‘Titans’: Character Growth And Respect For Dick Grayson

Now that we’re most of the way through the first season of Titans, I finally feel ready to comment: I genuinely love it.

I was very much surprised to find that that’s the case, between that first trailer, the story details, and the weird age lifts. Though maybe I shouldn’t have been – Geoff Johns is heavily involved, and I have my issues with him and his approach, but he is the man that flat out refused to write Nightwing’s death in Infinite Crisis. He has a healthy amount of appreciation for Dick as a character. I should have had more confidence that my favourite character was going to be treated well. He has been. And that’s good, because even though the show is called Titans and it’s Rachel that drives the plot, at heart, this is a show about Dick Grayson – and specifically as Dick Grayson, not Robin or Nightwing. It’s about him figuring out who he is and what he wants. It’s a character driven story. The plot matters, the villains matter, but it’s primarily about Dick and his internal conflict, his familial relationship with Rachel, how his figurative demons parallel her literal ones.

Fans of the Titans team may or may not love it. And I’ve seen a number of comments from people that are frustrated by the backseat the others – particularly Gar – have taken in favour of Dick and guest stars. But as someone whose primary investment in DC has always been Dick…it’s kind of perfect for me. After all the mixed feelings and confusion about how it was going to turn out, I’m really glad I watched it. I was terrified of this show for the same reason that I was terrified when the Nightwing movie was announced – he’s a hard character to get right. But much to my shock, Titans gets it. What it does spectacularly is capture the almost paradoxical nature of Dick Grayson.

When I first saw the story details, I anticipated it flattening his character by focusing on the anger that was a huge part of his character in the 80s. And that’s certainly part of him. But it’s also not even close to everything, because even though he is angry, even though he’s obsessive and paranoid, he’s also funny and charming and likeable. In a lot of ways, he’s a more complex character than even Batman, because with Batman, there are a ton of equally valid interpretations. You could focus on his obsessiveness driving everyone that loves him away. You could focus on his refusal to stay down. And any one of those will help you understand a solid chunk of who Bruce Wayne is. That works, because those are all different sides of the same type of trait. That’s not the case with Dick, because with him, you kind of need a solid grasp of all those elements of his character, because his traits are so different from each other while all equally important. Titans is doing a genuinely impressive job presenting all those traits in a way that makes sense.

The characterization doesn’t feel flat at all. Dick does have that anger, that need to move out of Bruce’s shadow, but he’s also got his comics counterpart’s charm and decency – it’s most obvious with the motel owner in “Together”, who he turns down politely and tactfully when she’s hitting on him, but we also see it with Amy, who warms up to him after a thirty second conversation despite how much he tried to keep to himself before, and Kory, when their arguing softens into friendly and flirty bickering. Through his relationship with Rachel, we see the comfortably steady and reliable figure he’s becoming, the one that in the comics-verse is so important to guiding Damian. We see his intensity through his interactions with everyone. And through all of it, we see the seeds being planted for him facing his past, reconciling with Bruce, becoming more comfortable with who he is, letting go of Robin and becoming Nightwing.

Personally, I prefer it when Dick leaves because he’s grown up and it’s time for him to live his own life, not because of any major fight with Bruce or being fired or anything like that. He grew up in a circus – he was born to be the star, not play second fiddle to Batman. Bruce said as much himself. But there still is a lot of merit to the way Titans is showing it. Them not being on speaking terms opens up a lot of areas for character development. Also, it gives Dick more room to breathe and become his own hero on his own without his mentor overtaking his story. Otherwise, there would be very little explanation for why Bruce doesn’t have more presence in the show. Beyond that, in the context of Titans, it just makes sense.

Dick and Bruce are more similar than different. It’s been noted on multiple occasions that Dick is basically Batman with social skills. As such, they’re bound to clash, especially because what Bruce wants more than anything is for Dick to be better than him. As he put it in Young Justice, when Diana asked if he’d introduced Dick to crime fighting so that he’d grow up like him: “No. So he wouldn’t.” That conflict runs deep within the show, and it’s fascinating to watch.

A large part of why comics!Dick stopped working with Batman in the comics was because of his issues with identity. He was spreading himself too thin. He didn’t know how to balance his desire to see the best in people with his learned cynicism, or how best to help people. That identity issue is at the heart of his character arc in Titans. He’s fought crime in a city so terrible, Amy’s reaction to finding out where he was from was Jesus since he was a child. That didn’t leave him much time to figure himself out. And now that he’s not on his own anymore – now that he has Rachel to protect, Kory constantly prodding at him to get him to open up – he has to figure that out and come to terms with the mistakes he’s made.

