To observe Easter, I decided to share the most important and unlikely story of conversion in the history of the Christian religion. Of course, I’m referring to Nightcrawler’s conversion of Wolverine in that episode of X-Men: The Animated Series. As bizarre and forced as it sounds, the episode does more or less fit with the canon of the comics. For starters, Nightcrawler has been well-established as a devout Catholic. In fact, one story from Chris Claremont’s original run in Uncanny X-Men had Nightcrawler suffer a devastating crisis of faith when the X-Men encounter a literal god-like being called the Beyonder, which is one of the very few stories I’m aware of that tries to examine what living in a universe populated with cosmic beings not at all shy about intervening in human affairs does to believers in real-world religions. Likewise in the comics Wolverine has also been more or less written as an atheist or at least a cynical agnostic, although this again raises the question of how easy it is to deny the existence of any higher power when your career often has you in the same room as the real Hercules and the Norse god of war. At the same time, out of all the angst-plagued X-Men, Wolverine probably does have the most reason to doubt the existence of a loving God. This is the guy who lived through two World Wars, had metal bonded with his entire skeleton, whose metal claws burst through his flesh and skin every time he has to use them, and is in love with a woman who is not only married but periodically dies, gets better, and dies again.
Titled “Nightcrawler,” the episode has the remit of introducing to the animated universe Nightcrawler, who isn’t yet a member of the X-Men (and if I remember right never becomes one in the course of the series, even though he wears his X-Men costume in this episode). Like in the comics, we first see Nightcrawler in a small German town, being chased by people who look a lot like the extras playing European peasants in just about any Universal horror movie from the 1930s (to be fair, they looked like that in the comics too). Unlike the comics, where Nightcrawler just happens to be rescued from the mob because Professor Xavier needs a few dopes to send on what might be a suicide mission, this time Nightcrawler is found by Rogue, Gambit, and Wolverine, who all happen to be on a ski trip in the German Alps. So, here’s a question: why is Wolverine being a third wheel? The characters’ dialogue even comments on this; Gambit makes a joke about Wolverine being their chaperone. Does a prudish Professor Xavier, possibly taking his own sexual frustrations out on his students, have a “no fraternizing” policy so strict even Bob Jones University could take notes from it? I prefer to think that Gambit forgets about the whole “Don’t even try to reach first base with Rogue because she’ll unintentionally absorb your powers and memories” thing so often that Wolverine always has to be at hand to threaten to perform an impromptu vasectomy should the need arise.
The plot kicks in when Wolverine overhears two skiers talk about demon-sightings and insists on investigating with Rogue and Gambit in tow. I have no idea it was intentional, but I like that the episode doesn’t even establish if Wolverine suspects that the rumored demon might be a misunderstood mutant. He’s so badass he’s just always looking for new things to kill! Anyway, because apparently parts of rural Germany still don’t have roads or trains the three have to ski all the way to the village. I suspect this unlikely scenario was put in just to set up something to appease all the Gambit-haters out there, a scene where Gambit accidentally slides down a steep hill and slams into a pine tree. This sets up what is easily the best line in the episode, courtesy of Wolverine: “Man doesn’t break a sweat against Apocalypse or Magneto. So what nails him? A pine tree.”
After getting on the wrong side of an avalanche to boot, the three end up in the town’s monastery where Gambit is treated by the monks. Wolverine tries to get information on the alleged demon, only for one of the monks to reply that he doesn’t know of any demon (it’s a nice touch that technically he isn’t lying). Also, just in case you are already thinking up jokes about Rogue being in a monastery, the show’s writer has beaten you to it. A monk gently insists that Rogue, whose ski suit has had its sleeves ripped off, cover herself, to which Rogue remarks, “Don’t want to make the natives restless!” There you have it; even the G-rated, toned-down animated series has to acknowledge Rogue’s hotness. Anyway, another monk, Reinhart, who overhears that conversation, tries to murder Gambit, but Rogue happens to be checking in on Gambit and gives chase. Rogue accidentally runs through a door the monks built so that Nightcrawler could climb down the monastery’s walls and falls, but Nightcrawler, not knowing that Rogue can fly, uses his teleportation power to “save” her. Once the obligatory misunderstandings and fights are over with, Nightcrawler explains and flashes back to his origins (for those of you well versed in your X-Men continuity, in the flashback there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Amanda Sefton). Wolverine is exasperated by Nightcrawler’s forgiving attitude toward his bad circumstances and the bigotry he’s faced: “We’re mutants! God gave up on us a long time ago!” To help prove Wolverine’s point, a village mob whipped up by Reinhart attacks the monastery, but Nightcrawler is ultimately vindicated when Reinhart, horrified that he and his mob’s actions have caused a fire that destroys much of the monastery, begs forgiveness from Nightcrawler. As the X-Men leave, Nightcrawler hands Wolverine a Bible. Later when they move their vacation to Paris, Rogue is surprised to find Wolverine praying and reading the Bible in a church.
