Despite its failings, DARK PHOENIX marked a melancholic conclusion to James McAvoy’s tenure as Charles Xavier/Professor X. When cast as young Xavier way back in 2011, fans were understandably skeptical. How do you take over a role that was tailor-made for Patrick Stewart? Combined with his STARK TREK credentials, Stewart matched Xavier’s physical likeness so much that he was fan-cast as far back as 1995.

Charles Xavier: First Class, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Yet X-MEN: FIRST CLASS proved that McAvoy was a worthy follow-up to Stewart’s legacy. In many respects, his Charles Xavier had the more defined arc, growing from idealistic youth to high-profile activist. His bromance with Michael Fassbender as young Eric Lensherr also sold fans that McAvoy remained true to the iconic Xavier/Magneto rivalry.  We literally saw their divide between mutant co-existence and mutant superiority grow across the decades, albeit in between post-apocalyptic futures and god ascensions.

Thus, DARK PHOENIX’s Xavier storyline thematically concludes an arc which spanned FIRST CLASS, DAYS OF FUTURES PAST and APOCALYPSE. Across these four films he became a leader, formed a team, and fought numerous threats posed by, and against, the rise of Mutantkind. Yet the films also hinted that ego drives Charles’ actions as much as his morals. This ties back into the character’s comic origins, with Xavier committing many questionable or manipulative acts to further his agenda. Across the X-MEN films, Charles’ relationship with Mutant politics evolves (pun intended) from isolated curiosity to central philosophical leader.

Being the “Better Man

The Charles Xavier of FIRST CLASS straddles a line between academic and arrogance. At a young age he’s tempered and collected with his mutant powers, telepathically calling out young Raven/Mystique for impersonating his mother. Yet he’s excited by the revelation that more Mutants exist, inviting Raven to live with him and even writing his Oxford thesis on mutations. Compared to Patrick Stewart, this Charles is a bit more rambunctious, most notably when he chugs down a sizable yard of beer.

At the same time, there’s a certain privilege to Xavier’s gifts. No one can visibly see his Mutant powers, and he grew up on a sizable estate that later doubles as an X-Men training ground. Compared to Raven’s physicality or Eric’s loss of his parents, Charles “never had to hide.” He never endured persecution and, to some degree, benefitted socially from his telepathic abilities. This privilege partially influences Xavier’s belief in mutant-human coexistence, recognizing prejudice as morally wrong but never quite experiencing it himself.

Drunk, Womanizing Xavier, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

It’s only once Sebastian Shaw attacks his Mutant recruits that Xavier starts taking these conflicts seriously. He brings Raven, Eric, Hank McCoy and the other Mutants back to his estate and trains them to control their powers. The characters can now embrace their genetic status without being radicalized like Eric and his hatred for Shaw. Try as he may, Charles cannot dissuade his friend from seeking vengeance or promoting mutant superiority.

Yet it’s his own exposure to violence that, ironically, furthers Charles’ journey to becoming the X-Men leader. When Magneto inadvertently deflects a bullet into his spine, Charles becomes helpless for the first time. Left wheelchair-bound, the experience humbles him and encourages him to continue training Mutants for a war Eric believes to be inevitable.

A Damaged Professor

By X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE’S PAST, however, Xavier’s school has fallen on hard times. With most of his students drafted for Vietnam and Magneto’s followers murdered, Charles is without a cause. In his disillusionment, Charles metaphorically and literally rejects his mutant identity via alcohol and one of Hank’s experimental serums. He regains his legs- a remnant of pre-X-Men life- but suppresses his genetic identity in the process.

Only when Wolverine convinces Charles of the future Sentinel threat does he reluctantly get active again. Yet it’s Magneto who reprimands his friend for standing idly by as humanity sacrificed their fellow mutants. He could have “fought harder” for them but instead he rejected it all to live a “normal” life. Eric wants the same bias-free society but, even if his philosophical motives are violent, he nevertheless fights for them. Compared to him, Charles lost hope.

