Even for fans of fiction, comic book readers are obsessed with the “facts” they know. For some, the question “Who would win?” isn’t just a theoretical pastime, it’s a challenge of the very honor of the character you stan. Those fans crave the validation of their opinion; they need a trump card. And in the world of the X-Men, one phrase rules above all others: Omega Level Mutant.
But until 2019, nobody even knew what an Omega Mutant was beyond … a powerful mutant. But how powerful did you need to be an Omega? What counted as “power” for a set of characters who controlled weather, shot lasers from their eyes, or simply comprehended every language? Marvel Comics creators had kept the definition soft; an understandable choice for an infinitely expanding universe — you never want to write characters into a corner. Someone down the line might find it restrictive. But then again … restrictions can also breed creativity.
The great Omega Mutant debate offers a case study in putting hard rules around a fictional concept. Do the actual creators working with the modern X-Men find it to be a help? Or a hindrance? Or do they think it matters at all? We decided to find out.
The first mutant character to ever be called “omega” was Rachel Summers, the daughter of Cyclops and Jean Grey from an alternate future. “Upper limit of target-subject’s abilities has yet to be determined,” says Nimrod, the final evolution of the mutant-hunting Sentinel robots, as he gives her the label of “Class Omega.” The term wouldn’t be used again for 15 years, and it’d be nearly 20 years after that before anyone would actually define what, exactly, an Omega Mutant is.
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Throughout the ’90s the phrase “Alpha Level” was used frequently to the same effect, and in 2001’s X-Men Forever #3 Professor Xavier described Iceman and Jean Grey’s “Omega Level Mutant Abilities” as having unlimited potential. From then on, the phrase was simply used whenever a writer wanted readers to know that this character was a big deal.
Meanwhile, in the fan world, debates about who was an “Omega Level Mutant” ran rampant, but rarely went anywhere. The term was so undefined it was difficult to argue why a character should be “Omega Level” at any level more complex than “They’re my favorite!” The meaninglessness of the term was even used as a punchline in X-Men: Worst X-Men Ever. The Beast described a mutant as “Omicron-Level,” but soon reveals that he just came up with the term because it sounded ominous.
Then, in 2019, House of X/Powers of X heralded a new dawn for Marvel’s merry mutants, and, surprisingly — a firm definition of “Omega Level Mutant.” Using one of his trademark “data pages,” writer Jonathan Hickman clarified that an Omega Level Mutant is “a mutant whose dominant power is deemed to register — or reach — an undefinable upper limit of that power’s specific classification.” He even went on to index 14 currently known Omega Level Mutants, providing the final word on decades of arguments. On Krakoa, those 14 characters are considered the mutant nation “greatest natural resource,” and critical to securing the future of the state.
To me, my X-Men writers
Unique in the often isolated world of comics, Marvel’s group of creators working on the X-Men line have taken a highly collaborative approach. And when Polygon asked about defining Omega Level and codifying the 14 Omega Mutants, Al Ewing (X-Men: Red, Immortal Hulk) spoke to the practical value of defining things when the group is working so tightly. “There’s a map of Krakoa, there’s a list of people currently on the X-Men, there’s a list of Omega Mutants and a definition of what that means. […] When you’re sharing fictional space, there’s an advantage to being on the same page.”
But while the definition of Omega Level was relevant to everyone working on the X-Men, it was by no means mandatory — or even contentious. Gerry Duggan (X-Men, Marauders) doesn’t recall much debate on the 14 mutants chosen to be canonical Omegas. “If the definition is ‘no upper limits’ that group fits the bill,” he told Polygon.
Benjamin Percy (Wolverine, X-Force) told Polygon he has little interest in splitting hairs about power levels, and cares “more about the characters’ emotions than their scorecards.” To Percy, all the feats of strength in the world are meaningless is there isn’t a strong story beat behind them — and that maxim bears out in fan reaction as well.
Take Storm: In stories leading up to the Krakoan era, Marvel comics held up the weather-controlling mutant as one of the most powerful X-Men. Fans were told big things were coming for her, but in titles like X-Men: Red or Uncanny X-Men: Disassembled she would show up to do a big, flashy splash page involving weather, and little else. Sure, she was powerful, but readers just weren’t as engaged as they would become during the Krakoan era — when Storm’s varied adventures including winning a knife fight to maintain her position as Queen of the Solar System.
“Readers adhere to a different system of expectations when it comes to power levels,” Leah Williams (X-Factor, X-Men: Trial Of Magneto) told Polygon. “Writers aren’t operating within these same parameters.” This was a common refrain among the X-writers.
