For the sake of clarity, we’ll be referring to Michael Fassbender’s younger take on the character as Eric while allowing Sir Ian McKellen the pseudonym of Magneto. With that said, let the battle commence!
Look: Fassbender and McKellen share a decent enough likeness, though X-Men: Days of Future Past never puts them face-to-face in order to make a direct comparison. With the future section taking place in 2023, Magneto is looking far less regal, more rundown than we’ve previously seen him: his haircut is more severe, his face more jowly. Back in 1973, meanwhile, Eric is in top shape, as lean and mean as we’ve ever seen him, even after a decade in captivity.
Characterization: To its detriment, the film almost completely sidelines Magneto. Though he makes an appearance at the final battle, as a character he’s given nothing of substance to do. There is, however, a sense of weary regret to McKellen’s portrayal that we haven’t seen before. Far from the firebrand who lost his powers at the end of The Last Stand, Magneto has renounced his extremist views and joined forces with the X-Men. He’s aware, though, that at the time to which Wolverine is being sent, his younger self is still on “a darker path”. Much as in X2, Eric is being held in a plastic prison, but, unlike his later self, he can’t rely on Mystique for outside help. Having been implicated in the death of JFK – and following his intervention in the Cuban Missile Crisis – Eric is clearly a man to be feared. While Xavier may hold him responsible for taking Mystique from him, the use of his legs, Eric is furious at Xavier and the world for the loss of his whole team – Angel, Azazel, Emma Frost – and more fanatical than ever about bringing about mutant supremacy at any cost.
Powers: Protecting Shadowcat and Wolverine to ensure the success of their mission in the past, Magneto makes a last stand alongside Storm, Blink, Colossus, et al. Though he can’t manipulate the Sentinels directly – they only appear to be made of steel – Magneto still holds his own in the fight, willing to lay down his life for the possibility of a better world. Eric, meanwhile, makes more extensive use of his powers then we’ve ever seen: from animating a metal fountain to levitating an entire stadium, he’s a mutant at the height of his abilities.
Purpose: Magneto’s mission is simple enough – defend the temple at any cost – but Eric’s agenda is somewhat more complex. Having discovered that Mystique’s assassination of Bolivar Trask will put into action events that will eradicate their entire species, Eric is willing to do whatever necessary to ensure this doesn’t come about. While he certainly wants Trask dead, he is more interested in demonstrating to humanity that mutantkind are not to be trifled with. Eric may be working alongside Xavier and Wolverine, but that doesn’t mean shares their agenda, nor that he won’t use them to get what he wants.
Most Iconic: After years of wearing it, Magneto has finally forsaken the helmet he acquired all those years ago from Sebastian Shaw. Eric, however, makes it a priority to reclaim it as soon as the opportunity arises. With the older Magneto in decline, X-Men: Days of Future Past gives us a more identifiable Eric who’s still very much on the rise. Just check out that familiar grey prison uniform.
Summary: It’s no competition with Fassbender’s Eric blowing McKellen’s Magneto right out of the park. As the film series shifts focus to the First Class lineup, it was inevitable that there would be some casualties; the septuagenarian Master of Magnetism simply feels like the most prominent. McKellen joked in a recent interview that he “would even wear the helmet” to be involved in X-Men: Apocalypse, but, sadly, it seems the mantle has firmly been passed to the hipper, thirty-something Fassbender.