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‘Battle Report of the Atom’: ComicsAlliance Examines Marvel’s Big X-Men Event

Marvel’s X-Men comics recently celebrated their 50th anniversary with Battle of the Atom, a ten-part crossover between its four main X-Men titles that brought together mutant teams from the past, present and possible future — and combined the talents of writers Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron and Brian Wood and artists Frank Cho, Stuart Immonen, Chris Bachalo and David Lopez.

The X-Men have had their share of epic tales over the past fifty years, including the Dark Phoenix Saga, Inferno, Age of Apocalypse and Avengers vs X-Men. So how did the Battle of the Atom stack up against the franchise’s history, and where does it leave the characters as they head into the next fifty years? ComicsAlliance splits the atom. Spoilers follow.

If you need a recap, here’s how the Battle of the Atom went down. At the opening the X-Men were divided into two camps; Wolverine’s school and Cyclops’s school. In theory they have different philosophies — Wolverine squeezes his toothpaste from the end, Cyclops from the middle — but in practice it’s a clash of personalities.

Meanwhile, for reasons that it’s best not to delve into too deeply, Beast brought the five original X-Men from the past into the present. It was a scared straight program for young mutants, but it didn’t work because, well, it was meddling with the timestream. That never works. Remember when Beast was stupid? It was last week.

X-Men: Battle of the Atom #1 opens with Illyana teleporting to the future to learn, oh no, there will still be fighting! We won’t all wear white and sing hymns all day! We won’t have cured war! In stark contrast, the original five X-Men see some other, different fighting in their future, i.e., the present, as they track down a new mutant who makes dragons and cosplays as Zealot from WildCATS.

Sentinels show up and one of them briefly kills Young Cyclops, which briefly wipes Present Cyclops out of existence, at which point it’s decided that, for the good of the timeline, the original X-Men really have to go back to their own time.

That’s when a group of evil-looking future X-Men travel back in time to the present to tell them… how important it is… that they do the exact thing they were already planning to do before the future X-Men interrupted. They could have timed that time travel better.

While the future X-Men fight the present X-Men, two of the past X-Men sneak away to seek sanctuary from the Evil X-Men, by which I mean radical fugitive terrorist Cyclops and his ragtag team of ethically-challenged monsters; Magneto, Illyana and Emma Frost. This leads to more fighting, during which Young Jean Grey gets a glimpse of her future from… her future, Old Young Jean Grey.

Meanwhile, Illyana takes Young Beast and Young Iceman into the future to bring back another team of future X-Men. It turns out the first team, with Deadpool, Xorn, demonic Beast, monster Iceman and creepy child Xavier, was evil. Who’d have thought?

The new team is obviously good because it features Colossus with an awesome handlebar moustache and Iceman with a wizard beard. These two teams had their own future-schism with the first lot of future X-Men after the assassination of President Dazzler. (We don’t see who she chose as her VP. I’m assuming Boom-Boom.)

The story wraps up with a huge rumble between all the X-Men, which ends when Future Young Jean Grey goes supernova and dies (it’s what Jeans do), and SHIELD unleashes Sentinels on everyone.

Where does that leave us?

First, it means we’re keeping some of the characters from the future, and most of them are villains. Of the bad X-Men, AKA the “Brotherhood”, four appear to have survived: Kid Xavier (Xavier’s grandson, now paralyzed); Raze (shapeshifting son of Wolverine and Mystique); Molly Hayes (grown-up version of the Runaways member) and Ice-Hulk (autonomous creation of Future Iceman).

Kymera, the future daughter of Storm, also stuck around to hunt the Brotherhood, along with her pet black panther (whose existence may be a clue to her paternity). As far as I can tell, Kymera’s powers have not yet been established.

Second, we’re keeping the X-Men from the past. The storyline revealed that the five originals could not return to their own time, for reasons yet to be explained, so stop asking already. They’re here to stay.

This emphasis on time travel is a little baffling to me. Time travel is a well-established part of the X-Men’s history, but I’ve always thought of it as a bug rather than a feature. It was used in Days of Future Past to give shape and weight to the X-Men’s persecution fears. It did the job in two issues and eventually gave us a then-unique addition; Rachel Summers, the first time-displaced X-Man.

