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X-Men/Dark Avengers: Utopia (Review/Retrospective)

This is the fourteenth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (and, in particular, their “Avengers” franchise) over the past five or so years, as they’ve been attempting to position the property at the heart of their fictional universe. With The Avengers planned for a cinematic release in 2012, I thought I’d bring myself up to speed by taking a look at Marvel’s tangled web of continuity. Get an overview of what I’m trying to take a look at here.

There’s an essay to be written about how Marvel has so carefully and meticulously replaced the X-Men with The Avengers as their biggest A-list franchise book (in fact, there’s a quite wonderful essay written here about that). During the nineties, the big event crossovers at Marvel seemed to exist at the leisure of their mutants – Age of Apocalypse and Onslaught being two of the more obvious examples. However, since House of M, the mutants have been consciously sidelined. They continue to have their own internal events and crossovers – Messiah Complex and Second Coming the most obvious examples – but they remain largely insular and detached from the regular goings on in the Marvel Universe. Except for Wolverine, because he’s everywhere.

Marvel announces Dark Avengers on Ice!

So, it seems that Marvel staging Utopia as their big event in the midst of their Dark Reign storyline (which was, in effect, “an eventless event”, a direction for the Marvel Universe spread across dozens of titles rather than a miniseries and its tie-ins). Maybe it’s an acknowledgement, or a “thank you” to the former first franchise. After all, the X-Men have been everywhere that Marvel wants the Avengers to be as a franchise – comics, television, film – and, in a way they set the blueprint for what a cross-media franchise looks like. In a way, this feels almost like throwing a dog a bone. Dark Avengers is a popular title, and tying X-Men in almost seems like an act of charity – as opposed to the old days when regular heroes would have been honoured to feature in spin-offs from an X-Men event.

The plot – so much as there is one – follows a conflict between Norman Osborn’s Dark Avengers and Scott Summers’ X-Men during riots in San Fransisco, where the X-Men had recently made their home. Racist marches provoked conflict with the city’s mutant community, leading Osborn’s militaristic supervillains-in-superhero-guise to step in to assure the peace. Along the way there’s betrayal, lots of random fistfights, a jetpack and some robots. As you can see, the plot isn’t really that important – it’s a big summer crossover, after all.

Maybe it’s also symmetry. Bendis was careful to fold his Avengers back on themselves. There’s a strange relation between those first arcs of New Avengers and those of Dark AvengersMolecule Man most obviously being a companion to the earlier Sentry. Perhaps this arc is intended to reflect House of M. After all, “no more mutants” would seem the perfect rallying cry for Trask’s “Humanity Now!” federation. However, it feels more consciously intended to reflect Civil War, with the lawful powers of government stamping down of civic freedoms while a notoriously “square” and stoic character becomes a champion for civil liberties. It culminates in the formation of a “legal” alternative to the now-underground superheroes (Dark X-Men are arguably to the X-Men as Mighty Avengers were to New Avengers). There’s even an epilogue labelled The Confession.

No claws for alarm...

The X-Men themselves have had something of a crisis of identity – are they a superhero team or an allegory for prejudice? This is by no means a new issue – they debuted as a generic superhero team, with the subtext coming later – but it’s become more pronounced of late. Grant Morrison pitched his New X-Men as a high-level exploration of the concept of evolution, while Joss Whedon sold his Astonishing X-Men as a return to good old superhero values. Events in the Marvel Universe, with House of M drastically reducing the number of mutants and the Avengers becoming the publisher’s premiere team franchise, seem intent on restoring the team as a minority metaphor. Indeed, moving the team to San Fransisco and running Proposition X (as opposed to, I suppose, Proposition IX), the notion of “mutants as gays” seems to be the defining theme of the franchise.

