In the wake of X-Men: First Class, there’s something that needs to be said, and repeated.
Professor Xavier is NOT Martin Luther King Jr.
Okay, both have a dream of a better world for their respective repressed minorities, a future where minority and oppressor co-exist as equals, but that’s where the similarities end.
King was a pacifist who refused to use violence, even to defend himself. Professor X, on the other hand, trains his teenage students to be masked freedom fighters who beat the crap out of anyone, human or mutant, who threaten the lives of mutants.
No, Professor X’s belief that mutants have the right, and sometimes the need, to use violence to defend themselves makes him a lot closer to, appropriately enough, Malcolm X.
Magneto is a supervillain, tried and true, which means he has both goals (the enslavement of humanity) and tactics (conquering Manhattan) that are just outside the realm of human understanding, and any comparison to a real person or movement gets ridiculous, if not insulting.
Superheroes tend to be “normal” people in extraordinary situations, so their personalities and philosophies can map onto those of real people. Supervillains, on the other hand, are just crazy.
Of course, that’s the way Magneto is usually portrayed. In X-Men: First Class, Magneto is a much more reasonable person. In fact, there’s one reading of the film where Magneto is the good guy. His active, mutant pride approach is clearly more admirable than Xavier’s closeted, incremental movements towards equality. And neither approach is really like King’s incredible, non-violent but activist civil rights protests.
It would be an interesting story, I think, if Xavier and his small army of demi-gods met a truly King-esque mutant rights activist, someone who thinks the violent tactics of the X-Men themselves hurt the cause, one who refuses to attack the Sentinels, but rather lays in front of them, absorbs their blows and refuses to budge.
This would be particularly entertaining if said pacifist was the Blob.
Till then, I think it would help everyone’s understanding of the civil rights movements, and of the X-Men, to stop conflating a monstrous villain with a respected civil rights leader, and a very violent man with the American embodiment of peace.
Steven Padnick is a comic book editor. By day.