Dec 1, 2016

Magneto, Xorn, and Our Sad Sense of Scale

Magneto, Xorn, and Our Sad Sense of Scale
Travis Hedge Coke

The supervillain, Magneto, once spent about two years real time’s worth of monthly comics, pretending to be a Chinese political prisoner, teaching a class for troubled students at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning in New X-Men and related titles. He revealed himself, he got beat, and the world was saved.

To this day, there are still people insisting that this was a late-in-the-game change, that there’s no good evidence he was always Magneto, and that for him to have achieved this impersonation would be impossible.

Now, I am less interested in defending the writers and artists in their plotting, seeding, or representation of this masquerade, than I am whether purely in its mechanics, it could be pulled off. Are all the elements necessary present and in appropriate action? And, I think they are. I believe, what the real issue ends up being, is not that this masquerade was nonsense or impossible, but more honestly, that both in-story and in terms of audience, people have limited perspectives. Our sense of scale is, quite often, very limited, even self-limited, in order for us to function, day to day in real life, and to keep a hold of a story as a whole, and scenes in specific, as we experience them.

Let’s go through the most frequently given, or most reasonably considered proposals of why Magneto could not have always been Xorn…

Reason #1: Magneto Couldn’t Have Built a Prison Made of Iron

First of all, he’s Magneto. It’s made of iron.

During this run, we saw Magneto’s sometimes daughter, who has similar, though less powerful control of magnetism alter a giant robot into a statue of her father the size of Godzilla in about half a page/six minutes. She was assisted, in this, by one super-fast man of just over normal strength, and a couple yokels with hammers. If she could construct that, in such a short period of time, how hard is an iron room and a couple attached hallways?

Secondly, Magneto had the assistance of a mutant whose power was to create subservient homunculi. These were used to populate the fake the prison, act as guards and arbitrators, et al. How difficult would it be for them to pick up appropriate tools and help put in a light fixture or tile a floor?

And, lastly, at this time, Magneto was the head of an advanced nation. They had technology that we, in our world, do not. And, yet, I can easily imagine that the President of the United States, or the heads of China, Germany, or Ireland, just to pick a few countries, could manage to have a small building constructed, if they so desired. People build houses, prisons, shopping centers all the time.

If you believe that Magneto could have built more than one asteroid base with a functioning biosphere, why strain at the notion that he built or had built a small prison?

Reason #2: Their Powers Are Very Different

Xorn, supposedly, had a sun for a brain, could not be telepathically read, healed living things, and shot energy out of his face. He could, potentially, create a blackhole if he wanted to.

Magneto, on the other hand, has some gifts with resisting telepathy (and some technology to those ends) and controls magnetism in a variety of sometimes kind of implausible, but close enough to believable ways.

So, how could Magneto fake Xorn’s abilities?

Xorn never actually heals, anything. He “kills” small robots in the bloodstream of several X-Men. He rips a cement mixer off its metal bracing. He fuses small robots to Xavier’s spine to help keep it together. And, after a bird dies, we see it, glowing, fly away. That is, more or less, the extent of what we see, other than some generic power blasts from his face, and something that causes a fire.

He, by his own admission, perceives electromagnetic radiation.

Just starting with the pure silliness of “a star for a brain” as a physical, genetic mutation, questions begin to arise within characters, themselves. How does he eat? How does he poop? And, they should, within the audience, arise as well. How does he exhibit superhuman strength when manipulating a metal object? How does he turn off or fuse together microscopic robots with “healing powers”? Why can’t he heal anyone when they actually need it?

Reason #3: Why Don’t the X-Men Recognize Him?

None of the X-Men ever see his face, for one thing. But, beyond that, they never hear him talk, either.

Xorn, again, by his own admission, “talks” by vibrating air molecules with his powers, to generate sound. While he does not say this, it is easy, then, for me to imagine that he’s also putting on an accent of some kind, but regardless, it is less believable, to me, that he would sound the same as his normal speaking voice, using this techniqueue , than it it is believable to me that he sounds very different.

Wolverine is annoyed that he did not smell that this was Magneto, but considering the school had an influx of dozens, if not a couple hundred students, it becomes, for me, easy to imagine him missing Magneto’s scent, even if Magneto isn’t altering it with cologne or something else.

What we have, then, is a man with a different face, a different voice, allies who will vouch for him, a plausible backstory, an affable personality, and no good reason for this impersonation.

Magneto’s masquerade as Xorn is straight up Silver Age supervillain, yes, but it’s also just super, super petty. He isn’t doing it as much for the sake of his taking over the world plans, which could be effected other ways, as he is spite and jealousy and ego. He wants to screw over the X-Men, and his former friend, Professor Xavier. To stick it in, twist it deep, and break it off.

The X-Men, being mostly rational, and sensible, good people, who want to see the good in others, including repeat supervillains, are less prepared for spite and envy to get that much the better of someone. Not even just with Magneto, but internally, in the organization, in the same issues as this storyline played out. Wolverine nearly suicides over a damning set of probably falsified documents about his past. Emma Frost and Cyclops are engaged in an extramarital affair under the excuse that it’s merely thoughts they’re sharing, imagined scenarios. Jean Grey spends the entire storyline avoiding just talking to people, because she’s trying to protect them. Beast is a ball of self-deprecating, troublemaking emotion and snappy patter. And, Xavier got hit in the back of the head with a baseball bat, by one of his own teenaged students. There’s all sorts of stuff they can’t see.

Reason #4: Magneto Wouldn’t Use Drugs

In this storyline, Magneto is addicted to the mutant stimulant, kick.

In previous stories by other authors, Magneto has used mutants who could stimulate him and his powers, and even became reliant on them. He has used mechanical means to enhance his powers and performance.