It’s interesting to see how the franchise is willing to switch metaphors, relating itself to the oppressed minority group of the day – rather than following a given minority through to its logical conclusion. Of course, such a conclusion would involve integration and understanding (and perhaps involve exploring the subtler aspects of prejudice which don’t involve scenes as blatant as riots or army confrontations), which would perhaps require a fundamental change to the status quo. So, instead, mutants will always be an oppressed minority and will never actually succeed at gaining equal standing with their human peers. Of course, Fraction doesn’t write exclusively from this angle – there’s plenty of room for spandex and heroics – but it’s a strong underpinning of his work. On one hand, it turns the franchise into something of a one-trick pony, but – on the other – it gives it on the nose relevance.

The X-Men shared my disappointment with X-Men Origins: Wolverine...

By way of relevance, the allegory du jour is obviously California’s recent Proposition 9, which banned gay marriage in the State. Assuming that X is ten instead of… well, X, Proposition X is a perfect stand-in for that piece of legislation. Much as Prop 9 banned gay individuals from having a family through marriage, Prop X would place a similar restriction on mutants, banning procreation. Ignoring for a minute how ridiculously unconstitutional such a law would be (after all, Prop 9 is equally ridiculous – albeit protected by a rather conservative interpretation of the law), it’s a fitting parallel to draw. Yes, it’s on the nose and isn’t entirely subtle – plus it really only serves as an excuse for the massive brawls which pepper the collection – but the X-Men were never subtle and it lends the plot a suitable “classic” vibe, even if it lacks the nuance that a more complex exploration could offer.

It’s a shame that the miniseries is just a jumble of confrontations – perhaps it was too much to expect any more from Marvel’s big summer event. The action is fast and frantic – though we recognise the shapes and appearances of various characters locked in dynamic battle, it’s a stretch to call them characters. Matt Fraction’s style from his run on Uncanny X-Men carries over, perhaps his own manner of dealing with a large ensemble cast, he introduces characters with boxes containing an icon featuring their affiliation, their codename and a short description. Early in the series these are fairly short and descriptive, but he seems to insist on playing with them as the event rolls on. Some examples are rather forced (introducing Cyclops, who just arrived via jetpack, as “Leader of the X-Men. Owner of a jetpack.” or Avalanche as “Trying to figure out why he’s the one who has to deal with Wolverine.”) and some manage to draw a wry smile (the description of Norman Osborn as “Slowly boiling cauldron of insanity.”), but they just smack of an event trying deal with a large cast that they can’t be bothered to characterise through action or dialogue.

Bullseye, take a bow...

The simple fact is that there’s too much going on here to allow space for the characters or space for the issues that Fraction seems to want to evoke. I noted in my review of his run on The Invincible Iron Man that I find his own brand of stylistic touches and his affection for hokeyness distracting – you’d imagine that concepts like robots disguising themselves as mutant protesters or Scott Summers riding a jet pack would feel more at home than the similar pulpy science-fiction devices would feel elsewhere, but they still feel strangely out of place. Unlike the high-concept wackiness of Morrison – his organ transplants, sentient bacteria and evil twin from the womb – which played into the themes of the series and helped propel the story forward, here it just seems like stylistic touches for their own sake.

What on earth is the point of revealing the human bigotry to in fact be the work of “biosentinels”? Doesn’t an exploration of prejudice and racism (nevermind one intended as allegory) have more depth if played relatively straight, rather than veering completely into action fantasy? Indeed, the only point the evil robots seem to serve (apart from providing a necessary cliffhanger) is to allow Mimic to make some fruitless observation that “the man that hates mutants… made himself a mutant army”. Deep. Except, y’know, not really. It’s the kinda crap that passes for deep when you just really want to justify a scene where the X-Men fight robots in San Fransisco.

The ending kinda falls apart – you get the sense the story was running out of pages. Large chunks disappear. One confrontation ends with two characters charging each other in a forest, only for the scene to end and us never even to get an idea of what happened. It’s a mess.

Cyclops has a blast...

Still, despite these fairly obvious flaws (and there are lots of them), Fraction can deliver a wonderful moment or two – one which suggests that he has greater potential than a knockabout brawl around San Fransisco. In particular, his Norman Osborn is wonderful – he actually thinks he’s a hero, which gives the character a lot more dignity than he often receives (admittedly even Fraction himself would short-change this characterisation in The Invincible Iron Man). He’s a character who doesn’t recognise the difference between appearing a hero and being a hero – worrying about “the visual” and the “Q numbers” rather than whether or not his plan to depower mutants is torture. In his own mind, he’s doing what needs to be done, but he needs to find a way to make it acceptable to the American public – for their own sakes.

