I’m not a successful writer yet. I’m not certain that I’m an overly skilled writer either. However, as someone who has been writing almost every day since he was 15-years-old, I like to think I know something about this topic. As such, I’m of the opinion that any overly bizarre or frustratingly inane plot can work if written well. With enough skill, a writer can make a story about snake handler hooking up with an alien compelling.
Then, there are certain plots that are so poorly structured, so inherently weak, and so intrinsically flawed that the combined efforts of Shakespeare, Tolken, and Faulkner can’t save it. For me, that plot is that of the love triangle. I even dedicated an entire post about why I think it’s one of the most overused, poorly written plot devices in all of romance.
I avoided getting into specifics in that post because I wanted to focus on the bigger picture as to why love triangles as a concept suck in general. For this post, I’m going to reach deep into the steaming pile of shit that countless stories featuring bad love triangles have excreted over the years and discuss the worst of the worst.
So which love triangle is the worst among the vast mountain of shit that occupies such a prominent position in popular culture? In this case, the worst comes from the world of X-men and involves the characters Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine.
For the sake of this blog, it’s very convenient that the absolute bottom of the pit that is terrible love triangles takes place in the world of superhero comics. This is, after all, a topic that’s near and dear to my heart. I’ve made my love of superhero comics known on this blog before. I will likely cite superhero comics again in future posts as I discuss similar issues. In this case, however, it really is an issue of pragmatism because I really could not find a worse example of a bad love triangle than this one.
What makes it so mind-numbingly terrible? Well, to answer that, here’s a quick rundown of the structure of this worst-of-the-worst brand of romantic drama. Cyclops and Jean Grey are founding members of the X-men. They were among the original X-men that were first introduced in 1963 by the ultimate creative dynamic duo, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. They’re also, by far, one of the most iconic couples in the history of X-men, if not all of superhero comics.
Wolverine didn’t enter the picture until later. He doesn’t join the X-men until 1975, which is a while after he makes his first appearance as a supporting character in The Incredible Hulk. As the X-men’s resident bad boy, he’s basically the opposite of Cyclops. He’s brutish, crude, ill-mannered, quick-tempered, and bad-ass to an insane degree. So naturally, he pulls in a lot of ass. There’s actually a chart documenting Wolverine’s many romantic entanglements and it’s even more confusing/impressive than it looks.
So the very idea of Jean Grey falling in love with him while being in love with Cyclops is akin to a man being in love with both a nun and a crack whore. However, that discrepancy alone isn’t what makes this love triangle so horrendously bad. It’s all the circumstances surrounding it that make it the poster child for everything that sucks about love triangles.
First and foremost, the entire reason why Jean Grey developed an attraction to Wolverine in the first place is ridiculously contrived. X-men writer, Chris Claremont (also known as the most prolific X-men writer ever), indicated in numerous interviews that the attraction between them was extremely shallow.
“He sees Jean, Jean sees him, hormones kick in, the rational brain checks into the Happy Hour hotel, and everyone else runs for cover.”
There’s nothing wrong with basic attraction. That’s the sort of thing men feel whenever they see an attractive stripper or the sort of thing women feel when they see Channing Tatum without his shirt on. It’s a good setup for a one night stand. It’s not a good foundation for a meaningful romance, which is the only thing that makes a love triangle functional to some degree.
That never happens in X-men and for a very bad reason. Due to editorial decisions within the X-men comics that are too convoluted for a single blog post, Claremont soured on Cyclops as a character and openly despised his relationship with Jean Grey, despite having done more than any other X-men writer to solidify their status as the premier romance of the X-men. So what does he do? He tries everything he can to break them up and had editors not thwarted him in 1991, he would’ve succeeded.
That’s the entire reason that this love triangle exists. A writer grew to despise a certain character and decided to punish them by making his girlfriend fall for someone who is the exact opposite of him. Think about that long and hard for more than 15 seconds. Seriously, think about it as rationally as any human mind can manage on topics involving fictional characters.
Are you done? Then, I hope you can now see just how flawed that reasoning is. The writer hates one character and uses that as the sole justification for an entirely separate relationship between two characters who have next to nothing in common. That’s akin to loving soccer just because you hate American football. It’s a bad reason to love a sport and a worse reason for a love triangle.
In my post about why love triangles suck, I pointed out that they tend to devalue characters. It turns them into prizes to be won. It tends to override other meaningful traits a character may have. For Wolverine, it turns him from this bad-ass loner into an obsessive, petty asshat. That’s the trait of an insecure teenager, not a bad-ass loner.
The effect is just as bad on Jean Grey, who effectively becomes the ultimate prize of sorts for Cyclops and Wolverine. This is pretty insulting to her character because Jean Grey does so much to set herself apart as a strong female character from an era where the concept hadn’t been refined yet. She is the center of the Dark Phoenix Saga, also known as the greatest X-men story ever written. Reducing her to a prize for two men undermines a character with so much more to offer.
