How Marvel's Knights of X is modernizing the mythology of Captain Britain
Warning: This article contains spoilers for Knights of X #4.
Thanks to Chris Evans, Captain America became one of the most recognizable superheroes on the planet. But not all viewers of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may know that across the Atlantic Ocean, Great Britain also has a costumed champion. Now is a good time to learn, because Captain Britain has never been more interesting than she is right now.
When the character Captain Britain was first created by Chris Claremont and Herb Trimpe in 1976, the role was filled by Brian Braddock — a son of the nobility who was infused with mystical powers by the ancient wizard Merlin. Though initially appearing with his own cast of characters, Captain Britain eventually became entwined with Claremont's X-Men in '80s comics like Excalibur. When Marvel rebooted the X-Men comic franchise in 2019 with the event story House of X/Powers of X, a new Excalibur series began under writer Tini Howard and artist Marcus To. This new era, which continues with the current sequel series Knights of X, passed the mantle of Captain Britain from Brian to his twin sister, Betsy (a mutant psychic and X-Men team member who had previously used the codename Psylocke).
"For me, the most interesting thing about this character has always been that they're not a nationalist hero, they're a magical hero who defends the idea of story and legend," Howard tells EW. "I like looking at those legends and talking about what kind of people are allowed to have these victory stories. What kind of people are allowed to be heroes?"
Brian started out as a nerdy college kid with a passion for science, and eventually was developed into a strapping blond superman by artist Alan Davis. He looks exactly like the classic mythological idea of a hero. Betsy does not. She has a much more complicated relationship to her appearance, having spent decades stuck in the body of a Japanese woman named Kwannon (this is the iconic incarnation of Psylocke, as played by Olivia Munn in X-Men: Apocalypse; check here to read Howard and fellow writer Zeb Wells explain how they've been untangling that conundrum in the current era). Though restored to her original form, Betsy is still working to feel comfortable in her own skin.
But this might actually make Betsy even more suited to the role of Captain Britain than Brian. Captain Britain does not punch out bad guys as often as Captain America. Instead, Captain Britain is usually drawn into surreal, interdimensional encounters with fairies, wizards, and other magical beings. In the classic '80s Captain Britain story "Jaspers' Warp" by Davis and Alan Moore (the only canonical Marvel work by the acclaimed writer of Watchmen, long out of print but newly available in the Captain Britain Omnibus, and also the original source of the Marvel universe's designation as "Earth-616"), an insane reality-warping mutant named Jim Jaspers wreaked havoc on both the laws of nature and Brian's sanity. Jaspers has reappeared in Knights of X alongside his superhero-hunting robot known as The Fury — but the Fury is now under the command of none other than Merlin and King Arthur, who want to wipe out mutants.
A British fantasy story where Merlin and King Arthur are the villains? That's the kind of world Betsy understands.
"The biggest difference between Betsy and Brian is that Betsy is too smart to trust the narratives because she understands they weren't written for her," Howard says. "They were written for people like Brian. The fact that she knows that, and isn't afraid to change the story, is what scares the people in power."
Howard continues, "if you're Brian Braddock and you are a straight white man that lives in England, and a magical man appears to you and says, 'I have a quest for you,' you're more likely to trust that. Yeah. But if you are a queer woman and mutant, and a man appears to you and tells you that he has something for you to do, that carries a different charge and a different level of trust."
Yes, you read that right. Though Marvel and DC Comics have both expanded their roster of LGBTQ superheroes and annual Pride Month-themed comics, some fans have grumbled that characters will be canonically established as queer but rarely kiss on page. Those criticisms are answered with this week's issue Knights of X #4, in which Betsy shares an unambiguous, passionate kiss with fellow mutant Rachel Summers. Check that page out below.
Rachel was a member of the original Excalibur team and a longtime ally of Captains Britain. Like Betsy, her traumatic past (she hails from a dark dystopian future where mutants are enslaved by humans) has made her well-equipped to handle the multiversal chaos of Captain Britain's mythology. Over the course of Knights of X, her relationship with Betsy has been deepening and strengthening; now, it's as official as can be.
"One of the most exciting and affirming moments I can remember as a comics reader was reading Peter David and Valentine De Landro's X-Factor #45, turning the page and being completely surprised by a kiss between Rictor and Shatterstar," Howard says. "It was just such an incredible thing, how it was treated like any other awesome surprise kiss, and so exciting. Also, I think kissing is very important to good X-Men stories. There's such a thrill when two characters you like kiss, it's like winning the Super Bowl...I imagine. I've spent three years working behind the scenes to create that feeling for others that I so loved myself. That's what making art is all about, to me."
As for what makes Betsy and Rachel work so well as a couple, look no further than the variant cover for Knights of X #4 by artist Felipe Massafera. This beautiful image makes Captain Britain and Askani look like a sword-wielding knight and magical sorceress straight out of a classic fantasy paperback cover.
"I have a real love for the sorceress and the knight," Howard says. "From Final Fantasy to Geralt and Yennefer in The Witcher, I love a sword-wielder and their more magical partner who is equally powerful and tough. That dynamic lets the characters react to the expectation that one of you defends the other or something; instead they can show how partnerships actually work and how people actually love each other."
Howard continues, "in Knights of X #5, we'll learn a bit more specifically about the power and potential that the connection between Rachel and Betsy is capable of. Rachel's past taught her to claim space for herself outside of the desires of others, and she's going to be in a role to help Betsy to learn this as well."
Knights of X #4 is on sale now, and the fifth issue hits stores next month.