Fraction’s version of Cyclops is admittedly a vast improvement on the personality-free version we’ve had for years, with Fraction unashamedly allowing Scott several key moments and victories, perhaps even when he doesn’t necessarily deserve them. Still, his characterisation is – at best – simplistic, lacking the complexity of the version Joss Whedon offered in Astonishing X-Men. That iteration of the character was capable of great feats, but remained solemnly introspective without appearing whiny. Here, he’s just a blank slate. The supplemental material – The Confession, framed consciously to reflect the Civil War epilogue, for example – offers us the other extreme, a Scott Summers too insecure and angsty over the choices he’s made. It’s a fine line to walk, and not one the collection is necessarily able to navigate.

Osborn stands Sentry...

The art is, as with any collection featuring an assembly line of artists, a mixed bag. Overall, the artwork is heavily cluttered and there’s a lot going on from panel to panel, but I suppose that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? The differing art styles sit together reasonably well. There’s definitely a shift between the artists that is easily picked up, but nothing looks strangely out of place. In a wonderfully charming example of how things fit together, each artist appears to have picked Tommy Lee Jones as a model for Osborn. It actually works surprisingly well.

There’s a slew of supplemental material in the back, most of which tying into the “Dark X-Men” that Osborn is putting together. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Dark Reign teams (Dark Avengers, Dark X-Men, The Cabal) is how consciously Osborn mirrors the logic in putting them together that Bendis and Marvel did in putting their counterparts together. Of his own twisted Wolverine, he observes, “People love Wolverine. Can’t get enough of him. Who knew?” He justifies the presence of a non-entity like Dagger on the team as something that “guaranteed the presence of” a big hitter, in much the same way that writer putting together teams must often agree to take on less popular characters (or characters who need a popularity boost) in order to get the ones that they really want. It’s almost refreshing to see Marvel’s media-savvy strategy parodied so blatantly in their own books – it seems that only a power-mad super-villain could rationalise the type of shake up that Marvel has given its major franchises. And that PR is really the only thing that holds a team like that together.

The supplemental material is simply too vast and shallow to really be a selling point. Add to this the fact that most of the vignettes are only a few pages long and either over snapshots of continuity that is incredibly complex and will probably lose casual readers (hell, I was lost) or are instead intended to set up the future Dark X-Men series and it feels like a bit of a cheat. It’s nice to have the material, particularly from a completest perspective, but it doesn’t really add anything. In fairness, you could also argue that the main miniseries is so ridiculously mindlessly action-orientated that attempting to add shading via supplemental material is really quite pointless. By the time I reached it, I was drained of all my enthusiasm. And I had a lot of it.

Pillow talk...

Utopia is a bit of a disappointment and… well, a bit of a blowout in this snaking trail of continuity I’m tracing across the Marvel Universe. It’s perhaps a reflection of how far the X-Men have fallen as a franchise that it all feels so pointless and completely devoid of even some sense of necessity in the grander scheme of things. It certainly hasn’t encouraged me to jump on board Matt Fraction’s Uncanny X-Men run – nor the Paul Cornell’s apparently quite impressive Dark X-Men miniseries – and perhaps even emphasises some of the weaknesses of Fraction’s run on The Invincible Iron Man. There are a few solid moments here or there, but it’s a jumbled mess of a story which doesn’t succeed on its own terms and doesn’t really go anywhere or do anything vaguely important.

Well, it looks like my run of deluxe hardcovers has just about caught up with Marvel’s Avengers chronology. I plan to finish this collection right up until Siege, but I’ll likely have to wait until next year to run a bunch of similar themed reviews. Thanks for stickin’ with us through this. We’ll be back to regular comic book reviewin’ programming next week.

One Response

  1. Stop reading my mind! 🙂

    Utopia had some nice ideas and cool moments, but overall it fell kind of flat.

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