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Acts of Vengeance: X-Factor – Apocalypse vs. Loki (Review/Retrospective)

April (and a little bit of May) are “Avengers month” at the m0vie blog. In anticipation of Joss Whedon’s superhero epic, we’ll have a variety of articles and reviews published looking at various aspects of “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.”

In celebration of the release of The Avengers, this weekend we’re taking a look at the massive 1989-90 crossover “Acts of Vengeance”, which pitted various villains against some unlikely heroes. I’ll be looking at some of the most fun match-ups. This arc is collected in the companion omnibus.

It is very clear, reading some of the issues connected to John Byrne’s Acts of Vengeance, that some writers weren’t entirely on board with the crossover. After all, it was a giant line-wide event that existed purely to pit heroes against villains who traditionally faced other heroes – there was no more rhyme or reason than that. In many cases, that meant derailing whatever was happening in the book at the time, or even reversing or setting back characterisation. Magneto, in particular, found himself reverted back to little more than a villain. While a lot of books were implicitly critical of the event, Louise Simonson’s X-Factor seems particularly bothered by the intrusion, to the point that the only real tie-in to Acts of Vengeance sees the big villain Apocalypse effectively booting Loki out of his book.

I’m not sure Loki’s enthusiasm will crossover quite well…

In many ways, Louise Simonson’s X-Factor was the perfect example of a title disrupted by the drive to “the next big event”, a frequent problem with mainstream comics for quite a while. After all, Ed Brubaker’s Captain America was knocked off course by Civil War and Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man was disturbed by Secret Invasion. During the gigantic Acts of Vengeance crossover, Simonson’s X-Factor was in the middle of its own big storyline, the six-issue Judgment War. On top of that, one of the two issues in question was the 5oth issues of the series, a double-sized book, one that would probably have been better used to celebrate the X-Men spin-off than to wallow in the latest cross-company crossover.

Acts of Vengeance seems to literally intrude on the two final parts of the storyline, to the point where the crossover omnibus doesn’t even publish two full issues – instead offering exerts from X-Factor #49 and X-Factor #50. Simonson doesn’t seem especially pleased with the interruption, as she takes several opportunities to point out just how random the big event happens to be. The narration states, “Meanwhile on Earth, Apocalypse ponders the screens and tries to find some meaning in the various and bizarre imagery of an Earthly villainous uprising.”You know you’re in trouble when even a genocidal would-be tyrant can’t make sense of what’s happening.

A bit of stretch to convince him to join…

In fact, Apocalypse himself makes some rather potent criticisms of the event. Watching the unfolding chaos, he muses, “They behave oddly. So much out of character  — in some cases as to be baffling.” It’s hard not to interpret that as a rather direct criticism of the way that Acts of Vengeance man-handled Magneto. Chris Claremont, working on Uncanny X-Men, had worked long and hard to portray Magneto struggling with his history and legacy, trying to become a decent man.A lot of modern portrayals draw from that depiction of Magneto, and he is remarkable as one of the most effect comic book anti-villains.

Over the course of the event, John Byrne had brushed a lot of that characterisation aside to present a version of the character who was quite clearly a villain, freely associating with Doctor Doom, the Mandarin and Kingpin. Mark Gruenwald would attempt to justify it as an excuse to attack the Red Skull, but it’s hard to argue that Acts of Vengeance say a version of Magneto who didn’t feel like he’d devolved at least a decade. So, Apocalypse’s criticism seems quite astute – at times Magneto was so strangely out-of-touch with the modern depiction of the character “as to be baffling.”

Apocalypse should screen his guests better…

I have to admit to having a bit of a soft spot for Apocalypse as a villain. I know that he couldn’t be more obviously evil if he tried – he has “four horsemen”, plans genocide and goes by the name “Apocalypse” – but I think the simplicity of the character appealled to me. It’s interesting that Simonson had so obviously villainous a character firmly reject Loki’s offer to join his cabal. After all, Apocalypse is certainly much less developed than Doctor Doom or the Kingpin or Magneto, and is much more of a straight-forward bad-guy. He’d almost be perfect for the group. And yet Simonson cleverly uses such a simple villainous character to illustrate the rather simple problem with characterisation in Acts of Vengeance.

No matter how obviously and transparently evil a villain may be, it’s unlikely that they consider themselves to be truly evil. Unlike heroes who adhere to a universal moral code, villains all follow their own peculiar brand of morality. And the problem with Acts of Vengeance is that it assumes that those villains can apply their morality universally – that they don’t consider other villains to be villains.

