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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Review of X-Men Legacy #250

X-Men Legacy is still exploring the consequences of the recent Age of X story that occupied its pages (and those of New Mutants) earlier this year.

The events of issue #250 seem to take place the day after the dramatic #249, which ended with Rogue finally jumping Magneto's bones, leaving us to wonder where the love lives of those two characters and Rogue's main love interest, Gambit, will go to next. For various reasons, I was pleased with that ending, though it generated much controversy across the internet, with some fans hating it. At the very least, it gives author Mike Carey the opportunity to move the characters on, and I'm not all that impressed by the arguments that it was somehow out of character for Rogue to do this. Actually, it seemed perfectly in character to me, based on everything we've seen of Rogue's personality over the past 30 years. (And the series of character beats that eventually led to it was immaculately handled; if anything, there was perhaps a bit of over-complexity about Rogue's possible motivations.)

But I don't want to rehash those arguments, since that plot point arises only very briefly in #250. I'm more interested today in asking questions about what Magneto, a largely-unreformed supervillain, is doing as a member of the X-Men anyway. Does it make sense, and is the current situation good for the viability of one of Marvel's most iconic characters?

First, an overview of issue #250. It's a giant issue containing three stories. The main story involves a group of X-Men, put together by Professor X, to track down six of his son Legion's thousand personalities. These six, each with their own super powers, have escaped and assumed separate corporeal form, as a result of the events of Age of X. They are all very dangerous, so it's imperative that they be found and reincorporated into Legion.

Professor X's team consists of himself, Legion, Rogue, and Gambit. However, the supervillainess Frenzy, who is currently seeking redemption, invites herself along and the Professor eventually allows it. Magneto also turns up to join the group, claiming that he has been instructed to do so by Cyclops (who currently runs the whole show on the X-Men's island) to add to the team's firepower. After a certain amount of bickering, Frenzy and Magneto both join the team - creating a powerful line-up of X-Men - and Magneto, being his usual arrogant and domineering self, soon starts trying to run things.

The second story takes place within the first, at a point when Rogue briefly steps offstage. It involves her contact with a telepathic projection of Rachel Grey, who is currently in trouble somewhere in outer space, accompanied by the other two space-faring X-Men: Magneto's supposed daughter Polaris and her boyfriend Havok (who is Cyclops' brother - you've got to love the family soap-opera aspect of X-Men). The third story is a reprint of a classic New Mutants story that portrays Professor X's first encounter with his illegitimate son, Legion.

It's the second story that I really love: it foreshadows the return of the space X-Men, who are favourite characters of mine (especially Polaris, who can be a lot of fun with her outspoken honesty, unconventional viewpoint, and general craziness); and it's beautifully told. As Rogue uses her powers to penetrate the depths of Rachel's mind, we are shown a sequence of episodes involving Rachel. For Rogue, and as presented to us, these occur in reverse order - starting from "now", as the characters' minds touch, and going back into the past until we see when Rachel first tried contacting the X-Men back on Earth. The whole sequence is visually stunning, and shows writer and artist working creatively with the medium to give us something a bit special.

The first and main story is also well told and illustrated, but it starts to raise issues about the use of Magneto in X-Men Legacy. The X-Men team is tracking down a character called Time-Sink, one of Legion's dangerous personas, who has a vaguely defined but extremely formidable power to manipulate time itself. He easily defeats Frenzy, then Magneto, then Gambit, before finally being taken down by the combination of Professor X, Rogue, and Legion, whereupon he is absorbed back into Legion. One down, and five to go! Ironically enough, since he was supposed to add heavy firepower, Magneto proves to be fairly useless: he is first to spot Time-Sink, and he begins the chase, but he's then quickly taken down (though he's evidently not seriously hurt, since he's back on his feet and giving orders again a couple of minutes later - that armoured costume he wears apparently works to some extent).
 
This raises a question in my mind about Magneto's role. I like the fact that the X-Men have expanded their numbers to include any mutants who want to live on their island, including supervillains. This creates an interesting political dynamic, with the old Xavier/Magneto conflict internalised into the family, as it were. Some online fans complain that Magneto has been accepted too easily, given their past conflicts and his many crimes. He's not only been allowed to join, but has ended up as a kind of elder statesman and a senior advisor to Cyclops. He's been renewing strained friendships and making new ones, building a network of relationships on the island (not to mention spending a night with Rogue).

Still, unlike other mutants who have gone to the X-Men seeking help from time to time - Rogue being the most obvious example - Magneto went to them offering peace with them, including his personal allegiance to Cyclops, and placing all his power, intellect, and experience at their disposal. I.e., he offered to help them. After being allowed to live on the island, he soon contributed in big and impressive ways that have put the X-Men considerably in his debt.

