Magneto is a fantastic and sympathetic super-villain. Superhero comics ride a thin line between the serious and ridiculous and are best when they pull off both. Magneto, as a holocaust survivor in a purple cape and helmet, as a man who fights for the rights of the disenfranchised by killing people with bits of levitating metal, fits the bill flawlessly. One of the things that makes Magneto great, I think, is that, while he is the great X-Men villain, his powers are not a kind of simple mirror image of our heroes: he is not the Dr. Doom to Professor Xavier's Reed Richards (genius vs. genius); he is not the Lex Luthor to Professor Xavier's Superman (brain vs brawn). He controls metal. Xavier controls minds. The lack of symmetry is refreshing and authentic -- it has the ring of truth, in an odd way.
Magneto's portrayal as a sympathetic bad guy culminated in Ian McKellen's Magneto in the first two X-Men films (of the third we will not speak): it was understandable that a holocaust survivor would resort to extreme methods in order to prevent mutants from being numbered and put it camps like the Jews. In the first film he was not aware that his master plan would kill people; in the second he attempted to turn a genocide machine someone else built back on its maker and its maker's race. Though he would have killed countless numbers, his plan had a kind of justice. McKellen -- the best actor in the X-Men films, and one that stole the show a bit -- lent Magneto a tremendous amount dignity. Morrison thought he lent him too much.
In New X-Men: Planet X Morrison's wonderful character Xorn, who everybody liked, turned out to have been Magneto the whole time. The unjustified and unprepared plot twist was only the start of the problems. When Magneto shows himself he appears as an insane terrorist, totally unsympathetic. Morrison's Magneto, still a holocaust survivor, claims that studies how mere humans (as opposed to super-powered mutants) don't feel pain (a common racist argument justifying violence). He also acts like a Nazi dictator and herds people into crematoriums, and uses street drugs like a junkie. He has no dignity; he is too crummy to even hate in a fun way. After Morrison left the book other writers tried to write Morrison's Magneto out of continuity ("that Magneto was an imposter") and satisfy Xorn fans by inventing a way to make Xorn a real character and not a mask. Here is a wikipedia article on the whole thing. In an interview on popimage Morrison talked about his Magneto plotline New X-Men: Planet X. This is what he said:
The 'Planet X' story was partially intended as a comment on the exhausted, circular nature of the X-Men's ever-popular battle with Magneto and by extension, the equally cyclical nature of superhero franchise re-inventions. I ended the book exactly where I came on board, with Logan killing Magneto AGAIN, as he had done at the end of Scott Lobdell's run. Evil never dies in comic book universes. It just keeps coming back. Imagine Hitler back for the hundredth time to menace mankind. So, in the way that something like 'Marvel Boy' had that insistent 'teenage hard on' engine driving its rhythms, 'Planet X' is steeped in an exhausted, world-weary, 'middle-aged' ennui that spoke directly of both my own and Magneto's frustrations, disillusionment and disconnection, as well as the endless everything-is-not-enough frustrations of a certain segment of comics aging readership. In hindsight, I think I overdid the world weary a little but, you know, my loved ones were dying all around me while I was working on those issues, so I'm entitled to a little stumble into miseryland. Fantomex's line [he accused Magneto of speaking in cliches] summed up my own cynicism at that moment, definitely and seems justified by subsequent plot developments. In my opinion, there really shouldn't have been an actual Xorn - he had to be fake, that was the cruel point of him - and it should have been the genuine Magneto, frayed to the bare, stupid nerve and schizoid-conflicted as he was in Planet X, not just some impostor. There's loads of good stuff in Planet X - it's just that miasma of bleakness and futility which hovers over the whole thing.Morrison names McKellen and now we see the problem. Harold Bloom's poetics of influence makes the simple claim that writers need both to be original (in order to be needed; if they were not original we would go somewhere else) and to be in continuity with a tradition (if a poem is too radical -- e.g. ink just spilled on a page -- it won't be recognized as part of the history of poetry at all). For Bloom poetic freedom is only meaningful if it is freedom against some prior poem. Wordsworth's Tintern Abby is a powerful poem, for Bloom, because it manages to be like Milton's Paradise Lost, and to be its own poem. Most poems, for Bloom, just repeat the accomplishments of the past (Southey's Madoc is just another Epic poem), or are meaninglessly original (Allen Ginsberg's Howl is just Ginsberg being embarrassingly hysterical, and is of no poetic value).