“Jason Todd” was the a major part of that character growth. It was also a clear step in the road to Nightwing. It was a fascinating episode for me, because it forced Dick to confront his past – his vicious, brutal past. Don’t get me wrong. I love the traditional, goes after Zucco but doesn’t kill him bit. But you know what? It makes a painful amount of sense that he would. It’s also very easy to connect to different pieces of DC media. For one, it reminds me a bit of Batman v Superman – as we did with Bruce there, here we see Dick making decisions that are hard to watch, that we don’t want to look at, that aren’t heroic…but that we know will lead to him growing, being better, doing better. The idea of him killing once than being horrified at what he’d become reminded me of Bruce’s arc in Gotham. It also reminded me of Batman Begins – not for what it was, but what it wasn’t. In Batman Begins, we see Bruce trying to justify leaving Ra’s to die, saying something like, “oh, not saving you isn’t the same thing as killing you”. Titans makes no such pretense. Dick acknowledges that he killed Zucco. He talks about it. It’s a whole episode of him dealing with the fact it’s time for him to stop living in the past, stop living in anger and regret, because the cycle of vengeance won’t make the world a better place. And as he does so, he comes to understand that his memory is flawed, because it’s been coloured by rage and grief, and it’s time for him to move on and forge a new identity. As Jason put it, he doesn’t know who he is. The episode culminates with him acknowledging that Bruce tried his best. It’s absolutely gorgeous character development.

Not all of the show is as well done as Dick’s arc has been so far. Some of it has been kind of sloppy.  Take the Beast Boy appearance at the end of the pilot – it wasn’t much of anything, it didn’t need to be there, it was just a minute or two of, hey, there’s Gar, he’s in this, remember? Similarly, I wasn’t big on Kory’s scenes before she met up with Rachel. I mean, I liked watching her…but only because Anna Diop has enough presence and charisma to keep me from rolling my eyes and getting annoyed with how her amnesia plot was a dumb thing to pull focus from Rachel and Dick for. And when the season is only eleven episodes, it’s kind of frustrating to have the team keep splitting up. Outside of Dick – and his relationship to Rachel, because that’s just awesome – it’s a pretty mixed bag. However, the way Dick has been handled? The progression has been so damn good, he alone will make me want to watch season two.

For a popular character, Dick doesn’t get all that much respect. I’ve written about that before. We see it with how his movie seems in permanent limbo. We see it in the comics, where he’s wandering around with amnesia and calling himself Ric. We saw it when his 75th anniversary was kind of hijacked by Harper Row, when DC kept trying to kill him, when we get increasingly ridiculous reasons why he hasn’t actually surpassed Bruce and still needs a mentor. It’s been going on a long time. But this show isn’t falling into that trap. He doesn’t need a mentor. He doesn’t need to work under Bruce. He’s Dick Grayson, and that’s fucking awesome all on its own.

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Chris Claremont And When Characters Should Get To Move On

So I’ve written about my issues with Grant Morrison. I’ve written about my issues with Geoff Johns. Now it’s time for something a little more controversial: my issues with Chris Claremont.

Claremont is an icon. He defined the X-Men. Forget Stan Lee, it’s Claremont whose baby this universe really is. Most of the best X-Men stories come from him. You can see that by the movies and what they choose to adapt – Dark Phoenix? Based on his work. X2? That’s based on God Loves, Man Kills, another of his. Days of Future Past? Ding, ding, that’s him. And it’s not even just his older work which is good – recently, he’s done the Magneto issue of X-Men: Black, which is fantastic (and anyone that’s read it should totally message me so we can geek out about it together). But there’s a reason that, for the most part, I mostly avoid talking about what he’s done past about the year 1981, and that’s that I staunchly disagree with the way he’s interpreted Scott Summers since then.

Let me be clear. Claremont is one of – if not the – best Cyclops writers of all time, and for much of the same reasons that he’s pretty much the undisputed king of all X-Men material. He’s written many outstanding stories that showed Scott as a human, with strengths and flaws alike. He’s one of the reasons that I’m a Cyclops fan. But he also makes me really sad, because he’s never let go of a certain editorially mandated plot: the Madelyne Pryor thing.

