O Say Can You See: The Greatest Patriotic Super Heroes of All-Time
The last blows were thrown in the six-month long battle between the Avengers and X-Men, where someone had to win and someone had to lose. In professional wrestling (a.k.a. sports entertainment), if two faces (good guys) fight, one of them by default had to become a heel (bad guy). His values can change, he can become cowardly, he may use a dirty tactic or even something as simple as turning on the audience can start the herald of boos from the crowd and shifty looks from former allies. If two heroes fight, someone has to be the loser and someone has to be in the wrong.
But what if they’re not? Can one straddle the line between good and evil and use both for their own purposes? We can see it didn’t work out too well for Scott Summers, but what were his goals and how did they suddenly seem so horrible? If we have antiheroes, why can’t we have the opposite, the antivillain?
WARNING: Avengers, X-Men, one of these guys had to lose, so grab your copy of Avengers vs. X-Men Round 12 and let’s study the results!
We all know antiheroes; they’ve been a comfortable part of comics for quite some time. Heck, they are littered throughout modern storytelling and can be found as a way to show off that “dark”, “edgy” and/or “gritty”movie execs and comic fans want to see more of. I’m not saying the concept is new (thanks, Wikipedia, for dating the term to 1714!), but it seems that Wolverine is super-cool and a lot of characters want to be like him. We all agree that Wolverine wins the Antihero Achievement Award for Marvel Comics? From the beginning, Logan has had blood on his claws, and he’s known for his fight first, snarl questions later attitude. He’s generally a loner and chafes under authority (okay, Avengers membership and headmastering aside). The Punisher seems to get more and more antiheroic every issue; actively killing people without remorse for the violent crimes his targets commit may seem like poetic justice, but there’s a reason Captain America didn’t let him hang around in Civil War. Frank Castle uses villainous methods to perform heroic deeds, forming his own morality and idea of justice. Is the Punisher just? It’s debatable, but on the whole, saving people’s lives by killing criminals has to score one for the good guys.
To put it another way, Han Solo is my personal classic antihero: he’s an out-and-out criminal who plays by his own rules and has no qualms about lying, cheating or shooting first to get what he wants. He resists authority, but in the end does the right thing by coming back and helping Luke so he can blow up the Death Star, putting him back in the hero category. He could have just taken the money and walked away, but despite his less-than-heroic nature, Han Solo chooses to be a better man than his means. I’m sure you have your own antihero favorite, but the pattern of behavior is easy to see.
So let’s talk about Scott Summers. Cyclops isn’t very popular and really hasn’t been despite the best efforts of writers and artists. Popular opinion calls him a stick in the mud, and often leaves him with the blame rather than the credit. It’s what happens when you’re the guy in charge and Wolverine does whatever he wants. Despite not winning any popularity contests, Cyclops has always been considered a hero. He was the leader of the X-Men, he had been fighting for mutants and trying to create a place for them to live in peace with humans. Scott has been troubled, but he has traditionally always done the right thing.
Sadly, becoming a vessel for the Dark Phoenix force makes you a villain. Jean Grey had to go through it, so does Scott. In his final moments with a power beyond cosmic measure, Cyclops tried to destroy the earth and killed the man who mentored him. As part of the Phoenix Five, he helped enforce a sort of martial law where the Avengers were hunted down and imprisoned. He played God with the powers he was given and thought he knew better than anyone else. And, let’s face it, when you actively oppose Captain America, you sort of default to being the villain of this confrontation. Now matter how well meant Tony Stark was through Civil War and even beyond the fact that his Registration Act won the day, it’s really hard to root against Captain America, especially when he’s fighting for your freedom.
That was one of Cyclops’ many problems throughout this conflict that help to label him the villain of this piece: No matter how well-intentioned, Cyclops was against freedom. With his species on the brink of extinction, he was ready to try to save them by any means necessary. Looking back at what he did before turning dark, it was wide-sweepingly authoritarian, but it was world peace. Scott Summers fought the Avengers with clean energy, water and food for everyone, humans and mutants alike. He declared that giant racist robots were as illegal as nuclear weapons and went in front of the UN to make it so. No Avengers were killed in this battle, they were detained. Phoenix-empowered, he could have destroyed them as several opportunities and while he declared “No More Avengers”, he never really decimated them as Wanda did to mutants with her famous words. When Namor veered into a more traditional villainous act of drowning Wakanda, not only did Namor go behind Cyclops’ back to do it but the result was Namor being stripped of his powers. There’s a leadership structure here among a nigh-omnipotent cosmic force, and for as long as he could, Cyclops tried to enforce order.
Compare this to say the works of House of M, where a world was remade so that humans were the edge of extinction and mutants were the ruling class. Under the Phoenix Five, mutants and humans were given everything they needed to prosper, they simply had to accept change. Stop war. Live in peace. These are weird tactics for a villain.
But Cyclops was. By the end of it all, he is in chains (weird-looking chains, but chains nonetheless) and Captain America refuses to let Scott take any sort of credit for the benefits left in the wake of their battle. Scott Summers will be tried and prosecuted something may even happen to his brain next week in Uncanny Avengers #1. Despite the new age of mutants and Captain America’s willingness to try and protect a population that normally missed the radar of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Scott Summers was wrong and he’ll pay for his crimes.
But is he really wrong? Antiheroes start off wrong, but the choices they make are what make them right in the end. Han Solo is a scruffy looking nerf herder, but he makes the choice to fight with the rebellion. The Punisher murders criminals in the street, but he remains a dark deterrent to those who would work in New York’s underworld. Wolverine may play by his own rules, but those rules always include doing the right thing.
Scott Summers, as an antivillain, starts off right. Hope did need to be ready, the Phoenix Force would save mutantkind and they would thrive again. This was never for personal gain. Scott Summers started out with no intentions of watching anyone burn in the fires of the Phoenix. He wanted, if I can borrow a phrase, a finer world. Once given the power to make one, his actions twisted his original intentions into villainy.
Avengers vs. X-Men has given us a lot to mull over in the coming days. It’s the first step toward the NOW and an all-new look at our heroes in fresh titles. It’s made the Avengers the best and brightest of the Marvel universe. It’s thrown the mutant race for a loop and probably some all new students for the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning. And it has created a new way to view our heroes and villains, painting a new shade of gray to give characters depth in action and motivation. Then again, I could be completely wrong and antivillains have been around for longer than I’ve noticed. Leave your idea of the antivillain — someone who uses more heroic means to do the wrong thing — in the comments. As Captain America leaves us with in the last few pages, if only the ends always justified the means.