Difficult X-Men: A Defense of Cyclops

Earlier this month, I wrote a thing about the X-Men character Gambit, of whom I am not a fan. I knew exactly what I was doing when I did this, but I definitely underestimated precisely how many hornets were in that nest. Turns out the Cajun Puss in Boots of the Marvel Universe has a posse, and they don’t take libel lying down. The outrage storm lasted only about three hours, but it was a pretty bracing three hours. Among other less-nice things, I was accused of being motivated by sexual jealousy of a fictional character and angrily told to “STICK TO SPORTS,” both of which were firsts.

That you can make a lot of real people angry by disrespecting a made-up person on the Internet is not news. But I did learn one interesting thing from GambitGate: There are a lot of people out there who really, really hate Cyclops. Whenever anybody suggested an alternative candidate for Worst X-Man of All Time instead of just calling me an idiot, they all nominated Scott Summers, and they all phrased it in the form of a question: What about Cyclops? It was as if I’d left “fire ants” off a list of the worst kinds of ants. One commenter scornfully wrote, “I bet Cyclops is your favorite X-Man.” Then she made fun of my author photo.

So what about Cyclops? It’s as good a time as any to give this question some thought. There’s a new X-Men movie coming out at the end of the month. Adapted from a classic dark-future story that ran in the comics in 1980, X-Men: Days of Future Past uses a time-traveling Wolverine to bring together the world of the early-2000s Bryan Singer movies (where Professor X and Magneto are played by Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen) and the world of Matthew Vaughn’s 2011 prequel, X-Men: First Class (where they’re played by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Virtually everyone who’s ever been in an X-Men movie is in this thing, but unless a James Marsden cameo is the only surprise this movie’s oddly spoiler-ific marketing campaign has managed not to blow, Cyclops probably won’t be.

In a sense, the die was cast for Scott Summers as a movie character the minute the role went to Marsden, who excels at playing douches. Singer’s two X-Men movies are clearly built as star vehicles for Hugh Jackman; Wolverine is Gladys Knight and the rest of the X-Men are the Pips. Marsden, pouting behind ruby-quartz Oakleys, is strictly there to play Val Kilmer to Jackman’s Maverick — the arrogant foil whose initial animosity toward the hero gives way to grudging, battle-tested respect. Once that happened, Cyclops became expendable. Early in the third X-Men movie, Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand, he’s apparently disintegrated by a Dark Phoenix–possessed Jean Grey.

I say “apparently” because Ratner cuts away just as Jean (Famke Janssen) starts to French-kiss Cyclops’s life-essence out of his body. His actual death occurs off-camera; it’s a pretty unceremonious exit for the screen version of an A-list mutant. Supposedly this happened because Marsden betrayed mutantkind and 20th Century Fox by taking a role in Singer’s Superman Returns, so the studio denied him a showy farewell. The Australian actor Tim Pocock turned up briefly as a teenage Cyclops in 2009’s franchise-stretching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But when it was time for Magneto and Professor X’s putting-the-band-together montage in First Class, Pocock-Cyclops didn’t even get a callback. Everyone is hanging out without you, Teenclops.

These things happen. Movies bend to accommodate the comings and goings of movie stars, even if it means dumping decades of comic-book canon. The shape-shifting villainess Mystique is now more central to the X-movieverse than Cyclops ever was, because Cyclops isn’t played by a quasi-naked Oscar winner. There’s no real commercial or dramatic reason Cyclops needs to show up in these movies again — they’re too crowded as it is. But Team Gambit was right about one thing. I’m not a particularly big James Marsden fan, but I am a Cyclops fan.

I know I’m by no means alone in this. Tumblr is full of people who ride hard for Cyclops (or long to see Cyclops ridden hard by Wolverine, because it’s Tumblr). But even there, it’s a defensive kind of love. It’s hatred’s flip side. This is partly because few comic-book characters have ever given their haters more to hate. Despite being a handsome white male who’s lived most of his life in a mansion, Cyclops is prone to bouts of self-pity and furniture-blasting rage. He’s almost never without a cosplayably hot love interest, and yet he’s constantly moping over his past relationships. He’s devoted his entire life to leadership, and yet entire universe-shaking crossover events have been born of his poor decision-making.

