There are good guys and there are bad guys, but there are few characters who jump tracks between the two categories quite as often and as forcefully as Magneto. And since he's one of the most, if not the most, powerful and dangerous mutants to keep coming back in X-movie after X-movie, it's probably a good idea to figure out what his whole deal is, before you say something genetically insensitive and get him mad enough to shut off the Internet or something.
With X-Men: Apocalypse heading for the theaters shortly, marking his sixth big-screen appearance, here's what you need to know about the Master of Magnetism.
Like Charles Xavier, Magneto wants peace and happiness for mutantkind: unlike Charles, he's willing to break plenty of human laws - or human bodies - to get there. At least, that's been true more often than not over the many years he's lived and the many stories he's been in. Though some have compared him to Malcolm X, Magneto has gone much further than any would-be race reformer.
He risks becoming an example of a vicious cycle: a man shaped by prejudice and so conscious of it, so angry about it, that he ends up only perpetuating it. Yet he's not completely immune to Charles's peaceful influence, either. That struggle is much of what makes him interesting.
Good or bad, Magneto is a walking WMD, able to move just about anything with metal in it and manipulate any magnetic fields. However powerful you think he is, just multiply by ten to be safe. He has, with little apparent effort, held all the architecture in San Francisco in place during a massive earthquake. An impostor with his exact powers, conversely, destroyed huge swaths of Manhattan. (More on that impostor later.)
He's also played around with gravity, created wormholes, and manipulated the iron in humans' and mutants' bloodstreams. With enough concentration, he's even moved objects in space the size of small planets.
Like Captain America, the beginning of Magneto's story is inextricably tied to World War II: before he was anything else, he was a child prisoner at Auschwitz. But while Cap has the excuse of being frozen in suspended animation for an indeterminate number of years, Magneto in the movies still seems like he'd be at least in his seventies today.
The comics have gotten around this (somewhat) with a story that ended with him and his Brotherhood of Mutants all de-aged into babies, then re-aged to perfection. Also in the comics, his hair was silver even as a teenager, so it's almost impossible to tell how physically old he is today. His powers also make his body sturdier, so it hardly even matters.
Magneto's brief association with Xavier's team in X-Men: First Class was an invention of the movies, but not too far out of character. In the 1980s comics, when Xavier's health was badly failing, Magneto felt a stab of guilt over his past crimes and wondered if Charles's path might have been the right one after all. He took over the X-Men at Xavier's insistence, and resolved to play it Xavier's way.
He couldn't stick to that resolution for too long, but the X-Men are more fragmented these days, and current comics have shown him working alongside more morally gray X-teams. And then there was that story where Magneto-the-villain infiltrated the X-Men in disguise as Xorn, but...
...that "Magneto" turned out to be Xorn disguised as Magneto disguised as Xorn, a soap opera-ish twist that absolved the "real" Magneto of wrecking New York and sending thousands of humans to crematoriums. Marvel didn't want such a dark stain on Magneto's reputation.
But almost any version of him has at least tried the "kill all humans" option. Movie Magneto tried to use a brainwashed Xavier to do it in X2, while in Ultimate X-Men, another version of Magneto got pretty far into a full-scale ethnic cleansing. Regular Marvel Comics Magneto tried various schemes like nuking the world (so we'd all be mutants or dead) or stripping out the Earth's magnetic field.
So if you're the nations of the world and Magneto has just tried to destroy the world, what do you do about it? (A) Try him for his crimes (B) Quietly poison his brandy (C) Fund the X-Men like nobody's business (D) Do what the UN actually did: put him in charge of his own freakin' country, which used to base its economy on mutant slave labor before its revolution, and hope the job of nation-rebuilding keeps him busy.
Astonishingly, this plan failed to backfire. Magneto was really turning the island nation of Genosha into a "mutopia" of peace and prosperity until another X-Men villain said, "Hey, you don't have a monopoly on genocides!" and torched the whole place into ruins.
It's always been awkward that Marvel Studios has farmed some of its best-known characters out to other studios, but things get really awkward with Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who have ties to both the Avengers and the X-Men and so can appear in both franchises.
