So, take the end of the movie; and read on; I am going to blather enough, setting the pieces, that you don’t need to know or remember much.
The genocidal ex-Nazi mutant Sebastian Shaw has been defeated. His plan was to cause a nuclear war, thus accelerating the appearance of mutants (through radiation; “children of the atom”) and getting rid of a whole lot of normal people, thus getting closer to the rule of the former over the latter.
Shaw’s tool in this was the Cuban Missile Crisis: he was pushing the Russians to bring a shipload of nuclear missiles to Cuba, to America’s doorstep; which because of overheated rhetoric had become a matter of “If you do, Moscow will be nuclear dust”.
There was a Russian fleet accompanying the cargo ship, and an American fleet meeting them, just off the coast of Cuba. Shaw had hijacked the cargo ship and was determined to bring it in even if the Russians got cold feet.
Then those meddling X-men came in. (They always do, don’t they?) They beached Shaw’s secret submarine and made the Russians shoot at and sink the cargo ship. To the Reds the action seemed a moment’s madness by one of the crew; actually, it was mind control.
This is where the crisis ends: the X-men and Shaw’s remaining mutants on a desolate Cuban beach, the plane of the former as crushed as the sub of the latter. Shaw dead. Erik (Lehnsherr, Magneto) and Charles (Xavier, Professor X) with their partnership broken over a difference of approaches to human-mutant relations.
Erik is a Holocaust survivor, determined to see that his people the mutants won’t face the same fate as his people the Jews faced at the hands of the Nazis. He’s come to share much of Shaw’s ideology of an inevitable war, and some of what Charles had hypothetisized one earlier, more peaceful day: as Homo Sapiens caused the extinction of the Neanderthals, so the mutant — Homo Superior — will be the extinction of Homo Sapiens. He’s not going to talk or meekly stand while ignorant, hateful idiots are raising their guns and fists at him and his people. He’s hovering between genocide and very muscular self-defense: on one hand what Shaw tried, on the other a dilemma worse that that of American atheists and of Israel in Middle-East combined, and a man with the combative ferocity of the both.
Charles is an Oxford-educated academic of a wealthy background, a pacifist, an idealist, a sort of a mutant Bertrand Russell. He’s sure violence is not going to solve things; it will only teach the human majority to hate mutants with an actual real reason. Mutants and normals must understand and tolerate each other, see their shared humanity and just get over their redneckish para-racisms; what Erik wants is no heroism to Charles, but either folly, crime, or destructive cynicism. It cannot last; if it did, there would be such oceans of blood spilled it does not bear thinking about.
To Erik, Charles’s approach is wide-eyed idealism, the sort of approach that will lead into mutant registration, into armbands and ghettoes and extermination camps: the normals have oppressed every single minority, every single alien group, and they will kill or enslave all mutants once they learn of the powers they possess.
And as Shaw dies, the American and Soviet fleets get a shared command from their leaders, who both know of the existence of unruly mutants, and that there is one faction behind the provocation, and another wild-gunning around. The shared command is to get rid of the immense security risk of the mutants at once, when they are so conveniently beached. (Score one point for Erik.)
The fleets shoot a volley: guns, missiles, the whole shebang, at the dozen or so people on the beach, two whole navies firing — and Erik, seeing his suspicions confirmed, uses his magnetic powers to stop the volley, and to throw it back at the fleets.
This does not agree with Charles, and in the best action movie fashion he uses his fists to persuade Erik; the matter gets ugly, the returning missiles wobble and explode half-way back, leaving the fleet unharmed. (Meanwhile, Charles is telling a Holocaust survivor that the sailors are blameless because they’re just following orders — sheesh.)
During the scuffle, Charles is hit by a stray bullet aimed at Erik and is left paralyzed. The two, Erik and Charles, are beyond working together, so Erik takes the half of the crowd that sympathizes with him and, his crowd including a teleporter, vanishes.
Notice, now, the people left on the beach, and their predicament. Charles Xavier, bleeding and paralyzed; a telepath and a controller of men’s minds. Moira MacTaggert, a normal human being, if CIA agents count as such. The rest of the mutants: Beast, blue, furry and acrobatic. Banshee, a sonic screamer and a flyer with his flying suit in tatters. Havok, a shooter of things.
You may notice none of them have any remaining power that involves quick or special locomotion.
And they’re on a desolate beach.
With two fleets with their weapons aimed at them, with orders to shoot, and with the perception that though the mutants did stop the first volley, they could do no better than to wobblily toss it back a part of the way.
If you ask me, that’s a recipe for speedy death.
But no, instead the lot appear next at Charles’s mansion.
Mind you, this is the Charles Xavier whose identity is known to the US government, who is a famous enough expert on mutation to be the first call of a CIA agent interested in such, and who surely is of big enough money for his inherited mansion’s location to not be a secret. He’s the guy that has mind-manipulated a number of CIA agents, absconded with a number of other mutants, and, for all that the government knows, almost caused a nuclear war. (Both the Soviets and the Americans don’t know any better: both know the cargo ship was going rogue, possibly under Shaw’s command, and think that it was sunk thanks to a moment of perspective by a Russian officer. The mutants? Why, they showed up and had a scuffle and tried to shoot back before disappearing. Who’s to say they weren’t in the same plot with Shaw?) Charles could fade the recent events from Ms. MacTaggert’s mind (good for her, maybe, but horrible PR for him); but even he couldn’t do anything at the tracks of his identity that his involvement had created.
One supposes the CIA had enough diligence to make notes of the names and origins of each of the mutants Charles and Erik recruited; even if Charles’s lot somehow got off the beach and off Cuba, they all should find their former lives lost to them, Charles the famous scientist and his mansion most of all. I don’t think you get to run away from a fix like that one.
That ending just is where my suspension of disbelief breaks down, which is a shame because I really liked the film; but then again, the alternative ending I envision is nice to the evil little cynic in me. (The cynic that has been reading Wild Cards I, which, dear empty heavens, is a dark take on the superpowered minority scenario; in Cards they’re kicked in the head as if they were black Communist Muslim gay atheist wiccans.)
And so I imagine a second volley, and a third — Charles’s mutants shooting the shells and missiles down, but inevitably taking hits; Charles shouting they must not shoot at the ships, must not kill — until one hit too many comes through, and Havok looses his patience, and the US Navy loses a few ships.
The end result? “One of the bodies was identified as Dr. Charles Xavier. Government sources have said Dr. Xavier is not and never has been a CIA operative, though he has been consulted on mutant matters in the past. His involvement in the Cuban Mutant Crisis is suspected to have been under the influence of Sebastian Shaw, deceased, the crisis’s mastermind and according to recent reports a Nazi mutant war criminal. The whole mutant terrorist group and a kidnapped CIA agent were killed attempting to escape after military intervention foiled their horrific nuclear plot. In other news, the Navy reports that the tally of the mutant battle now rests at 1104 dead and 342 wounded, following the deaths of 72 horrifically plasma-burned soldiers overnight.”
“In other news, an entity named Magneto has taken responsibility for the attack that resulted in the deaths of the entire nine-person Senate Select Committee On Mutant Regulation. The Committee’s chairman, Alfred Hister, was killed only hours after giving the strong statement that ‘mutants are living weapons, and like any weapon, deadly in untrained hands, just an atrocity waiting to happen. It is only prudence that they be indexed, numbered and placed in special detention centers until their risk can be assessed through rigorous medical examination and, if necessary, incarceration.'”
Because while every sane person hopes Charles is right and knows his way is the only one that works… one doesn’t have to be much of a cynic to feel, like Erik, that the world almost deserves to burn for containing the people it does.