Magneto’s Evolution From X-MEN Villain to Hero (and Back Again)

If you ask any casual Marvel fan who the X-Men’s primary villain is, chances are they’ll tell you Magneto… and it’s true. The Master of Magnetism has been their primary antagonist ever since the first issue of X-Men came out in 1963. But he’s also often been an ally—and even a full member—of Charles Xavier’s mutant hero team. As X-Men ’97 has shown us, in that animated universe, Professor X left his whole estate and fortune to him. Of course, the producers of X-Men ’97 lifted this story right from the comics. From villain to reluctant hero to complex bad guy once again, here’s the comic book history of Magneto’s heroic turn.

Charles Xavier meets Magneto on the astral plane in Uncanny X-Men #4 from 1964.
Marvel Comics

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Magneto back in the sixties, he was a pretty clear-cut villain. He believed the mutant race, a.k.a. Homo superior, were more genetically advanced than Homo sapiens and should therefore subjugate and rule them. There were not a lot of nuances to his fight against the X-Men in those early years. Whenever he fought the Avengers, or Iron Man, he was even more of a straight-up villain. But starting in 1975, a young writer named Chris Claremont started to view Magneto in a more sympathetic way. This led to one of the most interesting character arcs in all of comics.

The Tragic Backstory of Magneto

Magneto reveals his history after he almost kills Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men #150.
Marvel Comics

When Chris Claremont took over as Uncanny X-Men writer with the title’s revival in 1975, it was a year before the mutants fought against their original foe once again. But when they did, there was instantly a change in his demeanor. Magneto wasn’t quite so mustache-twirling anymore, and seemed dismayed at having to kill to save other mutants. Claremont’s Magneto had a conscience. He also had many aliases. Over the years, Charles Xavier often referred to him as Magnus. However, his other aliases include Erik Lehnsherr (used in the live-action films) and Max Eisenhardt. Magnus returns to fight the new X-Men after a story in Defenders, where he was de-aged into a child. He later became an adult in his prime once again. All of this will matter in his later heroic turn.

Storm confronts Magneto as he tells of his past in the Nazi death camps in Uncanny X-Men #150.
Marvel Comics

It wasn’t until Uncanny X-Men #150 in 1981 that we learned the source of Magneto’s pain and rage. After a terrorist attack against a Soviet sub, Magneto nearly kills the teenage Kitty Pryde. Horrified at his own actions, in which he not only seriously injured a fellow mutant but also a young Jewish girl, he describes growing up in the concentration camps of Auschwitz, and losing his entire family. These traumatic events are the reason that he’s willing to do anything to make sure mutants aren’t hunted down and murdered as his own Jewish family was during the Holocaust. It’s here he begins to wonder if he’s become the monster he hated so much as a child.

How Xavier Met Magneto in the Marvel Comics Universe

Charles Xavier recalls how he met Magneto, in an early 80s issue of X-Men, drawn by Dave Cockrum.
Marvel Comics

Not long after that issue, Claremont explores the past of Charles Xavier and Magneto even further. Those early Lee/Kirby X-Men issues established that the two powerful men knew each other years prior, and part ways at some point. But they never elaborate on it further. It was nearly two decades later, in Uncanny X-Men, that we learned that the two met years before Charles lost the use of his legs. It was during a time when he was in Israel using his mental abilities to help trauma victims recover.

It’s in this Israeli hospital that Xavier first met Magnus, the name Magneto was going by at the time. Neither knew for sure the other was a mutant. Xavier suspected something was different about Magnus, when he had trouble reading his powerful mind. Eventually, the pair revealed their powers to each other when fighting a Hydra terrorist attack. This attack proves even more to Magneto that humans will always try to exterminate mutants, and he and Charles’ ideological paths diverge at this point.

Magneto Becomes a Nuanced Villain, then Later, a Hero

Charles Xavier and Magneto fight each other, and also fight side by side.
Marvel Comics

After almost killing Kitty Pryde in Uncanny X-Men #150, Magneto begins to show a more honorable side. He sides with the X-Men in the seminal 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, which was the basis for the film X2. He also fights alongside the X-Men in the event series Secret Wars. It’s also around this time that Magneto discovers that the Avengers’ Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver are his twin children. This revelation softens his character’s temperament even further.