Magneto has acknowledged them as his kids, and they began their careers as his villain sidekicks before joining the Avengers. But more recent comics have questioned that parentage. In X-Men: Days of Future Past and Apocalypse, a Quicksilver seems to be Magneto's child, but Avengers 2 had another Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch who weren't.
Whatever their status, Magneto still has one daughter, Polaris, who has similar powers to his (albeit weaker) and currently leads the super-team X-Factor.
Give Magneto credit where it's due: he is motivated by more than revenge. If he could wring the necks of the Nazis who tormented him and his family directly, he'd still be driven to make sure no other mutant had to suffer as he'd suffered. We know this, because he's pretty much done just that.
In X-Men: First Class, the movie Magneto breaks with Charles to kill Nazi collaborator Sebastian Shaw with a Nazi coin pushed through his head (very slowly, to neutralize Shaw's kinetic absorption powers). In the comics, Magneto hunted ex-Nazis in his youth and locked the Hitler-created Red Skull in an underground cell, arguably a fate worse than death.
Magneto's birth name was Max Eisenhardt, but he was creating aliases even before his mutant powers manifested, becoming "Erik Magnus Lansherr" to live among the Romani after his family died, then "Erik Magnus" after that quiet life blew up and he met Xavier. He also used the ID "Michael Xavier" when running the X-Men and the Xavier school, for obvious reasons, and recently has been using the alias "Mr. Sullivan" to punish anti-mutant hate crimes on a smaller scale.
Then there are the other people who believed they were Magneto (and made us believe it too) but really weren't: the aforementioned Xorn (seen here) and Joseph, Magneto's hot young clone with Fabio hair.
The 1960s Spider-Man cartoon featured a villain named Matto Magneto (rhymed with "Gepetto") who looked like Albert Einstein and had a magnet gun, but most fans don't count that one. Magneto's first animated appearance as himself - well, a spectacularly dumb version of himself - was in the 1970s Fantastic Four cartoon, in a story where he takes over leadership of the Four and tries to trick them into robbing a bank for him so he can be rich. Yyyyeah.
He showed up again in a couple of Spider-Man cartoons, getting progressively smarter, before finally getting around to taking on the X-Men in the 1989 Pryde of the X-Men pilot and subsequent TV cartoon series.
To call Roy Lichtenstein "controversial" is putting it mildly. Many comics fans appreciate him for the way he tried to turn comics art into fine art, implying that cartoonists' work was worthy of museum status. Others resent him for swiping cartoonists' work and never giving credit.
In any case, Lichtenstein took most of his images from romance, war or Disney comics. His Image Duplicator (1963) may be his only swipe from superhero books, "duplicating the image" of Magneto's helmet, from his first appearance (The Uncanny X-Men #1, also 1963), drawn by co-creator Jack Kirby (though the face and much of the dialogue underneath it is taken from Bruno Premiani's Doom Patrol).
Inspired by talking comics with his son, ex-Beatle Paul McCartney and his then-new band Wings did a song in the middle 1970s called "Magneto and Titanium Man," featuring the two characters and the Crimson Dynamo - or hallucinations of same, it's hard to say - warning the singer that the woman he's seeing is a bank robber. He eventually turns against them and declares that his girlfriend "is the law," whatever that means. It's a kicky, fun tune, but arguably the strangest Magneto story ever released commercially.
Still, Magneto's "parents," writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby, were both pretty taken with the song: Jack rewarded them with a special drawing shown above.
In Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's New X-Men, rebellious kids start wearing T-shirts with the "Magneto Was Right" image seen above. This inspired real bootleg T-shirts, and so did Magneto's line in First Class, "Peace was never an option."
No surprise. really. Magneto's brand of absolutism has undeniable appeal in a world where living in harmony seems to be a truly unattainable goal. That's his most dangerous power, his real challenge to Xavier's vision of humans and mutants hand in hand. The downtrodden have always been vulnerable to those who tell them their problems are all the fault of one easily identified group of people. It's a dangerous but compelling idea. Magnetic, even.
Anything else fans should know about the X-Men's arch-nemesis? Point them out in the comments!