And the thing is, I do understand where his anger comes from! I do! Without Claremont, the X-Men probably wouldn’t still exist. They’d have faded into obscurity, because before him, they were nothing. If anyone has a right to object to how other writers have treated the characters, or what executive meddling made him do, it’s him. I fully understand his commitment to the long game, to character arcs, to letting characters grow and change. I even admire it a lot – he didn’t want the roster to stay stagnant, he wanted the Xavier Institute to be more than just a training ground for superheroes, he wanted the X-Men to have enough successes that the members could move on and have a real life, rather than fighting an endless battle doomed to failure. All that is good. BUT…the characters still have to remain true to who they are, even as they get to grow. And a Scott Summers that would just stay home when someone needs him is no Scott Summers at all. So while I do think the way in which he abandoned his wife and child was poorly written and out of character, I can’t fault him for the action of going, because he didn’t leave Madelyne to be with Jean, he left to see if she was alive and help mutants with every intention of returning to be with his family.

Let me reiterate that because it bears repeating: Scott didn’t leave Madelyne for Jean. SCOTT DIDN’T LEAVE MADELYNE FOR JEAN.  He left to find out if she was alive. He went back because Warren was like, hey, Scott, we need you. And Maddie was all, if you leave, don’t bother coming back. And Scott was just, Maddie, they’re my friends, they need me. The fact that that Claremont has always referred to that event as Scott dumping his wife for his ex signifies to me that he’s so emotionally involved with the characters, that he can’t see them clearly and misremembers the details.

Again, I love Claremont’s work. But I can also recognize that when he started taking all his issues with the editors out on Cyclops, he was forgetting he was the writer. Sure, he didn’t write the issue where Scott left Maddie. He wasn’t the one that made the decision to bring Jean back. But he’s a talented enough writer that he could have made it work, and of the reasons it didn’t was because everything involving Maddie was bad writing from the beginning.

I’m never sure what I think about her as a character, even before the Goblin Queen thing, because it seems kind of like Claremont wanted it both ways. It wasn’t his idea to kill Jean at the end of the Dark Phoenix Saga, it was Jim Shooter’s. Claremont wanted her to lose her powers and leave the team with Scott, blah, blah, blah. Obviously, that didn’t happen. What did was Scott met Madelyne and proposed very, very quickly, ultimately going off to do the same thing he would have done had Jean lived, just with a different woman. That looked and sounded exactly like his dead girlfriend. Who wasn’t originally intended to be a Jean clone, but still had a lot of weird things about her character indicating that she was still someone unusual and tied to Jean somehow, even though Claremont claimed she was just a normal woman who, in a one in a million coincidence, happened to look just like Jean. Claremont was simultaneously using Maddie as a Jean substitute and insisting that that’s not what she was.

Did Maddie deserve better? Yes. Undoubtedly. We’re talking about a perfectly nice, normal woman that was turned into a villain so audiences would stop caring about her and the impact of her husband dumping her. She’s Nathan’s mother, who loved him and didn’t get a chance to raise him – and to add insult to injury, Jean did. AKA, the woman Maddie was cloned from and whom she didn’t want to be compared to and whom her husband loved. So, yeah, there’s no argument from me that Maddie deserved better than what she got. But she was also hugely contrived. She was some of the worst writing Claremont has ever produced. For a start, clones are almost never the right answer, but somehow, Claremont managed the one storyline where that made more sense than just about anything else. Beyond that, Maddie just didn’t feel like a Claremont creation.

Claremont usually plays the long game. He sets things up that you have to wait to see pay off. Not so with Madelyne. Everything involving her happened way too fast for that. Her first appearance was in April of 1983. The issue in which she and Scott got married? That was released in November of that same year. So in the span of three years real time, Scott lost Jean, met a woman identical to her that he thought was her, and married her. It was rushed. It was sloppy. Neither of those things are things Claremont is known for.

