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A binge-watching guide to Professor X

Contributed by
Apr 2, 2019

This was supposed to be a banner year for the X-Men film franchise. Three titles were slated to release in 2018: Dark Phoenix, The New Mutants, and Deadpool 2. Our ever-reliable Merc With a Mouth hasn’t let us down, but both Dark Phoenix and The New Mutants are reshooting and retooling and have been rescheduled to appear in June and August 2019, respectively.

To help you get through the lag time between Deadpool 2 and the other films’ releases, we decided to pull together an X-Men binge guide, but then we were left with the questions of where to start and who to feature.

The X-Men movies are notorious for their continuity issues. They premiered out of the universe’s chronological order—and there are multiple timelines due to a major time-travel intervention. If there was ever a film franchise begging for a binge guide, it’s X-Men.

It would probably be hilarious to choose some of the minor characters and watch them age in reverse, like Emma Frost, or Angel, who inexplicably never ages, or even Caliban, who is an underground-broker-slash-bad-guy in one version and a put-upon caregiver in another. But it’s Professor X who really shines in these films, in no small part due to the superb actors who have portrayed him, Sir Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy.  (I’m a Jean-Luc Picard fan, so I’m definitely biased about who is better.)

Everyone’s favorite professor, Charles Xavier, appears in nine total films in the X-Men franchise. Personally, I love Professor X. He’s complicated, powerful, and kind of terrifying. His psionic powers give him the ability to control people (and things) with his mind, but he’s careful with how he uses that ability. He could have and be anything he wants, but he dedicates his life to teaching mutants and protecting mutant and humankind alike.

I’ve arranged the films for what I believe makes the best viewing order for focusing on the journey of Charles Xavier. He will return in Dark Phoenix, but for those who can’t wait until then to see Professor X in action, this binge guide is for you.

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X-Men: First Class (2011)

Before he was a professor, before Cerebro, before the X-Men, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) was a brash flirt studying genetic mutation at Oxford with friend/adopted sister/fellow mutant Raven, aka Mystique. This film chronicles not only Charles’s rise to professorship, but also his brief partnership with the CIA and Moira MacTaggart, and his friendship with Erik Lehnsherr, aka Magneto.

There are certainly some continuity issues between this film and the Jean Grey origin story from X-Men: The Last Stand, but I really love how this film sets up the tension between Magneto and Professor X, first as friends with different points of view and later as diametrically opposed forces working for the preservation of mutantkind.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) - Professor X Takes In The Mutants

X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

This film is, for the most part, the story of how Wolverine got his adamantium claws in the Weapon X program and how he came to blows with his own sadistic brother, Victor Creed/Sabretooth. 

At the film’s climax, Wolverine frees the mutants who had been captured and caged by Major William Stryker at his mutant laboratory. He then leaves to go face the Big Bad — the worst possible manifestation of Deadpool. 

As the mutants, including a young Scott Summers and Emma Frost, make their way to freedom, they encounter what some believe to be a psychic projection of Stewart's Professor X (which would explain the terrible CGI, tbh). He tells them that they are safe now and welcomes them onto his helicopter, the implication being that they will now all live and study with him at the X-Mansion.

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X-Men (2000)

The first film released in the franchise, appropriately called X-Men, brings some of the greatest mutants of the canon together. We first see Jean Grey testifying before congress as they discuss the “Mutant Registration Act.” At the same time, Magneto and Professor X (Stewart) discuss the future just outside. Magneto warns Charles that a war is coming.

Professor X has established his school by this point and his first team of X-Men are now teaching, leading, and training the next generation. On a mission for the professor, Storm and Cyclops rescue Wolverine and Rogue, a young mutant he is helping, from being captured by one of Magneto’s henchmen, Sabretooth, who is still Sabretooth but not THAT Sabretooth. (Buckle up, there are several of these throughout the franchise.)

The X-Men bring them back to the mansion and Professor X explains the stakes of the situation to Wolverine, mistakenly believing that Magneto wants Wolverine and his powers for his plan, and the wheels are set in motion.

Professor X is underutilized in this film, in my opinion; however, I really adore the scenes shared between him and Magneto. The film paints a picture of the camaraderie and goals shared between the two, even as they disagree about the means of achieving those goals.

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X2 (2003)

The X-Men are in the crosshairs of the government—again. This time, though, they are being pursued by the now-Colonel William Stryker who will do anything to get to the mutants. He raids the X-Mansion, capturing the children who are unable to escape, and incapacitates and manipulates Professor X psychically. In a particularly telling twist, Stryker forces his own psychically gifted son, who it is obvious he has experimented on, to get into Professor X’s mind. 

Through an elaborate illusion, Stryker’s son attempts to convince Professor X to kill all the mutants in the world. Charles resists for as long as he can, but acquiesces. He is stopped when Mystique, posing as Stryker, forces Stryker’s son to make Professor X choose a different target: humans. Only by freezing the room does Storm stop Stryker’s son.

It’s odd that this film once again finds Professor X incapacitated—what’s up with that? Regardless, it also gives insight into Charles Xavier’s strength. He is able to resist psychic manipulation at length before the young psychic breaks through, and in reality, Stryker’s son can only gain traction once he uses an elaborate psychic projection about a little girl who is in pain. Professor X’s weakness is his compassion, which is pretty endearing.

