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Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Comics Rainbow - Weapon X

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The time has finally come to dig into one of the most labyrinthine elements of mainstream comics- Weapon X.  In reality it’s actually just a smaller component of the much larger and even more complex labyrinth that is X-Men continuity, but I’m not ready to take on that behemoth yet.  While the codename o Weapon X is somewhat hard to pin down, the concept of Weapon X as a secret program to enhance mutant ability first entered Marvel continuity in 1991.  

Despite how recent that is, Weapon X has forever been the subject of countless revisions, retcons, and reboots during the near 30 years of origin exploring Wolverine’s gotten up to.  In that time, the program has changed name, expanded, contracted, and added a slew of other characters as part of its vast roster and today I’m giving the full list of Weapon X’s various members. 

John Wraith, codenamed Kestrel for no apparent reason, is something of an oddity for the “most hated” spot.  There’s actually nothing in his rather limited slew of comic book appearances that would warrant any amount of hate, largely because he’s just not that present as a character.  He was part of something called Team-X, a black ops unit of mutants run by the US government.  

Get used to that basic idea incidentally, and the weird dissonance of Wolverine ending up a US secret weapon all the time despite being from Canada.  In any event, Team-X was basically the first confirmation that Weapon X extended beyond Logan and even tied him to his archenemy Sabretooth.  If you remember Wolverine: Origins at all, you’ll remember there was a version of this team in that.

Speaking of Origins: Wolverine, that movie is the main reason people kind of hate Wraith now.  While he only served as a bit player in the books, in the film he became more of a tagalong sidekick to Wolverine and was played, poorly, by Will.I.Am of Black Eyed Peas fame.  

I seriously have no idea who thought Will.I.Am needed to be in the X-Men movies, but it was a bad idea regardless.  With Wraith’s limited comic presence, the film version became the more or less definitive version of the character and pretty much killed all audience interest in John Wraith despite his cool teleporting powers. 

X-23 is an interesting example of one of the few times in comics where straightforward and clear prevailed over complicated and unrewarding.  She was initially conceived of just a female version of Wolverine, and her origin is literally just that: a bunch of the generals and scientists decided to make a clone of Wolverine but change its gender.  

They’ve tried to muddy this up with convoluted motivations and conspiracies within conspiracies as it seems to be Marvel gospel that no one should ever be able to identify the head of the program but none of it’s really stuck.  Any time X-23 gets embroiled in exploring her origins it basically ends up swept from memory like you can pick up her new comic where she’s Wolverine without needing to know ANYTHING about her back-story. 

A lot of the reason for the confusion with her origin is that she originated in the X-Men: Evolution TV show, where she proved very popular.  As such, bringing her into the main universe required a lot of retconning as to the nature of the Weapon-X program, especially given by this point it’d already underwent 10 years of retconning at least.  

I’ll get into this more later, but at this point the program had been redubbed Weapons Plus, with the idea being that Wolverine wasn’t Weapon X but rather Weapon 10, using Roman numerals.  Seriously, they’ve had to twist logic into a pretzel only to explain why X-23 is working off of Arabic numerals instead of Roman ones for her experiment designation.  When I say “the details are unrewarding,” stuff like this is why. 

I feel like Sabretooth is a character everyone is aware of without knowing anything about.  We all know that he hates and fights Wolverine, that’s his thing, but aside from that and looking like a quasi-transformed werewolf I’m hard pressed to think of anything about Sabretooth that’s actually stuck.  As I’ve mentioned Wolverine’s undergone a ton of different origins and back-stories in the past 20 years, usually with Sabretooth getting dragged along for the ride.  

At first, they were just both members of Team-X with vague ties to the Weapon X program, later they were actually brothers, and for a time they both part of a subspecies of human that evolved from wolves.  I don’t think any of those explanations actually manage to make Sabretooth more interesting than he actually isn’t. 

