Nightcrawler is one of the most popular X-Men, mostly do to his design. He is a man who looks like a demon, but possesses an intrinsic nobility. However, Nightcrawler has never successfully headed his own series, and as time went on became more of a secondary character for the other X-Men to use in their own stories, rather than a vehicle for stories himself. He became known as the “conscience” of the X-Men, but that just meant he would pop up to state moral absolutes that other characters would either question themselves or react against as part of their own stories. Nightcrawler is mostly a prop, and that is a damn shame because he is actually very interesting.
Kurt Wagner grew up in the circus, but he also grew up a freak. Blue-skinned, fuzzy, fanged, possessing two toes and three fingers, equipped with a prehensile forked tail, and unable to laugh or cry without evoking demonic monstrosities, Kurt is not going to win any prizes for beauty. As Nightcrawler, he’s always the X-Men that the anti-mutant bigots point to to say “how can you call that a human?” So how does he deal with the fact that his very existence fills people with, at best, revulsion and at worst murderous hatred?
He goes back to his training. In his heart he’s a clown, an actor, a performer. He takes on the persona of a swashbuckling, debonair and playful rogue because he knows people only judge him by appearances. He can’t change his physical appearance, but he can certainly change how is actions appear. If he can portray the part of everything good and heroic, the opposite of his appearance, he can win people over. More importantly, he can convince himself that he’s a decent, noble person as well. Nightcrawler is the ultimate actor. He gives every action he takes an exaggerated quality not only because it can impress people, but because he believes that by playing this part he can actually BE noble and worthy.
Nightcrawler’s religion has the same role. Usually, Nightcrawler’s Christianity is merely used as an excuse to make him whiny and moralistic, or to be a better foil for another character. Nightcrawler is religious for the same reason he’s a swashbuckling super hero, because he believes it is necessary for his part. He looks demonic, so what better way to undermine that than to be openly devout? Like everything he does, his religion is partially an affectation. That isn’t to say he doesn’t believe, but that he exaggerates it as part of his character, and secretly doubts he is worthy.
That doubt is important. We the reader know that Nightcrawler is a good and noble person, but he doesn’t. We know he doesn’t need the affectations, that he doesn’t need to perform, but Nightcrawler is scared that the performance is all he really is. Subconsciously, he fears that he really is a monster and isn’t really heroic, noble or godly. Like the best method actors, he is able to embody his part so strongly that he forgets he’s been playing it. When circumstances then force him to question his actions, or to acknowledge that he is choosing to play a part, he becomes paralyzed with doubt and fear.
Nightcrawler chooses to play a part, but so do we all. We all choose who we are. It is our actions that define us, not our nature. No one is truly born “noble” or “good.” But a lifetime of oppression and being considered an actual demon has convinced him that people have intrinsic natures, and for him to “have to” choose to be noble and good is a source of shame. This shame in turn pushes him to either further exaggerate his affectations or collapse into self-pity which ironically gives him an excuse to choose to be selfish, isolated and “bad.” He’s the X-Men the others most trust and like, but he’s also the one who most needs others to trust and like him. So is he selfish or selfless? To me, this inner struggle and the outward battle between his physical appearance and his affectations would make for more compelling storytelling than the standard, “Wolverine, killing is bad! You say its good? Oh, now I doubt Jesus. No wait, I don’t anymore.” Nightcrawler plot.