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X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

This film opens with a teamed up Magneto and Professor X as they approach a young Jean Grey. She displays a remarkable propensity for psionic powers and Professor X offers her the choice to control her powers or be controlled by them.

After showing us how terrible some mutants’ lives are and getting us caught up on what the regular cast of characters is doing, we learn that a mutant “cure” has been developed. 

Meanwhile, Cyclops, completely devastated by the death of Jean, heads to where she died to mourn. What he finds is a hyper-powered, scary Jean who kills him. The X-Men retrieve an unconscious Jean and her backstory is revealed. Professor X shares with Wolverine that Jean is the only Class Five mutant he’s ever met, meaning there are no known limits to her powers. When she first came to the X-Mansion, Professor X contained much of her power, seemingly for her own good. In the process he caused Jean to disassociate into the Jean we know and the Phoenix, who is pure id and power. Wolverine is disgusted at Professor X’s decision and tries to dissuade him from recreating the blocks again.

Later when Jean awakes, she erratically bounces between Phoenix and Jean, her behavior ranging from sexual aggression to begging for death. She escapes and returns to her childhood home where Magneto and Professor X once again approach her. While Professor X tries to warn Jean about the extent and danger of her powers, Magneto offers her a place beside him, not as a leashed beast, but as the free Phoenix. When Professor X reminds Jean that she killed Scott, she lashes out, resulting in her suspending the professor in the air and disintegrating him. The film continues from there, exploring the full range of Phoenix’s powers and the only way the X-Men can figure out to stop her.

A lot of fans would like to forget X-Men: The Last Stand. It creates a lot of the continuity issues of the franchise and is generally just not a very compelling film. That said, I appreciate the way it portrays Professor X. He’s not just a benevolent father figure—he’s a man on a mission and if he thinks it’s the right thing to do, he will mess with someone’s psyche and their powers. The end of the film suggests either that he was right to do so, or that conversely, had he let Jean learn to control her full powers sooner, her death might have been avoided.

The post-credits scene shows a man in a hospital. Moira MacTaggart walks into the room to observe his vitals and the man says, “Hello Moira.” In response she says, “Charles?” So, Professor X is not really dead. Instead, he has moved his psyche into the body of a brain dead person, which some fans speculate is Charles’s twin. The idea of transferring one’s consciousness into another body is teased earlier in the film when one of his classes is discussing the ethics of such a choice, so it’s actually a nice little bow on the film.

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The Wolverine (2013)

This film follows Wolverine on his journey to deal with this sadness over the loss of Jean Grey at the end of X-Men: The Last Stand. We don’t see Professor X at all in the film, nor do we see any of the X-Men save an echo of Jean Grey that haunts Wolverine.

In the post-credits scene, however, Professor X and Magneto approach Wolverine in an airport to enlist his help against dark forces that could end mutantkind. Wolverine is shocked when he sees that Professor X is still alive. When Wolverine asks how this is possible, he cheekily responds, “As I told you a long time ago, you aren’t the only one with gifts.”

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X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

The Sentinels have risen in X-Men: Days of Future Past, and they have wiped out all but a few mutants, in the process turning the world into an apocalyptic hellscape. Those who have survived have done so by using Kitty Pryde’s ability to send a person’s consciousness back in time. They have saved themselves from certain death each time the Sentinels find them by doing so.

Professor X, Magneto, and Wolverine join this rebel group and Professor X proposes sending his consciousness back in time to stop the assassination of Bolivar Trask, an event which led to human investment in the Sentinel program. Pryde warns the professor that his consciousness can’t survive and thus, Wolverine, due to his healing ability, is selected for the mission.

He must travel back to 1973, convince a broken, angry, and de-powered Charles Xavier to team up with Magneto and stop Mystique from assassinating Trask. Then he has to get back to the present/future before the Sentinels find the remaining mutants and kill them all. Only if his consciousness returns to his body will the timeline be reset.

The bulk of the on-screen time is spent in the past where the newly assembled team tries to find and stop Mystique. Things take a turn when a recalcitrant Professor X is convinced to regain his powers and Magneto decides to assassinate the president. At the same time that Mystique stops Magneto in the past and saves the president, the Sentinels find our hidden heroes in the future and begin slaughtering them. Just before Wolverine is killed, Mystique drops her weapon and the future is changed.

Wolverine awakes in the X-Mansion and greets the X-Men of yore, all alive, all still teaching, including Cyclops, Jean and Professor X. Thus, a new timeline is introduced into the films. The X-Men have avoided the fate of the original timeline and now can embark on a peaceful future.

What I love about this film is the juxtaposition of the calm and cool Stewart Professor X with the drunk, embittered, jerk Professor X played by McAvoy. When I look back at the other films from the vantage point of this film, Professor X becomes an even more complicated and interesting character. He always tries to do the right thing, but his arrogance and self-assuredness keep him from seeing the bigger picture at times. Who doesn’t love a flawed hero?