It was undoubtedly sexist that everything that went wrong in Scott and Maddie’s relationship got put on her and she was made a villain so people would stop blaming Scott for walking out. But it was also sexist that Claremont’s vision of a happy ending involved Scott leaving the team with a woman identical to Jean, who he couldn’t have because she was dead. There’s a disconnect between what the Scott/Maddie relationship was supposed to be and what it came across as. Scott claimed he knew Maddie wasn’t Jean and loved her for her, but their whole relationship progressed so fast, and for the sake of letting Scott fade to black, that it didn’t at all feel like the happy ending Claremont saw it as. Especially when you consider the scenes of things like Maddie angry with Scott for still being worried about mutant issues, as if retiring from the X-Men changed the fact that he was a mutant. Their marriage involved glossing over Scott’s grief for Jean, the discrimination he faced as a mutant, the importance of the X-Men to him, and his years of trauma. It felt more like a deeply traumatized man that was still grieving latching onto someone because of how much she reminded him of the love of his life and trying to convince himself it wasn’t just him trying to replace her, like a story about loss and unhealthy coping mechanisms, than a romantic happily ever after.

Sure, looks aren’t everything. But I’d still see Claremont’s side of it a lot more if Maddie looked nothing like Jean. If she was just some random woman that Scott happened to fall in love with, who helped him get over losing Jean. Because as much as Claremont tried to say that that’s what she was, it was at least partially negated by her resemblance to Jean, because it would never have been possible for Scott to look at her without seeing Jean, who he wasn’t with because she died, not because they’d broken up. Maddie was fine. And it did make Scott look horrible – and very out of character – to leave her. But for me, Claremont never put enough work into actually defining her outside of who she wasn’t.

Claremont was so bitter about how Scott treated Maddie, he felt so strongly that that tarnished Scott’s character forever, that I think he ultimately did more damage to more characters because of it. He took out his anger at the editors out on Scott, which ruined a lot of stories and assassinated even more characters in the process, especially Jean.

Claremont wrote the definitive Jean Grey story in the Dark Phoenix Saga. It’s been retconned to hell and back, but it’s his most well known story. It’s the one that just about everyone, comic fan or not, knows. It’s the single greatest love story in all of X-Men canon, and it’s not just a love story about Scott and Jean, it’s one to them. Because Jean is love, because it was the love she and Scott shared that brought her back to himself. It was an amazing story that showed just what Claremont thought of the two characters. It was also very clearly intended as an ending for them, in a medium that doesn’t really have endings in that sense. Because of that, because Scott lived while Jean didn’t and Claremont tried to give him an ending similar to what he would have had if they’d both survived, things got messy. And since 1986, when X-Factor started coming out and the whole Scott Jean Maddie thing went down, Claremont hasn’t looked at them the same. He’s been trying to kill their relationship ever since, cheapening Jean’s love for Scott, making Logan look like an obsessive stalker creep. Classic X-Men, which I’m pretty sure was the first time anyone had ever indicated that Jean was attracted to Logan, rather than it being entirely onesided. X-Men Forever,  where Jean cheated on Scott with Logan. I saw someone comment a while ago that if Claremont were writing the Dark Phoenix Saga today, he’d have probably made it about Jean and Logan rather than Jean and Scott, and it breaks my heart to realize that that’s probably true. He’s been so bitter about Cyclops that he’s assassinated not only Scott’s character, but Jean and Logan’s as well.

I think my main problem with Claremont is that I know he’s largely right – not about Scott, not about Maddie, but about the progression of characters in general –  but I hate how he deals with that on a fundamental level. He’s of a mind that the roster can’t be ever expanding. People have to leave to make room for the new ones. Which I get. Like I said in this post, I’m all for stories that are self contained and that end. But Scott Summers matters too much to me. The idea of shelving him upsets me beyond the point of rationality. For me, saying that he should just be put aside to focus on other characters, maybe dusting him off now and then to cameo…it’s the equivalent of someone saying, oh, how about we send Superman back to his farm so we can focus on Kara and Kon instead?

I’d love it if characters could leave the teams they’re on, stop fighting crime, while still continuing to exist as characters. I’d love a comic about Scott and what he does outside of being a superhero. I’d love more stories about pushing for mutant rights in the political sphere, or teaching kids physics. But I know that’s now how it works. Characters are either in the thick of the action, or ignored. I – and I think most readers – believe they have more value than their role as fighters, but that’s not what the powers that be want to focus on. They don’t think long term character development is as important as cool powers and big fight scenes. Claremont may not have wanted Scott to entirely disappear, but if he had gotten his way, with Scott never returning to a team, he would have essentially done so.

