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The 13 greatest X-Men of all time
January is a time of fresh starts and new beginnings. The way we kick off a new year informs the months that follow, and that's why we're living our best Capricorn-season lives and declaring it the Month of the GOAT, celebrating the Greatests of All Time in genre. From the best Star Trek captains to our favorite strong female characters, we're honoring the greats all month long.
The X-Men are a group of superheroes that started as a clumsy analog for the Civil Rights movement told via prep school kids. It was a book that bordered on cancellation, then went on to become not just one of the most successful but one of the most complicated franchises in the superhero genre. Surprisingly, the more complex the universe becomes, the more appealing it is to new audiences. X-Men has been in an upward trajectory since the late ‘70s, and it’s hard to see an end to it anytime soon.
The highs are high and the lows are low with the X-Men, yet that all-too-relatable fallibility is what draws us in, and although the metaphor does not always succeed, it has drawn in readers by speaking to themes of heroic action in the face of social ostracization. People around the globe have interpreted the stories in many ways and found meaning with the X-Men to the point that it’s impossible to deny the impact of these characters. While there are too many GOAT X-Characters to name in one list, of all the many merry mutants of Marvel, these are the ones that have given us the most joy in the ever-changing and ever-evolving world of the X-Men.
Thank the heavens above for Lucas Bishop. If he hadn’t shown up, the ‘90s would have been a whole lot rougher than they were. Bishop is a time traveler who was raised in a post-apocalyptic future where most heroes are dead and innocent children are sent to camps by a bigoted government. Which is science fiction and in no way 100% accurately reflects ongoing situations in the real world. Bishop joins the X.S.E. which exists to carry on Xavier’s dream. Bishop idolizes the X-Men as heroes, but when he ends up stuck in the present with his heroes, he is forced to learn that they’re honestly kind of a collective mess.
When he first showed up, it was all bandanas and unreasonably large guns and making flirty eyes at Storm. Later, he got a haircut and a huge gray cape after he ever so slightly witnessed Xavier be assassinated and thus became the sole survivor of a dead reality through the Age of Apocalypse crossover. He went rogue for a while and tried to kill a baby. That wasn’t great, but he came around eventually. Listen, you kind of have to forgive a lot with the X-Men.
Despite his flaws, there are many reasons to love Bishop. For starters, he hates Gambit, and I can always get behind that. Although eventually they form an uneasy alliance and Bishop is indeed generally out of line in his dealings with Mister LeBeau, their tense interactions defined a major part of the ‘90s X-Men reading x-perience. He’s a loner and an outsider on a team of outsiders, and his story is pretty tragic even as X-Men go. Here's to you, Lucas!
Our poor friend Scott Summers was the very first X-Man and is a devout perfectionist in an imperfect world. It’s easy to dismiss Cyclops as an uptight jerk, but it’s a pretty unsympathetic view of a guy whose first girlfriend died in front of him, not just once but many times in his life. Also he married her clone, and then the clone died. It's not ideal. Besides all that domestic drama, his primary mentors were two men that put him through the wringer, aka a disguised Mister Sinister and Charles Xavier. It’s actually difficult to tell which of them had a worse effect on Scott’s life.
Cyclops is great because he is a guy that really never stood a chance, yet he tries his little heart out no matter how obviously doomed he is. He is universally tortured across all storylines, including many several alternate realities where his entire upbringing is different. Sure, he’s a serious leader with an inherent disdain for fun, but he’s also a lonely teen orphan desperate for a sense of family and acceptance who goes to a school where his father figure regularly fakes his own death or ditches the team entirely to make out with his hollow-boned Shi’ar girlfriend in space while Scott is left to marry Jean Grey’s clone and have a baby with her that gets sent to the distant future to battle Apocalypse. That all happened! This is a guy that doesn't have it easy by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s as brave as they come and was hardwired to be part of the X-Men.
