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Civil War: X-Men (Review)

To celebrate the release of The Wolverine later in the month, we’re taking a look at some classic X-Men and Wolverine comics every Monday, Wednesday and Friday here. I’m also writing a series of reviews of the classic X-Men television show at comicbuzz every weekday, so feel free to check those out.

Ugh. There’s nothing like Civil War: X-Men to remind you just how unkind the middle part of the last decade was to Marvel’s merry mutants. It’s a soulless cash-in the worst sense of the word, a four-issue miniseries branded with the title of the gigantic universe-spanning crossover that was going on at the moment. One would imagine that the whole Civil War crossover would provide a multitude of compelling storytelling opportunities for the X-Men as a franchise.

After all, these are superheroes whose entire schtick is based around being hated and feared by the world they try to protect. You’d imagine that they’d have a few choice words for all the superheroes finding themselves suddenly confronted by the idea that the public isn’t too keen on people with superpowers just wandering around. Instead, we get a messy jumble of a plot that doesn’t make sense on its own terms, let alone as an attempt to contextualise the involvement of the X-Men in Marvel’s Civil War crossover.

Back in black...

Back in black…

To be fair, the X-Men tended to exist in their own little corner of the Marvel Universe. Sure, there was the occasional overlaps and guest appearance here or there. Beast had served as a member of the Avengers, and Magneto’s children were fixtures of the team. Since Avengers Disassembled, writer Brian Michael Bendis had brought Wolverine over to the X-Men teams. The crossover House of M was nominally a story featuring both the Avengers and the X-Men characters, even if it ultimately felt a bit like an Avengers story that just happened to have pretty major consequences for the X-Men franchise.

Marvel has tried, in recent times, to conglomerate the two teams. Following Avengers vs. X-Men, Rick Remender launched the Uncanny Avengers book, a comic featuring the highest profile Avengers and X-Men teaming up to fight threats to both parties. There’s even a team-up Avengers & X-Men book being published. There’s now a much tighter sense of integration around the two franchises now than there has historically been. I have to admit, I’m very interested in that status quo, given how separate the two franchises have been kept.

Taking the matter in hand...

Taking the matter in hand…

Of course, there’s a reason the two franchises were kept separate, of course. Part of it is purely logical. After all, it seems strange that the public should loathe people born with superpowers when they generally welcome those who get their powers through a quirk of fate. (Spider-Man notwithstanding.) If the public aren’t freaked out by Captain America or Thor or Captain Marvel or Iron Fist, then there’s no reason they should dread Cyclops or Wolverine. Various writer have tried to account for that discrepancy, by pointing out that some mutants are icky or that it’s the idea of mutants as their replacements that terrify the public, but it does seem strange.

There’s also the fact that the existence of such radical anti-mutant prejudice (which has, on several occasions, come quite close to state-sponsored genocide) doesn’t reflect well on “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes.” It’s great for Captain America to champion the country, but it only really makes sense if this isn’t the same country that seems to want all mutants dead. If Captain America can’t dedicate time to helping mutants, if Tony Stark can’t donate money to support them, if the Avengers can’t try to highlight awareness, then they all seem like pretty crappy superheroes.

Purple haze...

Purple haze…

So it makes sense to pretend that the X-Men exist in their own little pocket universe, and it explains why the X-Men played such a minor role in the wave of gigantic crossover events published by Marvel over the past decade or so. Sure, they occasionally got crappy miniseries like this one, but Charles Xavier and his students were never major players in events like Secret Invasion or Siege. They were – of course – tied up in their own run of crossovers from Messiah Complex to Second Coming.

Mark Millar did make a point to at least mention the X-Men in Civil War. Tony Stark shows up at the mansion and tries to encourage the mutants to come out in his support. Emma Frost politely points out that the X-Men and the Avengers don’t necessarily have the healthiest relationship when it comes to mutual appreciation or support, and effectively tells him to get stuffed. That’s really all the involvement you need from the X-Men in the story, as it plays into Millar’s somewhat cynical attitude about how selectively “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” actually wield their power.

If you can't stand the heat...

