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The X-Men, Sabretooth, and when redemption fails

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Feb 4, 2019, 1:00 PM EST

One constant theme of the Marvel Universe has been that anti-mutant hysteria from humanity has caused the species known as homo superior, or "mutantkind," to go into hiding to avoid violence. Serving as a metaphor for marginalized people during the Civil Rights era, the X-Men struggle against that threat that bigotry poses them and others like them. Believing there must be a better, more peaceful way, Xavier assembles the X-Men to help bridge the divide between humans and mutants. Thus, the X-Men have long been defined by their trademark passion for protecting “a world that hates and fears them.”

The mutant metaphor succeeds at times, and the most positive element of the series has been how many marginalized people of all kinds have connected with the themes of the books. On the other hand, it can also serve to distract from real-world issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia by making those things secondary to the hatred of mutants. Besides that, Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence with humanity places mutants in an uncomfortable position of having to prove their humanity to people that hate them irrationally. When compared to the movements that inspired the concept, it becomes somewhat offensive. The implication that any oppressed group should have to prove that they deserve rights by putting their lives on the line in service of helping their oppressors learn to tolerate them is an inherently flawed concept. At the heart of the most problematic themes of the X-Men is Professor Xavier himself, whose "dream" has not only led to inaccurate comparisons between him and Martin Luther King Jr. that serve to reduce the political edge of MLK himself but who has often placed its importance above the safety of the students that depend on him.

Enter Sabretooth

At one point in the X-Men's history, Xavier was attacked by the evil mutant Victor Creed, otherwise known as Sabretooth, who was a known serial murderer and sworn enemy of the X-Men. Xavier entered Creed’s mind to stop his rampage psychically, at which time he discovered that Creed actually remembers his victims. Bizarrely, this convinced Xavier that Sabretooth did indeed value life, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and he insisted on taking him captive and bringing him into residence at the mansion in order to treat him and theoretically “cure” him of his homicidal rages. The fact that this is absolutely not how reform works is not addressed in Xavier's plan, and the X-Men are thrown into disarray.

One of the first issues with Xavier taking on Sabretooth is that he doesn’t consult the X-Men, who he intends to force to share their living space with a man who has killed the former partners of 2 of the team members. In X-Men #33, Sabretooth tells Rogue an unflattering story of Gambit in order to drive a wedge between them, but the fact that Creed himself murdered Gambit’s girlfriend in the story seems to fall somehow by the wayside for Rogue and the other X-Men, who feel their fears about Gambit are being confirmed. Meanwhile, Logan’s background with Creed is long and storied, because not only did Creed murder Logan’s wife Silver Fox, but he also made a point of trying to kill Wolverine every year on his birthday.

Besides murdering the partners of more than one of the X-Men, Creed had also been one of Mister Sinister’s team of mercenaries known as the Marauders, who had murdered the X-Men’s uneasy allies the Morlocks en masse in an unprovoked attack so brutal that it is referred to as The Mutant Massacre. Besides slaughtering many of the relatively peaceful and defenseless Morlocks, the Marauders had been responsible for trapping Angel in the sewers under New York and destroying his wings, which led him to attempt suicide and ultimately become the thrall of Apocalypse known as Death before returning to the X-Men as the emotionally damaged Archangel. With all this in mind, the fact that Xavier didn’t even consult the others before transporting Creed in showed a stunning lack of consideration for the mental well-being of those already living in the mansion.

Drawing False Equivalency Between Sabretooth and Wolverine

Comparisons were made by Storm and Xavier between their attempts with Creed with earlier instances in which Xavier had taken leaps of faith with mutants such as Rogue and Wolverine after their criminal activity, but this is a false equivalency. It is impossible to draw a parallel between Wolverine, whose committed murder while under mind control, with Creed, a serial killer, let alone with Rogue, who had accidentally damaged Carol Danvers’ psyche and was left traumatized by the act. Storm’s desire to make amends for her past regrets made her stance understandable. She had long felt guilty over initially refusing to recognize Rogue as redeemable, and likewise, did she regret her own encounter with the Morlock Callisto, which had led to Callisto's apparent death. Xavier’s motivations are murkier. Why did he feel it was so important to reach out to Creed at all, but moreover why was it crucial to hold him in a building intended to be a school for young mutants struggling to control their powers? Why was he compelled to hopelessly alienate and divide his team based on nothing more than a hunch that Creed might be redeemable?


When Sabretooth came to the mansion, Wolverine left, logically refusing to share space with someone that had gone well out of his way to cause terror and mayhem specifically aimed at Wolverine for nearly a century by that point. Xavier’s reaction was entirely unsympathetic to Logan, even going so far as to compare Logan to Creed. In Wolverine #90, Sabretooth attempted to escape the mansion, and Wolverine returned only to stop him and kill him. He put one of his claws through Creed’s skull, damaging his brain, again leaving the team and chastising himself for losing control despite the fact that his doing so likely saved lives.

Jean Grey Versus Sabretooth

Jean Grey had gone along with Xavier’s decision in the beginning, but ultimately lost patience with the situation when she saw the effect it was having on Jubilee, who was hit particularly hard by Logan’s departure. Against the wishes of her husband Cyclops, Jean confronted Xavier head-on, condemning him for his blase attitude towards Wolverine’s departure and the effect Creed was having on the team. Dismissed as being unreasonable by the other X-Men, Jean announced her intention to confront Creed himself.

The showdown between Jean and Sabretooth is one of the more interesting things to happen in this era of the X-Men. She walks in, shuts down the security system, insults Creed mercilessly, slams him into a wall multiple times, informs him that he is not even in Logan’s league let alone an equal to him, and denies to give him the mental peace called “the glow” that the other telepaths working with him have granted him as she strides back out of the cell, leaving no question that she neither fears him nor believes in his potential for rehabilitation. She returns to Jubilee and offers her support to the struggling young woman, marking herself as perhaps the only person on the grounds qualified to refer to themselves as Jubilee’s mentor throughout this particular story arc.