Gods and monsters…

To use an example, Doctor Doom justifies everything he does by his own ego – he believes that what he is doing is right because it advances the cause of Doom. However, he probably believes the Kingpin to be a lowly drug smuggler and gang boss, the Red Skull to be a racist genocidal monster and Magneto to be a terrorist. So it seems strange to associate so freely with them. Particularly when they have so little to gain by it.

Byrne’s Act of Vengeance made the argument that this was some sort of game theory in effect – that these villains were “bought off” by the promise that their foes would be killed in return for taking part. But that doesn’t necessarily make sense. As we noticed with the crossovers in The Punisher and Daredevil, the Kingpin gets a much better deal than Doctor Doom, because his foes aren’t personal as much as financial.

Apocalypse, now?

While the Kingpin might hate Frank Castle and Matt Murdock, he wants them dead because they damage his financial bottom line. That logic doesn’t work for Doctor Doom or Magneto, for example. Doctor Doom, as explored in the Fantastic Four crossover, doesn’t want Reed Richards dead. He wants to beat Reed Richards. It’s a subtle distinction, but Simonson alludes to it quite well. Similarly, Magneto doesn’t want anybody dead – he just wants his daughter, and there’s easier ways to do that than this silly team-up. It doesn’t make much sense to band all these characters with different motivations and goals together, as Apocalypse points out. “But I, though immortal, still cling to my human roots. I, like them, have my own agenda… my own goals.”

As Apocalypse, one of the least complex villains in the Marvel pantheon points out, Loki has effectively “manipulated them into joining [his] villainous uprising. Into battling heroes against whom they have no personal grudge.” There’s very little, Simonson seems to argue, to be gained from bashing the toys together in this manner, and it seems to ultimately cheapen the characterisation of the villains in question. I do love how Apocalypse challenges Loki, “By what right do you annoy the heroes of Earth?” It seems like this gigantic crossover isn’t a problem or a threat, but an “annoyance.”

En guard, Asgardian…

Of course, I do like that Simonson finds a way to use the crossover and tie-in to develop Apocalypse. As I noted above, the character isn’t an especially complex bad guy. His motivations are clear and concise, and they generally make a bit of sense. Sure, as with any major villain, there have been moments where later writers have messed it up, but it’s never too difficult to see where Apocalypse is coming from, even if some of his evil schemes occasionally seem a bit obtuse.

Still, Simonson does develop Apocalypse just a bit, while remaining within the confines of the genocidal social Darwinist. Against Loki, Simonson almost presents Apocalypse as a bit of a romantic, as if to suggest that he’s quite fond of humanity. Of course, trying to force their evolution, he’d have to believe in humanity’s potential, so it makes sense, but it’s strange to hear him argue in defense of the species against Loki. “Humans are not the weaklings you take them for,” Apocalypse insists. “Each, be he hero or villain, is dying from the day he is born. Each breath… each effort… is an act of courage against inevitable doom… such courage we immortals only dream of.”

Bouncing back…

Compared to Loki’s rather simplistic comic book villainy, Apocalypse seems almost three-dimensional. There’s almost something heroic about how he justifies his evolutionary policies by reference to Loki.  He hopes to create a humanity “strong enough, one day, to challenge the gods themselves.” After Loki departs, it seems to give Apocalypse new purpose. “Humanity must grow strong… and quickly, Caliban,” he commands.

It is interesting how skilfully Simonson seems to criticise the crossover she is a part of, while still using it to provide some of the best characterisation of her central villain. It’s a nice touch, and one of the better implicitly critical crossovers included in the event.

In celebration of Acts of Vengeance, we’ve taken a look at some of the more memorable tie-ins and crossovers:

3 Responses

  1. This is the only time Apocalypse was an interesting villain… when Louise Simonson was writing the character. After she abandoned the character, Marvel turned Apocalypse into a generic “I WANNA RULE THE WORLD!” villain. Shame.

    • At the risk of being controversial, Louise Simonson is a writer I can take or leave. I’m not sure Apocalypse ever really worked, although I find his generic nature oddly endearing – though I think Remender has come closest, by reimagining him as an ontological force. And these stories don’t even use the “classic” Apocalypse.

  2. Wow, never thought I’d see the day where Apocy would fight Loki, let alone defend humanity, considering how often he wanted them eliminated (along with certain mutants) in order to fulfill his own Darwinisitc cause. very interesting side of him. And I’ll defintiely agree that Louise Simonson wrote the best and most well-rounded Apocalypse out of all the other X-writers to come along.

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