Really what this boils down to is that Sabretooth is just interesting enough to provide a foil to Wolverine.  He’s got the healing factor and the animal claws so that he can actually fight Logan and the deep seated hatred to make them fight but that’s really all anyone wants from him.  What’s more, if you change those elements he pretty much stops being Sabretooth.  

There was a recent comic where Sabretooth became a good guy and joined a team of heroes trying to replace Wolverine, and while it was a quality book, he became such a different character it was hard to think of him AS Sabretooth.  Villains whose sole purpose in life is to hate the hero can work, but I’m hard pressed to say they work well, which is probably why Sabretooth has only made it into 2 X-Men films. 

Wolverine has worn a lot of hats in his long career- X-Men, samurai, Avenger, mob enforcer, horseman of Apocalypse, but I’d argue his most fundamental identity is that of Weapon X.  This is sort of a counter balance to Sabretooth in so much as Wolverine is a character defined as much by an absence of definition as by what we know.  

Like Sabretooth, his defining features are his powers and being angry at the whole damn world.  But, where Sabretooth’s hodgepodge of unclear and suggested origins only really serves to weigh him down, for Wolverine, it’s part of what keeps him interesting.  The big difference is in what the characters themselves know and what they do with that information.  It’s usually implied that Sabretooth knows a lot more than he says about him and Wolverine’s shared history and origin but all he ever does with that information is tease Wolverine- it’s a one trick pony. 

Wolverine, on the other hand, knows virtually nothing about his origin.  However, that absence ends up defining Wolverine more than anything else, it’s why “Wolverine searches for answers about Weapon-X” is such a fundamental cornerstone of his mythos.  He’s always searching for the identity he lost to the program, for some scrap of who he is OTHER than a mindless killing machine.  It’s one of the best and most under-appreciated parts of his character that Logan doesn’t want to be the Wolverine, it’s just all he’s been left with for now.  You wouldn’t have that level of identity and agency without the unsolvable mystery that is Weapon X. 

So, remember early when I mentioned Weapons Plus?  Well, meet that era’s greatest creation: Fantomex.  Fantomex was the vessel by which the entire Weapons Plus concept was introduced as part of a conscious effort by Marvel in the early 2000s to do a soft reboot of their X-Men comics.  Basically, the X-Men brand had been a huge seller in the ‘90s but also contributed to a lot of the speculative inflation that eventually led to Marvel’s bankruptcy in 1996.  After that disaster, Marvel decided a more stripped down aesthetic was warranted, especially after the X-Men movie helped pull their fat out of the fire.  The comic they got was a weird hodgepodge, and the Fantomex/Weapons Plus stuff is the weirdest part.

Like I said, the idea of Weapon’s Plus was that Wolverine was actually the 10th super soldier experiment the program had undertaken, but there was a bit more to it than that.  The idea was that the program leaders were trying to create a marketable super team of mutants to hunt and fight mutants.  Fantomex was intended to be the cool, sexy, French of the member of the team.  I have no idea how those things go together and the explanation of his powers, that he has a second brain in the form of an organic flying saucer, makes even less sense. 

Eventually, all that got swept away when Fantomex joined a revamped X-Force in the later 2000s.  This is where the character really came into his own mainly because they just dropped most of the prefab superhero/weapons plus stuff.  Instead, he just became a cool guy whose super power was being awesome.  I admit it’s very shallow as far as reasoning goes and a little Fantomex goes a long way, but he’s still a delight whenever he pops up, so long as we’re not exploring his origins. 

Where do I even begin with Maverick?  Real name David North, he was originally part of the Team-X group from the ‘90s that Wolverine was on with Sabretooth and John Wraith.  His power is that he can absorb and redirect kinetic energy, which is honestly one of the cooler powers out there so of course, they couldn’t leave it alone.  He gained a healing factor working for Weapon X but later lost all his super powers to the Legacy Virus, a deadly plague that targeted mutants.  

