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X-Men – Battle of the Atom (Review)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

Battle of the Atom is a gigantic mess – but it’s a very fun gigantic mess.

Battle of the Atom seems to exist to fill two separate niches. On the one hand, its publication syncs up rather nicely with the fiftieth anniversary of Marvel’s merry mutants – something that the comic acknowledges by focusing on Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s original creations and by setting the climax at a recognisable setting from that first issue all those years ago. There’s a palpable sense of nostalgia about the whole thing – focusing on the past, present and future of the superhero team.

Stop or my Sentinel will shoot...

Stop or my Sentinel will shoot…

At the same time, it’s the big X-Men crossover event published half-a-year before the release of a multi-million dollar Bryan Singer motion picture. As such, Battle of the Atom feels heavily influenced by X-Men: Days of Future Past. Not only does it play with a variety of the tropes and conventions cemented by that classic Chris Claremont and John Byrne story, it includes numerous shout-outs and even the same basic structure.

Writers Brian Michael Bendis, Brian Wood and Jason Aaron are all having a great deal of fun writing Battle of the Atom, even if the comic does occasionally feel a little bit too light or too familiar. Then again, what’s the point in a fiftieth birthday party if you can’t be a little indulgent?

Dazed by X-Men past...

Dazed by X-Men past…

To be fair, lightness of touch is one of the more appealing aspects of Battle of the Atom. Recent X-Men events – from Messiah Complex through to Second Coming – have been rather solemn affairs. After all, the future of an entire species was at stake, so there was little room for “fun” or “excitement.” Some of these events worked quite well on their own terms, but one of the strengths of Battle of the Atom is how relaxed the whole thing feels.

As one might expect from writer Brian Michael Bendis, Battle of the Atom has no shortage of self-awareness. The big event occasionally feels like it’s running through a stock list of X-Men tropes – from secret government Sentinels to history-altering shenanigans – so it’s refreshing when the team acknowledge this. After all, how many times can the X-Men brush against extinction, confront alternate versions of themselves or feel the weight of state oppressing bearing down before it becomes too much?

Youth today!

Youth today!

There’s a sense that even the characters are becoming a bit numb to the insanity that comes with living in the world of the X-Men. At one point, a younger version of Cyclops is wounded in a fight with some Sentinels. As young!Cyclops lies dying, present-day Cyclops seems to fade out of existence. After Christopher restores Cyclops to existence by healing a wound inflicted on young!Cyclops, he understandably freaks out. However, he seems less disturbed about the fact that he was altering history than he does about how blaise Cyclops is about the experience.

“I think that you X-Men are so used to the space and time and life and death craziness in your life that you don’t even notice how crazy it is any more,” he observes, and Battle of the Atom reinforces the idea. At one point, as the rest of the X-Men are reacting to a time-travel crisis in a way that seems to be the default way of reacting to a time travel crisis, voice-of-reason Kitty Pryde observes, “This is so dysfunctional that I don’t think that most of you can even tell how dysfunctional it is.” There’s a sense that the characters – and possibly the readers – can be numbed to these sorts of twists and developments.

Cyclops is all by himself...

Cyclops is all by himself…

On paper, Battle of the Atom is astonishingly convoluted. The younger versions of five classic X-Men – Cyclops, Jean Grey, Iceman, Beast and Angel – have been pulled into the present. The modern-day X-Men have decided to send them home. A bunch of future X-Men arrive telling our heroes that this is the right thing to do. However, along the way, some of our characters journey into the future, some more X-Men journey into the past, various characters are revealed to be various other characters and the comic book event is book-ended by two fights with Sentinels. Because you can’t have an X-Men anniversary without Sentinels.

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of different players with a lot of different motivations. The story at the heart of Battle of the Atom is endearing simple – it’s a story about our relationship with the future in whatever form it may take – but there’s a lot of crazy and convoluted window dressing going on around it. The writers involved do a nice job of juggling all the threads, and the relative lightness of Battle of the Atom as compared to recent X-Men events means that the fun is never sucked out of the comic, but it does occasionally feel like it is a bit too much layered on top of a bit too much layered on top of a rather sweet ode to the X-Men.

