered so much already, Magneto will always be there to protect mutantkind.
*Eisen is German for iron and hardt is German for hard while also being a homophone for the English word hard. so his birth name translates to Max IronHard. How fitting.
** Children who were forced under penalty of death to take the victims from the showers to the furnaces.
*** An uprising where the Sonderkommandos of Auschwitz attempted to take control of the camp so they would not be killed as witnesses to the atrocities committed there. They managed to kill 3 Nazis (including one who burned alive in the crematorium) but 250 of them were killed in return.
Jared Bounacos has written for Movie Rewind since 2017.