Starting Nine is the method a lineup nerd uses to rank his personal favorites. These are not necessarily the nine all-time best entries of the subject being covered. It’s an exercise in finding the entries that best fit the profile for each spot in the batting order.
I’m a lineup traditionalist: I like dependable table-setters in the 1 and 2 spots, world-beating franchise powerhouses 3rd and 4th, potent sluggers 5th and 6th, hard-nosed role players 7th and 8th, and an underrated, dirt-dog workhorse in the 9-hole.
A lot of people my age first got into the Marvel and DC franchises by reading the comic books as kids. Others, like myself, cut our teeth into these universes by way of a couple outstanding cartoons from the 90s. X-Men, which you can catch today on Disney+, was perhaps the best of these series. I was aware of the X-Men comic books prior to seeing the show, which is to say I had probably seen a few pages of an issue or two. But aside from thinking Wolverine’s claws were cool, I had zero preconceptions about X-Men until I began tuning into the Fox Kids lineup on weekday afternoons at 3:30. Little did I know back then just how influential X-Men would become within the landscape of pop culture.
While the animation in no way holds up under modern scrutiny, this cartoon did an exemplary job of covering the themes of prejudice, alienation, and moral ambiguity that have always been at the core of the X-Men brand. Aside from Batman (and its equally iconic 90s cartoon counterpart, Batman: The Animated Series), none of the major comic book franchises of previous eras ever touched on the types of dark, socially relevant issues that X-Men addressed in each issue/episode.
I think that’s why the X-Men always resonated with me far more than any other DC or Marvel characters. There was so much more meat on the bone with their stories. Whereas Superman, the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and all of the other Avengers were mostly just hero archetypes protecting the world from the forces of evil, the X-Men always seemed to deal with the kinds of socially relevant gray areas that we find in the real world.
Magneto, the archenemy of the X-Men, was no amoral psychopath on some aimless quest of destruction. He was a brilliant Holocaust survivor who had seen for himself just how much damage can be wrought by discrimination run amok. His efforts to do away with humankind before humans could do the same with mutants are perfectly understandable considering the circumstances of the world he inhabited. By doing their best to thwart Magento’s plans, the X-Men bet their lives, along with the lives of every other mutant on the planet, on the innate decency of a species that had frequently partaken in genocide throughout its history. It’s easy at times to sympathize with Magneto’s philosophy. In that same light, we often wonder if Professor Xavier’s devout belief in the fundamental good of humanity is tragically misplaced.
In short, X-Men is the most comprehensively entertaining series of all the comic book franchises to ever branch out into television and film. The characters kick ass, and their stories are deeper and more thought-provoking than anything else you’ll find in mainstream comic book lore. These heroes are not two-dimensional, swashbuckling cardboard cutouts developed merely to whup the bad guys. They are troubled members of an oppressed minority that fight to defend the lives of the very same people that discriminate against them.
Here is my Starting Nine of X-Men heroes.
The beginning of X-2 is right up there with The Dark Knight Rises in terms of most badass character introductions to open a movie. Nightcrawler is utterly incapable of hiding in plain sight among humans. He’s a little blue demon with claws and a long tail that would haunt the dreams of any child to ever lay eyes on him. On the bright side, his physical gifts rival that of just about any other mutant. He can jump, pounce, and claw like a five-handed miniature puma, clutching objects and striking with his hands, feet, and tail. And let’s not forget his ability to, ya know, teleport up to six miles at a time. He’s probably a number nine hitter in most of your lineups, but that’s only because you’ve failed to grasp just how useful Kurt Wagner truly is on the field of battle.
2. Professor X
Charles Xavier is the founder, patriarch, and bonding agent that holds the X-Men together. Through all of the conflicts and infighting between the various incarnations of the team, Xavier’s compassion and benevolence serves as the moral compass that keeps the X-Men’s goals in perspective. His astronomical powers of telepathy allow him to take possession of your mind and alter your thoughts and feelings (unless you have a metal helmet, that is), which make him arguably the most powerful mutant in the universe. He is literally capable of changing the mind of virtually anybody who opposes him, yet typically refuses to do so simply because it would be an ethically bankrupt abuse of his powers. His paraplegia confines him to a wheelchair, but his mind can take him places far beyond the reach of any other human or mutant.
Well … all except one.
3. Jean Grey
I know she’s not everyone’s favorite, but there’s no denying her utterly godlike abilities. The only problem is her multiple personality disorder and uncontrollable violent impulses. She’s a living, breathing deity who can do virtually anything she sets her mind to, in both the greatest and most horrifying senses of the phrase. It’s like having Manny Ramirez in the middle of your lineup … if Manny Ramirez had the power to reduce the entire world to ash during a temper tantrum. A kind, telepathic/telekinetic doctor as Jean Grey, she transforms into an unhinged, almighty lunatic of pure emotion upon assuming her alter ego, the Phoenix. She’s so powerful that she’s died a whole bunch of times, yet always rises “from the ashes” to cause more cataclysmic problems for the X-Men.