Reason #5: Magneto Wouldn’t Kill So Many People

You and I must read about very different Magnetos. Magneto is constantly, and consistently trying to kill loads of people or actually doing it. His flip the poles trick, which he tries again, here, is by necessity going to kill a whole ton of people. His invasion of a peaceful nation to enslave its population had to have had a death toll. His attack on Manhattan, via EMP, in Fatal Attractions, resulted in many deaths and was a blatant terroristic assault on innocent people. He has literally gone to societies with limited external contact and enslaved, tortured, and experimented on them for his own ends. The reason he was put in charge of the nation of Genosha, was that he blackmailed the UN into giving him that power, by threatening the lives of most of the world.

In case you had not considered it, “most of the world,” would also include most of the mutants on that world.

Yes, in one storyline, Magneto refused to kill one girl, the student of a former friend. Not killing one person, one time, does not erase a history, a lifetime of multiple murders, both human and mutant.

So, yes, Magneto would kill so, so, so many people if it achieved his goals or if he was just mad enough at the world that day. Let’s not forget, he once kidnapped and brainwashed the X-Men because a colleague of their boss performed medical procedures on him to try to help him live a saner life. He, kidnapped her, too, and tortured the hell out of her, but at least there, there’s some tit for tat relationship. Colossus or Rogue didn’t have anything to do with that. Further, while he was committing these acts of brainwashing, his followers, who he was willing to kill to defend and support, were busy torturing, assaulting, and murdering innocent people in the name of genetic supremacy.

Magneto was born under a star and will be buried under a tombstone, both of which read, in big sparkly capital letters: WOULD KILL SO MANY PEOPLE.

Erasing the extent of Magneto’s murderous behavior, on the basis of the one time he did not kill Kitty Pryde, or that he one time liked a woman romantically, is a understandable and human failing. It’s part of that perspective issue we have, as detailed up top in this article. It’s easier for us to remember two or three decent things he did, than to grapple with the extent of the horrific actions he has willingly undertaken. Big-time evil is hard to deal with. Large death tolls, even when ostensibly not backed by evil intentions, can be horrifying. We don’t often like to think, for example, of how many people die in actions authorized by our heads of state. Or, how many accidental deaths we overlook in order to keep enjoying the benefits of cars and other modern conveniences. What reliance on fossil fuels costs us. What we buy, as nations and cultures, at the cost of warfare, bombings, and minefields.

We self-limit our perspectives in order to continue and to thrive. Unfortunately, doing so means that, in a metaphoric way, our Magnetos can dress up like Xorns and we probably buy into it for twenty issues until we see the Magneto clearly and just really would rather they’d been Xorn the whole time.


Marc said...

I think what really threw me at the time was the John Paul Leon-illustrated issue that focused entirely on Xorn (and, if I'm remembering correctly, seemed to give us access to his internal thoughts). That was a very smart move by Morrison, to present us with an image of Xorn's compassion and humanity -- the same image the other X-Men saw. That's a big part of what makes his reveal as Magneto so powerful: not just the fact that he's betrayed the X-Men, but that we the collective reader feel betrayed by him as well.

Rob said...

I think the problem is not that Magneto couldn't have disguised himself as Xorn, but that Morrison did a terrible job setting up and executing on his own twist. Xorn's thought bubbles are simply not consistent with Magneto in disguise, and Morrison is lying to the reader here. No attempt is made to explain how Xorn prevented Wolverine's super-nose from smelling him, or passed the scrutiny of multiple omega-level psychics for months, when it would be very easy to say "my nano-sentinels blocked your hyper-senses" or "I altered the earth's magnetic field to create psychic static" as previous writers have done. There is no foreshadowing that Xorn might be Magneto before the big reveal, unless you're reading the one Chuck Austen issue where he turns cartoonishly evil.

A similar pattern emerges with Magneto's post-reveal characterization. It's not the mass murder that's out of character, it's everything else. If Magneto was being driven mad by Kick/Sublime, how could he have maintained such a perfect facade for so long? If Magneto had such a personal vendetta as Xorn, why is he just randomly wrecking stuff as Magneto? Why did, just this once, Magneto skip his usual master plan, giant machines, threats to world governments, etc? Why is Magneto suddenly bearing an all-consuming grudge against the X-Men instead of trying to convince them to join him? These antics are completely in character for Mystique, or Sinister, or the Shadow King, but Morrison wanted the most iconic villain to make his point about the cyclical nature of licensed comics, so he wrote it anyway.

Duy Tano said...

Travis says:"We never see Xorn's 'thoughts' or thought bubbles. He's wearing a psychic prevention hat. The psychics all think they just can't read him. The closest we have to thoughts are excerpts from a journal he wrote, specifically, to give to Xavier. And, he's been attacking or screwing over the X-Men (and other superheroes) repeatedly, almost as long as there has been a Magneto."

RBerman said...

Wolverine's nose has previously proven quite adept at smelling tiny details when the school is filled with students. The reason that he didn't notice Xorn is that Morrison needed him not to. That's all.

Do I believe that Magneto could simply absorb the star-based Shi'ar Superguardian G-Type into himself? Nope. Or that he could fake an exploding star at the end of X-Men Annual 2001? Nope. Or incinerate the two peasants with a fake star at the beginning of said annual? Nope. Or make Xavier think he was killing Quentin Quire with that star's heat, when it was really some electromagnetic attack? Nope. Or that his nano-sentinels would keep Xavier's spine working well whether Xorn was around (and awake) or not? Nope. Especially if Xorn is high on drugs most of the time? Nope. These are all just plot elements that have to be overlooked for the story to be what it is. Hey, it's better than Magneto doing "magnetic hypnosis" or whatever other crazy stuff he does in the Silver Age.

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