This is an excerpt from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Podcast, the Gradient Podcast Network’s superhero podcast. Listen to the whole episode below.
In 1948, a young Argentine boy named Ernesto took a break from his studies at the University of Buenos Aires to travel the countries he’d grown up around. He was studying to be a doctor and, as he traveled, he recognized deep, systemic issues that his training would be powerless to cure. Rampant poverty. Appalling, lethal working conditions. He was horrified by the mining conditions of Anaconda, and the poverty of farms in Machu Picchu.
Over the course of his travels, Ernesto came to see Latin America not as a collection of different countries, but as a unified whole. He would later write that his “close contact with poverty, hunger and disease,” “inability to treat a child because of lack of money” and “stupefaction provoked by the continual hunger and punishment” would convince him that he had to do something to “help these people.”
To that end, Ernesto would move to Guatemala, where he became further convinced that Latin America’s poverty largely owed itself to capitalist exploitation, and began to believe that armed revolution was the only guarantee of freedom. He made connections with members of the American Popular Revolutionary Alliance, who admired Ernesto’s fiery charisma, deep convictions and huge intellect. He was a staunch Marxist, and as he grew more deeply connected with the plight of suffering in Latin America, he became increasingly convinced that Marxism had to be brought to his people by any means necessary. He would write: “Man truly achieves his full human condition when he produces without being compelled by the physical necessity of selling himself as a commodity.”
Ernesto would move to Mexico, where he became friends with another charismatic, revolutionary-minded leader: Fidel Castro. The two had a stormy relationship, but they were united in their disgust of U.S. controlled conglomerates that kept their people in poverty. His friendship with Castro taught him a new method of insurrection: guerrilla warfare. And while he began his involvement in such attacks as a medic, he would eventually lay down his medical kit and pick up a machine gun — an act that would prove to be deeply symbolic and, ultimately, change the world. And he would change it in a way that would remain incredibly, historically divisive — revered and reviled in equal measure.
Depending on who you ask, Ernesto was a savior or a devil, a messiah or a mass murderer. He’s painted in broad strokes, but people forget the human behind the icon. The man who loved the poetry of Pablo Neruda, and would read Robert Louis Stevenson out loud to his troops. He was teased for a vocal filler he used while he talked — similar to the Canadian “eh” or the english “you know?” — but in his language it was the word that would become his nickname, and the nickname that would become a legend: Che.
In 1963, about four years before Che’s death, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had happened upon the idea for a new Marvel comic. Lee had spent some time being enchanted by the notion of another, secret society living amongst our own — with their own culture, social norms and drama. Some brainstorming with Kirby led him to call this society “mutants”, hypothesizing that they would represent the next stage of human evolution. This would allow Kirby’s artistic talent free reign to dream up as many variations on humanity as he could fit onto a comic book page.
In Lee’s mind, mutants would be split up into two camps. The first would be a school, led by a bald, wheelchair-bound psychic named Professor X. The latter would be led by a red-clad, helmeted foe named “Magneto”, whom the cover of X-Men #1 would describe as “Earth’s Most Powerful Super Villain.”
So began Magneto’s history but in the ensuing years, his legacy would grow increasingly nuanced, to the point where the term “villain” didn’t quite fit anymore. Or maybe it did. It depended on who you asked.
Although Magneto remained the X-Men’s one-dimensional foe for the first few years of his existence — even developing his own team rather simplistically named “The Brotherhood of Evil Mutants” — Lee and Kirby began sowing hints that his motives were more complicated than simple domination. As Lee would say years later: “I did not think of Magneto as a bad guy. He just wanted to strike back at the people who were so bigoted and racist… he was trying to defend the mutants, and because society was not treating them fairly he was going to teach society a lesson. He was a danger of course… but I never thought of him as a villain.”
Indeed, it was soon revealed that Professor X and Magneto — whose real names were Charles and Erik — had started out as friends. They were two of the first mutants, and recognized that their only hope for equality with the rest of “normal” humanity was to push for peace . That’s why Professor X would start the Xavier Institute for Gifted Youngsters — to teach young mutants how to control their newfound powers. But Erik would grow frustrated with the fear, hatred and bigotry he saw from humanity, and came to believe that violence was the only realistic means towards equality. He even adopted a new scientific term for mutants: homo superior.