Dead pool enters the... dead pool...

Deadpool enters the… dead pool…

The playfulness helps a great deal, as the various X-Men characters react with varying degrees of self-awareness to the problems and puzzles facing them. As young!Beast begins to suspect a dark secret about some of the visitors from the future, Ilyana Rasputin offers to let him visit the future to continue his investigations. “But is the solution really more time travel?” young!Hanks asks, rhetorically, and it’s hard not to feel some measure of agreement.

At another point, seeking a convenient distraction to help them slip away unnoticed, young!Jean Grey decides to sabotage the unusually civil discussions taking place between the X-Men and their future counterparts, instead hijacking Wolverine’s mind to spark the inevitable superhero “meet and fight” sequence. It’s a nice play on genre conventions, a way for Battle of the Atom to deliver the obligatory crossover action sequences without getting too bogged down in stock superhero clichés.

"Haven't we done this before?"

“Haven’t we done this before?”

(Indeed, Battle of the Atom has an endearing sense of humour about itself. One of Brian Wood’s X-Men issues gives us a wonderful sight gag about young!Scott “Slim” Summers trying to fit himself into a pair of skinny jeans. One of Brian Michael Bendis’ All-New X-Men issues teases the prospect of a dystopian future that results from Dazzler becoming popular. “You are the most recognisable, most liked, most trusted mutant of the last twenty years,” she is told, without the faintest hint of irony.)

This is important. After all, the X-Men have been around for five decades at this point. It’s important that it doesn’t all feel pointless, that it isn’t all self-defeating. It’s possible to look at the X-Men comics over the past cuple of decades and see our heroes gaining inches only to be inevitably forced backwards. After one brutal loss, future!Beast reflects on the cruelty of this approach, “They hate us. They will always hate us. No matter what we do… they hunt and destroy us. And we keep tricking ourselves into thinking that this time — this time it will be different. It’s never different. Two steps forward, seven steps back.”

Sentinels of not-quite-liberty...

Sentinels of not-quite-liberty…

Playing those same storybeats out over and over again can be depressing and dull. So it’s great that Battle of the Atom takes these standard tropes and twists them around in a way that makes them interesting. Indeed, it’s a wonderful inversion of many of the storytelling tools that these sorts of time-twisting adventures take for granted. It pokes and it prods at the assumptions that have come to underpin all the stories spun out (both literally and metaphorically) from Days of Future Past.

Perhaps the shrewdest twist is the way that it undermines the idea of a dystopian future. Post-apocalyptic timelines are a feature of the X-Men mythos, to the point where it is expected that any glimpse into the future must inevitably feature death camps and genocide and mass slaughter. This is so expected that it is almost expected in X-Men events, with both Messiah Complex and Messiah War featuring their own horrific futures for mutant kind.

Come with me if you want to live...

Come with me if you want to live…

It’s so familiar that we take the story for granted – inevitably, our heroes must try hard to avert this monstrous future from ever coming to pass. From the outset, Battle of the Atom is framed as yet another dystopian X-Men time travel story, with mutants from the future arriving and warning the team that they have to act quickly to prevent something truly terrible from occurring. It’s such a standard X-Men trope that most of present-day X-Men (and, likely, most of the audience) take it for granted.

There’s a beautiful irony when young!Beast takes a trip into this future to discover… that it’s actually quite pleasant. Arriving on the lawn of a future version of the Jean Grey School, they are greeted by Sentinels. “All visitors must report to the office for check-in,” they state. They then politely ask, “Would you like us to escort you?” Far from a scorched Earth inhabited by persecuted mutants, this is a thriving future. young!Ice Man reflects, “The way those future X-Men kept taking about the place, their future sounded horrible and scary, but this… this looks awesome.”

Flame on...