Every attempt to revisit time-travel has served only to reinforce the paranoia of Days of Future Past or to dilute it by adding other futures with less thematic resonance. Rachel and the future that made her were X-Men ideas. Bishop and Cable and the futures that made them are just generic sci-fi ideas that could come from any comic.

The future revealed in Battle of the Atom tries to dramatize the differing philosophies that motivate Cyclops and Wolverine, but those philosophies are never clearly articulated during the crossover itself, so that divide is overshadowed by the more pressing question on the ethics of sending people back to their own timeline — which is not an idea that resonates with readers, or one that feels uniquely X-Men. Throwing Sentinels into the mix doesn’t make the idea land, as that fear has hung over the X-Men for almost their entire fifty year history.

The current creative teams evidently see time travel as a central plank of the franchise, one that needs to be expanded upon and used as the focus of the anniversary story, and I worry that it’s a distraction, especially now that the Inhumans are stepping up as the fashionable must-have fictional minority in the Marvel universe. I’d hate to think Marvel means to celebrate 50 years of X-Men by diluting their core themes.

Despite my reservations, I understand the toybox appeal of wanting to just play with these characters, which manifests both in Bendis’s desire to bring the original X-Men into the present day and in introducing characters like Wolverine’s future son and Storm’s future daughter.

Good stories can come out of it; I remain incredibly resistant to the central conceit of All-New X-Men, but it’s my favorite Bendis comic in years. He’s created an excellent soap opera. (That’s not faint praise; X-Men comics are best when they’re soap operas.) I’m intrigued to see what the creators do with Kymera and Raze.

I’m less taken with Kid Xavier, who feels like just another iteration of the worn-out Evil Xavier idea. Ice-Hulk is a cipher, and I faintly resent the idea of a grown-up Molly Hayes when we never see anything of the kid version. Isn’t the kid version infinitely more interesting?

In addition to introducing characters from the future, Battle of the Atom also dropped some knowledge of the future, most of which should be regarded as optional and unlikely to occur. Whether or not Dazzler becomes president, or Jubilee remains a vampire, or Quentin Quire becomes the Phoenix, or Wiccan joins the X-Men without Hulkling at his side (oh no!), will all depend on the direction pursued by future writers. They won’t allow themselves to be restricted to what was shown in this story. (But Colossus should definitely grow that handlebar moustache.)

The one hint at the future that will surely come to pass is the one that one Jean Grey showed to the other, though we didn’t see what she saw. Presumably this is part of Bendis’s master plan for All-New X-Men and the future of Young Jean Grey.

Speaking of which; one of the other changes to come out of Battle of the Atom is that Young Jean Grey is now living on an island with her dead future self’s redhead-obsessed widower and the ex-girlfriend he cheated on her with. I can’t quite express how creepy I find that. She, the other originals, and their teacher Kitty Pryde have all defected to the terrifying barely-reformed-villains side of the aisle.

I can’t quite make sense of that decision. If Cyclops’s team has a philosophy (and again, it’s become a little muddy), it’s that young mutants should be trained as soldiers. Kitty’s reason for leaving Wolverine’s team is her commitment to letting young mutants make their own choices. That still feels more in sync with Wolverine’s school than Cyclops’s. If the writers have clearly thought through everyone’s positions, they need to get that across to the readers. Kitty described her own actions in Battle of the Atom as “completely irrational,” and that doesn’t inspire confidence.

At the start of Battle of the Atom there was a Wolverine school and a Cyclops school and the time-tossed X-Men were mostly at the Wolverine school. At the end of Battle of the Atom there is a Wolverine school and a Cyclops school and all of the time-tossed X-Men are at the Cyclops school. In the final analysis it was a slender story that moved a few chairs around, not a major milestone in the history of the franchise.

There will be other stories in the future, and they won’t necessarily be the ones we were told are coming in the “future.” I only hope they’re X-Men stories, and not just stories with X-Men in them.

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