Xavier's Questionable Ethics

For a telepath, Xavier is incredibly naive in his treatment of Creed. To begin with, psychological issues at the X-Mansion are dealt with only via private psychic therapy with Charles, which raises a lot of red flags considering his history with his students. Not only has Xavier’s integrity been compromised against his will due to possession of his body by villains such as The Brood and Shadow King many times over the years, but he himself has also been known to make incredible errors of judgment when dealing with students. One need look no further than his treatment of Jean Grey to reach the consensus that a healthy system of checks and balances would have been necessary at the Xavier Institute if he was to be allowed to continue to treat people at all beyond the Silver Age. Stories like Deadly Genesis painted Xavier in a dark light dating back far in his history. His ethics are far from being beyond reproach, so leaving him as the sole advisor and counselor of a team of traumatized young mutants, accountable to no one but himself, isn't a great plan.

Besides that, months later, in Uncanny X-Men #328, Jean Grey spends all of five minutes with Creed before she deduces that his murderous urges are far from gone, and he is indeed scamming the bizarrely optimistic Xavier, whose desire to prove himself right and pat himself on the back for it far outweighed his concern for his students. To Jean’s credit, her analysis of Creed had been accurate from the beginning, and she is one of the few X-Men that never showed even a hint of fear in his presence nor an emotional response to his taunts. Indeed, the Omega level Grey had next to nothing to fear from Creed, and it was perhaps for that reason that she dealt with his presence more calmly than most of her fellow X-Men. Her loyalty to Logan also led her to have a particularly negative view of Creed, but when her husband and others reduced her antipathy towards him to leftover emotions from her short-lived attraction to Logan, they did her a disservice. Her apprehension towards him was more than logical, with or without Logan's influence.

Psylocke & Tabitha Smith

Meanwhile, the fallout for other women in the mansion was severe. Tabitha Smith, the teen girl known otherwise as Boomer, had essentially adopted Creed, bringing him milk daily and bonding with him over time. Although known as being boisterous and thick-skinned to the point of apparent insensitivity, Tabitha had never been seen as a more complicated character than that up unto that point. Her early childhood was spent with her abusive alcoholic father, and when she left home she did so to save her own life. Although becoming involved with her comparatively well-adjusted X-Force teammate Samuel Guthrie brought a great deal of stability and comfort to her life, she still tended to hide her insecurities and worry under the guise of casual, shallow preoccupation. Reaching out and allowing herself to be vulnerable with Creed was a doomed attempt to reconnect emotionally with her father with the hope that the man who had abused her could be redeemed, but Victor Creed was a serial killer and a rapist. He could not be redeemed. It was highly irresponsible for Xavier to force his students to live in the same house as a man that had committed excessive, violent crimes. He put them all in danger, especially Tabitha Smith, who wore the scars of her encounters with Creed for far longer than anyone. Except, of course, for Psylocke, whose scars were more literal.

In yet another error of judgment, Xavier condemned Creed verbally, then Bishop and Cyclops argued about ethics. Afterward, the room in which Creed was kept was left unwatched, and Tabitha Smith entered to confront him for deceiving her. Not only was he unrepentant, but he also mocked her and antagonized her until she lashed out and accidentally destroyed his holding cell, allowing him to escape. When he went after Tabitha to kill her, Psylocke leaped to her defense, not hesitating for a moment to throw her life on the line to save her. In an excruciatingly short fight scene that should have gone on for at least a full issue but instead lasts only a few pages, Psylocke and Creed go head to head. When she attempts to use her psionic powers on him, she discovers that his healing factor has actually developed an immunity to them, and he delivers a devastating blow before the X-Men are able to respond. Again, the irresponsibility of Xavier is somewhat shocking here. Leaving Creed very nearly completely unwatched after what had just been revealed about him seems ill-advised at best. Wolverine and Angel teamed up to save her, but Psylocke very nearly died and went on a long hiatus from the team after her fight with Creed. Not only did Xavier put his students in dangerous, life-threatening positions, he inadvertently led to Creed’s eventual escape from justice.


Modern Relevance

In a modern context, Xavier’s missteps mirror the ethos of people that draw false equivalencies between oppressors and the oppressed, declaring Wolverine’s struggles with his own inner demons to be the same as Creed’s complete disregard for human life. Although Xavier had at times done well by his students and even saved some of them from certain death, what he expected in return was perhaps too much to ask of teenagers with no place else to go, and that has ever put his ethics in a questionable light. Not only does his inability to respect the opinions and feelings of the X-Men prove him to be an unfit mentor, the sheer condescension and the many low blows he served against both Rogue and Logan saw him leveraging their weaknesses against them in order to manipulate them to conform to his wishes.

It is true that we must work as a society to help and understand others, but we should not ever in a billion years force teen girls to live in the same house as a known manipulator and rapist, nor should we open ourselves and those we care about to harm in our attempts to heal others. Xavier’s cartoonish attempts at the moral high-ground with Sabretooth didn’t just make him seem foolish, it also hurt many people that trusted him. Xavier was never asked or expected to make amends with Tabitha Smith, Psylocke, Logan, or Gambit, and his grievous errors were chalked up to being overly optimistic about his ability to help others. The fact remains, he had a responsibility to keep these people safe, and he completely shirked that in hopes of proving himself right, and for that alone he absolutely should have lost his position of authority in the Xavier Institute. This can serve as a lesson for people that put their morality over their responsibility to not put vulnerable people in danger. In the end, Xavier was wrong, and it was his students that paid the price.

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