Picking a list of favorite X-Men is next to impossible. There are so many wildly diverse characters spanning over the past fifty plus years and almost all of them have been given at least one great, defining story. Some of them have been given countless great, defining stories. If you’re like me and you grew up reading the comics, watching the animated series and even playing the impossibly hard Sega Genesis game—in other words, if X-Men is baked into your very being—then you know how daunting picking a select few favorites can be. And yet, it’s weirdly possible. Everyone has those characters they just respond to, for a variety of different reasons, and who remain favorites over years and years.
Sometimes those faves never change. Many of the characters on this list were childhood heroes who never stopped being such. Other childhood favorites, on the other hand, just went off the deep end and got harder and harder to like (here’s looking at you, specifically, Havok) and at the same time, characters you didn’t relate to as much as a kid could become absolute favorites the more you read. There are things you can’t relate to as much when you’re younger that might absolutely strike a chord when you’re an adult. Or even a teenager.
This list contains all the above and then some. It’s a really specific and completely personal list. This is not me picking the “Best X-Men of All Time” because I’m absolutely not about to run an X-Men list with “best” in the title when it doesn’t have Wolverine anywhere on it. Not today, Internet.
With that in mind here are my personal picks for the greatest X-Men we’ve ever been gifted, youngsters.
Let’s cover this one right off the bat. Dazzler is still culturally seen as a joke character. People hate her, more often than not, they dismiss her as a ridiculous gimmick. And she was created as a gimmick, for sure. Part comic book deal, part movie deal, part record deal, it’s an admittedly weird amalgamation. But it gave us a character with an utterly unique perspective. On the comics page, we got to watch Alison Blaire go from a struggling singer playing dive bars to a legitimate pop icon. Being a superhero was always more of a duty than a passion for her. Music was the first love and it has always been a huge part of her life. No other X-Men has to deal with being an internationally recognized celebrity, but Dazzler does.
One of my favorite things in any Marvel comic is to see references to Dazzler in the background, be it posters or albums or even seeing characters either listening to or discussing her work. She has fans ranging from Moon Knight to Juggernaut, and I think that’s fantastic.
There is, admittedly, a cringey part of Psylocke’s backstory in that she’s basically a white woman’s mind in an Asian woman’s body in a very uncomfortable Get Out kind of way. That’s not so great. But Betsy Braddock is a great character. Hard-edged, determined but with a genuine softness and a deep empathy, proving that a character doesn’t have to be a hardass all the time. She’s anything but one note and when she’s written well, she’s always fantastic to read. Psylocke also nicely steps around being “just another psychic character” because of her weirdly specific ability to turn psychic energy into psionic weapons, usually in the form of her iconic dagger, though she’s branched out in recent years.
Reading the Claremont & Jim Lee issues in the ‘90s, the thing that struck out most to me was how much of an outcast Psylocke was, even among a team of outcasts. She didn’t have any close friends on the team, she didn’t necessarily have anyone’s trust, and the more I think about that, the more I think it was a clever callback—whether intentional or not—to when Wolverine first joined the team.
I love Warren Worthington as Angel, and maybe it’s just the ‘90s in me, but I really loved when he became Archangel. It was one of my favorite storylines on X-Men the Animated Series and as goofy and bizarrely plotted as it is, it’s still one of my favorite X-Men stories on the page. Here’s a man who supposedly died, who was abandoned by the people he loved, who turned to Apocalypse not to cure himself as in the cartoon but to literally do the opposite, hoping to fix his damaged wings to restore himself to his former glory. And instead, a vain millionaire found himself utterly transformed. Warren had never really had an arch-enemy before that, but Apocalypse certainly went out of his way to fit the bill.
I also loved the relationship between Warren and Psylocke after his transformation into Archangel and I still sometimes relate those two characters together in my mind. And as an avid fan of the two of them together I did eventually understand why they didn’t work, as they’re both too similar and too different to be a healthy couple. But even when Archangel was revealed as a separate personality inside Warren, leading to a Buffy-esque plot in which Betsy was forced to sacrifice him, the emotional rawness of it was so strong that it was hard not to love. Plus that original blue/pink Archangel costume is so cool and unique.
Another one of the original five X-Men, Iceman has changed a lot over the years, but all of it has led him toward becoming a clearer and more comfortable version of himself. Bobby Drake has had a lot of mental roadblocks holding him back over the years, largely thanks to his tumultuous relationship with his father. The fact that Bobby came to terms with his sexuality a few years back is only one great example of this—especially since that had been teased but never confirmed several times over the years. There’s also the fact that Iceman was revealed to be an Omega-Level mutant without ever really realizing it.
Bobby’s always had an air of self-confidence, especially in the early days, that was far from sincere and just about everyone around him would point it out. For the most part, when he was being earnest, he would build up the strength of the people around him without much acknowledging his own. It made perfect sense for him to not actually realize just how strong he truly was simply because he never let himself believe that. And to see him embracing all of these aspects of himself more and more over time is truly great to see.
It says a lot that nearly all of the original X-Men make this list. There’s something about that original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby lineup that was just lightning in a bottle. This is a fantastic assortment of characters. They’re incredibly different people and yet they all balance each other out so perfectly. All five of them have changed so much over the years and Beast is without a doubt the perfect example of that. First, there’s the fact that he’s completely physically unrecognizable from who he was when the X-Men first came together. This was certainly part of the reason for bringing the first five into the present in the pages of All-New X-Men.
