Trying to follow in the footsteps of a talented predecessor is never easy. Following two talented predecessors? That can be nerve-racking for someone not completely sure of their place in the role. Just ask Nightcrawler who became leader of the X-Men when Storm left to find herself just after the loss of his powers.
When Storm took over the team from Cyclops after the Dark Phoenix Saga, she immediately took to it with confidence. True, she was dealing with a heavy internal conflict due to her changing mentality amongst the X-Men, but when it came to her command decisions and keeping the respect of her team, Storm commanded authority and showed little if any weakness. Even when Cyclops returned, Storm did not take his unsure status with his role on the team lightly, which ultimately led her to push him out of his leadership role and ultimately away from the team (which we will cover next time).
But when the role came onto Nightcrawler, he was unsure of his command decisions, constantly double guessed himself and repeatedly compared his actions to his predecessors, asking himself what they would do in his place.
But it’s not like Nightcrawler was a BAD leader – he just had the role with a lot of factors going against him. For starters, Professor X had regained the use of his legs and was insistent on having an active role on the team. The other X-Men, mainly Storm and Wolverine, were against the idea thinking of Xavier wanting to play the typical superhero instead of keeping his regular support role, having been forced into it for so long. Xavier didn’t take the backup spot too well and still saw himself as a leader, giving the X-Men conflicting authority figures – should Nightcrawler and Xavier give opposite orders, which should the team follow? The similar situation had arisen between Storm and Cyclops, but Nightcrawler lacked Storm’s confidence to assert his authority as she had, and even Cyclops had over Xavier in the past.
Second, Nightcrawler’s tenure came in perhaps the lowest PR point of the X-Men had found themselves in, and perhaps the worst they would have until Onslaught killed the Marvel U’s non-mutant heroes. Already at odds with the government for harboring the former terrorist Rogue and further sullied by the government’s hiring of the former Brotherhood members as Freedom Force, the X-Men were officially branded outlaws when they seemingly attacked a government base without provocation.
In reality, the move had been done as a rescue mission to save their former teammate Banshee who had been kidnapped by the Hellion Thunderbird (the future Warpath) in an effort to avenge the death of his brother. The X-Men had gone in to save him quietly, but the meddling of Hellions Empath and Roulette alerted the authorities and made the X-Men seem like terrorists. The X-Men made it out with Banshee alive, but their reputation had been ruined. Nightcrawler blamed the botched mission on his leadership, and gladly returned the role to Storm upon her return.
But removing the burden of leadership did not free Nightcrawler of his feelings of worthlessness, and when the Beyonder summoned the X-Men to him during Secret Wars II, Nightcrawler was left behind. Now downright sullen, he tried to find comfort in his girlfriend Amanda Sefton, but ultimately lashed out at her and ended their relationship for some time. He had a brief return to form when he managed to save a socialite and Eastern European heiress from Arcade and Murderworld, but the newfound happiness was not to last as he was critically injured in the X-Men’s fight against Nimrod, costing him his ability to teleport without the greatest of strain.
He only made it back to the team for two more issues before he went down during the Mutant Massacre and would not return to the team for over a decade.
The entire process was a huge change for Nightcrawler, and defined his role in the swift change in the team leading from the departure of Professor X to the darkening of days leading to the Massacre and beyond. But bouncing back from it led to the resurgence of his swashbuckling bravado sense and to his spot on the far happier Excalibur, a place that he was meant to be in during that period.
It was an excellent character journey, and it’s one more reason Chris Claremont is awesome.