But we grew up together, and that counts for something.

♦♦♦

If you’re not a student of Marvel-mutant history but have chosen to wade this far anyway, here’s what you need to know about Scott Summers. He’s one of the longest-running lead characters in the ongoing story of the X-Men, a vast apocalyptic soap opera that began more than 50 years ago and continues unfolding each month in about a dozen interconnected titles. Scott was also probably the longest-suffering X-Man, which is no small feat. Peter Parker may have been the first neurotic superhero, but the X-Men were the first superhero team made up entirely of angst-ridden misfits. They were mutants, hated and feared by mainstream society, a band of outsiders who spent as much time sulking, brooding, pining over unrequited love, and struggling with their own self-loathing as they did saving the day. This became particularly true beginning in 1975, when writer Chris Claremont began his still-definitive 16-year run on the book. Claremont’s stories mingled high adventure and even higher melodrama; the characters developed complex, anguished inner lives that spilled onto the page in densely worded thought-balloon soliloquies.

They didn’t all look like monsters — some of them only felt like monsters — but everyone had a cross to bear, and Scott’s was being the guy responsible for keeping this crew of troubled weirdos together. If you consider the whole five-decade saga of the X-Men as a single story, there’s a strong case to be made that Scott is its true protagonist, especially if you believe the old saw that the protagonist is the person in the story to whom the worst things happen. The “Fictional Character Biography” section of his Wikipedia page is almost 8,000 words long, and it’s almost all bad news. As a child, he lost both his parents in a plane crash. As leader of the X-Men, he’s buried countless teammates and friends, including Jean Grey, who sacrificed herself at the end of the late-’70s “Dark Phoenix Saga” story line to keep the cosmic entity known as the Phoenix Force from eating the universe. He’s been married twice — first to a woman who turned out to be a clone of Jean, then to the reborn Jean — and widowed both times.

And those were kind of the good years. More recently, with the mutant race teetering on the brink of extinction, Scott’s been forced to make some decidedly unsuperheroic moves. He’s sanctioned a secret black-ops strike team to preemptively neutralize threats to mutantkind, and fought a war with the Avengers to protect a potential mutant messiah, which led to him murdering Charles Xavier while possessed by the Phoenix Force. (“He’s always getting possessed, that guy,” former X-Men writer Grant Morrison mused in 2012. “Maybe he likes it.”) Now largely stripped of his mutant powers, he’s currently either an underground revolutionary or a terrorist, depending whom you ask.

To put it in TV terms, Scott was a Jack Shephard (pissy, uptight, martyr-ish leader) and has now become a Walter White — a Difficult Man in black-and-yellow spandex who’ll do whatever it takes to protect his (extended, mutant) family, even if it costs him his soul. Oh, and I almost forgot: After years of being tormented by phantoms of his various deceased red-haired ex-girlfriends, he finally broke the streak by having a “psychic affair” with Emma Frost, a former X-villain who’s tried to murder him a bunch of times. They got together for real after Jean Grey’s second death; that it was probably the healthiest adult relationship he’s ever been in says a lot.

That he’s finally turned antihero isn’t surprising; the weird part is that it took him this long to snap. (Or maybe not. Scott wears special ruby-quartz goggles to contain the force-beam that would otherwise be constantly shooting out of his eyes — even his mutant powers are linked to repression.) From the very beginning — in X-Men no. 1, written by Stan Lee and drawn by Jack Kirby, published by Marvel in September 1963, the same month as the first issue of Avengers — he’s the group’s designated killjoy, a teenager mouthing adult platitudes. During a training exercise, when Iceman hurls a bowling ball at the Beast and almost hits Professor X instead, it’s Scott who reads them the riot act: “That kind of horseplay isn’t funny!” Six pages into his first appearance in comics, his fate as a character was sealed. From then on — with notable exceptions, like the stubbly tough-guy Cyclops in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men — writers unsure of what else to do with Scott would portray him as a humorless prig with the mutant power to kill everybody else’s buzz.