Flame on…

Decades of X-Men comics have fostered the idea that the future must be crappy. Battle of the Atom turns that idea on its head. Maybe the future isn’t entirely crappy. Sure, terrible things happen – people suffer; heroes die; there are setbacks – but there has to be some reason why the future is worth fighting for. Otherwise, it’s just doom and gloom. It’s hard to invest in world were the best our heroes can hope for is a different post-apocalyptic future from month-to-month.

In many ways, Battle for the Atom feels like an attempt to capture some of the optimism of the sixties pop culture that spawned the X-Men. When young!Iceman asks if it’s all worth while in the end, old!Ice Master replies, “Even when you think you’ve seen it all… there will always be moments that amaze you.” While Jubilee struggles with her own day-to-day concerns (this being an X-Men comics, those concerns include vampirism), she asks old!Shogo, “You mean she figures this out? She got over it?” old!Shogo answers, “She learned how to cope. How to endure it.”

Cyke!

Cyke!

This does a lot to cast Brian Michael Bendis’ Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men as part of a larger pop culture phenomenon. We are now fifty years from the idealism of the sixties, so it seems like pop culture is taking the opportunity to look backwards. After all, Obama is frequently compared to Kennedy. Mad Men offers a rather brutal exploration of the attitudes that nostalgia tends to obscure. JJ Abrams has taken Star Trek back to its roots, complete with primary colours and sixties aesthetics.

Even Marvel comics itself has been getting in on the act. Mark Waid’s Daredevil run feels like it is trying to channel the classic Silver Age aesthetic, with a few of the plot lines trying to connect Matt Murdock back to his roots. When Brian Michael Bendis took control of the X-Men franchise, he pulled the five original X-Men from the sixties comics into the present day as a vehicle to explore the gap between the original characters and the world as it exists at the moment.

To him, his X-Men!

To him, his X-Men!

(Of course, in order for this to work, one needs to completely avoid thinking about how this works in terms of “comic book time.” It’s very hard for modern!Cyclops to only be ten to twenty years older than young!Cyclops if young!Cyclops was pulled from the sixties. It’s the kind of comic book logic that doesn’t necessarily hold up to scrutiny or examination. That’s fine – it works within the context of the story, allowing Bendis to comment on how time has changed these characters and the world around them.)

This relationship with the past is tricky and difficult to navigate. It’s tempting to think of the past as a more idealised place – a world more innocent than the world that exists at the moment. “This world we live in now is — is just filled with — liars,” young!Jean Grey reflects. “Everyone is trying to manipulate everyone.” While this is certainly true, she seems to overlook the fact that the past isn’t necessarily any better. Professor Xavier will undoubtedly wipe the minds of his pupils as soon as they return, effectively undoing all the growth and development that they have experienced.

A good old-fashioned X-over!

A good old-fashioned X-over!

Even modern!Beast comes to learn that nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia is dangerous. His attempt to bring the younger X-Men into the present day was a misguided attempt to bring things back to the way they used to be. “I did this,” he reflects. “Trying to play God. Thinking I could recapture something we’d lost along the way. But there’s no recapturing the past, is there?” There’s something almost tragic about this, just as there’s something almost tragic about the way that the past will no longer accept the younger versions of the X-Men back. They literally cannot go home again.

The past and the future need to coexist. They cannot be at war with one another. They need to flow organically, not compete for space. In that respect, then, Battle of the Atom seems like a fitting fiftieth anniversary tribute for the franchise – a story about the dangers of romanticising the past and of fearing the future. It’s very self-aware and almost reflexive, but it’s certainly not bad advice for a fifty-year-old comic book franchise.

From the ashes...

From the ashes…

(Indeed, Battle of the Atom seems to make a connection between sixties idealism and utopianism and the present day. If the X-Men work best as allegories for civil rights, then there’s something quite elegant about the way that Battle of the Atom offers us a glimpse of the first mutant President (President Dazzler!), just as the first African American President of the United States is serving his second term. Yes, there’s a lot to be done; yes, the social ills have not gone away; however, there are some things that are worth celebrating. The future cannot be past. The best must still lie ahead.)

