BAMF: How Optimism, Kindness and Swordplay Make Nightcrawler One of the Greatest X-Men Ever

All of the X-Men have been through a lot. Most of them have died, most of them have lost some if not everyone they hold most dear. They’ve been beaten down again and again. Some have had privileged, structured home lives throughout their childhood and had to have those things stripped away when their powers manifested at puberty. But Nightcrawler never got that. Along with several other mutants, he’s a character who has looked very different from birth. In fact, for him, birth was the first hardship he had to survive, as his mother Mystique feared so much for the responsibility of parenthood and the life he would live that she threw him over a waterfall expecting him to die. Every single thing in his life has been a struggle. Every single day has been something he has not only had to confront, but something he has had to survive.

And he has greeted all of it with a smile on his face.

This is Nightcrawler’s nature, yes, but it’s also something he’s had to learn to master throughout most of his life. When he’s been portrayed strongly, that’s always been clear. Just because he is able to maintain a sense of humor about virtually any situation, to confront problems that seem insurmountable head on, that doesn’t mean he’s always done that or that he even always does it now. Nightcrawler is such a deeply relatable and human character because he is everyone’s shoulder to lean on, but at the same time, he is so vulnerable. He’s not a character who’s always shied away from breaking down. But there is a sense of control to him you don’t always seen in others.

To see how he got there, we really have to go back to his childhood and in particular his years in the circus. It’s interesting that while he was essentially on display as a freak of nature, he found the first family unit he had ever really known. This was, after all, a boy who was different from everyone else and grew up never knowing his parents, or even who they were. As a circus performer, he was naturally heckled and met with fear and hostility by people who no doubt felt that they were paying hard earned money to treat him however they wished. This is, without a doubt, part of where Nightcrawler had to learn that ability to compose himself no matter how people were treating him, because if you greet someone who’s being horrible to you with a smile, or even a lack of response at all, they won’t know what to do.

On some level, though, the circus also kept Nightcrawler sheltered from the rest of the world. Living as a traveling performer, he’d see the countryside with the rest of the crew, he’d see the world to some extent, but only ever a very condensed portion of it. By the time we’re introduced to him in the pages of Giant Size X-Men #1, he’s living a very different life. He’s on the streets of Berlin where he is being hunted in a scene that evokes the iconic Universal Monster movies, and intentionally so. Like Karloff’s creature, he’s being hounded by villagers with pitchforks. As much as he was being put on display in the circus, he was also being sheltered from the way the rest of the world would react to him.

In general, people who are ostracized, made fun of or dismissed for the way they look often have to basically brighten their personality or perfect their sense of humor in order to stand out and often gain any kind of respect. Especially when those dismissals affect self-worth and any kind of personal confidence about appearance, people will work extra hard at making themselves likable and funny. It’s easy to see a lot of this in Nightcrawler, as many people who interact with him don’t even treat him like he’s human. When he’s first introduced in the comics, that sense of humor is already there. He’s cracking wise, he’s outgoing, he’s a practical joker. But there’s definitely not any kind of confidence in his appearance. That would come later, and to Chris Claremont’s credit, it would be a bit of a gradual thing. In those early Uncanny X-Men issues, Nightcrawler steadily starts to make the occasional quip about how good looking he is. That leads closer and closer toward self-confidence and eventually dating Candy Southern who very much loves the way he looks and allows him to start to see that through her eyes.

Nightcrawler can very easily not teleport, but he can never not think about being a mutant because the reality is always staring him back in the mirror. He has to think about it a lot more than some of the other characters do. Part of what makes him so relatable and realistic is that as better as he has gotten over the years with embracing his appearance, it’s not an internal battle that he’s completely won. Even now, it’s something he’ll start to struggle with sometimes, because these are issues that people tend to deal with to some degree throughout their entire lives.

Nightcrawler’s role as a good natured practical joker is also what first allows him to be seen as everybody’s best friend. People can let their guard down around him. In those early issues of Uncanny X-Men, Nightcrawler is constantly thinking about the well-being of his fellow X-Men and is usually the first one to notice when something is really bothering them. That’s one of his best traits and is something that certainly continues to this day. It’s also important to note that as much as Nightcrawler knows when to reach out, he also knows exactly when to just let people be. When Jean was in the hospital and the team got news that she was going to make a full recovery, Nightcrawler — who was worried that Cyclops seemed stoic about the whole affair — walked in to see Cyclops alone and crying and knew to give him space and let him have this deeply emotional moment of relief to himself.

