I was so enamored just to have an X-Men movie when that first film hit that I didn’t just devour every bit of merchandise, I ate every little scrap of a reference or Easter Egg that the movie had to offer. I didn’t care if a favorite character was only in it for five seconds because I had waited so long to see any of this on screen for the first time. I loved every single cameo. I couldn’t get enough of it. But my favorite cameo in the original X-Men and the one that I expected the least, even at age eleven, was the appearance of Pyro. I was a big, big fan of that character as a kid. I loved his appearances on X-Men: The Animated Series and the action figure was the number one toy I always looked for in stores but never seemed to find.
Seeing him in that brief scene, using his powers of fire manipulation in one moment before being referred to by name, it’s a little by-the-numbers now but it genuinely floored me as a kid. But not as much as the reveal that he would actually be a major character in the sequel, X2. This time he was played by Aaron Stanford, but he wound up becoming one of my favorite parts of what would already be one of my favorite movies of the entire X-Men franchise.
When we’re first introduced to Pyro in X2, he’s really coming off as an asshole, an annoying kid that Bobby and Rogue hang around with even though they don’t seem like they particularly like him that much. He’s the kind of person who always acts out, who always gets them into trouble and I think that actually does a great job of setting up who this character is. It’s not just that he’s a teenage prick who wants attention, it’s the idea of someone who needs to even act out at a school like Xavier’s. This is as safe a place as he could find, as likeminded a group of teens could possibly be, everyone there has shared experiences so what’s happening in this scene is that we’re clearly seeing someone for whom all of that just isn’t enough.
There’s enough in this one scene, of Pyro being a dick and causing a fire and Iceman having to stand up and put it out, to tell us that this is someone who still doesn’t fit in. That this guy is an outcast among outcasts, and I think that’s the whole point.
Pyro has a huge chip on his shoulder, that much is clear, but he’s also a character who’s missing something. The film does a great job of expressing this. For every dry, sarcastic comment that he makes, it’s clear that Pyro’s searching for something that he’s just not finding with his fellow students at the Xavier school. And that thing, for the most part, is family.
There’s such a huge element of found family to not only the X-Men movies but the comics in general, that it’s actually kind of nice to see a character like Pyro as a counterbalance to that. Everyone around him feels at home, like they’ve found their place, they’ve been completed and it all can only make him feel like that much more of an alien. He doesn’t feel the way they feel in large part because he clearly just doesn’t subscribe to Xavier’s goal of mutant and human coexistence. From pretty much the moment we’re introduced to him, it’s clear he’s much too cynical for that. But even in little moments, it’s definitely something he’s struggling with throughout the entirety of X2.
This is so perfectly embodied when Wolverine, Rogue, Iceman and Pyro retreat to Iceman’s house and meet his family. Bobby’s vaguely mentioned his family before this, noting that they thought he was attending a prep school as he had not yet come out to them as being a mutant. After all of the intensity of the military invasion of the school, this sequence (at first) provides a much needed breather. It’s a pretty quiet scene as they wait to hear back from Storm and Jean so they can get out of this awkward family business as Iceman attempts to come out to his parents. But there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on during this portion of the movie, and one of my favorite quiet moments is just a scene of Pyro looking at the Drake family portrait. Probably because he’s by himself, it’s really the first time he looks vulnerable throughout the whole movie.
It tells us everything we need to know about this character. This is someone who has never had a family, especially not the kind of suburban upper-middle class family that Bobby has. But it also tells us that this is someone who wants that very badly, and that a lot of his antagonistic relationship with Bobby stems from the fact that he really wants what Bobby has, or has at least grown up with. And it’s sad, because it means that he can’t even see that this is not what it’s cracked up to be, that Bobby’s home life is far from perfect as his parents don’t even accept him for who he is and pretty much create and environment that he can never return to.
Once the scene escalates to the point of Bobby’s little brother calling the police, that’s when Pyro truly comes into his own. It’s such a powerful moment, not just because it leads to an unexpected action sequence. This is the moment for Pyro and it’s executed so well. Every single person around him is complying when the officers start demanding them to get on the ground. Pyro sees it and recognizes that that’s what he should be doing. But you can see the hesitation, you can see what he should do versus what he wants to do. And in a single moment, with one line, he makes a clear choice as to exactly the kind of person he is going to be.
“You know all those dangerous mutants you hear about on the news? I’m the worst one.”
It speaks to his rebellious, anarchistic side, but it leans into it so much more and that’s the whole point. This is Pyro making a choice to embrace all of the aspects of himself he is so often—even in the confines of this movie—told not to embrace. At this point, we’ve seen a spark here, a dancing flame there. Because that’s Pyro restraining himself, that’s him complying with the rules that have been laid out before him, to not cause destruction in public, to not strike back at humanity and to essentially just not make a scene.
As soon as he makes the decision not to listen to that anymore, it’s like watching shackles fall off his wrist. He brings a firestorm down on those cops and it’s a display of power so far beyond anything we’d seen from him yet because he’d been holding himself back on a level even the characters around him probably didn’t realize, let alone the audience. This whole arc, in general, just feels like smart world expansion after the first movie, having seen the X-Men and the Brotherhood of Mutants and seen what they both stand for. It only makes sense after that to speculate on what it would look like if someone with the leanings and beliefs of the Brotherhood attended Xavier’s school and X2 allows us to see the process of that realization.