Battle of the Atom is also clever in the way that it twists standard time travel logic on its head. When it comes to stories about time travel, it’s generally accepted that a person has an obligation to preserve the time line. Re-writing history is a bad thing, because it could murder millions of people; a single changed decision, a lone missing piece, could alter billions of lives. This logic would suggest that the younger versions of the X-Men must inevitably return to their own times, as soon as possible – so as to minimise the potential changes to the time line.

That old black magic...

That old black magic…

“We have to go back and live out our lives,” young!Beast insists. “Anytime any of us does anything… we risk changing the fate of the world.” At the start of the event, young!Cyclops is almost killed, which almost causes modern!Cyclops to cease to exist. In most time travel narratives, this is unequivocally a bad thing – it represents chaos, something that threatens the established order. Battle of the Atom is shrewd enough to interrogate this logic, and to ask why our heroes should treat history as inherently sacred.

In reply to young!Beast’s concern, young!Cyclops explains, “That’s what all of this is about. We are trying to change the world.” To treat the time line as sacred is to suggest that the status quo must be sacred. If that is the case, the X-Men have changed from social crusaders to the protectors of the established social order. Is to do things unquestioningly because history tells you you should any different from doing them because society tells you to do them?

The Brotherhood of Morally Ambiguous Mutants...

The Brotherhood of Morally Ambiguous Mutants…

Bendis, Aaron and Wood cleverly examine this idea, particularly when Wolverine and his team decide to send the younger X-Men back, whether they want to go or not. While easy enough to justify as part of a time travel plot, it has some uncomfortable undertones when examined in a broader context, as Battle of the Atom points out. Rachel Summers is the survivor of a mutant concentration camp. Considering the situation, she confesses, “No, I’m not super into the idea of sending people somewhere they don’t want to go.” This seems a reasonable position.

Later, Kitty confronts Wolverine about his hypocrisy. The X-Men are all about changing things and fighting for freedoms. Doesn’t hunting down young!Cyclops and sending him back to the past undermine that? Observing that Wolverine has a long history of doing whatever he wants to do and rejecting his own so-called “fate”, she suggests, “So it’s okay for you not to listen and run away… but it’s not okay for them?” It’s a beautiful little sentiment that gives Battle of the Atom a bit more weight than it might otherwise have.

Hank's strategy is da bomb...

Hank’s strategy is da bomb…

Appropriately enough, Battle of the Atom is packed to the brim with fun concepts and nice ideas. The writers are constantly tossing out obscure references to events yet-to-pass like “the moon in ’33” or “the Stark Tower/Baxter Building Wars.” In a nice nod to Days of Future Past, one of the future!X-Men appears to be “Kitty Pride all grown up”, a character from that iconic two-part story. Instead, she turns out to be the shape-shifter child of Mystique, another character who first appeared in Days of Future Past.

Similarly, the revelation that S.H.I.E.L.D. keeps Sentinels is a nice way of building on the closer integration of the Avengers and the X-Men after Avengers vs. X-Men. It makes a great deal of sense, keeps the two words integrated a bit tighter than they would have been in years past, but also opens up all sorts of possibilities for future stories featuring S.H.I.E.L.D. and our merry band of mutants.

Fighting for the future...

Fighting for the future…

The only real problem with Battle of the Atom is that it feels a little bit too light. It feels like a bit of an extended run-around to discover that the younger X-Men can’t get back to the past, and the convoluted plot doesn’t disguise the fact that Battle of the Atom is trodding fairly familiar ground. At the same time, it does offer a nice reflection on the relationship between the past and the future of this franchise, as well as bringing the themes of Bendis’ All-New X-Men and Uncanny X-Men runs into focus. It’s smart and it’s fun, and that makes it a rather endearing ride.

“I had to see for myself that the future was worth fighting for,” Ilyana observes in the prologue to the event, and – to the credit of all involved – Battle of the Atom seems to suggest that it just might be.

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