The greatest X-Men are the ones whose character growth has been believable and organic over many story arcs. Dani is one such character that longtime readers have watched grow through an awkward childhood to blossom into a confident adulthood with all the pitfalls along the way. Yet, even from the beginning as a young student of Professor Xavier, Dani’s best characteristics were already taking form. Her stubbornness with authority figures and intense protectiveness over her friends are trademarks to this day. Again and again, when no one believes Dani or knows how to be there for her, she takes her problems head-on while still working to keep her friends safe. That’s why she’s a great X-Man and one of their most underrated leaders.
This is someone that told all of the New Mutants that Xavier was bad news when he was being controlled by the evil aliens The Brood, and when they didn’t believe her she took on Xavier herself. Then, when she told them of her nemesis Demon Bear, the New Mutants still didn’t believe her, and she was forced to take the fight right to the Bear on its own turf. She was put in a coma and yet still came out on top with the help of her friends, and all of this is still just the beginning of Moonstar’s story.
Dani became a Valkyrie of Hel for a while and rode a winged horse named Brightwind. She had some adventures working under Hela but shifted her allegiances as her ethics dictated. She started teaching at the Xavier Institute. Most importantly, any time her friends from the New Mutants needed her, she has always been there. Dani Moonstar’s sense of honor is unique even among superheroes, and that’s why she’s one of the best.
This is a character that really just doesn’t get her due. For people that grew up watching X-Men: The Animated Series, Jubilee was our point-of-view character, and people feel a lot of different ways about that. Few “Worst X-Men” lists go by without mention of our girl Jubilee. This is clearly an outrage, but in all fairness, the cartoon version of Jubilee was homogenized and white-washed. Despite a level of nostalgic appeal for the cartoon, the comic book version of Jubilee is really where she did most of her best work.
For instance! Jubilation Lee’s parents were killed, so she moved into a mall and learned how to make money by entertaining groups with tricks based around her mutant powers. When she sees the women of the X-Men, she jumps into a teleportation circle with them and follows them to the Australian Outback, where she pretty much just moves into the attic without telling anyone. Fate comes into play when she discovers Wolverine crucified to a giant X by a very annoying group of cyborgs called The Reavers. Despite being very young and having a power set that was mostly party trick based, Jubilee saved Wolverine’s life and then just wouldn’t leave him alone for years thereby becoming his sidekick. This is all before she became a vampire and then later stopped being one and adopted a child and became a teacher at the Xavier Institute. There's a lot going on with this one.
In short, Jubilee is amazing. Death of Wolverine would have happened about 15 years earlier if not for her, and her dialogue is some of the weirdest stream-of-consciousness avant-garde poetry we’ve read in our lives. Highly recommend you learn to stop worrying and love Jubilee.
Kitty Pryde is one of the X-Men that has really never known a life outside of the mansion. She joined the school just after the Dark Phoenix Saga and was almost immediately eviscerated by an alien invader over Christmas Break. She’s gone on to be one of the team's most consistent recurring characters, and recently became the head of the Jean Grey school. A few short breaks to find herself aside, Kitty has been with the team for very nearly her entire life.
A lot of people love Shadowcat for a lot of different reasons, but she has had a massive effect on much of X-Men’s Jewish and queer audiences. The subtext around her many relationships with women and the allegorical quality of an intangible body or the ability to become invisible has been hitting home for LGBTQIA people for decades. Kitty’s relationships with the rest of the X-Men have always been the backbone of her character, from her sisterly love for Storm to her mentorship from Wolverine to her drawn-out affair with Colossus to her gal pal-ing with Illyana Rasputin, Rachel Summers, X’ian Coy Mahn, and, well, every other girl she’s ever met, Kitty is one of the most important players in the X-Men soap opera.
Kurt Wagner’s journey began as something of a horror story. We were introduced to him in Giant Sized X-Men where Xavier saved him from a bloodthirsty mob set on destroying him. He was a circus performer whose mutant power made it impossible to pass as normal, making him an easy target for bigots. Fortunately, the X-Men provided him with a new way of life in which he had stability and family while finding no shortage of the adventure he craved. Nightcrawler is one of the only X-Men that never seems to really get tired of being a hero.