X-Factor wasn’t what Claremont wanted. Jean coming back wasn’t what he wanted, and Scott and Jean getting back together definitely wasn’t what he wanted. But in a way, it’s a compliment, too – because Claremont crafted a Scott/Jean romance so convincing that people find it inconceivable that they won’t come back together. That doesn’t hold true for any other X-Men relationship.  It’s a testament to how powerful Claremont’s writing can be, even if he didn’t see it that way at all. Generally, I don’t mind – too much – what characters a writer chooses to pair together if the story ultimately works. And I would have been fine with Scott staying with Maddie, even if the “looks identical to Jean” thing still creeped me out. But it bothers me that Claremont remained so bitter about Scott leaving to form X-Factor – and not getting back together with Jean for a long time after that – that he could never move on.

I love Claremont. I do. But I’m not a believer in creator worship, and I have a lot of problems with some of his stuff. And that extends far beyond Scott, it’s just that Scott’s my favourite Marvel character, and I have the most opinions about him. Claremont’s positives include revamping countless characters, awesome women, clear depictions of bisexuality even when editors wouldn’t let him say it outright, and some incredible  stories. His negatives, that creepy Kitty and Piotr relationship and (I think) that gross “white woman inhabiting the body of a Japanese woman” thing. Frankly, I hold Claremont to higher standards than I do most other writers, because I think he’s better than this. He has more talent than just about every other writer that’s handled the X-Men. He completely reinvented Magneto from standard and forgettable villain to the complex, brilliant character he is today – and I repeat, everyone should go read X-Men: Black – Magneto, it’s amazing. Claremont is awesome. I just wish he could let go of the past and stop taking out his anger at editors out on characters.

Jake From ‘Animorphs’ And The Power Of The Everyman

I know I talk about Animorphs a lot. I’m not sorry. If you’ve read them, you’ll get it, and if you haven’t, you should, because then you’ll get it. Those of you that have – think about the members of the team for a second and where they were at the beginning of the series (or, at least, book 4, when we met them all). Think about what notable character traits and skills they had.

Marco had his analytical mind, caution, greater awareness of real world consequences, and a presumed dead mother than turned up alive as Visser One’s host body. Cassie had her love for animals and natural morphing talent and a range of actually useful skills. Rachel’s impulsiveness and brute force approach to solving her problems made her the team’s best fighter, from the first time she morphed an elephant in the Yeerk Pool. Ax’s alien perspective and familial ties separated him from the others and allowed plots to progress much faster than they would have without his knowledge. And Tobias was a tragic character long before we discovered he was Elfangor’s time displaced son, between his lack of a family that cared for him and being trapped as a hawk. Jake, on the other hand? None of that.

Jake was just a regular old white boy, the dumb jock that wasn’t even that good at being a jock. The younger brother. No major ambitions. He was a pretty standardized leader, making the decisions because he didn’t have as much of an extreme personality as the others. He was calmer under pressure and more composed, not as abrasive as Rachel or Marco, the balance between Rachel’s impulsiveness and Marco’s caution.  He was not operating entirely on logic, nor on impulse. He’s the boring one…And that’s what makes his character development so excellent. His character arc, when compared to everyone else’s? It’s the best handled from beginning to end. Very few moments that didn’t feel true to the character. It was, for lack of a better word, tidy. Not in a sense that it was clean and pretty, and he got what he deserved, but in the utterly tragic hero sense: you see where he’s going. You see his descent into darker and darker decisions, nearly all of which make perfect sense in the moment. You understand what he’s doing and why – he’s fighting an empire with an army of six and a single weapon. It’s a war he can’t afford to lose. So when you go through the series, you’re watching helplessly, knowing the direction he’s going in, but unable to think of any way out of it for him.

Cassie is frequently accused of being a Mary Sue – an assessment that I disagree with. But for argument’s sake, let’s accept it as true. If we do that, we also have to take nearly all the others except Jake as Sues. Rachel is the best fighter on the team with a natural boldness that far exceeds everyone else except perhaps Ax. Marco has and always had the most analytical mind and best ability to see the straight line path to a solution. Not something he had to work on. Tobias is the half alien son of a war prince. Ax is said war prince’s younger brother that has more knowledge of Yeerks and technology than anyone else. Jake is none of those things. He’s an ordinary guy from an ordinary suburb that’s not particularly good at much, but not bad at anything either. He’s decently popular, but not to the extent that Rachel is. He’s brave, but compared to his family – Tom that tried to fight a Taxxon, Naomi that may not be related to him by blood but still attacked a bear with a spice rack, Rachel – he’s practically timid. He’s smart, but his leadership skills needed the entire series to actually develop. At the beginning, he did a lot of dumb things. He nearly got them all killed or enslaved in the very first book because he nearly told a temporarily freed Tom who he was. He morphed in his kitchen, in a house that he knew has a Controller in it. It took a lot of time and character development to get to the point where he could make the decisions he did in, say, book 38, or see the solutions he did in book 53.

