Character: John Allerdyce/Pyro
E-mail: legerdemain [at] gmail dot com
Spoilers: For both movies
Really, I should've just titled this "How to Redeem a Teenage Supervillain-in-Training in Six Easy Steps."
Okay, so. I've got an interesting situation on my hands. John Allerdyce is one of the more popular characters in X-Men movieverse fandom, yet he has less than half an hour of screen time, and spends even less of that speaking. Body language is great, sure, and Aaron Stanford's especially gifted at it, but it can only go so far before you have to wonder, well, what the hell's he working with? John has such a sparse character history sketched out that it's almost impossible to say anything for certain about him; we know nothing about his family, we know nothing about his past, we only know that he's the bad boy who hooks up with Magneto at the end of X2. This is both incredibly liberating, because we're free to come up with backstory for John as long as it adequately indicates his canonical personality type, and incredibly frustrating, seeing as how, well, we have to come up with the backstory in the first place. So, what I want to do here is present you with a rough thumbnail sketch of John's personality, what might and might not work as his personality type, and help you see that it just takes a little mental origami to go from one-dimensional bad boy to, well, three-dimensional bad boy. *G*
Many movieverse fen don't consider John's comic history overmuch when they try to sketch in the blanks left by X2. I think this is perfectly fine, as John's canonical career included such high points as mass murder and arson, international terrorism, and broiling the skin off one of his closest allies in a stunning double-cross. Plus, hey, Aaron Stanford didn't exactly play John as Australian and marginally crazy. Nevertheless, there are several elements here that I think work especially well, given what we know about movieverse-John.
To wit: St. John Allerdyce had a career as a successful romance novelist, but gave up civilian life when Mystique called him to arms. He didn't stop writing his trashy romance novels, though, and kept on receiving hefty royalty checks for the work he produced while running with the bad guys. He developed a close, if tempestuous, friendship with Dominic Petros, a terrakinetic codenamed Avalanche. Pyro lead a life outside the conventional margins with them, and stayed with Mystique through their little cabal's metamorphosis from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants into the U.S. government-sponsored Freedom Force and back again. After a while, he was betrayed in a mission gone awry, left to flounder in Iraq by Dominic Petros. Being left on his own in that powderkeg of a country was difficult, but being betrayed by Petros hurt.
Eventually, he contracted Legacy, a virus that was then scything through the mutant community. (If anybody wants evidence that the mutant struggle was/is coded queer, look no further than Legacy, a fatal disease supposedly limited to one subset of humanity that eventually spread to the rest of the population.) Pyro, like many terminally ill people, reassessed his life. He asked himself if it was all worth it. He wondered if, just maybe if, the big truths he'd turned his back on had a shred of, well, truth to them, after all. He went back to the Brotherhood, thinking to make peace with the history he could never quite burn away. He discovered plans afoot in the newly-reconstituted Brotherhood, plans that he could not, in good conscience, be a party to.
So he left, again, and tried to alert the X-Men, his great enemies. He failed, though, and was pulled under by that same Dominic Petros who'd betrayed him so very long ago, swallowed beneath the earth at his best friend's instigation, before he was able to finish confessing his sins. The disease took its toll on him, and John slowly descended into paranoia and madness. He was plagued by visions that nobody else could see, of a great and terrible machine that stalked him in the tall grass. He was taken into protective custody, and treated for Legacy, but to no avail. In the end, John died fighting against his fellow Brothers, who were engaged in an assassination attempt on Senator Robert Kelly.
This is, of course, the whitewashed version of Pyro's life. Nevertheless, in a fandom where it's all about spin (Because honestly? Superheroes with no angst = boring, supervillains with compelling backstory = giant fanbase and lots of rocking porn), it remains a useful exercise. What can we take away from comic canon that can help flesh out our understanding of movieverse John? Stripping away such untenable elements as his time in Iraq and his spiral down into madness, we can pick a few things that would complement our understanding of movieverse John nicely: That John has/had a history of forming one (or two) close friendship(s), to the exclusion of everybody and everything else. That John loved words, the making of them and the shaping of them, and that he never stopped doing so, even when he'd turned his back on the greater truths they represented. That there was faith in him, small and hard like a stone, and he never really let go of it. That John died, trying to reclaim his light.
Of course, again, that's just comicverse John. You'd be hard-pressed to find any semi-major comicverse character in all of the X-Men's forty-odd year history who doesn't have sufficient canon to indicate a complex, conflicted personality behind the four-color print. (It's saying a lot when I could make an arguable defense for Lockheed the dragon as rife with existential angst, and that's not really a good thing.) Movieverse-John, in many ways, operates blissfully unaware of his comic counterpart's history. He has a handful of minutes on-screen, he does his thing, he leaves so that the good guy/bad seed dynamic can be set up. Movieverse-John, on the whole, just operates blissfully unaware, period.
