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Justice for Nightcrawler: How the X-Men films undercut Kurt Wagner
The new X-Men movie, Dark Phoenix, is named for what's arguably the most famous X-Men comic book saga of all time, but it never quite gives its epic story enough room to run, and in the process loses a good bit of the cosmic soap opera complication that made the original comic so engrossing. It's a compacted, stunted movie that never feels equipped to capture the breadth and depth of its source material, and that's disappointing.
The disappointments of Dark Phoenix are dialed up compared to other X-films, sadly, because this is the end of an era. Though we've been assured we'll still get New Mutants at some point in the future, Dark Phoenix is the last time we'll see a version of the X-Men team that began with the very first X-Men film back in 2000. The characters are returning to the Walt Disney Company and the Fox timeline is closed, which meant that while watching this movie I couldn't help but take stock of the nearly two decades I've spent with the sometimes dazzling and often aggravating X-Men universe.
I should preface this by saying that part of me will always love these movies. I spent my teens and my 20s with them, riding out the bad and embracing the good. I still remember the thrill of seeing Wolverine, Cyclops, and Storm on the big screen for the first time, and that's a feeling I will never let go. In light of the way Dark Phoenix sent the saga off, though, I find myself thinking a little more about the franchise's shortcomings lately, and one particular shortcoming in particular, because it always seemed to me to be both glaringly obvious and easy to fix.
There are certainly more elegant ways to put this, but we don't need to waste time mincing words: The X-Men movies did Nightcrawler dirty.
He's certainly not the only character to have been shorted by these films, as any fan of Emma Frost and Jubilee (how do you cast Lana Condor and then waste her so badly?) will tell you. In many respects he fared better than a lot of other fan favorites, with a key supporting role in X2 (played by Alan Cumming) and an opportunity to come back for a supporting role in both Apocalypse and Dark Phoenix (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). As someone who's been a Kurt Wagner superfan since I was teleporting him through SEGA Genesis levels, though, something about the character's frequent presence in the film only makes his treatment in the overall franchise worse.
He's right there, standing beside the other major characters, but whenever an opportunity presented itself to level up everyone's favorite swashbuckling Catholic demon, the films just seemed to sidestep, leaving some of the best parts of Nightcrawler behind.
He had a promising enough start in X2, despite being dropped in as a pawn in someone else's game and spending the whole movie struggling to be a hero on his own terms. Cumming played the character with real spirit, even it was a somewhat muted spirit. His relish in referring to himself as "The Incredible Nightcrawler" was front and center, as was his faith, and while I have a hard time with the whole "tattoo for every sin" idea sometimes, it's still a performance I like in a film I like, and it leaves a lot of room for more from the character in the future.
Then Nightcrawler just... disappeared, and I suppose in light of the somewhat scattershot nature of the franchise in the X-Men: The Last Stand era we should have just been grateful we had him at all, and that we got something solid in his one appearance. It's here, though, that the films perhaps squandered their biggest opportunity: A friendship between two of the best pals in comics, Nightcrawler and Wolverine. It's one of the great opposites attract comedic friendships in all of superhero media, and yet Logan barely looked at Kurt twice while he was around, and never got a chance to grow closer to him. That alone is enough to make me feel like the character got hosed.
Then something even more frustrating happened. We got Nightcrawler back, and we got him for two movies, but... he never felt like Nightcrawler. He looked like him, sure, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is a great young actor, but the Kurt that fans know and love never really seemed to show up. Lest you think I'm grasping at some idealistic concept of Nightcrawler that never existed in the first place, here's Chris Claremont talking to SYFY WIRE about what I mean when I'm talking about what Nightcrawler should feel like.
"The thing with Kurt is, in his heart of hearts, he wants to be Errol Flynn, he wants to be a swashbuckler, he wants to kick the living daylights out of bad guys with a sword," he told SYFY WIRE at C2E2. "Actually with three swords, using his tail as well. And he wants to be a romantic lead, and he wants to save the day, and he wants to be friends with everyone."
Kurt Wagner is a man who strongly believes in a God who loves all of his creations, so even though he looks like a demon he knows he wasn't created to be a monster, but a wisecracking angel. He's a man who believes that making a joyful noise, whether that's the "BAMF" when he teleports or the joke he cracks in the Danger Room, is preferable to despair. He is the beating heart of any X-Men team he's on, a man so bursting with love and light that even Wolverine can't resist him.
In his last two film appearances, though, Nightcrawler is a kid who stands around and says a line or two until someone asks him to teleport somewhere.
There are a lot of characters in the X-Men films, and they can't all be the star all of the time, but having Nightcrawler right there, just out of reach of being who he needs to be, was always torture for me. Even if he wasn't the swashbuckling hero Wolverine affectionately called "Elf" in his younger years, watching him as a young man reconciling his faith and his belief in love with how he looked and how the world saw him would have been instantly compelling. Instead, we got the guy who got a little bit of a laugh that one time in Apocalypse when he said "I'm blue."
There are a lot of loose ends left hanging in the X-Men franchise, some that will be quickly forgotten and some that will always feel like colossal missed opportunities. For me, a Nightcrawler who emits no joy, particularly in a joyless film like Dark Phoenix, is the biggest possible missed opportunity.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.