Of course, another huge defining characteristic of Nightcrawler is his faith. It’s interesting, though, because it is something that you would think should be at odds with his often bright, optimistic nature. As a Catholic, one would assume Nightcrawler’s faith (and therefore, to an extent, his personality) to revolve around guilt, about self-loathing and self-punishment rather than the self-love that Kurt obviously works so hard to achieve. After all, Catholics in the Marvel Universe are usually depicted in the form of characters like the self-torturing Matt Murdock or, even worse, The Punisher. Nightcrawler provides a very refreshing counterbalance to those guys. He’s absolutely someone who takes his faith seriously — in fact, at one point he even becomes a priest — but it never really gets in the way of his playful nature. He takes the inherent message of love and understanding to heart and if there’s any deep-seeded guilt or self-hatred, it’s not something he tends to wear on his sleeve.

The Nightcrawler we’re introduced to in X-Men: The Animated Series doesn’t necessarily embrace his sense of humor, he’s much more defined by his Catholicism. But there’s a great moment in one of the episodes he appears in that truly speaks to the root of his character. It’s a moment in which he’s confronting Mystique, finally learning the truth about where he comes from, but also learning that she threw him off a waterfall to save herself, that she expected him to die, and that she never wanted to be his mother. Things that are devastating to hear. He would have every reason to hate her and she is practically begging him to. But that is not who he is.

Because Mystique has less than zero belief in any kind of divine power, and if there’s any belief in God there it would be genuine hatred, she hisses at Nightcrawler to pray for her and see if that will work. Nightcrawler tells her that he will pray, but what he says isn’t anything like you’d typically expect, he’s not praying for God to forgive her for all the horrible things she has done, especially to him. He’s praying for God to grant him the strength to forgive her in his own heart and, more than that, he says he’ll pray for God to grant her the strength to forgive herself.

Even forgetting the faith of that sentiment, as the prayer here is really just a form of expression, it’s incredible that moments after finding out his mother threw him away the night he was born, abandoned him and never looked back, that his very first reaction is to say, “Well, I hope you can forgive yourself for that.” That is exactly the kind of person he is.

The downside of always wanting to cheer people up, always wanting to boost the others around him and make them feel better is that Nightcrawler is often at a total loss when he finds that he can’t do it. This was very clear when Kitty first joined the team and was afraid of Nightcrawler because of the way he looked. For a long time, he desperately wanted to make her comfortable. It was such a sad situation because he wanted to know what he could do to make her not afraid of him, and that simply wasn’t a situation he had any control over. She was afraid of him and that was something that Kitty had to work out on her own, that was completely on Kitty, granted she was only thirteen and had never encountered anyone who looked remotely like that in her life.

One of the best X-Men panels of all time hails from God Loves, Man Kills, when bigoted evangelist preacher William Stryker is advocating for his right to exterminate mutants, bellowing against the pleas that they’re just as human as he is by pointing at Nightcrawler and shouting “You dare call that thing human?” The number one thing I’ve always loved about this panel is that you can show it to anyone and they will clearly get who is in the right and who is in the wrong. Even if someone has never even seen Nightcrawler or doesn’t know what the X-Men even is, the face of this shouting bigot is familiar, the physicality of this blue man having his humanity questioned, there’s a recognizable exhaustion in his posture that you don’t have to look far to see in everyday life.

Because of these character traits, though — his optimism, his kindness, his Catholicism — you would think that Nightcrawler would be the last one you’d expect to be any kind of fighter. That was even, initially, the flimsy excuse given by the filmmakers after writing him out of the movies following X2. Even if it doesn’t always agree with his faith, however, Nightcrawler is a great fighter. On top of everything else, this is another area in which he’s surprisingly skilled. And even better, he’s a great fighter for the nerdiest reasons imaginable. Growing up in the circus and dreaming of adventure, young Kurt would watch old swashbuckling Errol Flynn movies and dream of fighting pirates and rescuing maidens.

He taught himself to be good with a sword for really that reason alone and that’s not just great because it’s relatable for anyone with a nerdy interest or hobby, it’s great because every time Nightcrawler uses that in a fight, any time he picks up a sword for an actual battle or to save someone’s actual life, he’s holding onto that sense of childhood wonder. It’s not only a way for him to keep his youthful passions alive, but to actually put them to practical use and live out that kind of adventure he always dreamed of when he was young. Even though it’s often not an adventure, even though life has been as difficult for Kurt as any other X-Man, he’s always trying to find the fun. He’s looking for the bright side in every possible moment.

There are some X-Men who still retain their sense of humor after everything they’ve seen, but I really do have to question if there are any who still retain that wide-eyed sense of wonder. To be able to say, “Hey, I know it’s hard and scary and exhausting, but isn’t it amazing to get to do the things we do?” Personally, as someone who sometimes has to really search to find the silver lining, Nightcrawler is — to me — one of the most admirable characters ever. He’s someone who is constantly building up his friends and teammates, someone who has been beaten, has been killed, has been persecuted more than many of the core X-Men, someone who has literally been to Hell and back and can still stand up and say, “Man, what an adventure this is.”

Nat Brehmer is a writer for Bloody Disgusting, Wicked Horror, Council of Zoom and more. Find him on Twitter @NatBrehmer