If you can’t stand the heat…

That’s not to suggest there isn’t a good story that might have been used for Civil War: X-Men. It might have been interesting to have Cyclops explain to Captain America the realities of working under a system that truly hates you. “The smart money says mutants will be treated the same as other superhumans,” one of Bishop’s advisers remarks, one of the few times the comic acknowledges that a huge part of Brian Michael Bendis’ reinvention of the Avengers involved borrowing storytelling tropes from the X-Men box.

Indeed, Bendis’ ten-year Avengers stint owes a sizeable debt to long-term X-Men writer Chris Claremont. It would be interesting – and a little subversive – to explore that. After all, with the Avengers franchise taking one of the hallmarks of the X-Men, where does that leave the X-Men? There’s a lot of fodder for interesting comic book storytelling here, particularly if the tie-in or crossover is willing to be a little cheeky or self-aware.

Building trust...

Building trust…

Unfortunately, Civil War: X-Men isn’t really interested in any of that. It’s really just four issues of the X-Men sort of doing their own thing. They even call Captain America to let them know they’re doing their own thing, in the most direct point of crossover of the whole miniseries. “You’re waving the flag in my face now?” Captain America asks, when Cyclops rings the recruitment hotline, which might actually make for some half-decent drama. Instead, Cyclops just asks Cap for some directions and both parties continue on their way as if nothing has happened.

What we get is four issues of generic X-Men storytelling from 2005. It’s mired in an incredibly depressing narrative dead-end, with the mutant populace reduced to 198 people who all seem to know each other, while various sinister parties plot a genocide that is suddenly a lot easier than it might have been during the nineties. As rule, the X-Men stories between House of M and Second Coming were unfocused and confused, unsure about how to make this new status quo work in a way that wasn’t both insular and depressing.

Not quite having a blast...

Not quite having a blast…

Civil War: X-Men pretty much typifies this problem. It’s a load of action and posturing featuring lots of members of the X-Men‘s expansive supporting cast, but no real depth or complexity. It has no real narrative hook and no compelling character drama driving it. It’s just stereotypical superhero stuff, rendered without any soul or enthusiasm. Lots of continuity without a hint of complexity or gravity. The comic can’t even seem to figure out how to make the whole “Native Americans on reservations” metaphor work. (While Matt Fraction’s run had its problems, at least he made X-Men as Israel” work.)

To be fair, a lot of this is down to the simple mess that House of M made of the X-Men franchise. Editorial decided that Grant Morrison’s “mutants as a subculture” approach was far too radical for the franchise, so they had Brian Michael Bendis magically cull various mutants, reducing the status quo to 198 survivors. This was pretty crappy storytelling, even by comic book standards, but it created a more significant problem.

"We done here, Cyclops? I got half-a-dozen other tie-ins to appear in."

“We done here, Cyclops? I got half-a-dozen other tie-ins to appear in.”

The difficulties posed by this set-up should be obvious. By pushing mutants to the brink of extinction, it means that every story involving mutants has to reflect that in some way. It’s not plausible for Cyclops or his supporting cast to ever think about anything else. However, since editorial won’t reverse it, we just get years of stories about how mutants are a dying race – until they aren’t. It’s overbearing, suffocating and grim.

It’s no coincidence that the first truly successful relaunch of the X-Men franchise following House of M – Jason Aaron’s Schism – went back past House of M to find a workable status quo. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine and the X-Men set itself up as a spiritual successor to the very “mutant subculture” books (New X-Men and X-Statix) that House of M had rallied against. Kieron Gillen’s Uncanny X-Men went back to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, which had ran alongside (and completely ignored) House of M.

The Domino effect...

The Domino effect…

Civil War: X-Men embodies this grim nihilistic wheel-spinning which came to define the X-Men in the middle of the last decade. Nothing much happens, but it takes forever to happen – even with only four issues. Nothing much is gained, nothing much is lost. Things end almost exactly as they began, with nothing too profound or thoughtful offered over the course of the crossover. It’s just nonsense.

Civil War: X-Men is the type of crossover tie-in that comic book readers have come to dread, the book with the title on the front simply to sell copies, without an interesting story to tell, or even any interest in telling a story.



5 Responses

  1. I loved ‘Wolverine: Civil War’ but the X-Men Civil War left me cold.

    • Yep, it’s just the most cynical of cash-ins. I didn’t care much for Civil War: Wolverine, but at least it played into some of the themes of the event, rather than just being bleak continuity-heavy gibberish.

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