Eventually, he recovered and rejoined the Weapon X program where they gave him the power to spew corrosive acid that cannot be healed.  At this point, he changed his codename to Agent Zero and became a key pawn in the project’s plan to kill Wolverine.  Eventually, he lost his acid spit powers as well on an event called M-Day, where 90% of the mutant population had their powers stripped away. 

The thing about Maverick is that is that he’s a very necessary character but not a terribly well-realized one.  Weapon X needs someone like him as a loyalist, an enforcer they can always call upon for any situation in case, Sabretooth turns on them, or Wolverine comes looking for answers.  

The problem is the insistence on constantly fiddling with his powers and codename and back-story so that he never really has a solid one to work with.  This is such a ridiculous level of unclear that he was even in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, played by Daniel Henney.  Of course, you wouldn’t know that unless you listened for his name or watched the credits real carefully- he’s just that undefined. 

Yes, Deadpool has been retconned into the realm of Weapon X.  That idea has kind of started to filter through to the films and things, like how his character was final villain in X-Men Origins: Wolverine or the government stuff from the standalone Deadpool film.  Rob Liefeld, Deadpool’s co-creator, was the first to suggest a connection, an idea, which eventually blended together with the Weapons Plus concept to have Deadpool be Weapon-XI.  It actually makes a lot of sense if you pair it up with the idea Weapons Plus was trying to create the perfectly marketable superhero team, with Deadpool acting as “the funny one” of the group. 

In a way it’s kind of ironic that the second most popular character in the entire Weapon X stable is almost entirely removed from any semblance of continuity.  It certainly makes sense, Weapon X has always been a tangled mass of contradictions and half-truths, so the fact Deadpool just doesn’t bother trying to keep any of it straight is decidedly in his favor.  

Even then, the core concept of Deadpool’s super power is entirely tied to the identity of Weapon X.  Seriously, the only consistent thing about Weapon X is that they’re trying to create super healing abilities and that’s exactly what Deadpool has.  Maybe there’s a lesson in that- that people are a lot more interested in the end result of these things than the circuitous paths it takes to get there. 

That’s right- Captain America is part of the Weapon X program, didn’t expect that did you?  This idea has circled the concept of Weapon X since its inception in the early ‘90s, mainly because Marvel likes to tie all their super soldier programs together.  However, it wasn’t actually confirmed until the Weapons Plus revelation, with the idea being that Captain America was Weapon-I.  Now Cap fans probably know that the project that created him was called Project: Rebirth but the idea is that after the serum that created him was lost there were multiple attempts to recreate it, which is where Weapons Plus got its start.  

This certainly fits with some later ideas about Captain America’s role in the US government, but I’ll get to that a bit later.  Honestly, this just serves as another very bizarre reminder that Wolverine was part of a big, secret American super soldier project despite his Canadian heritage.  Though, interestingly, this has ended up the backdrop for several stories of Cap and Logan meeting up and working together during World War 2. 

If you’ve never heard of him, Isaiah Bradley is basically the secret Captain America.  Remember how I mentioned the government tried to recreate the super soldier serum after it was lost in Cap’s creation?  Well, one of the significant ways they did that was to secretly abduct several African American men and inject them with untested versions of the serum, similar to the Tuskegee Airman experiments with Syphilis.  

The sole survivor was Isaiah Bradley, who briefly deployed into occupied Europe in a Captain America costume of his own, a crime for which he was imprisoned for decades.  Seriously, the comic that laid this all out, Truth: Red, White, & Black, is amazingly dark and harsh about the whole idea. 

This is the Cap stuff that I actually think works with the Weapons Plus’ connection.  Remember, Weapons Plus was a government operation to create the perfect superheroes for dealing with the “mutant problem,” it’s a project steeped in bigotry and experimenting upon the marginalized from the start.  Honestly, it raises a lot of unsettling questions about what would’ve happened to Cap had he not been frozen in the ice if his real purpose was to be an unquestionable symbol for patriotic eugenics. 

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