But that’s not the only difference. When he was first created, Beast was kind of a jokey brute, not someone you’d think of as the smartest guy in the room. His comfort in showing that side of himself grew over time. Over the past fifteen years or so, Beast has become more anxious about his continued devolution into a more animalistic form—something that’s kind of been dropped recently—and I love that there’s a sadness to his character for what he’s lost that he tries to keep the others from seeing. He’s envious when the mutant cure is revealed and it clearly takes everything for him to pretend to not to want it for himself, which is its own strength, in a way.
Many of the X-Men come from broken homes, or were just kicked out in general when their parents found out they were a mutant. Some were living on the street. That’s what separates Colossus from the other X-Men more than anything else. He had a loving and supportive family and he was genuinely happy at home before Professor X came knocking on his door. Being an X-Man probably made his life a lot worse, but it was a choice he made to do something with his gifts, to use his strength to fight for mutantkind, potentially giving up his own chances for happiness in the process. Colossus has always been the guy who would sacrifice everything for the team. The most staunchly moral member of the X-Men at the time, he sacrificed his own personal beliefs about violence when he realized only he had the power to kill Proteus. He sacrificed his own life to stop the Legacy Virus.
It’s unfortunate, perhaps, that Colossus’ defining trait is that he gives everything he has and usually gets nothing in return. But that’s part of what makes him so compelling. He’s a shiny, organic steel boy scout, basically a Russian Superman, which the Deadpool movies have been smart enough to lean into.
If there’s any tragedy to Jewish Icon Kitty Pryde, it’s that Marvel intervened early on to stop her from becoming Gay Jewish Icon Kitty Pryde. Chris Claremont had, in the beginning, planned for her crush on Colossus to be nothing more than a crush, obviously, because the age difference was so gross. Piotr’s younger sister, Illyana, was Kitty’s best friend and also age-appropriate, and Illyana was meant to be the love of Kitty’s life, but that just didn’t fly with Marvel at the time, so the icky romance was green lit. Still, Kitty’s never not been a great character, even when she’s done stupid things. She was a perfect entry point for kids reading X-Men in the ‘80s because so many of them were around her age, watching this girl from a boring, middle class family finally get to pal around with superheroes.
Over time, she’s grown into a resourceful, powerful woman and it’s one of the best full circle arcs to see a student who wasn’t afraid to call Professor X a jerk become the headmistress of the school itself. She started out as a constant underdog, but now nobody doubts that she means business, and that’s a testament to her growth over the past thirty years.
I’ll admit that as a kid watching X-Men, Storm was a little much for me. Her powers were amazing and I was never not awed by them. But her presence was so commanding that it was almost jarring, every line she delivered was operatic and intense, her voice booming with every word. On the comics page, I started to get a bit more of a feel for her. And there were two comics in particular that made me absolutely fall in love with her character. The first was a reprinted classic X-Men issue introducing the Morlocks—which I had already seen adapted into an episode of the cartoon at this point—in which Storm fights Callisto in an almost completely silent brawl.
The other comic was a similar situation in which Storm, without her powers, fought Cyclops (at full power) for the right to lead the X-Men and won. That’s a defining moment for her, but every aspect of her character from her childhood as a thief on the streets of Cairo, to being worshipped as a goddess, her claustrophobia, her punk phase, all of it is a perfect representation of one of the most layered and fully-developed X-Men ever. She’s one of the greats, and there are too many reasons to count as to why.
As a kid, I never really loved Jean. I never got her. I would be stunned to see Jean make my list of top favorite X-Men ever as an adult. But she’s truly one of the best. The more I go back and read some of those seminal Claremont stories, the more I’m stunned I didn’t see that when I was younger. Take Dark Phoenix for example. That’s a great, operatic story because it gives her a tragic downfall, a loss of control, without ever losing sight of her as a protagonist. It’s not at all about Jean needing to be “put down.” It’s completely the opposite of that. That whole story is about building this character toward a moment of self-sacrifice. The X-Men are ready to fight a totally losing battle to keep her alive, and she’s the one who makes the decision to die to save the universe.
From the beginning, Jean’s whole life was kind of defined by various people—usually men—wanting to use her immense power for their own benefit. People always attempted to manipulate her. And it’s always because they’re either in awe of or repulsed by the fact that she has more power than they do. Or it’s a mix of both. But she’d rather die and she often has, yet she’s still standing.
Nightcrawler has always been my favorite X-Man since childhood and he probably always will be. He’s kind of the perfect representation of the X-Men as a concept. He looks different. To most, he looks demonic and even Kitty as a teammate was frightened by his appearance for a long time. And yet he’s one of the kindest, most gentle and supportive X-Men ever. He’s much more than the surface Marvel gimmick of a Catholic who looks like a demon. Kurt’s faith is important to him, to be sure, but there are so many other fascinatingly diverse elements of him that make him impossible not to love. He’s a jokester, a prankster, a swashbuckler. His love of swordplay and old-fashioned adventure stories is one of the best quirks of any Marvel character.
Cautious as I might be about the film, seeing even the slightest glimpse of Nightcrawler wielding a sword in the latest Dark Phoenix trailer made me so excited because that’s something I relate so deeply to the core of that character. Even if that doesn’t get prominently featured in the movie, he’s still one of the most integral X-Men ever, as quirky and weird as he is passionate and sincere.