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McAvoy Meets Stewart, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Then Charles finds hope from someone who’s been in his shoes before: Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier. Stewart-Xavier recognizes that his younger self fears the paralysis and the voices he hears when connected to Cerebro. But he must bare their pain so they can feel like there’s a future where co-existence is possible. By embracing this hope, Charles reclaims his powers at the expense of his legs, rejecting a normal life to become a leader again.

It’s fitting then that Charles’ first decision with this renewed faith is to give Raven a choice. He could use his powers to immobilize her, just as he wiped Moira MacTaggert’s memory, but instead he leaves it up to others. Having faith in his family, rather than controlling them, saves the day.

A New Generation of X-Men

X-MEN APOCALYPSE continues Charles’ arc by expanding his status as a Mutant mentor. By this point. Charles himself has been recognized as a teacher but hasn’t form his next-gen heroes. These include young Nightcrawler, Jean Grey and Scott Summers, the younger brother of FIRST CLASS team member Alex Summers.

Compared to the other two X-MEN prequels, Xavier doesn’t engage as much with this plot as a protagonist. When the demigod-like Apocalypse kidnaps him to become a new host, the younger Mutants must adopt a leadership position and rescue him. By rescuing him, they keep the mutant dream alive and prove themselves worthy of the title ‘X-Men.’

Xavier vs. Apocalypse, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Apocalypse is Xavier’s thematic foil: someone who views himself as a teacher willing to bring about change for Mutantkind’s betterment. But Apocalypse views his four Horsemen as subjects rather than people. Their worth ultimately comes down to how characters like Magneto and Storm serve him. By contrast, Xavier places faith in his students’ ability to shape a positive image of Mutantkind. Their conflict becomes a literal battle of minds across the Astral Plain, with Xavier emerging victorious.

This conflict costs Charles his hair, but it leaves the professor more committed to his pursuit of hope. And that hope does reveal the good in other characters- Mystique comes back to lead the X-Men, and Eric reverts from villain to anti-hero status. And his students graduate into full-fledged X-Men. Sounds a bit too idealistic.

Fallout of Charles Xavier’s Hubris

DARK PHOENIX, however, critiques this idealism as an extension of Xavier’s ego. By this point, the X-Men have become celebrities, with Charles receiving praise and awards from high-profile Washington figures. Yet to keep this public profile afloat, he repeatedly coerces the X-Men into taking riskier missions, including the spaceship rescue. Even after Jean nearly dies from the mission, he brushes off Raven’s critique that the risks aren’t worth taking.

This arrogance has consequences. Under the force’s influence, Jean learns that Charles wiped her memory of causing the car accident that killed her mom and hid that her father was still alive. This is a devastating violation of Jean’s trust, one Charles made without her consent because he felt he knew better. Even after she publicly kills Raven, Charles refuses to concede to Hank that he is to blame. He can’t accept that his actions were driven more by notoriety than the Mutant cause.

Xavier and his X-Men, Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Leading Charles astray by his hubris is a decent FIRST CLASS callback, highlighting how, for all his growth, certain personal weaknesses remain. If a specific arc can be deduced from DARK PHOENIX’s underwhelming narrative, its Xavier’s final reluctance to relinquish control. He admits this as much to Hank in the final act, recognizing his violation of Jean’s mind as morally wrong. Much like the choice he gives Raven in DAYS OF FUTURES’ PAST, Charles steps aside and lets Jean control her new powers without interfering.

Charles Xavier: Hardly a Perfect Leader

Whether the X-MEN films’ popularity declined due to franchise fatigue or inconsistent chronology, James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier remained excellent. While Patrick Stewart’s performance is more iconic, McAvoy’s version explored more of the character’s flawed traits. He started out privileged, only to evolve into a compassionate teacher who sought to protect Mutants and humans alike for the greater good.

What the prequel films understood is that Charles Xavier, like his comic book self, is a mix of altruistic and manipulative qualities. He’s highly devoted but also ambitious, doing what he thinks is right while ignoring alternate opinions that contradict his vision. But, as his arc reveals, Xavier can learns from his mistakes, an important quality needed in leadership.

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