Is this John just a cipher? Is the John of our inquiry just another Rebel, capital letter locked firmly in place, a Rebel simply up in joy over the act of rebellion itself? In many ways, yes. I adored X2 just as much as the next fanboy, but I will freely concede that John got the short end of the stick when it came to character development. As I mentioned above, he has less than half an hour of screen time, depending on how you time it, and Bryan Singer didn't take any special pains to cast John as anything beyond a stereotypically surly and frustrated teenage boy. He's become foregrounded in fanon because of one choice he makes, and I have a little theory I like to kick around that any warm body could've defected and adequately filled in a John-shaped hole. He also serves as foil to Bobby, and in some ways we must reckon with Bobby if we're to reckon with John.
But this isn't an essay about John/Bobby (or Bobby/John, or Bobby&John or John&Bobby or any other fannish coupling of the two). This is about John.
Aaron Stanford plays John with remarkable sensitivity, considering what he had to work with. Loaded glances, the tightness of facial muscle, the half-beat too long he spends staring at the Drake family portrait, these go a long way toward establishing John as more than just a mobile ball of barely-controlled rage. We can get a couple of things, from the way that Stanford played John:
He's incredibly lonely. In a deleted scene that I consider fair game when we're talking about movie canon, John sits away from Bobby and Marie while they struggle to get a fire going. He stares resolutely out into the darkness, waiting for them to ask for his help. They don't, instead struggling to start the fire, and it's only after Bobby and Marie have failed abjectly, only after they've grown frustrated and peevish, do they ask John for help. There's hurt, thick and cloudy, in John's eyes, but he doesn't even look behind him as he pulls the flames out from the dark. Marie storms off, and Bobby hunches over the fire, but John? Is still staring out into the night, because his "friends" couldn't think to ask politely when they needed his help.
John's also incredibly loyal. During the raid on the mansion, it's Bobby he follows back into the house, because Bobby asks for his help. It's Bobby he tries to keep from running back into the mansion. John's eyes track, briefly but noticeably, over to Bobby whenever Bobby leaves the frame. Not at Marie, not off-stage, but at Bobby. Tiny, complicated motes fleck his eyes.
Speaking of eyes--from the way his eyes linger so on the portrait of the Drakes during the scene at Bobby's house, we can infer that he didn't have a house in the suburbs and an X-Box game every Christmas and parents who came to all his soccer games. There's pain there, and longing, and probably more than a little resentment. This was not the way the story was supposed to go, for him, and John hates that Bobby had the once upon a time that should've been his.
He has no idea what he's getting himself into--the lack of control he displays in Boston speaks to this. Using his powers? Still a rush, the way it isn't for kids like Bobby and Marie. He gets a power trip out of using his powers like he did in Boston, the way any teenage boy would who's suddenly found out that all all the walls around him just fly away like so much ash. He lets the power ride him, instead of vice versa. All his life, he's been told not to use his powers: "The next time you feel like showing off, don't." When Magneto says that he's a god among insects, he's not saying that John has absolute power over himself and his powers. On the contrary, in surrendering to his powers, John finds control. Finally, he's able to exert some influence over the tumult of his life, precisely by letting go of his stranglehold on his impulses and desires.
And that, really, is what brings us down to who and what St. John Allerdyce is: Control. Or, perhaps more properly, the desperate desire for it. He's a boy who feels like he hasn't had a shred of control over his entire life, and when presented for the opportunity to exert some, of course he takes it. Hanging with the bad guys isn't such a big deal if you finally get to have some say in what happens in your life.
I don't want to make it sound like John is some poor, misunderstood w00bie just waiting for the love of the right woman (or man) to redeem him and set him back on the path to righteousness (which makes for boring storytelling, anyway, once you're in Righteousness Country; everybody there smiles all the time, and nobody eats fatty foods); indeed, such a perspective does a disservice to the choice John makes, the choice that makes up, in large part, his fanonical appeal. He had a choice at the end of X2, and many would argue, and argue persuasively, that he chose poorly. You can't whitewash the implications of that decision.
Did he make that choice knowing full well who Magneto was and what he represented? Depends on how much you believe the faculty told the students about the events on Liberty Island (personally, I doubt that they'd've told the students all that much about the events in question, but YMMV), but either way he knew that Magneto was a dangerous, dangerous terrorist who's jackbooting down the path to global war. Magneto has a certain romance about him, yes, a certain (if you'll pardon the pun) mystique, but John was at the very least aware that this man was responsible for kidnapping Marie. He knows that Magneto is on the opposite end of the spectrum from Xavier, and that violence and brutality are probably going to be the order of business with the Brotherhood. Will he be redeemable by the time that Magneto's done with him? Maybe. I highly doubt it, myself; Erik is charming in both modes, Erik Lensherr and Magneto inclusive, and too much time spent with him warps the mind, like water-logged wood. He's committed himself to a path that won't be kind to him, nor will it kindle kindness in him.
