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X-Men: Second Coming (Review/Retrospective)

This is the sixteenth in a series of comic book reviews that will look at the direction of Marvel’s shared universe (particularly 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.

Second Coming is the culmination of about five years of X-Men plots. In fairness, the finale was pretty obvious from the moment that the Scarlet Witch rather infamously muttered “no more mutants” at the climax of the muddled House of M. When mutants were rendered an “endangered species” we always knew the saga would come down to one gigantic confrontation between mutants and the humans who would seek to exterminate them – while at the same time lifting the weight of extinction from the shoulders of the mutant franchise. Reflecting on the events within the Marvel universe, Cyclops comments, “Osborn is gone. The Avengers are back. And the X-Men… we can stand for something again.” And perhaps that’s the best thing to come out of all of this – the return to the status quo. If that sounds disappointing, it probably is.

Cable's gunning for the record for most kills by a one-armed mutant ever...

While you can make the argument that the central narrative of the Avengers franchise over the past few years, from New Avengers to Siege, was an exploration of the key facets of heroism – a deconstruction of heroes (in stories like Civil War, World War Hulk and Secret Invasion), juxtaposed against a firm definition of evil that serves to give them purpose (Dark Reign and Siege) – it’s hard to instill the same sort of philosophical value into the X-Men crossovers. Does this saga say anything essential about the mutants and the key themes of the franchise? Does it say anything important about anything?

In a world where moral ambiguity has led governments to adopt controversial measures to preserve the lives of their citizens – a world where phrases like “extraordinary rendition” and “acceptable losses” are used in reference to the major democratic powers – the notion that superheroes might not be so heroic is powerful stuff. For all its bluntness, Civil War was an interesting exploration of a country at war with itself. Secret Invasion tapped into the insecurity and uncertainty of the modern world (“who do you trust?”). Dark Reign made us wonder what we would sacrifice for security. These are all important ideas and ones familiar to anybody paying any attention to global affairs, even if rendered in somewhat crude fashion.

Cyke out...

On the other hand, what the hell does Messiah Complex say about the modern world? Is Second Coming a subtle commentary on the nature of prejudice or cultural imperialism? It is not. You might argue – and you’d perhaps be correct – that comic books are a light medium. They’re for entertainment – they don’t need to say anything about anything. But the fact is that the X-Men as a series owe their success to their ability to put the finger on the pulse.

Charles Xavier and Magneto are frequently compared to Martin Luthor King and Malcolm X, a reflection on the way the series dealt with the issue of integration – controversial at the time. Grant Morrison in New X-Men used mutants as a vehicle to explore the way that various ethnic minorities (African American in the USA or Asian in Britain) influenced and interacted with the mainstream – it’s more complex than crude calls for separation, it extends to the adoption of slang or music.

The dream is in ruins...

Some people would argue that this spirit is still alive within the X-Men books. Some commentators have suggested that this idea of cultural extinction allows the mutants to stand in for ethnic groups like Native Americans or aboriginals – groups that actually find their way of life under fire and staring at the possibility that they may be gone from the planet in the space of a few generations. However, the metaphor doesn’t work within the context. While the social interactions and prejudices that have historically been demonstrated towards the X-Men have reflected towards other groups, there’s nothing particularly strong to compare these mutants to these otherwise endangered cultures. None of these minorities spent their time praying for a savior, nor do they travel around the world searching for a genetic cure to their extinction. They don’t form covert strikeforces, nor do they take up space in the centre of urban sprawls.

One of the best metaphors for this new status quo for the franchise was to compare these mutants and their island with the Jewish state of Israel. It makes sense, a little bit:

When you ask yourself the question, the similarities in Matt Fraction’s writings certainly pop out. This week’s Dark Avengers #8, for example, uses some particularly connotative language when Cyclops says “we reject Norman Osborn’s pogroms against mutants.” Yet this sort of metaphor has been in Fraction’s arc since the beginning. Not unlike the antisemitic backlash of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mutants were attacked around the world during Messiah Complex. Following the near extinction of the first mutant birth in years, Scott Summers led the X-Men to create their own Promised Land — in this case, San Francisco.