Even God be like, “get the f*** outta here! I’m not dealing with your sh**!”
The backbone of the X-Men franchise can’t read people’s minds or fry a city with a wave of his hand. He’s a little ball of rage with a metal-coated skeleton and claws that rise at will from beneath his skin. He also has superhuman healing ability that allows him to recover from injuries almost instantaneously and slows his aging process to a crawl. He’s lived for well over a hundred years, spending virtually all of those years fighting. He’s experienced just about every physical and emotional trauma that one could possibly endure, and that tragic existence has hardened him into a one-man army of primeval rage. He’s a begrudging member of the X-Men that would have nothing to do with any type of team effort if he didn’t have so much respect for Xavier and if he weren’t so in love with Jean. When those claws shiiiink out from between his knuckles, Wolverine makes clobberin’ time look like tea time.
If Logan isn’t your favorite X-Man, you’re doing it wrong.
Gambit is probably the only teammate that Wolverine would consider a “friend,” and that’s probably because he’s the only member of the team that’s anywhere close to as cool as Logan. He’s a Cajun card shark and pickpocket with a slick disposition and a suave way with the ladies. His body creates kinetic energy that he can use to charge any tangible object into an explosive weapon, usually a deck of playing cards that he flicks at his counterparts one-by-one. That kinetic energy also gives him speed, strength, reflexes, and agility that dwarfs any human, and he’s good with a metal bo staff too. He has a hypnotic charm that he can use to bend the will of others, but I think it’s the bright red eyes, smooth bayou accent, and laid back attitude that immediately made him one of my favorites. A great athlete that will always keep things on an even keel in the clubhouse.
Who wouldn’t want a literal Beast in the middle of the order? Dr. Hank McCoy is basically a gorilla-sized version of Nightcrawler, with the teleportation powers replaced with superhuman strength and genius intellect. He builds most of the cool toys the X-Men use, like the Blackbird jet and any other vehicles or weapons they take into battle. He’s also the team medic, surgeon, and virologist of sorts, brewing up whatever serums, antidotes, and formulas that are needed to heal his teammates and any sick or wounded civilians who may find themselves caught in the crossfire. I assume he’s also damn good at moving furniture around Xavier’s mansion. There’s always good use for a big strong dude with cat-like agility, so he can play on my team any day.
So, I’m not gonna lie. Controlling the weather is going to come in handy pretty often. If I was basing my lineup strictly on mutant abilities, Storm would probably be a middle-of-the-order threat. But good God, she is just paralyzingly boring. She does exactly the right thing for exactly the right reason day in and day out. Her unrequited innocence and complete lack of personality is probably what led Xavier to empower her as the second-in-command of the team. She can cook up excessive amounts of rain, wind, ice, and even focused lightning at will. She could summon a damn tornado to scoop up and remove any villain from the equation (which makes me wonder why she didn’t just do that in every issue/episode/movie). Aside from Jean, she’s the closest thing to a god that we have on the team. She can also fly the Blackbird, which makes her even more useful, so it would be downright managerial malfeasance to not put her somewhere in the lineup. It really goes to show how mind-numbingly dull her character is when, despite all the amazing things she can do, she still finds herself hitting seventh.
Cyclops feels like a case of the coach making his son the leader of his superhero team. I know Cyclops is not Professor X’s son, but it does feel that way. You never see the X-Men without Cyclops in charge, so far be it from me to break from an awful tradition. I don’t want to be mean, but screw Cyclops.
Does he follow the missions that Professor X lays out for him? Yes.
Does he hold the safety and ideals of the X-Men above all personal objectives? Sure.
Is he duller than an open session of Canadian Parliament? Unequivocally.
Nobody likes Cyclops. You may be reading this thinking, “hey, but I like Cyclops.” No, you don’t. He’s boring in the comics. He’s bland in the cartoon. And he’s dead weight in the movies. He’s Lt. O’Neil in Platoon. Everyone follows his orders, but Wolverine has to constantly stifle the urge to frag his ass because Logan knows damn well that you can’t fight a war against the Brotherhood of Mutants with “one hand tied around our balls.”
His power is that he shoots lasers out of his eyes. Thus, he is useful when the X-Men need someone to shoot lasers out of their eyes. He does one thing that could potentially be useful once in a blue moon. If Bobby Dalbec could occasionally draw catcher’s interference, he’d be as useful as Cyclops.
Few superpowers are as cool as flying. As sure as every team of superheroes needs a big strong dude, every team of superheroes also needs someone who can fly. A lot of bad guys, Magneto included, can fly. Therefore, you need somebody that can engage the opposition in flight. During his run as the villain Archangel, Angel could fire poison-tipped feathers from his metallic-plated wings, which is probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written. As a good guy though, flying is really the only thing Angel does that stands out from the pack. However, the gift of flight makes him essential. So we’ll stick him in the nine hole and count on him to do his one job admirably.