In the ensuing years, there have been many attempts to draw comparisons between Professor X and Magneto’s ideological clash to two real life champions of equality: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The creators themselves have alluded to these comparisons, sort of. Longtime, hugely influential X-Men writer Chris Claremont actually said that he used to intentionally steer the characters away from direct comparisons to MLK and Malcolm X because, “It was too close. It had only been a few years since the assassinations. In a way, it seemed like that would be too raw.”
Instead Claremont found Magneto’s motivation in an even older evil: the Holocaust. He made Magneto a victim of Hitler’s concentration camps, and a picture of how violence can go on to beget more violence. There were some problems with this characterization — not the least of which being that Holocaust survivors in reality have been more noted for their displays of remarkable forgiveness than a thirst for vengeance. But it did mark a unique turning point for Marvel and super villains as a whole. Prior to this, people didn’t really care why bad guys were bad. It was just assumed that anybody who came into super powers would either use them to create crime or stop it. But by giving Magneto a jarringly tragic origin story in the midst of one of modern history’s great evils, Marvel signaled that a change was coming to the industry
There were a lot of ways this could have gone wrong. From The Merchant of Venice’s Shylock to Oliver Twist’s Faigin, history is replete with Jewish villains as greedy, devious caricatures. Lee and Kirby — two New York Jewish boys themselves — were sensitive to this however, and wove Magneto’s Jewish roots into his character sensitively. As famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel would go on to say, one of the lessons of Nazi Germany is “when someone says they want to kill you, believe them.” Magneto took that lesson seriously. He’s seen the damage humanity can do, and he’s trying to get ahead of it.
In the comics, the civil rights metaphor would eventually prove irresistible and as time went on, Claremont did grow more explicit in his references to Professor X and Magneto as Dr. King and Malcolm X. It was an interesting comparison, although Claremont made the common error of assuming that Dr. King was the peaceful “good guy” and Malcolm X was a violent “bad guy” — reality is not nearly that simple.
But in terms of crafting a villain whose motives were far more complex than simple domination, the Malcolm X comparison does work. Magneto isn’t evil out of selfishness, but out of justified feelings of fury at a society that has refused to see his own humanity. In his helmet and cape, Magneto makes for an imposing presence, but it’s when his helmet’s off that he’s revealed as an old man who has seen the worst humanity has to offer, and is tired of it. The optimism and hope exuded by Professor X is admirable, but Magneto finds it delusional. And given the world around us, can you really blame him?
Bryan Singer’s original X-Men movie kickstarted modern superhero filmmaking, and its coup-de-grace was the twin castings of Professor X and Magneto. Professor X was played by Patrick Stewart — something fans had been clamoring for ever since Stewart’s days on Star Trek. And Magneto was played by, of course, Sir Ian McKellan — a year before his starmaking turn in The Fellowship of the Ring. McKellen has been a game member of the X-Men cast, remaining a compelling presence in his most recent X-Men turn in Days of Future Past at the spry age of 74. The movie’s reboot handed the character to Michael Fassbender, who has shown a keen, gentle understanding of the character’s righteous indignation.
In 1967, Che was captured by armed forced in Bolivia in the Yuro ravine. He was wounded, and his hair was matted with dirt, but a schoolteacher who spoke to him during his imprisonment recounted that she was “unable to look him in the eye” because his “gaze was unbearable, piercing, and so tranquil.” He was sentenced to death the very day after his capture, but his execution was to be staged to look like he’d been killed during a firefight. As Che waited for his death, a soldier asked him if he was thinking about his death. “No,” Che responded. “I’m thinking about the immortality of the revolution.” The soldiers later said that Che bit on his wrist restraints while they shot him to keep from crying out.
None of this changes the fact that Che had once said things like “If the nuclear missiles had remained, we would have used them against the very heart of America, including New York City,” and “A revolutionary must become a cold killing machine motivated by pure hate.” Or that he shot deserters, sent dissidents to forced labor camps, or carried out upwards of a thousand executions.
It only means that in life, like in the X-Men, the word “super villain” just isn’t always big enough for the reality.