Magneto Was Right (But He's Still An Asshole): A Reflection on Cullen Bunn's Tenure With The Master Of Magnetism

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If Cullen Bunn designed the recently-wrapped Magneto series as an allegory, he might have subtitled it “intentions don’t matter.” If he meant it as a character study, the takeaway isn’t that Magneto is a misunderstood anti-hero or a charismatic villain within the realm of possible redemption; he’s a narcissist obsessed with his own bloated sense of self-importance.

Magneto21Proper.jpgChris Claremont penned a weepy, guilt-ridden rendering of Magneto, while Grant Morrison wrote an unhinged Jean Grey-slaying antichrist take on the character, but Bunn hit upon a grounded, cozy midpoint between those two polars. Bunn’s Magneto is a plain ol’ pompous dick. A dick with badass magnetic powers, a clutch cape and helmet—but a simple pompous dick nonetheless.

In that sense, the Max Eisenhardt/Erik Lehnsherr we’ve been following for the past 21 months recalls Breaking Bad’s schlubby high school teacher-turned meth kingpin Walter White. Both espouse lofty rationalizations to justify whatever they want, regardless of potential consequences. Mags says he protects the mutant race from bigoted humanity. White says he’s keeping his family out of the poor house. But at their cores, Magneto just wants to kill all humans and White wants to make truckloads of profitable crystal meth.

Even though Magneto ’14 obviously can’t touch the quality of Breaking Bad in any regard—few things can—both offer non-hero protagonists we, the asshole consumers, can easily identify with. Such is not unheard of in modern cable shows, but it’s pretty rare for a Marvel comic.   

As launched in the spring of 2014, Magneto ends the most recent of his series of half-assed, self-serving tenures as an X-Man, and with a flair of cringe-inducing sadism. Despite his ongoing pontification-obsessed internal monologue, Erik doesn’t second guess the value of doing things like ripping road signs from the pavement with his mind and later using said road sign to impale a defenseless ex-Friends of Humanity employee through the mouth and neck. This happens in front of a Starbucks in broad daylight, and it’s awesome—but it paints Mags more as a revenge fantasy wish fulfillment proxy than a militant civil rights crusader.

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Magneto Interior Art by Paul Davidson

That’s been Magneto’s defining irony for decades. In the name of keeping mutantkind safe from a genocide similar to the Nazi concentration camps he experienced, he becomes a mass murderer. After countless X-Men comics, two cartoon shows and five movies, that’s a pretty old song by now.  

But let’s flash forward to issue #18, at the dawn of the “Last Days of…” arc. Mags’s old frenemy Namor informs him of the looming incursion guaranteed to eradicate Earth-616 unless someone super swishes a proverbial buzzer shot from three-fourths court. Realizing he may be the planet’s only hope, The Master of Magnetism sets upon a plan to chemically heighten his talents enough to repel an entire planet—Earth 1610—back into the reality rip from whence it came. He knows he’ll never survive the effort, but because the proceeding has been a redemptive tale for Max/Erik/Magnus, he feels a moral obligation to nobly sacrifice himself in order to make up for his laundry list of past misdeeds, right?  

Well, um…

Possible but unlikely spoiler: as anyone who’s read Secret Wars #1 or noticed the “Last Days” title of the tale probably figured out, Mags’s scheme to rescue humanity pans out about as well as his previous attempts to annihilate it. Right before his body breaks apart and the all-consuming white nothingness envelops and unmakes everybody else in New York, he kind of regrets being an asshole, but less out of remorse, and more out of a worry everybody will think he’s an asshole—even if he saves them all.

Especially considering Mags spends his entire series ruminating about his past and self-appointed status as savior of the mutant race—I emphasize his past and his self-appointed status—is it a stretch to say altruism and/or a genuine desire for redemption had nothing to do with Magneto’s sudden suicidal philanthropy?

I propose that when Magneto dies trying to save the save the world, he does so out of sheer narcissism and vanity. He has heroic reasons for doing asshole things and asshole reasons for doing heroic things.

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Magneto #8 Cover Art by Declan Shalvey

Zeroing in on the beginning and the end of the series feels like simultaneously shortchanging nearly two years worth of stories while glossing over their flaws. Considering her inexplicable devotion to a strange man she first encountered when he dropped a car on her leg, Mags’s sidekick/lover/stalker Briar Raleigh won’t endear the book to feminist bloggers, to say the least.

Bunn’s over-reliance on flashbacks got tedious pretty quickly. On the positive side, Javier Fernandez, Gabriel Hernandez-Walta and the rest of the art gang rendered the grittiest looking X-book I can recall offhand. An overly-polished, colorful Magneto wouldn’t have worked as well.  And the supervillain fetishist convention depicted in issue #13 added some much needed gallows humor by indirectly mocking Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and James Holmes’ online fan clubs.  

And Bunn gave us a Magneto who didn’t rule an asteroid, or a mutant-only nation (not a thriving one, anyway), or a terrorist cell. Thankfully, we didn’t get a morally ambiguous anti-hero, either—so much as a douche with baggage, anger issues, and a messiah complex. As nihilistic as that sounds, at least it shows that just because you’re a total sociopath doesn’t mean you can’t die like a superhero…..and also like a superhero, come back from the dead and/or be rematerialized and/or whatever happens at the end of Secret Wars that lands Mags in charge of an X-Men squad this October.

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