What Makes a Great Rivalry?

X-Men ’97 is finally over and what a ride it was. Every character got their own arc and a chance to shine as the series went on. I’ve always found the rivalry between Xavier and Magneto to be the core of the X-Men story. But what is it about these characters that makes them so compelling?

Xavier vs. Magneto

Xavier and Magneto’s conflict is at the core of the X-Men story. Xavier believes that one day humans and mutants can learn to tolerate each other and live in peace, whereas Magneto believes that humanity will never accept mutants and that only one side can survive.

The X-Men are Xavier’s team of mutants that fight the good fight in pursuit of his mission. Magneto has proven to be a dangerous mutant, willing to do anything to ensure mutants survive, even at the cost of humanity itself.

As a German Jew, Magneto saw his parents taken from him and killed. In the latest episode he laments that he never even got the chance to remember their faces. Magneto has seen first-hand the evil that humanity is capable of when they paint a group of people as the “others”.

It is this experience that almost makes him seem hypocritical at times, but as a Holocaust survivor he’s still suffering from an us vs. them mindset. He couldn’t fight back against the Nazis, but mutants now are more than capable of fighting back against humanity.

The twist in the tale, the thing that makes this conflict all the more interesting is that Xavier and Magneto are old friends who care about each other deeply. Some have gone so far as to suggest they may be romantically involved with each other but, while the final episode of ’97 seemed to play with this idea a little, it’s never been confirmed in canon.

But the fact remains that they do love each other as friends. Family even. Xavier views Magneto as a man who has suffered greatly, and has become misguided in his view of humanity. Magneto views Xavier as a truly good man, albeit a naive one who is unwilling to do what he believes it will take to save mutant-kind.

So what exactly is it about these characters that makes their rivalry so compelling? I think if we look at another comic book rivalry we can start to get an idea.

Batman vs Joker

This is probably the most famous comic book rivalry in the history of comics. There have been many live action adaptations of the characters, including no less than 3 movies, and a long running tongue-in-cheek version starring Adam West. It was also adapted into several long running animated series, many of them setting the standard for telling complex stories in animated shorts.

If there are two rival characters that even non-comic readers will know, it’s Batman and the Joker. Which also means that you should know that this rivalry isn’t anything like that of the X-Men. But, bear with me, because you will start to see that there are similarities if you dig deep enough.

Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents murdered at a young age. As a result he used his trust fund money to became a vigilante in a bat suit. He is a manifestation of justice, ensuring those who hurt others get what they deserve. As an agent of justice, Batman doesn’t kill. Rather, he ensures the villains are brought before the courts and pay for their crimes the right way. But more than that, he often tries to help them get what they need.

Many of Batman’s villains are genuinely insane and end up in an asylum rather than a prison. He actually tries to help his villains come back to sanity when he can. One story in Batman: The Animated Series sees Bruce Wayne funding Harvey Dent’s treatment and his eventual release after he is declared cured of his disorder. Unfortunately the story ends in tragedy, as Dent loses his mind again, becoming Two Face, and Batman is forced to bring him in again.

As many of Batman’s opponents are insane, the Joker is the ultimate manifestation of insanity. The Joker sees the whole world as a joke, a plaything. Nothing is important to him except the joke. The Joker is quick to kill, torture, and abuse, if he thinks it will be funny or prove his point. To him, tragedy is a part of every day life and trying to create any kind of order is meaningless. He is the polar opposite of Batman.

Making a Rivalry

So what is actually similar about these two relationships. Well, if we compare Xavier to the Joker, and Magneto to Batman, we start to see some similarities between the two.


Xavier wants to bring Magneto back to the correct path. He sees him as a man who has suffered and lost his way, unable to see the world for what it is. In the same way, Joker sees Batman as a man who had a “bad day” once, a man who has lost himself. Why else would he dress like a bat and beat up people at night?

Both Xavier and the Joker want to convince their opponent they are right. They both want to save their rival from themselves. They both doubt themselves, and their way of proving themselves right would be to turn someone so philosophically opposed to their views.

In The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, the Joker delivers a great speech that is punctuated by sadness when he asks Batman why he can’t see the joke. Joker’s pain is that no one else can see the world as he sees it, and his greatest fear is that he might be wrong (the animated movie is terrible and really didn’t do this scene justice).

Of course, the difference between them is that Xavier is actually right, whereas the Joker is just crazy. As viewers we will generally see Xavier’s philosophy of tolerance and acceptance as correct, whereas the Joker’s philosophy of us being in a joke of a world where nothing matters will generally be accepted as insanity.


Batman saw his parents murdered as a young child. Magneto lost his parents in the Holocaust. Both have suffered loss that has led them on their respective paths. Both are blinded to different degrees by that loss.

In Matt Reeves’ The Batman (2022) we see a younger Bruce Wayne known only as “Vengeance” by the criminals he hunts down. His arc in this film is realising that hiding in the shadows and beating people up isn’t going to solve any real problems. By the end of the movie he has realised that he needs to step out of the darkness and actually help people, which is the point he becomes the Batman we know today.

Magneto is going through a similar arc, but he has witnessed evil that goes beyond anything Batman has seen. In X-Men ’97 he comes close to seeing things Xavier’s way, and even starts to work with humanity. But after witnessing another genocide in the mutant-founded country of Genosha, he loses it again and declares war on humans.

Magneto still has a chance to become a hero. In Days of Future Past we see a future version of him that is good friends with Xavier again, and a hero trying to save everyone, not just mutants.


Both Magneto and Xavier don’t want to kill each other. Xavier because he wants to save his friend and show him his philosophy is right. Magneto because, even though he disagrees with Xavier, knows that Xavier is a good man who cares about mutants as much as he does. They are also good friends, and neither of them wants to truly hurt the other.

Both Joker and Batman don’t want to kill each other either. The Joker only wins if he can convince Batman that he is right. If Batman dies they both lose.

Batman has learned to care about even the most evil of people. He always sends Joker to Arkham Asylum so he can get the help he needs. But even Batman knows that it won’t end well. The beginning of The Killing Joke has Batman visiting the Joker to try and work out a way to end things that doesn’t end up with them killing each other.

In both rivalries neither can kill the other. And they have good reasons not to kill the other. Although Magneto and the Joker aren’t strangers to the occasional murder, neither of them is willing to kill their rival.


Xavier and Magneto have love for each other. They are close friends who have known each other for years. Despite their disagreements they still care for and respect each other. Both of them want to save the other in their own ways, and that is what makes them such compelling characters. When they fight, they often fight with words rather than powerful mutant abilities.

Batman and the Joker have love for each other, in a way. Batman has learned to care for all people, even people as insane as the Joker. No one is lost to him, everyone can be saved.

There have been many memes suggesting that the Joker loves Batman, and many comics and shows have played with this idea. I think he does, but the Joker’s love is more of an obsession. His infatuation with Batman is based on his opposing philosophy. Batman winning even though he cares proves Joker’s philosophy wrong. In order to win, he has to prove to Batman that he is right.

And then the Joker will murder him.

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