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Jul 20

Marvel 100th Anniversary Special: X-Men

Posted on Sunday, July 20, 2014 by Paul in x-axis

Marvel 100th Anniversary Special: X-Men is a truly misbegotten mess of a comic.  It is tempting to call it “misconceived”, but that would actually be unfair; the central concept of these specials is potentially interesting in various ways, and this story even starts off by attempting to take one of the interesting approaches.  But having done that, it steers vigorously into the first available ditch.

The high concept of these specials is supposedly to imagine what Marvel’s flagship titles might look like in 2061.  Crucially, it is not meant to be projecting fifty years into the future of the characters; the assumption is that the sliding timeline remains in effect, so we’re rather less far advanced into the characters’ future.  And the story here dutifully reflects the wonkiness of Marvel time: most characters are slightly and non-specifically order, while Shogo is now an adult.

Now there are several ways you could make this work.  You could play it for laughs and do something about the way the characters will never truly be allowed to drift too far from their original concept – though the X-Men are not the best example of that, given their turnover of secondary characters and the way in which the format has been changed over the years.

Or you can go meta and try to imagine a style of superhero comic as drastically different from the present fashion as today’s comics are from the Silver Age.  This comic doesn’t even attempt that; stylistically, it resembles nothing more than a competently rendered What If one-shot.  Granted that it’s an approach that requires serious levels of ambition and formal inventiveness, the premise demands at least some superficial concessions, which the story doesn’t even attempt.

Or you could look at the way US society is progressing and ask how the X-Men’s central metaphor might be being played in 50 years time.  That too is an interesting idea in theory, and according to promotional interviews, it’s the one that writer Robin Furth was trying to go for.

The end result of that is a set-up in which Cyclops, having redeemed himself and become a national hero at some point, has just been elected as the first mutant president of the United States, a result which the story presents as exceptionally divisive.  Reading between the lines, Furth presumably thinks that in fifty years time we’ll potentially be doing the Marvel Universe version of the first gay President, which as a real world estimation doesn’t feel all that unreasonable.

That, roughly, is where the good ideas in this comic end, and where the problems begin.  For starters, this doesn’t feel like a story sufficiently far removed from the set-up of the present day.  Though there’s some cosmetic tinkering with background characters, and the trainees from Bendis’ Uncanny run are written as full and established X-Men, the story gives the impression that in fifty years of further stories, essentially three things have happened: the X-Men have reunited into a single faction, Scott has been redeemed by a big win over some baddies, and Scott has (in the previous issue) married Emma.  The story makes heavy use of characters introduced in the last couple of years, but appears to assume that none will debut in the next 45.  One wonders whether Furth is aware that the threshold for implausible comic presidents was crossed some time ago when DC put Lex Luthor in charge.

So this doesn’t feel like a story that Marvel might find themselves doing in 2061.  On the contrary, it’s a storyline I can very easily imagine appearing in five years – maybe even two.

Problem number two: having decided that her story is about the fault lines over the acceptance of mutants (or whoever they stand for by that time) in 2061, Furth proceeds to do literally nothing with that.  There are a bunch of one-note protesters outside the White House, but they’re plainly the extreme end of anti-Obama crackpots with the serial numbers filed off.  That’s not a problem in itself; all stories about the future are in some sense about the present.  But there’s no exploration of the theme; there’s just a bunch of nut jobs waving placards, as the story wanders off in a different direction entirely.

That direction is a mysterious cosmic thingy which erases Emma from history on page 3, leaving Scott as the only person who can remember that she ever existed.  The rest of the comic consists of Scott insisting that he definitely had a wife, and the rest of the X-Men indulging him.  Scott blames the protestors outside, despite there being no evidence that this was anything to do with them, as opposed to, say, a super villain.  So he does what any poorly written nitwit would do: he goes outside to stand on an armoured car and yell at the protestors through a megaphone.  One of them promptly shoots him, which in the circumstances feels like a reasonable and measured act of literary criticism.  Scott fires back, which is presented as a PR disaster (even though he’s clearly shot and bleeding, and surely the bigger issue ought to be that the President appears to have had a psychotic breakdown and is spending his time yelling through a megaphone about his imaginary wife).