The comics do a terrible job setting up this love triangle, which the writer himself admits was created for petty reasons. However, it’s the way it plays out in the X-men movies that make this love triangle truly the worst of the worst.
How can the movies actually make this worse? Well, somehow they found a way. To this day, I have a hard time believing that the writers at Fox didn’t actively try to make this love triangle worse than it already was. What they came up with still confounds me, both as a writer and an X-men fan.
Anyone who has seen any of the X-men movies knows that most of them are structured around Wolverine. That’s entirely fair. He’s the most popular X-men character of all time and he’s played by Hugh Jackman. In case you’ve forgotten, Hugh Jackman looks like this.
I’m not gay, but even I think he’s sexy. Naturally, he’s going to have a love interest. A man this sexy has to have one. The problem is, the writers of this movie don’t realize how terrible the love triangle is with him, Cyclops, and Jean Grey in the comics. That, or they see it and think they have a way to make it worse.
First and foremost, they gave no reason for Jean Grey and Wolverine to be attracted to one another. Hell, he tries to stab her when he first wakes up at the Xavier Institute in the first X-men movie. That alone should ensure her panties stay dry around him for the entire trilogy. Instead, the chemistry between them is outright forced.
It has to be because these two never really have a meaningful conversation. They never really get to know each other. They’re just physically attracted to one another and the only reason they don’t bone is because Jean Grey is engaged to Cyclops. As a result, Cyclops is reduced to the role of being an obstacle to Wolverine. That’s pretty much his only role in the first three X-men movies, being a hindrance to Wolverine getting into Jean Grey’s panties.
There isn’t even an effort to balance things out. Cyclops is portrayed as someone who’s not nearly as badass as Wolverine, but he’s still respectable and likable to an excessive degree. He helps save Wolverine the first time they meet. He offers to shake his hand, which Wolverine flat out refuses. He never gets overly upset with Jean about her being attracted to another man. He’s bland, but likable.
If anything, Wolverine does everything he can to make himself the asshole you don’t want Jean to end up with. He steals Cyclops’ motorcycle. He steals Cyclops’ car. When he dies in the third X-men movie, he doesn’t give a second thought to making out with his girlfriend. He does this after he tells Cyclops earlier that she chose him at the end of the previous movie. He couldn’t come off as more of an asshole without pissing on Cyclops’ grave and stealing Jean Grey’s panties.
As bad as this is, it actually gets worse. At least in the comics, Wolverine actually knows Jean Grey as a person to some extent. He’s worked with her. He’s been on the same team as her. He’s lived under the same roof as her. Chances are he knows how she takes her coffee, what she watches on TV, and what her favorite brand of cereal is. In the movies, he knows none of this.
I’ve seen all these movies and based on the sequence of events and the time that passes between them, it’s clear that Wolverine didn’t know Jean Grey for more than a few days at most. He leaves at the end of the first movie. Jean Grey dies shortly after he returns in the second movie. There’s never any indication that they remained in contact. There’s no hint of tortured love letters, long phone calls, or dick pics being exchanged. They literally have no time to get to know one another.
That’s what makes the events of the third X-men movie all the more infuriating. Towards the end of the movie, Wolverine professes his love for Jean Grey before he kills her, at her request. Never mind the fact that this is the exact opposite of what happens in the comics. He proclaims her to be the love of his life despite the fact he doesn’t even know her. He doesn’t know her hopes, her dreams, or even her middle name. So how are we, the audience, supposed to believe that this love is genuine?
It ruins Jean Grey, as a character. It makes her nothing more than a prop for Wolverine. She’s not just the prize he pursues. She’s the only reason he has any emotional development. The fact that he barely knows her makes his affection for her all the more shallow. On top of that, it reduces Wolverine to this mopey pretty-boy instead of the bad-ass loner he’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be Wolverine and not this guy.
The combined efforts of the movies and the comics ensure that the Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine love triangle is the alpha and omega of terrible love triangles. It’s a horrendous plot that still plagues the characters to this day.
The biggest tragedy is that the Cyclops/Jean relationship has been shown to function well as a meaningful romance. Just this past month, there was an entire issue dedicated to showing how these two are a romance of equals who can make each other better, just like a good romance is supposed to. Good love stories don’t need a love triangle to develop, grow, and thrive. They just need some actual effort and a basic understanding of what makes a relationship work.
As an aspiring writer who hopes to encourage other aspiring writers, I would only cite the Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine love triangle as a case study in what not to do. There are few ways in which a love triangle can actually work in a romance story. None of those ways are used in this case. In fact, some of those ways are turned upside down, inside out, and gutted.
Quality romance and quality characters, be they superheroes or ordinary people, deserve better. In the same way it’s almost impossible to make a quality meal with bad ingredients, it’s almost impossible to craft a quality love story around a love triangle. The convoluted, misguided clusterfuck that is Cyclops/Jean Grey/Wolverine is just a tragic testament to how bad it can get.