An extremely talented man shackled with responsibilities becomes a milquetoast, begging for respect but never demonstrating the strength of character that compels it. He feels trapped and marginalized by the more outgoing characters that surround him, and he seems destined for a mediocre and unfulfilled life. Until there’s a crisis that forces him to go outside his comfort zone and prove that he’s made of much sterner stuff than anyone gave him credit for. Eventually though, he self-destructs, and ends up tearing down everything and everyone around him. That’s a great story. Its the story that made Breaking Bad into one of the greatest TV shows of all time. And its the story that makes Cyclops the greatest X-Man ever (non-Magneto category).
Most people probably know Cyclops from the 90’s X-Men TV show on Fox. It was not a great outing for the character but it did reflect how he was routinely portrayed in the comics. He was not interesting. He was the voice of “responsibility” and, frankly, the lone adult on a TV show for kids who were much more interested in the wild Wolverine or the “cool” Gambit (I use quotations marks there because Gambit was a character designed entirely to be “cool” in the 90’s sense of the word. He was basically the Hipster of the X-Men).
This is the starting point of one of the greatest character arcs in comics though. This is Walter White in the first episode of Breaking Bad. Cyclops is not the one who knocks, Cyclops is the one who gets punched in the stomach after he made a rational decision and saved the lives of his teammates. People don’t hate this Cyclops and they don’t respect him, this is a guy who basically tells people they should follow him for no other reason than “I’m the guy in charge.” He isn’t demonstrating the skills of a real leader, he’s just relying on his position and being the “good boy” for Professor X. The fact that he is good at that job isn’t really the point, just like its not important to anyone that Walter White was a good high school Chemistry teacher and father at the start.
For a lot of the comics it was the same. Cyclops was the leader of the X-Men, but nobody really cared about him and there was never a lot of story showcasing just exactly why Cyclops was the leader. It was even hinted a couple of times that Professor X made Scott (Cyclops’ real name) the leader of the X-Men because Scott needed it the most. Yeah. Not because he was a tactical genius or an inspiring figure, but because he was such a pent-up type-A character that he needed a team to be responsible for. Its hard to read that and not see that even a lot of the writers despised the Cyclops character at the time and wanted a way to make even his “leadership” into a flaw of the character. It was unnecessary. Cyclops already had a lot of flaws, particularly his fucked up love-life.
But let’s treat this as our starting point. The “Classic” Cyclops. Where does it go from there? How does this stuck-up, boring “leader” of the X-Men break bad and become interesting?
Well it starts when he gets written well. Grant Morrison started it in his run by breaking him and Jean Grey up just before killing off Jean (don’t worry about it, the only thing Jean ever does is die. It’s her thing). Scott stops trying to be the Perfect Husband and the Perfect Leader. And by doing so he becomes badass. He gets his mojo back. He shacks up with former X-Men villain turned team member Emma Frost and starts laying down the law for the other X-Men.
He even gets control of his powers for the first time in forever and he finally demonstrates the kind of tactical genius that people were always praising other Marvel team leaders like
Captain America for. Not only does he take charge of the X-Men under Professor X’s guidance, but he boots Xavier out. By this point it had become clear that Xavier was basically a douchebag, routinely wiping the minds of X-Men who disagreed with him,
covering up deaths that happened under his watch, and enslaving an alien being to serve as the Danger Room controller.
So now we have Cyclops really living up to his potential. He’s the one leader of the X-Men. He’s keeping the entire mutant race together in the aftermath of crisis after crisis. He brings Magneto around to stop being a terrorist and start being a productive member of society. He’s starting secret kill squads to go after potential threats-
Wait, what? Cyclops, the guy who never met a rule he didn’t like? He’s starting up kill squads? Yes, yes he is. He got Wolverine (who is, after all, a murderous psychopath), a clone of Wolverine, and some other guys with knives for hands and he started sending them out not to subdue enemies of the mutant race but to murder them up. Now, when this eventually came out it pissed a lot of people off. Beast most of all. The fact that Beast was still pals with Wolverine, the guy actually doing all the slicing and dicing, but sooooo angry with Cyclops for forming the team was… well it was stupid writing but whatever.
This is Cyclops on top of the world. This is his “I’m the one who knocks” moment, his “Heisenberg” moment. He stopped being nice and started being real. Namor, the underwater king of the oceans who screams “Imperius Rex!” whenever he punches someone answers to him. Magneto is just one of his employees.
Then things start falling apart. Captain America comes to Scott’s island of mutants to try and have a civilized discussion and… well…
And then there’s this big war between the X-Men and the Avengers. Cyclops is not about to let anyone tell him how to run the show. He broke out from Xavier’s shadow and he’s the top X-Man now. Just like Walter White wasn’t going to take a nice payout and let someone else run the meth empire, Cyclops is prepared to take the entire X-Men enterprise down with him if he has to. Luckily he gets a little help from the Phoenix Force.
Basically everyone abandons Scott at this point, because the Phoenix tends to destroy things and they’re worried. Rightfully so I’d say. When Jean Grey got the Phoenix Force she destroyed an entire inhabited solar system. Not a town, not a country, not even a planet, but an entire solar system. She murdered untold billions of people while she was the Phoenix. And then people forgave her because, hey they weren’t humans so they don’t count I guess. Specie-ist bullshit if you ask me. Does Scott murder billions?
No. Scott made the world better at first. He turned deserts into paradises and he tried to end global starvation and poverty. He probably would have done it too if wasn’t for ego-bruised Captain America constantly throwing Hulks and Iron Mans at him. Anyway, Scott does kill someone. Yes, one person. Scott, the all-powerful Dark Phoenix, kills one person. And no one has forgiven him since.
Ok. It was Professor Xavier and it was a pretty important death… but still. Jean murdered a solar system, Scott murdered one manipulative asshole.
This is the nadir (assuming that I’m using that word correctly) of Scott Summers. He is emotionally destroyed by what he has done and he ends up surrendering after some magical mumbo-jumbo gets the Phoenix out of him. He’s broken, he’s at the end of his rope and the X-Men have been destroyed under his leadership.
But he still hasn’t given up. He has not quite reached that moment where Walter White admits to his wife that he had done everything he did because he liked it. No, he is still convinced that he was always doing what was right for mutantkind. He remains defiant.
A lot more has happened to (or with) Cyclops since then. He breaks out of jail, he declares a mutant revolution, he has his powers broken. And he does eventually have a moment of realization that he hasn’t accomplished what he needed to. He’s no longer the “perfect” X-Man though. He went through his Walter White arc, emerging as a powerful and interesting figure. He led the X-Men through their greatest crises and he eventually all-but destroyed them.
Just like Walter White, you start off in a position where you want to root for Cyclops but his own weakness makes you despise him instead. Then you watch him grow and thrive and you really start to root for him, you want him to succeed. And that’s the best part of arcs like this. Even as you start to see the decisions of Walter White get worse and worse, you still cling to the desire to see him succeed, you’re still rooting for him long after you should be hoping that the cops get him and throw him in jail. The same thing happens in Mad Men and The Shield. Watching someone break out of their shell is tremendously empowering, so much so that you’ll follow them into Hell (proverbially). Anyone who has been following Cyclops over the past few years has gotten to see that same arc, the same character growth and then destruction.
Whatever you feel about Cyclops, there’s one thing that you definitely can’t call him after that kind of character journey: Boring.