If you discovered X-Men through the ’90s animated series, this is the Cyclops you know — a hard-ass type A leader who’s perpetually telling ostensibly cooler characters like Gambit and Bishop that he’s had it up to here with their shenanigans. Like a band that’s somehow gone through 20 lead singers, the X-Men have a deeply factional fan base; the golden age is wherever you came in. I never watched the cartoon, but one of the first comics I bought with my own money was Classic X-Men no. 1, a weird late-’80s cash-grab title that mixed reprinted pages from old Len Wein/Dave Cockrum issues with new scenes written by Claremont and drawn by the incomparable John Bolton.

That first issue was a Reader’s Digest version of 1975’s Giant-Size X-Men special, in which Cyclops puts together a new, racially and geographically diverse X-Men team — including Wolverine, Colossus, and Storm — to rescue the old ’60s X-Men, who’ve been captured by a living island called Krakoa. The battle with Krakoa is dealt with in a single page; then there’s a 13-page epilogue in which the new and old X-Men hang out and get into arguments while relaxing back at the X-Mansion. At one point, Banshee is playing boogie-woogie piano in the common room, and Jean Grey tries to tempt Scott into joining the party. “I’d like to, Jean, really,” he says, “but I want to finish my after-action report on Krakoa while the impressions are still fresh.”

Pulse-pounding action in the mighty Marvel manner, thy name is Cyclops! Downstairs, Nightcrawler is juggling beer bottles and Iceman is brawling with Thunderbird and calling Peter Rasputin a “Russkie,” but Scott is still in costume, sitting at a desk with a pen and some loose-leaf paper, doing homework. (Like Dewey Cox, Scott Summers has to think about his whole entire life before he plays.) I wasn’t anywhere near as disciplined back then. But as an anxious kid who found a lot of normal social situations terrifying, I related to whatever kept Scott up there in that room, even as Jean went off to the woods to have a classic, wordy Claremontian mope and the first of countless almost-kissing scenes with Wolverine. Sometimes when I come back from covering an event and decide to be responsible and type up my notes instead of doing something fun, I still think about Cyclops, skipping Banshee’s jazz party to sit quietly and put his thoughts in order. I’d love to, but I have to finish this essay about Scott Summers while the impressions are still fresh!

Giant-Size was the beginning of a long good-bye for the original five X-Men. Iceman, Beast, and Angel drifted away almost immediately. Cyclops stuck around the longest, as if he didn’t quite know what else to do. Eventually Claremont gave him an out: Scott met and fell in love with an Alaskan bush pilot named Madelyne Pryor, who eerily resembled Jean Grey and had, it turned out, miraculously survived a fiery plane crash on the same day Jean died. The book milked these weird synchronicities for a few issues’ worth of Vertigo-style tension, but Claremont would later say he’d always intended to have Madelyne turn out to be a real person, rather than a cloned or reincarnated Jean, and that when Scott and Madelyne got married and had a kid, his departure was supposed to be permanent.

“He comes back on special occasions, for special fights, but he has a life,” Claremont would say later. “He has grown up. He has grown out of the monastery; he is in the real world now. He has a child … They lived happily ever after, and it was [meant] to create the impression that maybe if you came back in ten years, other X-Men would have grown up and out, too. Would Kitty [Pryde] stay with the team forever? Would Nightcrawler? Would any of them? Because that way we could evolve them into new directions, we could bring in new characters. There would be an ongoing sense of renewal, and growth and change in a positive sense.”

This didn’t happen. Corporate superhero comics are fundamentally about stasis; Stan Lee used to always tell writers to keep in mind that every issue of a comic was somebody’s first and somebody’s last. In a sense, that ever-shifting, organic fictional universe Claremont envisioned was against company policy. In 1986, by editorial fiat, Jean Grey was resurrected — it turned out the Jean who’d become Dark Phoenix and died was actually a duplicate host-body created by the Phoenix Force, and the Avengers had found the real Jean asleep in a cocoon at the bottom of Jamaica Bay, just off Long Island. The X-books were a license to print money, and Marvel had decided to reunite the original X-Men lineup in a new title called X-Factor, written by Louise Simonson — not Claremont, who was positive that Cyclops leaving his wife and infant son alone in Alaska to run around with Jean Grey again was a dick move readers would never forgive.