It’s in so doing that the X-Men have taken a bit more of a militaristic tone, not unlike the Zionist movement in Israel’s early history. Throughout Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia, there has been the appearance of Cyclops and Norman Osborn as political grandmasters, as metahuman generals each trying to position their troops to outflank the other. Indeed, the X-Men have become better organized and more militarily effective under Cyclops’ reign, just as the early Zionists built up the Israeli military into the hardened fighting force it is today. Under Xavier, the X-Men certainly scratched their potential — but after the House of M decimated their ranks, Cyclops has taken a more pragmatic approach, picking specific X-Men for specific missions, never laying all his eggs into one basket. He doesn’t think in just individual battles — Cyclops is about winning the war.

Can the franchise ever heal?

However, even this metaphor is far from a perfect fit. Israel isn’t a concept that can be explored or discussed in isolation. No matter which side of the political fence you sit on, you have to acknowledge that the key issues concerning Israel concern the Palestinian cause. It seems pointless to discuss it in a vacuum – and perhaps overly simplistic. As appealing as it is to look at Bastion’s siege of Utopia as a fitting analogy for the Six-Day War, it is at the very best a blunt and crude comparison.

In short, these past few years have removed a core facet of the appeal of the franchise, and replaced it with high concept fantasy. And I can get high concept fantasy from just about any other book out there, so there’s nothing special about these characters any more. Being honest, I could get better high concept fantasy in any number of other books published out there. It’s unfair to criticise the book for returning to the status quo at the end – we all knew that Marvel weren’t going to let the X-Men die out, nor would they allow this mopey self-pitying plot run for too long. The conclusion of the arc is a foregone conclusion. I won’t spoil it, but I don’t think anyone interested in the arc will be surprised how it ends.

Wolving it down...

However, how does the story get there? If we can’t blame the book for its predictable ending, we can blame the franchise for really not getting up to too much in the meantime. I remarked in my review of Messiah Complex that it seemed inevitable that the X-Men would do a “mutants will be extinct” storyline at some stage, so we can just hope they do a good one. I enjoyed Messiah Complex and even Messiah War. However, Second Coming is just a mess.

Maybe it’s because the book doesn’t have a set of strong writers like Ed Brubaker or Peter David (I have to admit, I’m not as big a fan of Matt Fraction as some are), or maybe it’s down to the fact that the book never seems to introduce anything or anyone before running away with itself, or perhaps it’s even the fact that the cast is far too large, but Second Coming doesn’t really engage. It’s structured as a big chase sequence followed by a brief set of character moments followed by a huge brawl. At times, it’s literally hard to keep track of who is attacking the X-Men at a given moment. “Do we even know who these people are?” Angel asks as the characters lay into a bunch of attackers. “Does it matter?” Colossus responds. It kinda matters to me, because I like to get a sense of who or what these people are before it all hits the fan.

No claws for concern...

After an opening featuring a chase sequence across the country which just sort of happens, we get some quieter character moments (although these are subject to ridiculous melodrama – “this is on you,” Beast yells at Scott at one point) and then it’s an explosive finale. It’s easy enough to spot the bad guys from the good guys – and there is a strategy behind the attacks on the X-Men which does make sense – but there’s very little to distinguish the characters going in. I know the names of each of the bad guys involved in the plot, but I know nothing of their backgrounds or specialties or philosophies.

At one point, a minor character is asked to explain what is unfolding to the assembled members of the Avengers and Fantastic Four. “Inside that dome right now is a Sentinel from the future,” he begins. “This is all his doing — and he’s come here from a mutant-free future to snuff us all out in the past.” That isn’t hip or snazzy or high-concept, that’s awkward and convoluted. I can only assume all this was handled in some book somewhere in the four or five books that have been running for the last couple of years, but Marvel hasn’t collected too many oversized hardcovers of the material to read through, especially from the “spine” series, Uncanny X-Men.

