With the debut of Disney+ and, along with it, an immense catalog of old Saturday morning cartoons, RELEVANT took the opportunity to revisit one surprisingly spiritual moment. Namely, an episode of X-Men: the Animated Series titled “Nightcrawler”, in which a blue, demonic-looking mutant named Nightcrawler has a series of thoughtful conversations with the famously cantankerous and spiritually skeptical Wolverine about the love of God, the persistence of faith and the old question of bad things happening to good people.
It was a more theologically informed conversation about theology than you’d expect from almost any piece of TV entertainment, let alone X-Men, and came with all the requisite snikts, pew-pews and bamfs required of any self-respecting superhero show. The theological highlights were collected on this YouTube video.
“Don’t tell me about God,” Wolverine growls at one point. “What kind of God would let man do this to me?”
“Our ability to understand God’s purpose is limited,” Nightcrawler says. “But we take comfort in the fact that His love is limitless.”
RELEVANT reached out to Len Uhley, who wrote “Nightcrawler.” Uhley lives in California and has a storied career in animation, having written on shows like Static Shock, Ben 10 and Gargoyles in addition to X-Men, along with working on features for entries in the VeggieTales, An American Tail and The Land Before Time franchises, among many others.
Our senior editor Tyler Huckabee spoke with Uhley by phone to learn just how the “Nightcrawler” episode of X-Men came together, the place of mature themes in children’s entertainment and why he disputes the idea that Wolverine is a Christian.
TYLER HUCKABEE: It seems like a lot of your work has aged well. Grown people looking back on shows like The X-Men don’t have to be too embarrassed about liking it when they were kids.
LEN UHLEY: Here’s a secret about animation writers: Most of us — whatever genre we’re in: action-adventure, comedy, pre-school, or whatever — all write to entertain ourselves. Yes, it’s a different kind of writing than working on an hour-long drama or a network sitcom but basically, at the end of the day, you want to be writing something that is entertaining for everyone who watches it. That includes the parents as well as the children.
I think kids get a lot more than we give them credit for getting. I used to call it the Archie Comics Model: kids in junior high and elementary school want to see what life is like in high school. They are aspirational. When I was a kid, you were watching Rocky and Bullwinkle and maybe you didn’t get all of the jokes. Kids from your age group who were watching Animaniacs — you’re getting a lot of information on a lot of levels and there’s stuff there that’s hilarious and some of it goes over your head, but it makes you wonder why that joke is funny. You sensed that there’s something else going on.
Anybody who really wants to be a writer is foolish enough to think that other people will identify with what you have to say about the human condition. This is what they were doing on the X-Men series. They were doing these wonderful little half-hour dramas or melodramas or whatever you want to call them. It wasn’t just about things going boom. It was about feelings and interpersonal relationships. And, yes, things were also exploding occasionally.
Obviously, with the X-Men, themes of the ostracization of oppressed minority groups were key to the stories. I didn’t really understand what I was seeing when I first watched them, but those lessons stuck with me.
When that comic book series started, the point of it was to talk about that. The subtext was racism — the mutants wanting to be accepted by society. When Eric Lewald, who was the showrunner on the original X-Men series, got to do this job, he took that notion and ran with it.
I think all of the people that were involved with the show were very faithful to the comics and, at the same time, expanded in different directions. They were doing things that were good storytelling about people, even though they were in long underwear and capes.
How much familiarity with the X-Men did you bring to the series when you wrote for it?
I was a DC Comics guy. My favorite superhero was the Green Lantern and then, after that, Batman and Superman. That’s what I grew up reading.
I was not very familiar with the X-Men, but the thing that Eric Lewald would do was cast the writers. He knew that I was interested in explorations of faith and the longing we all have to understand our place in the world. So when we finally got the go-ahead to do Nightcrawler, he said, let’s get Len to do that one.
So I was very fortunate. Today, when all of us attend these conventions and we appear on panels, fans are very kind to say how much they enjoyed that episode. It speaks to something that a lot of folks experience. We’re all searching for meaning. I just happen to have an unusual opportunity to explore that. It was probably the first time it was discussed in a mainstream animated series.
There were other animated shows that dealt with faith prior to that. Davey and Goliath was on Sunday mornings and later on, I worked on some other religious shows, Superbook and Friends and Heroes in the U.K. Certainly, VeggieTales is a wonderful property, and I got a chance to write for that more recently. But X-Men: the Animated Series was the first time the topic ever got any kind of an airing in a superhero show.
For me, superhero comics were very exciting and church was really boring, so seeing those two things combined in Nightcrawler was a big moment. Why your level of interest in faith? Do you have any theological training?
One thing I will say — and apologies in advance — but the YouTube video that you referenced is titled “Wolverine is a Christian” and the headline for your magazine says something similar. I would respectfully disagree that that’s what happened.