John Romita Jr.'s cover for Uncanny X-Men #200, the Trial of Magneto.
Marvel Comics

This is where Chris Claremont’s true vision for the Magneto/Xavier relationship begins to really take hold. Although modern readers have often viewed Xavier and Magneto as “Martin Luther King and Malcolm X,” that was not the original intent. (Although, Chris Claremont has admitted in an interview with Empire those parallels are also valid.) In Claremont’s plan, Magneto was based far more on Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. He was a terrorist in 1947, eventually embracing a more peaceful approach, to the point where he was the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 30 years later.

Magneto Becomes Headmaster of Xavier’s School

Magneto gives his word to a dying Charles Xavier that he will tend to his students in Uncanny X-Men #200.
Marvel Comics

Magneto truly becomes a hero in 1985’s Uncanny X-Men #200. His recent adventures with his former enemies the X-Men lead to a true self-examination. He surrenders himself to a global tribunal, to stand trial for his many crimes. Because Magneto was turned into an infant and later “reborn” as an adult once more, this tribunal dismisses all charges against him, suggesting that the old Magneto “died” and the new one deserved a second chance.

In the mid-80s New Mutants series, Magneto becomes the headmaster of Xavier;s School for the Gifted.
Marvel Comics

In this same issue, a dying Xavier must leave Earth and go to Shi’ar space to heal. (They later echo this in the X-Men: The Animated Series finale.) He begs his old friend to take over as Headmaster of the Xavier School, teach the New Mutants, and fight alongside the X-Men. He reluctantly agrees. At this point, Magneto loses his helmet, and begins wearing his short-lived superhero costume. He also assumes the name of Michael Xavier, pretending to be the cousin of Charles Xavier to the outside world.

Magneto Reverts to His Old Ways

Magneto spends the next several years as not only the head of the Xavier School, but a member of the X-Men as well. He serves with the team during many major events, including their battles with both the Fantastic Four and the Avengers. However, his time as a hero does not go smoothly. The younger students, the New Mutants, never fully trust him. When Magneto joins the Hellfire Club in what he thinks is a power move to protect mutantkind, the students reject him. Things get worse when Doug Ramsey, the New Mutant called Cypher, dies under his tutelage. Eventually, the New Mutants leave Magneto, choosing mentorship under the original X-Men, then called X-Factor, and later, the cyborg soldier Cable.

Magneto in full villain mode in the pages of the X-Men.
Marvel Comics

The X-Men then died on a mission in Dallas, without Magneto at their side. Although resurrected, they do not tell their former enemy that they are alive and well. The loss of his allies further sends Magneto down a darker path again. He starts to feel he let down both the New Mutants and the adult X-Men. Slowly but surely, he reasserts his older, more militant ways. By the time Charles Xavier comes back to Earth and leads the X-Men again, chronicled in 1991’s record-breaking X-Men #1, Magneto is a villain. A sympathetic, nuanced villain to be sure but not anyone that was going to have brunch with Captain America or Iron Man.

Xavier and Magneto, Friends and Allies Once More

Professor X and Magneto in the Dawn of X
Marvel Comics

Much of the ‘90s and ‘2000s era comics portrayed Magneto as a sympathetic villain. However, more recent comics have established him as one of the good guys again. At least as far as the other X-Men are concerned. In the modern Krakoan Age, Xavier and Magneto realized for the mutant race to survive, they would have to put aside their ideological differences and work together on their island nation. The two friends finally buried the hatchet, seemingly for good. However, we know Magneto can turn on a dime. As the current Krakoan era wraps up, who is to say what side Magneto will be on when the dust settles?

How Will Magneto Show Up in the New X-Men ’97 Series?

X-Men '97's Magneto, both as a villain and in his heroic costume.
Marvel Animation

As we saw in the second episode of X-Men ’97, “Mutant Liberation Now,” Magneto voluntarily surrendered himself to the United Nations to stand trial for his various actions as a mutant terrorist. He was seeking atonement for his crimes and a chance to prove himself as a worthy successor to the martyred Charles Xavier. When he saved the tribunal from an angry mob, they vindicated him, and he officially became one of the X-Men. All of this is a fairly straightforward adaptation of Uncanny X-Men #200. Will X-Men ’97 continue to be this faithful to the comics? It remains to be seen. But if they are, then we know Magneto’s heroic turn has a shelf life. That purple helmet will be back eventually.

Originally published on February 22, 2024.

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