Keeping Hope alive...

As an aside, I’m not sure whether I love or hate Matt Fraction’s writing. I can’t decide if a scene with Fantomax gunning down Sentinels is hilarious or poor form. “I’m not trapped in here with you… you’re trapped in here with me,” the character quotes, before laughing to himself, “Ha Ha. That film was stupid.” It just seems like an incredibly petty swipe at Watchmen for a cheap laugh. Given the movie – despite being far from perfect – felt a damn bit more adventurous and engaging than the crossover, it can’t help but seem like poor form. Then again, Fraction is more than a little bit cheeky throughout the crossover – at times endearingly so.

Taking Wolverine and his strike force into a future designed to recall the Claremont classic The Days of Future Past (right down to the posters of the dead X-Men), Fraction has Cable remark, “And we don’t come out until the future is razed and the past is saved.” That sounds like a fairly sarcastic way of condemning the suffocating nostalgia in superhero comics like the X-Men. The future is dangerous, new and frightening – it is threatening and must be destroyed. Instead, we can simply recycle the past, ad nauseam. He’s dead right, but one can’t help but feel that he could be doing a little bit more about it – I mean, I can grumble and grown because I can’t really change it, but he actually writes these stories. He has the power to change this model if he can come up with exciting enough material. Instead, we’re getting more of the same.

They've got the whole world in their heads...

One can’t help but feel that the X-Men as a franchise have been caught in a tug of war between the editors and the writers. the editors sought to eliminate what they saw as a major danger to the franchise that had come about during the nineties and the early naughties – oversaturation of named mutant characters. However, the writers have remained faithful to that edict, while delivering more and more of the stuff which was actually damaging the franchise and keeping readers away.

The X-Men have never really been about time travel to the ridiculous degree that Bishop and Cable seem to be pushing the franchise towards. Nor did Ed Brubaker need to open his run on Uncanny X-Men with a gigantic space opera. Yes, these were ideas which harked back to Chris Claremont’s iconic run, but they were ideas which were executed in increasing convoluted manners and which threatened to lock new readers out of the book. The Necrosha crossover was an excuse to bring back zombified versions of characters that even hardcore X-Men fans would have difficulty recognising. If anything, the death of all these “extraneous” mutants has only made the franchise more insular and inaccessible. If I didn’t know better, I’d imagine the writers were consciously trying to make a point – that it’s these tropes, not the abundance of mutants, which are harming the property.

Cyclops hits the wall...

Another example of the kind of stuff which was taken to excess during the nineties, the story contains a ridiculous amount of violence, the kind that would put many a nineties comic book artist to shame. We get X-23 executing a prisoner in cold blood by ramming her claw through her head. A weird ugly scorpion thing impales (and ultimately severs) Karma’s leg. There are countless shots of our heroes dismembering and decapitating bad guys – Namor even gets to graphically tear some guy’s arm off. So much for moving away from the excess of the X-Men in the nineties.

It’s a lot of running just to stand still. It’s disappointing and a bit anti-climactic. There are some good moments scattered throughout (most of which centre around the consequences of Scott’s actions – it almost feels a waste that the toll all this is taking on him is so smugly dismissed by having him blow a hole in the meeting room wall; how juvenile is that?), but it just feels like a waste of energy for the franchise to so limply find itself back where it started from. Many of the people reading the book will have deduced a shock twist revealed in the final pages just from the developments within the fictional universe five years ago.

Doesn't quite pack a punch...

Ah well. Maybe Scott is right. Maybe the X-Men can stand for something again, soon enough.

This is the end of these articles. Back to regular comic book reviews next year – I’ll probably start with some continuity-lite stuff – I’ve ventured far enough into the modern crossovers at Marvel, thank you very much. Thanks for coming along for the ride, and I hope you enjoyed it.

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