Just to do a little backstory on Wolverine the character: This is a guy who, at the time of the series, was 95 years old. As he says in the cartoon, he’s seen too much, he’s lived too long; he’s a bitter fellow. He may have had faith of one sort or another at one point, but it got beaten out of him by all of the horrible things that he’s seen and all of the horrible stuff that was done to him. Remember, he was treated as a lab specimen — that’s how he got those claws. Not a sunny disposition.
So, it’s not like he was suddenly a Christian or became a Christian. Remember, at one point in the comic books, he was a Buddhist. I think he probably might have had some exposure to faith in the past but maybe he soured on it. That happens to people. They step away from it — maybe later in life, they come back to it.
At the end of this episode, yes, Wolverine is at the rail, kneeling and reading a Bible passage. I don’t think that he’s had a conversion experience but I think that he is exploring. Maybe he’s getting in touch with something that he once had in his life, something that gave him comfort at one time. And the way back in for him turned out to be this creature: Kurt, the Nightcrawler.
If anybody has a reason to be bitter, it’s Nightcrawler. He looks like the devil, and what a curse that would be for most of us. Yet he, among all the characters in the Marvel Universe, has the most profound faith! Wow. How did he get to that point? It’s inspiring and it’s a little unsettling for somebody with the perspective of Wolverine, but it resonates with him.
That’s the nice thing about this episode. Even though it’s only a twenty-two-minute story and there’s guns going off and libraries catching fire, you’ve still got an opportunity to have a couple of conversations about what each person feels about their world.
You asked if I have any religious background. I was baptized as an adult at a mainstream denomination, and we’ll just leave it at that. It was a choice for me, but I was not raised in any particular discipline. I was agnostic and then some personal stuff happened that made me find my way to a church and pursue that, so here I am. So I do not wish to represent myself in any way as a biblical scholar.
Oddly enough, the guy who probably knows the Bible better than anybody among all the people who worked on the show was Sidney Iwanter, who was the Fox Kids executive who directly oversaw the series. Raised in a Jewish household in the Midwest — he can probably quote chapter and verse better than anyone else on the team.
In fact, there are a lot of people who helped make this thing possible. When Eric and I started on the episode, we were being cautious. The original version was this big adventure with Nazis and gold and wild boars. It was a mishmash of typical superhero adventure stuff. Sidney, to his credit, said “OK, look, quit doing all of this. I want to hear about a loving, giving God”, and he was very adamant about it.
So, it’s nice that we that kind of support to boil the story down to something more personal. Margret Loesch, who was the head of Fox Kids, was also supportive. A woman named Avery Cobern was in charge of Standards and Practices. Over the first several seasons, she had come to trust what Eric and his team were doing and knew that this topic would be handled respectfully.
We were cautious about using any specific iconography to identify one denomination or another. That’s quite intentional. We just wanted to be sure there’s something here in the Christian tradition and that we’re not saying one denomination is better than the other. That is really not the point. The point is that you have these two characters who are butting heads: the bitter Wolverine and the faithful Nightcrawler, and it’s a clash of ideas.
That was the intention. I was able to speak with some of the clergy I knew and they gave me some guidance on the Bible passage at the end but, again, I am not a biblical scholar by any stretch. I am just fascinated by how people process these big questions.
Since the time of this show, these superheroes have become the dominant pop culture force in the entertainment industry. I’m curious about your perspective on this genre’s limitations or lack thereof to explore mature themes and what it means that they’re so popular now.
We all need heroes. That’s part of the human condition. That’s why we have the mythology that we have. Every culture has its gods and goddesses and people who right wrongs. It can be Hercules or it can be Robin Hood. Every culture has the need for someone who represents our hopes and aspirations, the kind of person we aspire to be.
Everybody’s got an opinion about these people and there’s a reason that it elicits this kind of big response from folks, because we do care about these characters. They become part of our collective consciousness. Would any of us want to spend time with Tony Stark? Probably not. Not necessarily a nice fellow, but charming in a way, a fascinating character because of the wonderful acting and writing and directing on those films. Captain America, for goodness sake, he stands for something more than just the flag. He stands for a kind of virtue and we all need that, especially now.
Yes, I would like to see more original stuff. I don’t think we need to go back to the well on every single IP that was popular 30 years ago. But it is a business and a creative endeavor, so you are going to see stuff that gets made and say, “well, that adds nothing to the conversation.” Or you can say “Oh look, they did a wonderful job.”
You want to see the tiny personal stories and you want to see the blockbuster ones too. There’s nothing wrong with a little bit of entertainment, for goodness’ sake. You can have both, I hope you have both. I’m all for it. I don’t see how you can say “Well, we shouldn’t do this kind of movie” as long as we get to do the other kinds too.
Disney+ subscribers can watch the full episode of “Nightcrawler” here.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's executive editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.