With no exceptions, every single one of the X-Men has been through hell and back, often quite literally, but Kurt is one character that never lets anything stop him from living his life. Idolizing swashbuckling heroes like Robin Hood and the Scarlet Pimpernel, Kurt occasionally gets caught in alternate dimensions while he’s teleporting and segues into lengthy solo adventures in which he becomes the charming pirate he envisions himself as. What we’re saying is that this guy is about as heartwarming as they get, and on a team like the X-Men, that makes him worth his weight in gold.
We love Logan just as much as the next FANGRRL. Yet, it would be difficult even for his most ardent supporters to deny that his ubiquitous presence across X-Books of the ‘90s and well into the 2000s was a little bit overwhelming. When The Death of Wolverine story unfolded, many readers that otherwise loved Wolverine breathed a sigh of relief that they would get a brief break from the constant influx of Wolverine stories that had been flooding the stands for as long back as most fans could even remember.
Enter: Laura Kinney, the Wolverine clone known as X-23 who had formed a shaky relationship with Logan in his later days that teetered between mentorship and a true father and daughter bond. Having known extensive trauma throughout her early years much as Logan himself had, Laura was no less violent or determined than her predecessor.
Where Laura differs from Logan is that she has had a family from the very beginning. Not only does Logan help her as much as he is able, but she meets up with other clones, most notably Honey Badger, who easily shares this entry with Laura. Unlike Wolverine, Laura is able to curb her anger and reason with others from the start, and her social skills are infinitely better developed. Laura and Logan are equally compelling characters, but Laura is the Wolverine on this list because she is the one who accessed her empathy from the beginning and humanized and revitalized a role that had long been under threat of becoming stagnant.
There are some pretty strange individuals at the Xavier Institute, but one of the most genuinely odd characters ever to walk the halls of the mansion has got to be one Mister Hank McCoy. People tend to focus on how his intimidating physical form doesn’t seem to match his eloquent speech and gentle demeanor, but that is run of the mill trope stuff. The real root of who Hank is as a person is all in the fact that he obsessively experimented on himself and gave himself all that blue fur, then continued to do so without telling anybody, thereby mutating even further. In fact, nearly every single alternate reality features a Hank McCoy whose bizarre tendency to use himself as the sole test subject for his experiments has led to extreme physical transformations. This is obviously not standard procedure in a lab, and the fact that Hank seems to be completely unable to stop himself from doing it tells us a lot about what kind of X-Man we’re dealing with here.
Beast is incredibly charming and sociable when pressured to behave as such, but seems to get his greatest enjoyment working away in his lab day and night. Although he has been very successful in some regards, he must be regarded as a true wild card among the scientists of the Marvel Universe. When he disagreed with Cyclops’ actions, rather than reasoning it out with his lifelong friend through extended discussion, he instead saw fit to bring the original five X-Men as teenagers, himself included, out of the past and into the present to shock Scott into being a better person. This is one of the most truly bonkers ideas anyone has ever had in a comic book, and that is saying so incredibly much. Hank McCoy is one of the greats of the X-Men because you can really never tell what he’s got up his sleeve.
Sure, a lot of people would call the White Queen more of an X-Men villain than an X-Man, and even after decades of time serving as a hero in the Marvel Universe that is still pretty true. Emma is certainly ruthless enough in her methods that it’s hard to tell exactly what agenda she’s serving beyond her own. Yet, when stacking up unforgivable crimes among X-Men, Emma ranks surprisingly low on the list. In light of things like Xavier recruiting an entire team of teenagers that he immediately sent to their deaths or that time a cosmic entity imitating Jean Grey and committed genocide by destroying an entire planet, Emma is pretty much a saint. Weird, right?
More importantly, Emma barely even likes Xavier or believes in his dream, but she still shows up to do the work because she believes in her soul that young mutants deserve an easier life than she herself has led. Many X-Men are at the school because they had nowhere else to go from a very young age, but Emma experienced trauma and failure and eventually came to the Institute because it was where her skills as a teacher would be best utilized. Also, so she could make out with Cyclops.