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X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

The first mutant, the eponymous villain Apocalypse, reemerges in this film and promises to rain down destruction alongside his four horse-people. He hand selects Storm, Psylocke, Angel, and Magneto for the task.

Meanwhile, back at the X-Mansion, a teenage Jean Grey’s premonitory dreams predict the destruction of the planet in some kind of—you guessed it—apocalypse. Professor X (McAvoy) calms Jean, who has exhibited massive powers, and then teams up with his merry team of mutants and Moira MacTaggart to track down Magneto and, in turn, Apocalypse.

Apocalypse, a being who has been gathering powers each time his consciousness is moved into a new body, traces the call, so to speak, and finds his way back to the X-Mansion. In a desperate attempt to keep Cerebro out of Apocalypse’s hands, Professor X has Havok destroy it, which results in blowing up the entire building. Professor X is kidnapped (again!) by Magneto and Apocalypse.

Apocalypse’s evil plan? To use Professor X’s abilities to control or kill everyone on the planet! Does that sound familiar? There’s a twist this time, though. Apocalypse wants to transfer his consciousness into Professor X’s body and have his abilities to himself. The pre-X-Men save Professor X and realizing he still has a psychic link to Apocalypse, he tries to beat him on a psychic plane. When Jean Gray joins the battle and unleashes the fury of the Phoenix, she beats Apocalypse back until mutants from each side use their powers to disintegrate him.

Overall, X-Men: Apocalypse is not a great film—even the filmmakers have acknowledged this fact. It does, however, open up the future for films in this franchise. Having “reset” the timeline, our beloved X-Men can now set off on entirely novel adventures and relationships. (And thank Hera for that because I seriously could not handle watching another film where Wolverine salivates over Jean.) The use of Professor X seems almost obligatory in the film and while it is interesting to think that the only limiting factor for Apocalypse to date has been that he couldn’t literally control people, we once again see a version of Professor X relegated to the role of a prop.

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Logan (2017)

Set in the year 2029 after the X-Men have disbanded and mutant numbers have plummeted, we find the former Wolverine driving a limo near the Mexican border and caring for an aged and ailing former Professor X (Stewart). In case you’re wondering (I know you are), the film appears to be set in an alternate, alternate timeline unrelated to the other films, one where the acts of the X-Men were greatly exaggerated in comic books.

When we first see him, Charles has a seizure that almost kills Logan and his other caregiver, Caliban, before Logan gives Charles an injection that halts the seizure. It’s a pretty bleak situation and Logan doesn’t handle it very well.

A young mutant, Laura, ends up joining our motley crew and while Logan tries to push her away, Charles welcomes her and says he’s been waiting for her. A team of private military-ish thugs, the cyborg Reavers, come for Laura, but she is more than capable of resisting. Logan helps her and then takes Charles and Laura on the road trip of a lifetime.

As they make their way to the Canadian border, where Laura will be safe, they encounter a family that invites them home for dinner. Unbeknownst to Logan, Caliban (under duress) has been helping the Reavers track the three and they catch up with them at the ranch where these strangers live.

Charles is lying in bed when Logan comes to see him. He expresses regret at the impact of his seizure a year early that resulted in 600 people being paralyzed and several others being killed, including some of the X-Men.

Chillingly, Logan murders Charles. Only after he’s been stabbed do we realize that the Logan before us is actually X-24, the unfeeling clone of Logan designed to kill. The real Logan rushes in, having just returned, and holds the dying Charles, saying, “It wasn’t me.” This is really heartbreaking stuff, my friends. Logan buries Charles in an unmarked grave, and then he and Laura continue their journey toward her freedom.

Logan, an Oscar nominee heralded as one of the top 10 films of the year, is truly a standout film, no matter if we’re talking X-Men, superheroes, or neither. Hugh Jackman, who has played the role for 17 years, even said he thought Logan was the first time a film had really nailed a portrayal of Wolverine.

This gritty version of Charles Xavier/Professor X is also incredibly moving. So frequently, the heroes we see on screen are hyper beautiful, hyper fit, and hyper (or perpetually) youthful. To see the professor and Wolverine in decline as the world crumbles around them breaks the mold for how superhero films can be made. The film also represents a touching passing of the mantle from Wolverine to X-23.

The film is a total gut punch because, as far as we know, this will be the last time we see Stewart reprise the role of Professor X. Or is it?

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Bonus: Deadpool (2016)

For a little bonus viewing, and just in case we do get a Professor X cameo, check out Deadpool, where there are a couple mentions of the X-Men.

When Colossus interrupts Deadpool’s play time with Francis, aka Ajax, Deadpool gets in a few X-Men digs with a particularly pointed critique of Professor X’s signature appearance. I’d tell you what he said, but we have a PG-13 rating on this site, so just cue up the film and enjoy it for yourself.

After Deadpool tries to fight Colossus, and in the process breaks his entire body, Colussus threatens to take Deadpool back to the X-Mansion to see the professor. Deadpool asks, “McAvoy or Stewart? These timelines are so confusing.”

The timelines are confusing, folks, but a good ol’ binge watch of the many versions and unconscious states of Professor X might just scratch your itch until we next see him on screen.

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