[Warning: Spoilers from the X-Men movies]
Professor X and Magneto are arguably two of the most recognizable characters in the world of comics and comic book movies. That being said, these characters bring up a serious issue that gets hidden beneath the surface by the fact that they inhabit a fictional world. However, that does not change their message nor the weight that such a message has:
The Complex Relationship Between Charles and Erik
Charles Xavier and Erik Lehnsherr are something between best friends and arch nemeses. These characters have stood together in times of certain death, against each other in times of battle, and have occasionally united for what they deemed the common good. That being said, I feel that these two are friends at the end of the day. They treat each other as intellectual equals and while they may not agree with the other's stances most of the time, they have the maturity to look past it for the sake of companionship.
Arguably the most iconic scenes from the X-Men franchise are the chess games between Charles and Erik. These scenes best convey the idea that these two will always talk to each other regardless of what events may befall them. Each meeting of the two characters in these intellectually based instances feels like civil conversation instead of the meeting of bitter rivals.
The prequel films have further brought this relationship to the forefront to show exactly what kind of hardships these two have gone through to get to where they are. Regardless of how vehemently Charles opposes Erik's stance on the "mutant question," regardless of how much pain Erik causes Charles and his friends, Charles always forgives Erik. Erik is the more vengeful of the two, but he still understands that Charles has been and always will be a friend. He won't admit it, but he needs Charles just as much as Charles needs him. They provide balance to each other while also emphasizing a deeper point about society.
The Importance of These Main Characters
As the true main characters of this series, it would make sense that these characters would embody a larger idea than just being the action heroes that save the day. The original X-Men trilogy put a focus on how mutants were viewed in society and the people that embodied that conflict were chosen accordingly. Mutants face heavy discrimination in a world that refuses to understand their existence, much like our world has discriminated against people of different races and sexual orientation for centuries.
In this world, Charles Xavier stands tall as the man who wants to bridge the gap between mutants and humans, expose the humanity of mutants and reach understanding. He is the embodiment of the nonviolent side of the war on discrimination and social equality. Erik Lehnsherr is the extreme radical side of this movement. He believes that only through massive amounts of violence to get their point across to the ignorant humans, to prove that mutants are truly the master race and the future of humanity.
These two represent both sides of an argument that has persisted for centuries and will most likely continue so long as prejudice exists in the world - that's what makes their existence so crucial to what the X-Men are. This idea was brought into focus in X-3: The Last Stand as well as X-Men: Days of Future Past, but beyond that these two operate in the peripherals of the films.
A Historical View of These Characters
The idea of two people standing on opposites sides of the same issue is one that can be found across history. In terms of American History, the Civil Rights Movement had a profound impact on the development of these characters. The fight for mutants to be treated fairly is extremely similar to the fight for African American rights during the 1960s. In the same way, the two figureheads of this fight were based on the figures of the original movement.
You're probably familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. He preached ideas of equality through peaceful means. He never wanted to antagonize his enemies and his words had a powerful impact on those around him. In much the same way, Charles Xavier asks for diplomacy in confronting the conflict between man and mutant. His words, which reach the core of people thanks to his mutant powers, have a calming impact akin to the words of Martin Luther King Jr.
Malcolm X, a friend to Martin Luther King Jr., stood on the opposite side of the Civil Rights Movement. He frequently advocated violent, extreme means to get their point across. He felt that there was too much prejudice in the world to warrant the peaceful negotiations MLK wanted. However, he and MLK were still able to be friends despite their polarized views on the same issue in much the same way that Charles and Erik remain friends. While Magneto takes his actions to a level further than Malcolm X, both people felt that their actions were in the right and believed wholeheartedly in their methodology.
While the message is not the focus of the action film series, the metaphor for discrimination of people still exists and should still be noted. Maybe I'm just reading too far into this and maybe that wasn't Bryan Singer's intention when he started this franchise, but that powerful message has always been in the comics. Whether we want to admit it or not, human nature dictates that we fear the unknown and hate what we do not understand. Even though these films provide an extreme metaphor, we cannot ignore the message they convey.