What does it mean to be “the better man”? And which matters more, being “better” in the moral and ethical sense, or being “superior” in the evolutionary sense?
After a recent viewing of the movie X-Men: First Class, those were the questions that kept circling my mind, like the never-ending debate between Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr, the future Professor X and Magneto.
We first really see Charles Xavier in the midst of World War II at age 12 in the kitchen of his family’s estate. He interrupts his mother in the kitchen in the middle of the night. Except it’s not really his mother. It’s a little girl who is capable of mimicking the outward appearance of anyone, anyone at all. She has the mutation of being a human chameleon. Her true outward appearance consists of slightly scaly blue skin, red hair and yellow eyes. She is a mutant. But Xavier is not all that astonished. He is a mutant too, but his mutation is on the inside. He can read her mind. And everyone else’s.
Erik Lehnsherr spends his war in a Concentration Camp with a number tattooed on his arm. His introduction shows him, also at a young age, being separated from his mother during the sorting process at the Camp entrance by the Nazis. In his grief and rage at the separation, young Erik uses his burgeoning power to start pulling the metal gates that separate him from his mother off their hinges until a guard knocks him out with a rifle butt. A doctor decides to bring his power to full fruition, using the most obscene lever at his command, Erik’s love for his mother. The doctor kills her in front of the boy, and the power explodes, sending all the metal objects that Erik can see into a swirling Armaggedon.
When we see them each again, it is 1962. They have all grown up. Xavier is graduating from Oxford as a Professor of Genetic Mutation. Erik is traveling to Switzerland and South America, taking his own personal revenge on the Nazis. The little blue girl Xavier found in his kitchen, well, she is still with him in Oxford, pretending to be his sister, and using her chameleon ability to pretend to be normal. And that sums up the three protagonists, one the son of privilege, one the survivor of man’s absolute inhumanity to man, and one a mutant who is ashamed of herself.
They collide in the middle of the ocean. Erik is in pursuit of the doctor who killed his mother. Xavier is in pursuit of the man who wants to start World War III. They happen to be the same mutant, now going by the name of Sebastian Shaw, backed by a small army of mutants. Shaw believes that the spontaneous rise of mutations is the result of atomic testing, and that the release of nuclear war will create more mutants, whom he will rule.
This is the central conflict between Erik and Xavier. Xavier believes that the “better man”, the morally superior man, would capture Shaw and let some higher authority judge him for his crimes. Erik just wants to kill him for the crime of murdering his mother and torturing him, whatever else the villain has done. The problem is that Shaw is a psychopath as well as a powerful mutant who can absorb any energy that is thrown at him. But primarily, he is a psychopath, and probably would have been even if he hadn’t been a mutant. Killing him is the only way to stop him from starting World War III (in the movie, Shaw was the motivating force behind the Cuban Missile Crisis). To borrow from a different science fiction universe, the needs of the many, in this case the entire human race, outweigh the needs of the few. Erik did the right thing, even if his motives were selfish.
Mutants are superior to homo sapiens in an evolutionary sense. Xavier believes that if his people do the moral thing, the better thing, that the homo sapiens will treat his people fairly and not act irrationally. In other words, not turn on them out of fear. Erik knows what it is like to be irrationally hated, he has already been there. He is certain that once their powers are revealed, humans will fear them, and will act on that fear. The story proves him correct. What is interesting is that Xavier has known this all along, he has just refused to admit it, even to himself. That is why he has hidden his talent, and why he has made his mutant friend Mystique use her chameleon talent to hide hers, to keep himself from being exposed.
In Harry Potter’s world, the wizards and witches hide from the Muggles. In Deborah Harkness’ book, A Discovery of Witches, the witches conceal their talents from the world at large as well, and for the same reason. The magical folk remember the witch burnings all too well, and do not want them to happen again. Concealment is safer.
Katherine Kurtz’ series about the magical Deryni said it best, and the words still send a chill up my spine. “The humans kill what they do not understand.”