“The Krakoans are not really interested in those labels, but the fans and villains are,” said Duggan, a good reminder that the phrase was introduced to readers through the voice of the mutant hunting Sentinel known as Nimrod. In today’s comics, the leaders of mutantkind use the nomenclature, but then again, one of the major themes of House of X/Powers of X is that the business of running a nation is distasteful at best.
Duggan gave consideration to how these designations are used within the stories. Williams commented that most mutants, in-universe, wouldn’t much bother with the classifications. While there are some, like Kid Omega, who revel in the title, others are just happy to be able to better their community. There’s no cultural expectation among mutants that they should strive to become Omega Level, and most of our protagonists don’t want to chase power, but to live their lives in peace. “Omega classifications are for trading cards and fan discussions more than they’re for Krakoan citizens,” said Williams.
But if there’s one place in the fiction where the Omega definition thrives, it’s in style. As the centerpiece of the Hellfire Gala, last summer’s X-Men crossover event where Krakoa flexed its muscles (and fashion) upon the international stage, Krakoa’s Omega Level Mutants bent their wills to terraform Mars in a day. Under mutant reign, Sol’s fourth planet became the galactic seat of power for our solar system, with Storm on a Martian throne as the Regent of Sol.
Duggan, who wrote Planet-Sized X-Men #1, the special one-shot that revealed the Krakoan plan, recalled that the X-Men writers room “cooked the [Hellfire] Gala as camouflage for Planet-Size X-Men.” The surprise made the power stunt all the more satisfying; a celebration of mutant power after years of oppression.
Mars, now called Arakko, became the home for an ancient nation of mutants who, unlike the X-Men and allies, are wholly obsessed with power. Their governmental body is exclusively populated with Omega Level mutants. Ewing’s mutant-space-program series, SWORD., used Arakko as an exciting new venue, blending the X-Men’s long history with space adventure and the political gamesmanship of the Krakoan era. His upcoming series, X-Men: Red, will use the world to push an Omega Level cast of characters.
“I’ve challenged Storm politically, I’ve challenged Magneto emotionally, I’ve challenged Vulcan’s temper and his ego,” Ewing told Polygon. “These are things that have no real bearing on powers. Obviously, the superhero genre requires a little superpowered action, but in the Marvel Universe there’s always someone bigger.”
In a franchise about mutation, change is a guarantee. So too with the list of Omega Level Mutants. In 2020’s Fantastic Four #26 it was revealed that Franklin Richards was no longer a mutant, much less an Omega Level one. And with the introduction of Arakko came the invitation to create as many new Omega Level Mutants as could be desired.
“We have a mutant who’s the most powerful at creating metal,” Ewing told Polygon. “They’re a poet, they define themselves as a poet and a sculptor. They can create a mountain of metal by speaking the words, but that isn’t the best use of their power as they see it.”
But innovation isn’t limited exclusively to new characters, it’s been a boon to underserved heroes as well. The mutant known as Synch — who can “synch” with nearby superheroes in order to copy their powers — was a C-Lister who spent the ’90s as an interesting, but underdeveloped hero. Then, Hickman gave him a starring role in a short arc of his X-Men series. In 2020, he became a member of flagship team of X-Men in Duggan’s turn on the title. Synch was identified as a character who is evolving, through Krakoa’s advancements, and could soon join the ranks of the Omega Level Mutants. And while there will soon be a new team of X-Men, Duggan says “He’s been one of my favorites to write this year. […] I’m not letting go of Synch in year two.”
By defining Omega Level Mutants as partially indefinable, the X-Men writers room has threaded a tricky needle: The limits on the idea of Omega Level have actually expanded their options in stories to tell. “All of these new characters are like [the metalworking poet],” Ewing said. “They’re universes in themselves, and we get to explore those universes, so the real challenge is not to fall in love with them all.”
The last few years of X-Men comics have been a critical and commercial high-point for the franchise in comics, and Omega Level Mutants are only one example of how X-Men writers have been encouraged to approach the X-Men in new ways.
“Omega status isn’t a shortcut to raising the stakes sufficiently,” Williams said. The definition has given writers “a much more elegant solution to the one-up-isms of the past where we pit mutants against each other in simplistic terms.”
This doesn’t mean the question of who would win is forever answered, just that the parameters have changed. Even as this nugget of comic book taxonomy has been given more prominence than ever before, it’s less and less critical for giving characters meaningful arcs. Duggan reminded us that “you want your favorite to be important, but it’s the story that makes them important, not the label.”
Defining just who Omega Level Mutants are isn’t the same as saying we always know who would win. It’s simply a continuation of the ethos stated back in the very first issue of House Of X/Powers of X. “It’s time to get with the program […] The Professor has changed all the old rules…”