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Brian Michael Bendis’ Run on Ultimate X-Men – Vol. 4 (Hardcover)

Talk about a change of pace. Apparently it was originally conceived that Bendis would be in charge of both Ultimate Spider-Man and Ultimate X-Men during their run. Instead he’s spent almost a decade at this stage with the web-spinner, but he did migrate over to the sister title for a year at the end of Mark Millar’s run. The run is unfortunately too short to fully develop the potential of Bendis on the title, but it represents a massive upwards swing in the quality of the book from the crazy illogical and teen-angst-filled Millar run. It’s still far from a classic, but – read in the context of the entire series – it is perhaps a better representation of what Ultimate X-Men could have been.

And he still doesn't shave...

And he still doesn't shave...

Bendis splits his year on the title into two large arcs, though you could easily make the contention that it is two arcs and a series of oneshots or even a single over-arching plotline. He opens with a Wolverine-heavy story, Blockbuster. The title is a wry nod to the story’s clear stylistic intention – to ease transition between Millar’s action-heavy sprint on the title and Bendis’ more character-based approach to story telling. There’s more explosions, fires and gunshots here than at the climax of the run, and Bendis pushes Wolverine front-and-centre.

It’s a shame that Bendis has to spend so much time with Wolverine. The character has dominated Marvel output for decades and there’s very little you can do with him that hasn’t been done before. I wasn’t particularly happy with the character we saw in earlier issues, and can understand Bendis’ belief that he does need some tender loving care in order to rehabilitate him, but his mysterious past has been done-to-death in a million different ways. That doesn’t mean that Bendis doesn’t succeed in actually giving the old lug some character, it just means that the time invested in the character could have been better spent.

Angels and demons...

Angels and demons...

I don’t doubt that Bendis himself is aware of that fact. In fact, the entire first half of the storyline is constructed as an inversion of Wolverine’s comic book career. The character has been used to boost sales on any number of improbably Marvel titles over the years, appearing on covers of issues where he didn’t actually appear, for example. His popularity was so large that he would frequently pop up here, there and everywhere as a guest star. Bendis has turned the concept on its head: Wolverine encounters Spider-Man, Daredevil and The Black Widow, but within his own book, not theirs. It’s a small conceit, but it’s a clever one that shows how aware Bendis is of the medium in which he works.

The storyline itself suffers greatly from being mostly pointless action with a single lead in what should be a team book and also because it appears to exist solely to provide a lot of missing context to Millar’s second arc, Return to Weapon X. It succeeds as such (and also succeeds on firmly entrenching itself in the ultimate universe – where Nick Fury is the spiritual successor to the mainstream Wolverine, appearing everywhere). The problem is that it is a Wolverine arc, rather than an X-Men arc.

Prepare to be dazzled...

The rest of the X-Men enter the story half way through and Bendis makes it clear he has relatively little time to spend on two of Millar’s pet indulgences with the group dynamic: for the most part the soap opera melodrama is severely toned down and Professor Xavier’s self-conscious self-doubt is replaced with the much more reasonable mistrust of those beyond his sphere. Millar hinted at the mistrust a psychic can generate in an abstract philosophical manner – Is he making Storm love Beast? Can anyone make a truly independent decision around him? – but Bendis gets down to brass tacks – Can even the President be trusted as within his own frame of mind while he has a professional relationship with Xavier? There’s a really important moment in the story when Xavier dismisses his students as children and reminds Wolverine that the two of them are the adults on the team and they both carry a huge amount of responsibility – something which really needed to be said after Millar was so fond of indulging their more adolescent characteristics.

The second arc, New Mutants, is a strange beast. Building on logically from the earlier storyline, it feels as though Bendis has been forced to end his plotline prematurely. Millar took the bones of three years to ramp up to the The Return of the King, and even then it felt incomplete. Here Bendis goes from “shadow conspiracy to assassinate Wolverine” to “public attempt to execute the President” in the space of fourteen-odd issues. His plot is solid and entertaining, but it does feel rushed.

Sometimes, looks can kill...

Sometimes, looks can kill...

It might be easy to label Bendis’ “mutants good/government conspiracy bad” philosophy as somewhat more simplistic than the shades of gray that Millar presented with his “mutant terrorists” angle, but that ignores the simple fact of execution. Millar has always been more interested in combining big action sequences, verisimilitude and philosophical questions than in reflecting the ideas and politics of the real world in a fantastic environment. He ponders the questions that these all-powerful mutants would ask of themselves in using their powers to interact with society. Bendis has little time for that approach, instead asking what questions society would ask of these mutants. It’s certainly a more straightforward question, but it’s handled with more skill than Millar managed his more abstract ideas.

It’s also far more progressive on the exploration of the key themes of the franchise (peaceful coexistence and civil rights) than the earlier run. There is a sense that progress is slowly being made. Of course, we know that they can never fully integrate (because that would end the book and screw with the rest of continuity, so it’s a no-no), but the steps we see presented here appear logical. It would be nice had Bendis remained on in order to maintain the development of these social threads (as the problem with having a book shopped around the office means that the underlying principles and the plot threads being followed tend to shift in and out of focus). But it’s something that recommends the book – taken on its own.

The X-Men face grave danger...

While the ideas are good, this run on Ultimate X-Men reflects Bendis’ run on Ultimate Spider-Man in the strength of its (what are for all purposes) one-shots. For example there’s the truly heart-breaking short story of a mutant whose sole power is the involuntary destruction of all living matter around him. There’s a magical introduction of Angel, which also subtly introduces religion into the discussion on mutants – rather than focusing solely on the evolutionary argument.

All-in-all, a very solid collection which represents (at the very least) a step in the right direction for the title. Perhaps Millar would have done well to follow Bendis, as Bendis really breathes proper character into these creations which Millar used purely as two-dimensional action figures. Had Bendis given us an emotion connection, maybe the stories would have resonated more successfully. The run is very short – and it certainly feels condensed – and maybe a little bit rushed, but it’s also solidly entertaining. Just perhaps it would have done better to have featured the leading team for more than just three-quarters of the issues.

If you enjoyed this review, you might want to check out our other reviews of the complete Ultimate X-Men runs:

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