He wasn’t wrong; to this day, people enumerating the reasons Cyclops sucks never fail to mention the fact that he straight Billy Crudup–ed his wife and newborn kid the minute his old girlfriend turned up alive. Eventually, Marvel contrived an elaborate crossover event called “Inferno,” in which Madelyne was revealed as a clone created by X-Factor’s nemesis Mister Sinister and became the “Goblyn Queen” of an army of demons that proceeded to take control of New York, giving X-Factor and the X-Men no choice but to team up and take her out. There was no other way to resolve the moral quagmire Scott’s life had become: He’d technically cheated on the not-technically-dead Jean with a fake Jean created by the Phoenix Force, then married a Jean look-alike, then effectively left her for the real, resurrected Jean, who was still in love with Scott but also a little jealous because he’d been with two women who looked exactly like her, one of whom was a goddess. I remember actually finding all of this romantic, which says a lot about how comics can ruin your life.

If the is-she-or-isn’t-she Madelyne stories were Claremont doing Hitchcock, then “Inferno” — which played out across multiple issues of Uncanny X-Men and X-Factor and spilled over into half a dozen other titles — was De Palma, a psychosexual splatter movie full of dueling redhead dopplegängers in goth-S&M garb and anthropomorphized mailboxes trying to eat people. Oh, and Marc Silvestri started drawing everyone with crazy Rikki Rockett hair, as if demonic possession and Aqua Net had similar properties. There was an in-story explanation for most of this — something to do with warring factions within Limbo and Mister Sinister trying to get his hands on Madelyne’s baby — but on a symbolic level, it played like Marvel’s merry mutants were trapped in one of Scott’s violent/freaky fever dreams, the kind where all the women you’ve ever slept with fight over you and at some point your brother turns up in a loincloth just to make things weirder.

But that’s what it’s like to be Scott Summers all the time. He lives with failure more than any other superhero, and when his mistakes come back to haunt him, it’s usually in the form of somebody who wants to kill the X-Men. He spent a big chunk of his life striving to further Professor Xavier’s dream of coexistence between humans and mutants, but it didn’t work; now he’s gone militant, and that doesn’t seem to be working either. Plus, thanks to the magic of time travel, the present-day Marvel Universe is full of time-displaced mutants from various nightmare futures in which the X-Men are always mostly dead and/or enslaved, including Cable, a grizzled cyborg freedom fighter who was once Scott’s son Nathan, although now he’s old enough to be Scott’s father. Lately there’s even a teenage version of Scott running around, aghast at what a prick his adult self turned out to be. (In May, this young Cyclops gets his own solo ongoing series; the adult Cyclops has never had one.)

Of course Wolverine is cooler than Cyclops. But that’s because he’s a child’s idea of a tough-guy adult. Cyclops lives in a screwed-up world largely of his own making, the way an actual adult does. Wolverine’s the badass we want to be; Cyclops is closer to what we actually are, and maybe he’s too close to be truly likable. Wolverine is a loner who’s found the courage to care about a surrogate family, whereas Cyclops is never quite at home. Scott has assumed a string of different roles — student, husband, father, superhero, mutant civil-rights crusader, terrorist, guy fused with Apocalypse inside the body of the Living Monolith — without ever actually finding one that fits him. The only thing he’s ever been good at is leading the X-Men, and if you really start breaking down his record, he hasn’t actually been great at that, either. Whedon once nailed Scott’s struggle as a “struggle against mediocrity,” which is just about the most human motivation I can imagine for a superhero — or a human. I don’t know — maybe you’re the best there is at what you do. But I relate to Cyclops because I live every day with the knowledge that I’m not.

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Filed Under: Comics, X-Men, Cyclops, Marvel

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

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