For the sake of clarity, we’ll be referring to James McAvoy’s young Charles Xavier by Xavier and the older version portrayed by Patrick Stewart as Professor X. With that said, let the battle commence!
Look: Given they’re the only two incarnations of the same character to share screen-time in X-Men: Days of Future Past, it’s remarkable how similar they look in all the small details. There’s that same slight hook to the nose, those same hazel eyes; they’re even both dressed in leather. Xavier may have long hair and a beard, and be, for the moment, ambulatory, but there’s no doubt that Professor X is the man he will one day become (in one form or another…)
Characterization: It’s here that the real differences come into play. The major dramatic crux of the film is how Xavier goes from the man he is in 1973 – broken, sarcastic, disillusioned – to someone who has learned to hope again. The cocky smile from First Class disappeared about the time he lost the use of his legs. The serum Xavier takes that allows him to walk also suppresses his powers, a sacrifice he’s more than willing to make: the empathic burden his telepathy confers upon him has become too great to bear. Fifty years later, Professor X has moved beyond the pain and suffering, even as man and mutant-kind have been massacred around him. He radiates a benign wisdom: here is a man who has saved generations of misfits and helped to make them their best selves. If Days of Future Past relegates him to a bit player, it’s only because Professor X’s journey is complete. He is the man that Xavier must needs become.
Powers: Neither Xavier or Professor X get much opportunity to use their powers in the film. The former has suppressed them for many years – his first attempt to use Cerebro blows out all the dials – but slowly manages to regain control of them. Hiding out in a Tibetan monastery with no human enemies to influence, only the cold, remorseless not-metal of the Sentinels, the best Professor X can do is to commune with his past self, to work through him.
Purpose: The main contrast between Xavier and Professor X in X-Men: Days of Future Past is their purpose (or lack thereof). In 2023, where the film begins, Professor X is already involved in a futile rebellion, one of the few people left on the planet not in captivity; his younger self, meanwhile, is holed up at the past and future School for Gifted Youngsters, mired in self-pity over the loss of his legs and of Mystique. In order to prevent that dystopian vision of the world from coming about, it’s up to Wolverine to mobilize Xavier, to get him back on track. Only he can prevent an assassination whose long-term effects will destroy everything.
Most iconic: However hip and defiant James McAvoy might be in the role of Xavier, you still cant beat the chrome-domed, wheelchair-bound Professor X in terms of sheer recognisability. Patrick Stewart has been in the role for fourteen years now and seven films, and the character’s look dates back more than fifty years. It’s the one field in which his younger, shaggy, temporarily mobile self just can’t compete.
Summary: It’s a close call but as the focus shifts from the future to the past, it’s easy to feel the film’s heart lies with McAvoy’s tormented Xavier. At this point, the 73-year-old Stewart’s time as Professor X is almost played out; X-Men: Days of Future Past allows him to hand over to the younger generation. With a featured role in X-Men: Apocalypse looking unlikely, we’re just glad that the film was able to give him the sendoff he deserved.