None of them are actually Sues, because they’re all well developed characters with plenty of flaws to go along with their strengths. But if you consider a Sue to be a form of wish fulfillment, Jake is definitely the furthest. No one on the planet would fantasize about being Jake. He’s interesting not because of any trait, but because of how his traits and relationships combine. Because of that, he’s not the most common answer to the question “who’s your favourite Animorph?”, but to me, there is no other answer. They all have great qualities. They’re all fun to read about and interesting to consider. But Jake’s character development is out of this world. There’s no comparison. His white middle class nuclear family completely falls apart. He changes the most out of all the characters, in ways both subtle and overt.

It’s an interesting way to use a character. Oftentimes, the Everyman is used as the protagonist because they’re somewhat of a blank slate. They’re an easy way to ease someone into a story. They can be an audience surrogate. Because of their lack of any extreme traits, they’re boring at worst, which makes them a safe person to put in the lead while giving the more extreme personalities that may or may not be popular to less central characters. The audience might grow to love the Everyman or they might latch onto other characters with more distinct traits instead, but there aren’t often reasons to hate them. But if there’s more thought put into it, like in Animorphs, it can be a very powerful tool.

Jake demonstrates just how nuanced the character arc for an utterly average person can be. He got fleshed out over the course of the entire series through slow, steady development, not so much because of any major events. Not like Marco finding out his mother was alive or like Rachel waiting for David to run out of time in morph, not like Cassie meeting Aftran or like Tobias finding out about Elfangor. No, Jake’s was a slow descent from “I’ve got to fight this war to save Tom” and “I’m leading this team because Tobias told me to because I have the least grating personality” to “there’s no way my family comes out of this intact” and “I know what I have to do to get the most people out alive, and I’ll do it”.

Animorphs had a lot of ghostwritten books, which meant there was rather inconsistent quality, particularly in regards to characterization. Jake had moments of that at times, just as the others did – books like 43 and 47 come to mind. But compared to some of the others? Those few moments of bad characterization were really quite rare. The advantage of him not having traits as distinct as the others while still being a distinct character when observed as a whole is that it became much harder to flanderize him. He’s a complicated character with subtle traits that undergoes a lot of growth throughout the series – there are out of character moments…but few that are really due to misunderstanding a characteristic he actually has.

Jake is one of the best written Everymen I’ve ever encountered. He’s more than that – as I’ve said before, he’s one of the best written characters of all time. He’s not static. He’s a great foil for all the characters around him. He’s interesting on his own as well as around others because of how believable his arc is and how well written his relationships are. Sometimes, I find the Everyman boring and get invested in other characters instead. And I used to think that was because the character type in general doesn’t interest me. But that’s not true. Jake proves it. There are a lot of things that authors could learn from Katherine Applegate. How to write distinct and nuanced characters, down to the point where the most interesting and best developed one is the Everyman, tops that list.

The Tragedy Of Cyclops: Why Fox Is Trying To Take The Easy Way Out With Characterization

Scott Summers: boring, rule following, dedicated. Sure, sometimes that gets flanderized in fanon, and he isn’t canonically nearly as much the naïve goody two shoes to Wolverine’s experienced bad boy that so many people consider him – and certainly not the jerk other people portray him as – but it’s an important part of his character to start off as the responsible one who controls his temper, who works hard to protect humankind as well as mutantsbecause he believes that’s his responsibility.

Apocalypse Scott wasn’t any of that. He was kind of generic, and a jerk to everyone, including Jean before he saw her and realized she was pretty. Comics Scott was always a good character, but he became great once he decided, hey, I’m done with this. I’m going to keep believing what I’ve always believed, but I’m going to actually take steps to prevent my species from going extinct. That felt like the payoff from the years of worse and worse things happening to him while he kept doing what he was doing. Apocalypse Scott seemed to me like an attempt to get to Scott’s later characterization without putting in the work to develop the character to the point where it felt earned and heartbreaking. But that doesn’t work. You can’t skip ahead to the end. You can’t get to Cyclops-the-mutant-revolutionary by trying to make the teenage version of him a “rebellious bad boy”. Or, rather, you can…but it won’t be nearly as compelling a story.