But John also saw masked men break into his home. He heard a siren screaming in the night, and he watched laser sights gather on his chest like redshifting stars. He saw his home for the last two years, the better part of his adolescence, turned into a war zone. He knows, quite intimately, what bigotry and hatred look like from up close, and when pressed to those limits, who's to say what a young boy with power at his fingertips will and won't do?
John, like all mutants, is an elemental. Not in the Paracelsian sense of the word, but rather, in the sense that what he does defines who he is. I've always held that powers qualify the mutant, for good or bad: Bobby embraces the steady inaccessibility of atomic entropy (don't get me started on "creates/controls cold," I effin' hate it when people start abusing physical privatives like that), Marie rages against the cage of her flesh. The things they carry end up carrying them. A mutant either falls headlong into the personal and emotional qualities fostered by her powers, or he desperately seeks a way to define himself beyond those borders.
John's a border-walker, though. Fire brings warmth, but it eats away the air. Fire brings hope, but it also destroys. Fire illuminates, but it also consumes. John does both, he can go either way. Plague John with self-doubt and recriminations, eventually leading him down the path of redemption? Move his surly inferiority complex into a consuming arrogance? It's all possible, and isn't possibility the point of being a teenager in the first place?
John's less than a rebel. He isn't quite a saint. He's conflicted. He's complex. His friends mean the world to him, yet he can't quite bring himself to trust them, to trust in them. He pushes away the ones he loves, precisely because he loves them, and he's got a long way to go before he ever can do anything but. He's nowhere near as tough as he believes he is. He's trying to deal, but he doesn't think he's getting any of it right. He's a teenage boy in over his head, a kid with a chip on his shoulder and the world at his heels.
He's just this guy, and that's the important thing, the whole of it when it comes to John: He's just this guy.
Not a lot of people still write John on a regular basis. Unavoidable fandom drift; it's been over a year and a half since X2 came out, after all, and without a steady infusion of new canon, the fandom's been sort of adrift lately. Nevertheless, there are still a few communities that produce John-centric fic from time to time. dry_ice is a John/Bobby community, but it's been pretty quiet lately. icemanroguepyro is all but dead, but there are still some good stories floating around in the community's archive. xmmff is the X-Men movieverse fandom's primary distribution node, but, again, movieverse has been a pretty quiet fandom of late, so it's not as active as it used to be. Hopefully, once production starts on X3, the fandom will get a much-needed shot in the arm. xmmff has a website, X-Men Movie Fanfic, and it's pretty much the biggest archive out there for strictly-movieverse fanfic. You can search by author, character and movie--well, that last one is really just looking at the X1 and X2 halves, but still, it's nice to be able to do.
Now, on to specific fic recs.
First, a pair of stories from harriet_spy: Dragonflies Draw Flame gives us a John who's slouching towards something he doesn't quite comprehend. I love the ache here, the hollow pain, and the way we get that none of this comes easy, and will never be easy, for John. Cauterize gives us a John who's learned that, no, really, he can't go home again--but more importantly, that maybe he doesn't want to in the first place.
Seeing Through The Spaces, by pearl_o, is lovely, lovely, lovely like a half-remembered dream. I love stories that go into John dealing with the gravity of his decision, and this was one of the first, and best, of that type.
3jane does an exceptional job of presenting us with a John who really doesn't have anywhere else to go in Always Hungry, a story about John and want and need and all the things he can never have and all the hungers he can never satisfy.
penknife and artaxastra both have their fingers on this boy's pulse. Not only that, but they're brilliant, brilliant writers and the classiest of ladies. (Can you tell I fanboy them both? *G*) Go read everything these two have written, but especially read penknife's A Thousand Words (John and Marie and the divide between them that maybe isn't as wide as it seems.) and Six Lessons in Living with Supervillains (There are things you never know until you live with someone. Pyro's finding that out.), and artaxastra's Iron (the weird thing is, this is starting to seem normal) and Thirteen Years Later (this is how it goes, when the sun goes down).
Oh, hell. Just read everything on their sites. You won't be disappointed.
twoskeletons hasn't written in this fandom for a long while, which is a crying shame, because Sunshadow is flat-out one of the most beautiful pieces of prose I've ever read. It's sex and lust and regret all rolled up in one sticky-like-summer-heat piece of prose, like John reading Thomas Mann under the Venetian sun.
doyle_sb4 wrote Fast As You Can for the xmmficathon (another great place to go for movieverse fic!), and, while it's short, it's a hell of a ride. John doesn't show up till the end, but when he does he'll leave a mark on you: Competent, sexy, dangerous, this is a John who pulls his own weight as a Brother and will never, ever look back with regret on what he's done.
And, okay, yeah. I'm gonna go ahead and do something gauche here and rec something of my own, because I've spent the last six-odd screens telling you about my John and, well, I might as well give y'all a chance to meet him. New Amsterdam is John as I see him: Lonely, abrasive, more than a little arrogant, and completely, totally in over his head.