What people often forget, of course, is that Magneto, unlike the lovely Sir Ian McKellen, is a mad old terrorist twat. No matter how he justifies his stupid, brutal behaviour, or how anyone else tries to justify it, in the end he's just an old bastard with daft, old ideas based on violence and coercion. I really wanted to make that clear at this time.
Morrison's Magneto fails on both of Bloom's levels. On the one hand Morrison wants to tell a story about how Magneto keeps coming back as a bad repetition, and so he writes a bad repetition of historical dictators, and an X-Men comic book that, because it is about cycle, gives us things we have seen before. The problem is Morrison isn't doing anything interesting with this idea; he is just doing what any hack writer does: repeating something we already know. On the other hand he is enacting too strong a break with the past: his Magneto is not the Magneto we have seen in the comics, nor is he show any continuity with McKellen's Magneto. It is the McKellen connection that ultimately sinks him. McKellen OWNS Magneto -- he owns the character in the hearts and minds of everyone who saw the first two X-Men films -- and Morrison is not going to get to have a different version of Magneto without a fight. But he doesn't fight -- doesn't try to show that his Magneto makes more sense than McKellen's, doesn't try to show why his version of Magneto is better or more necessary or inevitable -- he just ignores McKellen, and so he fails. His break with the past is meaningless because it ignores the past.
A lot of fans defended what Morrison did on the grounds that in Morrison's final New X-Men story it was revealed that Magneto was being controlled by an evil bacteria colony that was transmitting itself through the drugs Magneto was on. The Unofficial Guide to Grant Morrison's New X-Men (thanks Stephen Frug) -- quite smart in many respects -- makes this the lynchpin. This may be a narrative fact -- it may be what happened in Morrison's story -- but emotionally Planet X was Morrison's Magneto story, and it only makes sense in that way. If that wasn't Magneto but merely Magneto being controlled by some outside force, then Morrison avoided a genuine engagement with the character and failed to deliver what a major X-Men writer must -- retellings of the great stories in a new way. We know Morrison was trying to deliver new versions of old favorites: the original X-Men team is represented (with a Latino girl named Angel as Angel and Emma Frost with diamond powers as the new "Ice"man), the Shi'ar, the Return to Weapon X (Assault on Weapon Plus), The Phoenix and The Days of Future Past (Here Comes Tomorrow), and the attack of Apocalypse (all of the apocalypse rhetoric and imagery surrounding the evil bacteria colony -- the Beast, Apollyon, the notion of evolution as the highest call -- points toward Apocalypse the character and the Apocalypse in the final book of the bible). If Morrison's Magneto wasn't Magneto he failed as a translator of Dante would fail if he left out the first few cantos of the Inferno.
The only time Morrison has been overwhelmed and crushed by the spirit of an earlier creator was when he was much younger (Arkham Asylum is a too-earnest attempt to make "serious" comics in the Neil Gaiman vein). He was nearly overwhelmed by the spirit of Alan Moore's Promethea on Zatanna (his Zatanna was basically a weak version of Promethea), but was saved because Zatanna was only part of a much larger Seven Soldiers project; in that way he contains in miniature, rather than repeats, Moore's accomplishment. The dialogue in Vimanarama sounded very much like Joss Whedon -- bascially the guy who took over Morrison's New X-Men -- but the book scrapes by because it is such a small project and the Bollywood thing is original. Ian McKellen, however, is the definitive Magneto just as Frank Miller's 1980s Batman is THE Batman. Morrison probably thought McKellen was not a real presence because he was just an actor -- a small part of a whole other medium -- but he was wrong. Actors are comic book creators too.