I'm also mindful that the bad blood between them is as much the X-Men's fault as Magneto's: if we track back to early 1990s stories, we soon discover that the X-Men attacked him on occasions when they had dubious justification, setting in train events that led to his death (but, of course, Magneto never dies permanently) in Mutant Genesis and his temporary brainwiping at the end of Fatal Attractions. This, in turn, led to some of his most destructive and vengeful acts during later 1990s storylines. There's a lot of blame to go around.

Since Magneto has been allied with the X-Men and freely walking among them, several of Marvel's writers have done fascinating work with the character and the rather uncomfortable situation. Mike Carey has been foremost among them portraying the character, for my money, as well as the great Chris Claremont at his best. I hope this continues.

I do wonder, though, whether the situation can be sustained indefinitely. Magneto is a sympathetic and pragmatic villain, and Marvel should be long past portraying him as merely a villain, or using him as a punching bag for its heroes. He makes more sense as an anti-hero and a game-changing wild card, pursuing his own agenda, and either allying with the heroes or coming into conflict with them as circumstances warrant.

Nonetheless, he was built up over the decades as an uber-powerful and competent supervillain who can defeat entire teams of superheroes. If you put someone like that within a team of superheroes, you run some risks. He can overshadow the rest of the team, which is okay for an occasional issue but can't be allowed to go on too long, or else he has to be underwritten so that he is seen to be endangered by threats that he'd normally (in full supervillain mode) treat with contempt.

So far, the Marvel writers seem aware of this problem - something like it happened before when Magneto ran the School for Gifted Youngsters back in the 1980s, and it wasn't handled especially well -  and they've found creative ways to work around it. Keeping him largely unreformed in his way of thinking was one very smart move.

Carey handles the problem neatly in the book we're discussing, X-Men Legacy #250: although Magneto loses his encounter with Time-Sink, Time-Sink is very plausible as a bad match-up for him. In fact, Time-Sink is a tricky customer for anybody, and the way he is finally disposed of by Professor X, Rogue, and Legion, all working cooperatively, is very solid, old-school X-Men writing.

Still you can't find someone who is a bad match-up for Magneto in every issue of the book ... or if you do the effect will be to suggest that there are actually many ways of getting around Magneto's powers, and that he is not so formidable after all. That then creates a problem, in that it diminishes a character who is supposed to be an awe-inspiring and menacing figure whenever he appears. I've got a feeling that we're going to see some of this happening in the next issue (which has already been published, although I haven't yet read it).

I think this is a deeper problem with how you use a menacing, yet sympathetic, supervillain than whether or not he can be placed in a one-night stand (or even a longer-term love affair) with a somewhat-likeminded superheroine with her own supervillainous past. I'll be interested to see how Marvel handles it as the current situation with the X-Men plays out.

(Oh, and let this stand as "Sunday Supervillainy" a day early.)

2 comments:

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I'm curious about your general take on the way Magneto's motivation has been portrayed in the mainline comics continuity.

I've been extremely disappointed with the the way he's been portrayed in the X-Men films: the approach seems to play up the sympathetic side of the character for a long while, and then have him do something villainous for unclear reasons to keep him in the villain column.

Russell Blackford said...

One problem with the character in the main continuity is that there was an internal conflict within Marvel between Chris Claremont, who wanted to redeem him, and others who wanted him to be an out-and-out rat bastard villain. Claremont also had to deal with the fact that Magneto had been presented as over-the-top muahahahaha megalomaniac during the Silver Age, so he needed a plausible way for the character to change and turn out quite sympathetic (which he found).

After Claremont left the first time, 20 years ago, Magneto's characterisation became that of someone much meaner and nastier. More recently, he's gone back to being more the Claremont character that Rogue fell in love with - raising the question as to why she'd still be in love with him, or how she could love him again, given how he acted towards her, Gambit, and others during the mean, nasty period.

In-world, this gets interpreted as Magneto being mentally unstable. His experiences have shaped him to be ruthless but not totally bad, but he's susceptible to going over the edge into a violent, self-deluding monomania. Extreme grief, or similar emotions, or extreme use of his powers can push him over that edge.

I do hope Marvel doesn't play this "his powers make him crazy" card again, as it's become a bit boring. Better to just keep him as he is: arrogant, angry, bitter, and ruthless, but also capable of restraint and kindness.

I see McKellen Magneto as a toned down version of Silver Age Magneto - I'm not sure that there's a lot about him that's sympathetic, beyond the fact that McKellen is such a good actor and makes him real and somehow understandable.

Fassbender's version is more like Claremont (and current) Magneto, but with a fairly extreme stress on his anger.