Now I should start off by saying I won’t snark on this episode, because honestly it isn’t that bad, and there are several areas in which it could have been a hell of a lot worse. In terms of animation, stories, and reaching an all-ages audience, X-Men: The Animated Series wasn’t in the same league as Batman: The Animated Series, but it generally managed to have solid dialogue, characterizations, and plotlines that revealed genuine creative effort, and not just people trying to siphon off what was then comics’ biggest cash cow. In fact, since through a good part of the series’ run the “X-Men” comics themselves were in a creative and editorial quagmire that spawned many go-nowhere plotlines and character derailments, one could make the argument that at the time the series was in a few ways better than the majority of the comics, not counting the series’ watered-down adaptations of classic X-Men stories like The Dark Phoenix Saga and the original Proteus story (I can get leaving out the part where Proteus attempts to rape his mother while possessing the rotting corpse of his father, but did they really have to make him into just another troubled, misunderstood teen?). This episode did have its flaws, including some Belgium-sized plot holes like: 1) Did Reinhart just not know that Nightcrawler was living in the monastery all that time? I know the animation makes the monastery look like a palace, but come on, especially since it would have been hard to explain away the door that led to a fifteen-foot drop. 2) Why did he try to kill Gambit in the first place? Possibly he was actually aware that Nightcrawler was there all along and was trying to protect the monastery from the potential scandal, but none of this is ever made clear. 3) So Gambit and Rogue are not all that concerned that Reinhart tried to murder Gambit? Granted we don’t know if Reinhart is taken to jail or thrown out of the monastery or whatever, but it’s funny that the attempted murder is never brought up again. I guess the X-Men just take that kind of thing in stride. Despite all that, the episode actually holds up reasonably well, especially if you don’t focus on the contrived action aspect of the plot.
Of course, we’re not here to talk about plot holes, but about Wolverine’s conversion! Now naturally the whole episode will lead a bad taste in your mouth if you’re just opposed on principle to your entertainment proselytizing you. Also if you look at an interview about this episode with its writer Len Uhley it’s clear that the Powers That Be at FOX supported the episode’s message, good will that likely would not have been extended to, for example, an episode with Storm teaching someone about her vague New Age-y goddess worship religion. Still, this isn’t like Jack Chick or even like a Christian version of Captain Planet, and the episode manages to do surprisingly well with the issue of religion…until the last scene, but I’ll get to my issues with that in a minute. Even if you object to the content, for a Saturday morning action cartoon the episode does take a somewhat mature if too fleeting look at what’s its like to have bigotry and violence sour one on the whole idea of religion, and to have another person overcome such experiences through some kind of faith. Now because of the limits of the medium they can only depict these ideas with the broadest strokes, and even with the carte blanche the showrunners were apparently granted it still seems like they couldn’t get perfectly explicit (that Jesus guy is never mentioned, although Nightcrawler does get to mention the idea of original sin, and Wolverine never comes across as a bona fide atheist), but still it is heavy stuff for a cartoon run at a time when, say, Nintendo of America turned all the churches in Final Fantasy into “clinics” (leading to the nonsensical plot point where a vampire went out of its way to burn down a clinic, but I digress).
First, let me say that while I didn’t have problems with the episode itself being overtly Christian-y, I did take issue with the fact that the message did force both Nightcrawler and Wolverine to act wildly out of character and being reduced to mouthpieces. Now I know it’s not easy to get any message across in a half-hour TV show, especially one as heavily under the scrutiny of censors and watchdog groups as shows ostensibly for children, but was it really necessary to have Wolverine act like a 17-year old who just read The God Delusion for the first time? One monk brings up God, and Wolverine gets all sarcastic as if he felt provoked that God of all things gets mentioned in a monastery. Just in general Wolverine’s whole attitude to Nightcrawler doesn’t ring true to the character; not only how he’s depicted in the comics, but in at least a couple of other episodes of the show as well. Yes, Wolverine is someone who has been turned into a hard-edged cynic by experiencing first-hand more than a century’s worth of fighting, suffering, and atrocities, but his long life and being involved in just about every major conflict in the twentieth century has also made him exceptionally open to other cultures and points of view, best shown by his total immersion in Japanese culture. So the bottom line is that the episode does work with Wolverine having a grudge against the Christian God, but it doesn’t ring true at all in how Wolverine expresses it. In fact, I finished the episode wondering why the writer didn’t just use Gambit, who would have had Wolverine’s skepticism and anger but not his worldliness, and leave Wolverine out of the story entirely. I guess having Canada’s favorite native one-man army open his heart to Jesus is much more impressive than doing the same with freakin’ Gambit, but still…
That said, how the episode distorts Wolverine isn’t quite as bad as what happens with Nightcrawler, who is unrecognizable compared to his comics counterpart. Here Nightcrawler is a soft-spoken, pure pacifist, whose every other line of dialogue is a Christian adage about love and peace. In the comics, Nightcrawler is someone who coped with his monstrous looks through not only his Catholicism, but by developing a romantic, flirtatious, devil-may-care persona. You do get one small hint of this when Nightcrawler addresses Rogue as Fräulein as he kisses her (gloved) hand, but it’s passing. To put it another way, Nightcrawler’s faith is just one facet to his character; there are other things he can talk about! In sum, in the comics he’s like most real-life Christians (and Muslims, and Hindus, and Wiccans, and etc., etc., for that matter).
The lack of subtlety, while understandable, really comes to a head in the last scene with Wolverine kneeling in the Church. I know it’s meant to be a shocker, and it’s definitely the one image that caused me to even remember that this episode existed. Still, from a creative perspective, it’s a little too on-the-nose. Plus it reminds me a bit too much of those unlicensed “Calvin and Hobbes” prints that show Calvin kneeling before a cross. It all just screams: “Look, kids, even your favorite rebel without a cause kneels before God!” The problem is just as in his fictional universe Calvin, whether or not the reader chooses to believe that he’s saved, will forever torment his teachers, parents, and Suzie, Wolverine will only keep killing busloads of people (or, in the animated series’ case, really enjoying lots of bloodless violence). It doesn’t speak well of the transformative power of the Bible, you know? Regardless, it’s still a lot of fun to imagine what Wolverine would sound like in confession:
Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. I have killed 67 ninjas and dismembered 24 others. Also I have lusted after Scott Summers’ undead wife in my heart and I slept with Ms. Marvel yet again. Oh, and does killing an army of Skrulls count as a sin since they’re aliens?