Betsy Braddock is one of the most complicated characters imaginable even by superhero standards, and that applies across the board. Mentally, emotionally, physically, this is one intense character who is often tough to love. Conversations about Psylocke begin in comics and quickly wind through the after-effects of British Colonialism and the famously problematic storyline that saw a white woman placed into an Asian woman’s body, erasing her not just metaphorically but quite literally. Although the story itself may have been brief, the fallout lasted for years. Indeed, many fans had only known Psylocke as the purple-haired ninja and were baffled to discover that the backstory behind her ethnicity was offensive on almost a surreal level.
That story is bizarre, and it’s difficult to discuss Psylocke outside of its mention considering the fact that it was the one that defined her physical form for most of her existence. Still, beyond those early days, Psylocke’s character arc became one of the X-Men's most interesting. Seemingly addicted to violence and death, envisioning herself as a metallic, emotionless warrior, romantically involved with equally unstable teammates, but always struggling to be a better, redeemable person somehow, Betsy Braddock remains compelling despite it all. Reconciling her backstory is nearly impossible, but her battles against villains like Sabretooth and The Shadow King remain some of the most iconic fights in comics history.
Every GOAT list needs a true anti-hero, and our choice this round is one Monet St. Croix, or M for short. Born the privileged, spoiled daughter of a rich man, M quickly learned the downside of being born a mutant in the Marvel Universe. That’s right, weird stuff inevitably happens with your family no matter how rich you are. Not only was her brother, Emplate, a kind of emotional vampire that fed through his hands, but her body was also occupied by her younger sisters for the first few years of her appearances in Generation X. When she reverted back to herself, it was revealed that not much had changed. Her defining characteristics of condescension and self-absorption were still in place, though she was slowly humanized via admissions to teammates that her extreme pride was only a wall she put up to defend her actually quite a frail ego. What can we say? We love a complicated woman.
Though she seldom sees much of the spotlight, M is a character that always enters and exits every room with a biting criticism of whoever happens to be her least favorite teammate at the moment lightly veiled as a polite observation, and that deserves some recognition after all this time. Besides, her perfectionism is admirable, and anyone that has had to put up a prickly demeanor just to survive everyday social interactions in a cruel world will find Monet to be highly relatable.
Our friend Jean Grey has the rather dubious honor of being one of the most recognizable X-Men as well as being perhaps the most vastly misunderstood. Years have passed by in which none of the people writing Jean seemed particularly fond of her as a character, and even more years have come and gone in which Jean was simply deceased and only a part of the X-Men in spirit, quite literally.
Jean Grey is not Phoenix, nor is she Dark Phoenix, and so a great deal of her character development on the page and definitely in film is not necessarily representative of her underlying character. In fact, Jean is at her best when she is just outright defiant against everyone and everything that has tried to define and contain her. The young girl who is told she is too powerful by a man that fears her strength that goes on to confront those that held her back while becoming a true hero is obviously an exciting and important premise, and indeed Jean has had truly iconic moments when she fought with all her strength against the predetermined destiny that she has been handed by the patriarchal figures in her life.
We saved the best for last! Storm is the greatest of the great X-Men, and we have gathered here today to sing her praises. This is a woman who has gone from being an orphaned thief on the streets of Cairo to being worshipped as a goddess to being one of the X-Men to eventually leading the team while going through a highly stylish punk phase to being the literal Queen of Wakanda for a hot minute then back to the X-Men again. Ororo Munroe has really done it all.
Storm is a study in contradictions in the best way. The commitment that Storm puts into achieving a peaceful home and building a life with her loving chosen family would seem to exist in direct contrast to the intensity and scope of her power and the theatrical brilliance of her approach to superheroism, yet the thought and focus she puts towards understanding the parts of herself that are at odds with one another is nothing short of amazing. As leader of the team, Storm backed down to no one and the X-Men became more ruthless than ever despite her dedication to peace. As a teammate, she is a calming and grounding presence for the others. This is a true rebel who still takes the time to care for those around her, and that is just one reason she is amazing.
Storm’s inner struggle between needing stability and her own desire for ultimate freedom has defined much of her development, and the juxtaposition it creates makes Ororo a fascinating hero. All the X-Men are lovable, but if you ask us Storm is the GOAT.