Even Pyro, who is not remotely as main a protagonist or antagonist in X2 as characters like Wolverine, Jean and Professor X, gets to have a clearly defined arc. He’s someone who doesn’t belong even at a school for people who don’t belong, who is searching for family and just not finding it, and then finally gets to have that as soon as he meets Magneto. Pyro’s really the only one not afraid to approach Magneto, when they first meet on the Blackbird. And the two of them hit it off immediately. They just take to each other as soon as they start talking, and there’s a look on Pyro’s face—after he introduces himself as John—that in an instant makes it clear that he’s found what he was looking for, that he’s met someone who gets him, when Magneto says, “What’s your real name, John?”
What’s even greater about Pyro’s arc in X2 is that it’s not necessarily played as antagonistic. On paper it should be and in a lesser comic book movie it would be, because that’s usually how it goes. A character who is sided with the heroes realizes that he doesn’t agree with any of this and defects to the other side, but that’s not what happens here at all. Pyro’s arc is all about realizing that he doesn’t want to fit in with the X-Men, it’s about him realizing he belongs with Magneto and the movie allows him to have that. There’s no big fight, there’s no comeuppance, there’s no mustache-twirling double-cross. There’s just “this is what he’s looking for” and “this is how he finds it.”
In X-Men: The Last Stand, Pyro is even more of an asshole because he’s now allowed to embrace all of these aspects of himself that he had to repress as a student of Xavier’s. Despite being in the film a little longer, he doesn’t have quite as much to do in the movie, but that doesn’t mean he has nothing. There’s still a lot going on with his character. In X2, he was a lonely kid searching for his family. In The Last Stand, Pyro’s not only able to be more of himself than he’s ever been, but he’s also fighting to keep his place in that family. He’s Magneto’s right hand guy, especially after Mystique is written out of the film. But there’s a huge sense that he’s a little overeager as well. It makes sense, too. Now that he’s found a father figure who accepts and encourages him, every single thing he does throughout the movie is solely to make that father figure proud. He jumps at any chance to look good in Magneto’s eyes, even when he’s already there.
He even jumps on those moments when he shouldn’t. After Magneto casually reminds him of his time at the school, Pyro doubles down way too hard in an effort to show his loyalty by saying “I even would have killed the Professor if you’d given me the chance,” which obviously is not something Magneto would ever want to hear and for that matter probably not something Pyro would even actually do. There’s a heavy need to prove that he’s on Magneto’s side about everything and it’s as much out of love as it is out of fear by the end of the film.
Keeping in mind that Pyro was never really an antagonist in X2, for all his villainous antics in The Last Stand, it does let us hold onto some of his more sensitive and relatable qualities. While not as powerful as the scene of Pyro looking at Iceman’s family portrait, The Last Stand does have a moment after Mystique is injected with the cure where Pyro looks absolutely horrified and even disgusted by Magneto’s immediate decision to leave her behind as if she was disposable all along. For that matter, he kind of represents the audience in that scene as well. This scene helps us remember that Pyro is still human, that he still has some kind of moral center, despite his chaotic and destructive nature. But it’s also a moment that shows him to be a little afraid of Magneto, which has to inform how eager he is to stay in Magneto’s good graces as he certainly wouldn’t want to meet a similar fate. It’s a little sad, in that regard. Even though he turned to the dark side, so to speak, X2 showed Pyro moving onto an environment that was entirely supportive, but in The Last Stand is depicted as a little less so.
Now that they’re on opposing sides, Pyro’s relationship with Iceman becomes one of the most interesting things about The Last Stand. When they were both students and friends, Pyro was jealous of Iceman because of the family and structure he assumed him to have. Now that he’s with Magneto, Iceman represents everything he hates about the person he used to be. A lot of that language about how weak Iceman is could easily be directed at himself for how long he stayed at the school even though he knew he didn’t agree with it and how he let himself be restrained from becoming the person he wanted to be. He even uses what he learned in X2 to kind of bully Iceman, or at least get under his skin by saying, “You need a cure so you can run back home to mommy and daddy?” when he sees Iceman standing outside the center to get a shot for the Mutant Cure.
What makes the rivalry between Pyro and Iceman interesting, even though it’s not nearly as explored as it should be, is the fact that they’re not just opposing power sets, or that they have different personalities and beliefs, it’s that each of them sees everything they hate about themselves somewhat reflected in the other. Pyro sees someone who is weak and allows himself to be manipulated, which he himself kind of is manipulated to some extent by Magneto. Iceman sees Pyro as a loner, as someone who’s isolated himself from everyone around him and that’s important to note considering that he lost all ties to his family in the previous movie and loses his relationship with Rogue in this one.
In the end, Iceman emerges victorious from their fight and ices up for the first time, taking Pyro out with a single headbutt. Disappointingly, the character’s never seen again after that. That’s too bad, too. With so much of the original cast returning for Days of Future Past, it would have been nice to see Pyro in there by Magneto’s side, or even by Iceman’s as they could have had so much time to patch things up especially in a horrible future where personal vendettas appear to be cast aside for the sake of survival.
Obviously, X2 is a better film than The Last Stand, but I was admittedly very excited for a longtime Pyro fan to see the blond hair and wrist mounted flamethrower in the latter sequel. Even if he didn’t have the accent, that felt like it started to reflect the comic character for me.
While his arc only got to play out over the course of two movies, it’s still one of the more interesting and unfortunately forgotten character arcs of the X-Men films. Pyro was easily one of my favorite parts of that initial trilogy and as the cinematic franchise wraps up with Dark Phoenix, I think it’s worth remembering the original cinematic X-Man who gave into his fiery impulses.