A whole bunch of other mutants are then randomly removed in the same way Emma was, and finally Scott himself is vanished.  The disappearances turn out to be the work of Phoenix, who tells Scott that the world is not ready for him to lead it, that “your Presidency will bring about war and disaster”, and that in order to avoid this future he must “undo the past”.  Everything fades to white and the final two panels show Scott and Jean celebrating their wedding anniversary.

Where do we begin?

Even on the surface level, as a piece of plotting, this borders on incoherent.  It barely connects with the protestor story.  The story gives Scott (and the others) no choice in being “disappeared” yet still wants to present its final page as if Scott had made some sort of choice.  The only evidence in the story to support Phoenix’s claims that Scott will be a disastrous President come from his response to the sudden disappearance of his wife – which was Phoenix’s fault in the first place.  Leave that out of account, and the implication here seems to be that even a mutant who can actually win a presidential election would be so divisive that he’d better not bother.  What is Furth suggesting that he should have done instead?  Stay at home and not make trouble until America is a better place (something that will have to be brought about by the non-mutant majority, since the mutants should be quietly waiting for conditions to improve)?  The story seems to be heading in that direction, but it’s so unlikely that Furth would intend something so ridiculous that I can only conclude she just hasn’t thought it through.

And in what way does bringing Jean back solve the problem?  Is the suggestion meant to be that Scott somehow goes on to become a better or more broadly acceptable President?  How, for god’s sake?  Or is the idea that he never becomes President at all?  In which case, again, what does Jean have to do with that?  Is the moral here simply supposed to be that the X-Men franchise took an irreparable wrong turn by killing off Jean Grey?  If so, again, why?  Is there a point to any of this besides blind nostalgia for Scott and Jean as a couple?

Why did Phoenix remove Emma before everyone else anyway, aside from the obvious fact that if she hadn’t, there wouldn’t be a story?  Is Scott’s response supposed to be demonstrating some sort of point?  If so, (a) it doesn’t, and (b) why is Phoenix trying to make that point, when she apparently doesn’t require Scott’s consent to do what she wants?

Why does Phoenix even care about a war on Earth anyway?  This is a cosmic entity that casually destroys planets, for god’s sake.  Even ignoring that, isn’t destruction and rebirth precisely her thing?  When has she ever shown the slightest concern for human geopolitics?  And since when does she have precognitive powers?  And since when can she alter history at will?

The ending doesn’t even work within the logic of the “100th anniversary” conceit.  Furth appears to be positing that by 2061, Marvel still won’t have brought back Jean Grey.  So she’s proposing a story in which Marvel resets history to at least the end of the Grant Morrison run, in order to bring back a character that the readers of the day won’t care about in the slightest, because she hasn’t been used in over half a century.  Why would anyone in 2061 want to see that?  John Byrne will be dead by then!  Even if this were a remotely good idea on some other level, it’s a story for a notional final issue, not a notional anniversary special.

From a reasonably promising high concept, this comic ends up with a story that doesn’t work on a plot level, doesn’t work on a thematic level, and doesn’t even work on a gimmick level.  It’s truly, truly bad.

Bring on the comments

  1. Thom H. says:

    @Omar: That’s a great summary of the problem with Jean Grey as a character. It’s also telling that her one main internal conflict (becoming Dark Phoenix) is a problem because she’s *too* powerful and *too* sexual.

    As compare/contrast, John Byrne did great things with the Invisible Woman when he took over FF in the ’80s. She had long been The Team Girl, and he beefed up her powers and her personality. Unfortunately, I think he eventually also fell into the “strong woman = dangerous woman” trap when he turned Sue into Malice.

    And then there’s the Scarlet Witch. I guess being a female character from the ’60s with vaguely defined powers never really pays off.

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    Just a point: The Phoenix has previously been shown as being outside time and space, and by default, has always had precognitive abilities and the ability to change history, timelines, and erase entire universes. See “Here Comes Tomorrow” in New X-Men, where Jean as White Phoenix of the Crown holds the entire universe in her hands and changes the timeline with a single thought. Phoenix seems to jump around time as well as space, so to complain about that weakens your argument. However, the rest stands. There was no story without Phoenix meddling in the first place, and the resolution did not really show us why Phoenix meddled, since we didn’t see how it changed the future, just that it changed the past.

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