One of the great things about the new movie X-Men: First Class is that the story deftly engages in what I call, for lack of a better term, Mutant-Power Chess. Always a hallmark of good X-Men stories, MPC not only made for unpredictable plot twists and surprising victories, I’m sure it was key to Chris Claremont’s decades-long tenure as the writer of Uncanny X-Men. I’m sure of this because other aspects of Claremont’s writing could get pretty tiresome: every character in every story unleashing his or her canned phrase(s) such as “I’m the best at what I do, and what I do ain’t pretty” (Wolverine) or tidbits of other languages like “Mein Gott!” (Nightcrawler’s German) or “Bozshe moi!” (Colossus’s Russian). All this was pretty cool the first few times, and it’s how Claremont made most every issue accessible to new readers, but after years and years it did tend to make for stereotypical characters and predictable exposition. Still, it was the most successful franchise in comics for most of my youth, because Claremont and his artists overcame these weaknesses with raw inventiveness. Tons of mutants, many cool powers, excursions to alien planets, foreign countries, magic(k), technology—and of course, Mutant-Power Chess.
Mutant-Power Chess takes place in struggles between multiple mutants, and it is of course that special ingredient that made the X-Men, as a team, greater than they could be as a sum of individuals. They could augment each other in surprising ways and new combinations. Two factors made the X-Men champs of this complementary meshing: training together in the Danger Room, and the constant leadership by telepathic link—if not Professor X, then Jean Grey or Cyclops-via-Emma-Frost, or whoever. You pretty much gotta have a telepath.
Sure, other super teams work together: in the Fantastic Four, Sue is always making protective shield bubbles for the others, and Reed always has to hammock out to catch an extinguished Human Torch; Cap leads the Avengers with smart tactics, and maybe Iron Man figures out how to recharge with some of Thor’s lightning; the Justice League does whatever they do, which is pray to hell that Superman doesn’t get kryptonited while leaving Batman alone so he can come up with the kill-stroke plan. Actually, I have no idea how the Justice League operates, except for Wonder Twin powers, which are actually pretty analogous to Mutant-Power Chess: turn into a pail of water while your buddy turns into an eagle to carry the pail.
The simplest Mutant Chess tactics (Mutant Checkers?) were habitual and commonplace. Very few missions went by without Nightcrawler teleporting someone to safety, or Shadowcat phasing someone through a bunker wall. The name-brand move in my X-Men reading days (Claremont/Byrne, Claremont/Romita Jr.) was the “Fastball Special,” where Wolverine was thrown by Colossus so he could poke something extra hard while overcoming his usual lack of flight. The Fastball Special was extra cool if done while Wolverine was smoking a cigar or eating a banana. This was also the golden age of Rogue, a relatively new character at the time. Since Rogue’s power is to borrow other mutant powers, she often slurped up friend or foe to become a mega-mishmash of punching, flying, zapping, and talking like a waitress from Biloxi, Mississippi, sugah. She could have anything but Wolverine’s claws, which were non-transferable (aspects of a modified human, not a mutant talent). Although she was a favorite angsty character of mine in my angsty teenishness, wadding everything onto Rogue is pretty easy as a plot device*, so it’s another example of Mutant Checkers, maybe even Rock-Paper-Scissors**. Rogue-A-Plenty was great fun for the artists, though: build a hot chick out of organic steel, a blue devil tail, striped hair, marshmallows and whatnot, and have her finally trash Nimrod the super Sentinel. A power like Rogue’s, however, can be key to a good game of Mutant Chess. It was used cleverly in the first X-Men movie to fix her own grievous injuries by borrowing Wolverine’s healing factor.
So, the full-blown Mutant Chess game must be built on several mutant powers interacting in surprising synergy. Of course this is just a manifestation of the writer’s creative complexity, so it might be a multi-tiered process, or it may just be a really surprising use of a superpower***, or both. Again, any super-team tales require teamwork, but many times you just see heroes and villains pair off in combos like Strong Guy vs Tough Guy, Fire Guy vs. Ice Lady, or Grippy Guy vs Slippery Sir. Such counterpart scenarios are often resolved by swapping partners square-dance style, at which point we learn that Slippery Sir is greasy, thus highly flammable, etc.
Among X-Men stories, seemingly unstoppable foes tend to require complex battle tactics comparable to chess—different players move differently, have different vulnerabilities. Professor X is very like a king in that his crippled body limits his movement, but all the other pieces revolve around him, and are lost without him. Wolverine is very like a queen, in that he becomes the versatile favorite of most writers as well as fans, doing the lion’s share of the killing. Lesser characters, like pawns, fall and become guilt for the heroes, or rage for the villains. Juggernaut takedowns tend to accumulate the critical mass desired for a cool fight, which must be navigated with care, like ferrying a fox, a goose, and a sack of grain across a river two at a time. The foe is stronger than any X-Man, impervious to attack, and immune to psychic control. It takes no fewer than three mutant powers to beat him, and in the right order: Colossus to wrestle him while Wolverine pops the rivets on his helmet, thus opening him up to Professor X’s mind control.
Such is the challenge in First Class: Sebastian Shaw, who can absorb and redirect any energy, even nuclear, is the villain, and he’s already assembled a team of evil mutants who know what they’re doing and have a telepath of their own. You know you’re in trouble when the enemy has an evil red Nightcrawler who slaughters people wholesale by teleporting them into the sky and dropping them: elegantly brutal, plus kind of fun if you hate people. Shaw also has an anti-telepathy helmet, so there’s no easy out by way of Professor X. Every teammate’s power plays a role, even that usually dispensable bozo, Banshee. In the end, Shaw is executed in the grimmest of poetic justice, not just by Magneto’s “bullet,” but by Xavier’s psychic shackles. Most dreadful and fascinating of all, the low velocity of the kill—sidestepping kinetic energy that could feed Shaw’s power—that final inexorable sliding into checkmate.
*Not to mention that it violates one of the premises of the X-Men: mutant talents are inborn, but are controlled and optimized through discipline, experience, concentration, mental focus, and self-control. Rogue should not be able to do much with other people’s powers other than blow her own mind, but in most stories she used them as skillfully as the rightful owners did. To be fair, stolen powers did sometimes backfire on Rogue, or overload her.
**Examples of Rock-Paper-Scissors include: kryptonite beats Superman, Spidey's mockery beats Doc Ock's fragile self-esteem, and Galactus beats Aunt May. Yes, this last one is ripe for a No-Prize, True Believers!
***In the “surprising use of a superpower” category, it is impossible to beat the speculation of the mad genius Alejandro Jodorowsky, who once fantasized about having Mr. Fantastic’s powers for purposes of sex with his wife, The Invisible Woman. He went well beyond the obviously juvenile, proposing the most ecstatically profane intercourse of all time: penetration throughout the circulatory system, leading to ejaculation within the woman’s beating heart. Factor in her variable transparency, and that’s a superpower checkmate if I ever heard one.