Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Morrison's Magneto: Success or Failure?

While randomly trawling the Internet, I stumbled onto a blogger who's been analyzing Grant Morrison's run on "New X-Men". I can't seem to find the link now, but what got my attention at the time was a side remark he made during a review of one of the earlier issues: he considers Morrison's Magneto to be the great failure of the run, for obvious reasons (out of character, raving lunatic, and so on).

It got me thinking about "New X-Men". I like that after all this time I'm still thinking about "New X-Men", I still feel like there's more to say about it. But anyway, Magneto. It's no secret that "Planet X" depicted the X-Men's nemesis in a very unflattering light - in later interviews, Morrison was quite candid about the fact that Magneto, in his eyes, was a "mad old twat". So one can certainly make the claim that this was just Morrison showing contempt for what he considered to be an archaic staple of the sub-genre.

And yet... I think part of the problem with reading (and understanding) "New X-Men" today is that Morrison based his entire approach on a paradox. On the one hand, his run implicitly asks the reader to sweep aside continuity and the gaudy superheroics of the past - the very first line of issue 114 is "Wolverine, you can probably stop doing that now." But at the same time, if you take everything Morrison did and look at it within the wider context of X-Men history... well, let's have a look.

Cyclops' affair with Emma Frost makes a certain amount of sense on Morrison's merits alone: he's having marital difficulties, he's coping with mental trauma, and Emma offers him a chance to escape and have a little fun. We might not agree with what he does, but we can at least understand why he does it. Of course, it doesn't hurt Morrison's case that Scott Summers has a history of infidelity: he dated Colleen Wing when Jean was presumed dead (Claremont), took off with Lee Forrester when Jean really was dead (Claremont again), married Madelyne (still Claremont) only to leave her for Jean (Simonson?), cheated on Jean with Psylocke (Lobdell/Nicieza), married Jean, and then he took off with his boyfriend Achmed (likeadeuce ;)). So Morrison, intentionally or not, is falling into step with many writers before him who all agree that Cyclops can't seem to keep it in his pants.

Which brings me to Magneto. Let's put aside the destruction of Genosha for a moment, and the fact that he's partly to blame for that (he gathered those mutants and offered them safety, only to get himself crippled by provoking the X-Men). If we take "Planet X" into the larger context of Magneto's history, here is a man who survived the Holocaust, who watched his firstborn daughter burn alive, whose other children despise him, whose grandchildren (real or Wandaspawned) don't even know he exists, who's alienated from his best friend and possibly the only person alive who understands him, whose students betray him (first the New Mutants, then Fabian Cortez, then Exodus).

You take that, and you add the deaths of sixteen million people who put their faith in him, and yes, that's a man on the brink of insanity. That is certainly the portrait of a man who will take power-boosting drugs and become dependent on them, who will leave himself open to Sublime's manipulation, and who will make a last, desperate bid to rule the world because he thinks this is mutantkind's last chance. And the terrible irony is that he's wrong - it's been his last chance all along, his time that was running out, and anything he does at this point is too little, too late; as Ernst tells him, "Nobody likes what you're doing ... it's boring and old-fashioned."

This has been Magneto's fatal flaw since Uncanny X-Men #150: he's so obsessed with his grand plans for world conquest and the utopia that will surely follow that he can never see past it, to ask what comes next. And Morrison capitalizes on that: Magneto wastes so much time infiltrating the Institute and playing the usual mind games with Xavier and the X-Men that, when he finally makes his move, he finds himself faced with a new generation of mutants that asserted itself in the interrim, and they only ever said "Magneto Was Right" when he was dead.

So no, I don't believe Morrison's Magneto was a failure at all. I think it's an image of a broken man, desperately clinging to the only thing that's keeping him going, the thing he wants to hear Xavier say - "you were right and I was wrong". And when he realizes he can never have that, death is the only alternative.

And, in retrospect, I think I prefer that to coming back to life, losing his powers, and blowing up on a SHIELD helicopter as an afterthought. Seems more... fitting, I suppose.