This post is the third a series of villain studies intended to look closely at what makes a villain great (terrible, if you will) and help writers improve their own eeeevil designs. If there is any particular villain you think deserves to be put on the pedestal for a future study give us a shout below!
VILLAIN STUDIES, Entry 3: MAGNETO / ERIK LENSHERR
*Note: This overview is based on Magneto as portrayed in the X-men films rather than the comics. That said, be aware: this summary contains spoilers!
While I only discovered Magneto about a year ago, when X-Men: First Class came out, the man instantly became one of the most convincing villains I’ve ever encountered. I find there to be two central reasons for this:
1. his compelling, traumatic backstory
2. his motivation.
First the backstory:
We are introduced to the young boy who will become Magneto, Erik Lensherr*, in 1944. It is the height of World War II and the film opens as Erik and his mother are being herded through the gates of a concentration camp in Poland. In all the pushing and pulling and roughing the two are separated, the gate locked between them.
Erik and his mother reach for one another, kicking and screaming and crying out. Soldiers hold Erik back. It is then, in a moment of emotional anguish, that his power emerges: the gate begins to bend and give out. The soldiers lose ground, their boots sliding in the mud as Erik strains and shouts. But the boy hit in the head with a rifle butt and that’s the end of that.
When Erik comes to he is face to face with Dr. Klaus Schmidt, who has observed his mental gift in action. Schmidt orders Erik to demonstrate his ability again, this time by moving a coin on his desk. When Erik cannot, Schmidt has his mother brought in and threatens to kill her. Do it, he says, or your mother dies. You have until the count of three.
Of course he tries with all his might to move the coin. But when Schmidt hits drei and still he has not succeeded…Schmidt pulls the trigger.
Naturally, young Erik is devastated (as are we)—but not just devastated. Enraged. He begins to scream and the coin moves. Then all the metal in the room starts warping. Glass shatters, objects bend and crunch upon themselves, the helmets of two soldiers weld around their heads, and basically the entire set is destroyed. All that is left standing in the end are Erik and his mother’s killer.
Ok. Now let’s step back a moment and talk about why this is such an effective setup for a villain. First of all, Erik (pending Magneto) has suffered a traumatic experience—something that has scarred him and will shape his life for years to come. Not only did he live through the horrors of the Holocaust, but his mother was personally shot and killed before him. This accomplishes what a backstory for any important character should: it engages our sympathies. We are swept up in the atrocities of what Erik has been through and we want justice for him.
That said, our sympathies for Erik can even bring us to understand his need for revenge as an adult—even if we disagree with it. Moral gray areas and vigilante justice are especially good for culminating rich, layered, and compelling antagonists.
I have read again and again that the villain does not see what he’s doing as wrong. To that I would add that the most dangerous villain is one we can sympathize with. In Magneto’s mind, revenge – which includes hunting down and killing not just the man who murdered his mother, but other prominent Nazi figures – is tantamount to justice. The audience/reader is tempted to root for him, at the risk of our own moral integrity.
The other thing that makes Magneto such a convincing villain is his motive. Admittedly, “[Magneto’s] role in comics has varied from supervillain, to antihero, to superhero,” so he has had his share of motives. But in the X-men series as we see it in film, his overarching motive is constant, and reinforced by the events of his past: Magneto aims to protect the mutants from racial persecution and genocide.
*In the comics Magneto is born Max Eisenhardt and “Erik Lensherr” is an alias he adopts later
Some previous entries: