Monday, October 01, 2012

Riding the Gravy Train 25 (NOT A GODDAMN THING)

Let's see if I can spitball some stuff here with no Avengers vs. X-Men comics out this past week. Excellent scheduling once again, Marvel. I don't want to jump to the negative right away, but, after an event that began with such momentum and energy, you kind of expect it to try to recreate the same energy at the end. Sure, there can be a little dip in the middle, but that's only because you can't keep it up the entire time. You begin strong and you end strong. It goes back to what I was talking about last week: it's like Marvel has just given up and moved onto what's next. Anyone who thought it was me simply bitching about the fact that the event isn't remaking the Marvel Universe clearly missed the point (I'm looking at the Blog@Newsarama comments section specifically...). (Yes, I wish there were more substantive changes or consequences, but that's partly because I actually want something (just once!) to live up to the pre-release hype. If this is the big culmination of years of stories, then things should look different as a result. They won't and everyone knows that... it would just be nice.) Avengers vs. X-Men still has a final issue to be released, along with at least four tie-in books and an aftermath mini-series, yet it feels like it ended weeks ago. Does anyone really care about how it ends or do we all assume something like the following will happen?

* Dark Phoenix Cyclops will do some crazy bad stuff while everyone tries to stop him.
* The Scarlet Witch will use her powers to temporarily subdue Cyclops, possibly with the help of Hope.
* Cyclops will be defeated and the Phoenix will leave him, going to Hope, who will 'embrace her destiny' and accept a union with it. Everyone will accept this, trusting that she is ready for the responsibility of the Phoenix.
* She totally is. But, she must leave Earth until she fully understands her role as the new Phoenix Host. At which point, she may or may not restore the mutant population... you know, if anyone remembers that that's what this was all about.
* The series ends with an apologetic Cyclops accepting his fate as History's Greatest Monster, realising that he has let his people down and killed his mentor, ready to accept any punishment that may befall him.

Hands up if that's what you're expecting...


Something that hit me recently is how irrelevant the Avengers are in this story. It's not really an Avengers story, is it? Oh, they may dominate some scenes and be one half of the story on the surface, but they don't really 'matter,' do they? They're simply the reactive force, a bunch of generic good guys trying to save the world without much about them that specifically drives the story. This could have been a story with any other group standing in for the Avengers. That the Avengers titles rarely did anything substantive with those characters in this story is one indication of how much this was an X-Men story that happened to use the Avengers as a way to make people actually care. The Avengers is Marvel's top franchise right now (pretty much because of Brian Michael Bendis), but the X-Men is a much stronger concept to drive stories. The Avengers is such a generic concept that it's hard to have stories driven by that team that would pack such strong emotion. Avengers stories are usually dictated by external forces; the group is reactive (hence the name) and, aside from one of their own going crazy or half of the team deciding that the government they're always resentful of when it exerts its authority over the team should actually have more authority over all superheroes, there isn't a lot of big stories you can tell where the Avengers are active in making things happen. Things happen, the Avengers react. That's how it goes.

The X-Men is a concept that is broad, but has conflict at its core that's there no matter what external actors are doing or not doing -- especially since the events of House of M where the mutant population was so depleted that you could get lost in stories of inner struggle over how to cope with a near-extinct series. Schism featured external actors, but was still driven by internal problems and ideas. Avengers vs. X-Men is driven entirely by the X-Men's personal causes. The Avengers do what the Avengers do with the X-Men playing the 'bad guys' seemingly at first until they take over the story... because the bad guys are always more interesting; the Avengers are simply a reactive force and the story has been driven by the actions of the X-Men. Take out the X-Men as the villains and how would this differ from a typical Avengers story really? Except, it would be a generic cosmic force that happens to arrive on Earth and fuck shit up... much like the new Zodiac in Avengers Assemble to a degree. Take out the Avengers and the interesting parts of Avengers vs. X-Men remain: the religious subtext, the questions of what the 'right thing' is to do, putting the good of 'your people' above the rest of the world, the 'fall' of a superhero team... This is Marvel using its currently most popular franchise to get everyone to pay attention to its most interesting franchise again.


The biggest flaw in Avengers vs. X-Men is also my favourite thing about the series: Cyclops is the hero. This was obviously not the intention of anyone involved, but he is clearly the hero of this story, even after the events of issue 11. The spot where it changed was when the Phoenix actually arrived. Before that moment, he was a cult leader. He believed for no logical reason that the giant cosmic fire bird was coming to inhabit the body of the teenager he thinks is the mutant messiah and that, as a result, the mutant people will be reborn and will inherit the Earth from the humans. Even if you accept that the Phoenix had been on Earth with no bad consequences, there was still no basis for him thinking that any of that would happen. He simply put 'red hair' together with 'first mutant birth since M Day' and made up a bunch of shit that he then convinced his followers was The Truth. He was clearly crazy and had to be stopped.

Then, the Phoenix arrived and possessed the bodies of himself and four of his friends and he was proven right. It wasn't coming to destroy Earth, it was a tool to be used to make the world into Utopia, and he and the others would simply act as placeholders until Hope was ready to embrace her destiny as the mutant Phoenix messiah. That's the moment where the entire premise of the series was thrown out of the window and you couldn't dismiss Cyclops as a crazy cult leader. He was right. The Avengers 'lost' when that happened and continued to 'lose' as Cyclops was the only one of the Phoenix hosts not corrupted by the power. He was the believer whose faith was rewarded. He was the crazy guy who holds up a "The end is nigh!" sign who has Jesus's spirit possess him to bring about the Rapture and everyone else just has to kind of shrug and mutter their apologies. (Except the Avengers didn't do that, because of Modern Marvel Universe Rule #1: CAPTAIN AMERICA IS NEVER WRONG NO MATTER HOW WRONG HE CLEARLY IS.)

From that point on, it was hard not to see the tired 'power corrupts' story as worse than it would have otherwise been. It went against the natural flow of the story they were telling: Cyclops is the mutant messiah. Hope was the false messiah, as were the other Phoenix hosts. Cyclops is the only one to maintain his beliefs and morals with the power of the Phoenix, constantly sure that the Avengers and Hope, if given enough time, will come around to see the good that's happening. He even believed that Hope would take her place as the true Phoenix host and messiah -- that his role was simply that of John the Baptist and he was happy to play that role. If anything, from that moment on, it became a story about the Avengers actively trying to make the world a worse place, because they can't accept that 'Jesus' has returned and will bring about Utopia for the sole reason that they think all power corrupts and every other proclaimed saviour was actually evil. (Seriously, you could probably do a decent parody of this story using Jesus, because the Avengers would clearly try to stop him from bringing about the Rapture, thinking him some evil cosmic being that's no different from Thanos or Galactus...) As I said when discussing issue 11, it's only when Cyclops is pushed to such extremes that he can't not respond that he really 'crosses the line' that separated him from the other Phoenix hosts. But, holding that against him is kind of like thinking Superman is the bad guy when every superhuman in the DCU teams up to try and kill him and all attempts to reason with them fails and they just keep coming.

All of this makes the prospect of issue 12 somewhat depressing to me. Cyclops will be the villain, the Avengers will be the heroes, and it will all be so... typical. The story changed partway through and no one involved seemed to realise it.

Next week: Avengers vs. X-Men #12, AVX: VS #6, and Uncanny X-Men #19.