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What makes Scott’s story so devastating, is that it’s slow. Sure, there are plenty of bad writers and what not, and many of them try to make it seem like he’s the villain of the piece and everything that’s ever happened is his fault, but his general character arc is going from a kid that thinks, yeah, if we show that we don’t mean any harm, they’ll eventually accept us to a grown adult that’s learned that that’s not true at all.

We first meet Scott as a kid that wants to do what’s right. He wants to be good and do good, in a world that’s never been great to him. He’s lost his family, spent time on the streets, been abused and manipulated by Mr. Sinister, but still, as an adult, he’s an awkward dork that deeply, fundamentally believes in Xavier’s dream of carving a future where mutants are accepted, of building a better world. And what does the existing world do? It beats the hell out of him. It hurts and kills the people he loves again and again.

He swore to protect a world that hates and fears him, because he believed in a world where all of Earth’s children, both mutant and baseline human, might live together in peace. But you know what happened instead?

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No matter how many times he saved the world, people were still afraid of them. The government tried to pass registration laws. They were experimented on, tortured, killed. Genosha died, and where were the Avengers when mutant babies were burning? Scarlet Witch depowered nearly all the world’s mutants, and when a bunch of depowered kids were packed onto a bus to go home where it was safer, it got blown up by Purifiers. Where were the Avengers at all the funerals? X-Men without the Avengers is still scary and heartbreaking, but that’s infinitely better than when they exist together. In a world with the Avengers, they might be the nightmares and horror stories told by mutant children, because the Avengers aren’t heroes to the mutants. They’re the bogeymen in the closet.

Now, I don’t buy into the idea that you have to show all the past to tell a story. I don’t think you necessarily need a Batman origin to tell a Batman story, or a Nightwing story, or a Batgirl story. But if you want to get to a point where Scott is a mutant revolutionary, you have to, because he’s not Magneto or Wolverine, he’s Cyclops. He’s not any of the angry or cynical characters, he’s the character that loses faith. He’s the character that questions why he keeps asking his oppressors nicely to stop killing mutants. He’s the character that ends up sick and tired of being pushed around, of watching his people be discriminated against. So what does he do? He becomes willing to do morally grey things because nothing else works. He turns around to stand his ground and draws a line in the sand: stop hunting us or we’ll give you a reason to be afraid. And it’s important to depict how he got to that point.

What Apocalypse did was strip him of all his backstory. No plane crash. No manipulation by Sinister. Grew up with his parents and brother, who’s older than him now. Not the first X-Man by a long shot – First Class took place two decades beforehand. No context for why he can’t control his powers, they’re just like that. He wasn’t even the leader of the X-Men, because someone decided Mystique had to lead and train them. You know what that is? That’s a Batman story without his parents getting murdered and with him deciding he needs to become Batman for an entirely different reason, if someone else started fighting crime in Gotham first, with an additional let’s have him learn to fight from the Riddler just for spite. At that point, it’s not Bruce, it’s just a character with his name, just like Apocalypse Scott isn’t really recognizable.

I’m not saying that a movie has to show all of everyone’s backstory. X-Men (2000) has aged surprisingly well, and I think one of the reasons why is that it wasn’t an origin story. We got to know Scott not by seeing his past, but by watching him in the present. How he interacted with his students, with Xavier, with Jean. He didn’t get nearly as much screentime as I would have liked, but he was depicted as a responsible adult that cared about his students and doing the right thing, with a lot of bad things happening to mutants. A scene even included Jean trying to explain to Congress that mutants mean no harm to anyone. The movie was a good set up for a future one that revolved around Scott –  obviously, we never got that, but it could have worked. What Apocalypse did doesn’t.

Scott's Utopia Speech

If, in a future movie based in this timeline with this cast, Scott founds Utopia, becomes one of the hosts of the Phoenix Force, forms X-Force, kills Xavier…it won’t have the same emotional impact as it did in the comics, because it won’t be the story of a good, honest man that’s always tried to do the right thing and help people forced, over the years, to become a brutally pragmatic chessmaster that manipulates friends, allies, and enemies alike to keep his people alive. It’ll be a guy that was pretty obnoxious stepping up to the plate and becoming a more responsible person that does what he has to do to protect mutants. That’s not a bad premise for a story. But it’s not Scott Summers.