Having been away from X-Men for a few years following the disappointment of Avengers vs. X-Men, I decided it was time to do some catch up by reading volume one of both Uncanny Avengers and Uncanny X-Men. While Uncanny X-Men made me feel as though everything was bleak and hopeless, Uncanny Avengers seemed to want to be going in the opposite direction by injecting some hope into the X-Men universe.
The graphic novel opens up with the funeral of Professor Xavier, who was killed by Cyclops during Avengers vs X-Men. Wolverine delivers the eulogy and in his usual cheerful way tells the mourners that they have failed in making Xavier’s dream of mutant-human coexistence a reality. That’s the theme of the book: bringing people together.
If you’re going to have a team with goals like this then you need an enemy who is going to be the antithesis of this, someone who, when everything goes to shit, will blame ‘the other’ rather than look for the real causes of the problems. The Red Skull is a Nazi from the time of the Second World War and sadly a lot of the things he says don’t seem that out-of-place in a modern context. His labeling of mutants as ‘vermin’ sounds painfully similar to the things we hear horrible people say now about migrants and refugees. His thoughts on Scarlett Witch – ‘Jew, Gypsy and a Mutant… Yet so beautiful. So deceptively…human,’ – help to cement him as a truly despicable person, a bad guy that I could enjoy hating.
Unfortunately, there are a number of problems with this book that stop it from becoming a great comic. My first problem is with the plot. The Red Skull steals Xavier’s brain and merges it with his own, thus allowing him to brainwash people into becoming violent against mutants. The image to the left is the first panel in which this is revealed and I found it absolutely grotesque. Now, granted, the book may be going for that kind of reaction, and what I felt is reflected in Rogue’s reaction when she later comes across what’s left of Xavier’s body. But even just the idea of him digging up a dead and decaying body to cut out the brain is stomach turning, and it impacted my outlook on the rest of the story. The idea that the Red Skull can take a decaying brain and merge it with his own to give him psychic abilities is something of a stretch, even by comic book standards. More ridiculous still is how easy it is for him to learn to control these abilities and brainwash the whole of Manhattan. Admittedly, this idea is not without its standout moments, such as the Red Skull manipulating people as they watch a news report. This results in viewers killing the nearest mutant to them. It’s an interesting little bit of commentary on the sometimes dangerous role the news media can play in manipulating people into feeling or acting in a certain way.
Another issue I have is how inconsistently written the characters can be. The most obvious to me is Rogue who begins the comic being angry and impulsive, someone who acts on emotion rather than rational thought. When captured, not only is she clever in finding a way out, she’s also very witty. Then she’s angry and gets captured again. Then she breaks free and disrupts the Red Skull’s psychic powers. Then, two panels later, she’s defeated. Rogue is given a series of events, but is not, for the most part, given any character. She exists simply to be whatever the plot needs her to be from issue to issue. The one moment when Rogue feels genuine is in finding out what the Red Skull has done to Xavier, but it’s a fleeting moment before she is – ‘offscreen’ – defeated again. The inconsistency of character can be forgiven once we get into the fight, given that Thor and Captain America are not immune to the Red Skull’s psychic powers themselves. Cap does try his best, but true to this comic, his best lasts four panels until he starts behaving like a douche to Havok.
Another problem I have is the fight, which spans two issues, is that it’s pretty rubbish, especially once you realise that without the psychic powers, our heroes could take down the enemies in one punch, which is exactly what happens. Thor takes out one enemy with a swing on Mjölnir, and Captain America takes out the Red Skull with one hit of his shield. Where I assumed this fight was going was for each individual to come together and work as a team in order to win. Isn’t that meant to be the theme of the book – people coming together to fight for a common goal? But, no, instead it was, ‘quick, the book is ending, someone hit the Red Skull!’
I get the impression that the writer felt that Wolverine would be too over-powered for a fight like this. I believe it was back in the X-treme X-Men days that it was established that Xavier’s mental abilities had less effect on him, so presumably neither could the Red Skull’s. But it’s done it a terrible way – Wolverine’s healing factor gets turned off. Is there anything more cliché in an X-Men comic than turning off a mutation? Healing factor or no, being hit by Mjölnir is going to hurt. Could Thor’s hammer not have blasted him across the city? Could he not have ended up fighting Scarlet Witch, thus showing a literal division within the group that needs to be overcome?
The biggest problems for me was the missed opportunities within the book. This is meant to be a story of people coming together, mutants and non-mutants, X-men and Avengers. Surely that also includes friends and enemies. Scarlet Witch and Rogue are shown in the first issue to be arguing to the point that they nearly come to blows. Rogue’s anger is understandable given that Scarlet Witch screwed over the mutant population big time. But halfway through the story, Rogue has a flashback to Uncanny X-Men #171, in which she went to the X-Men looking for help, despite being an enemy to them up until that point. It was Xavier who told the X-Men that he would never turn his back on a mutant who needed help.
I honestly thought we were going to do something similar at the end of this book, that Rogue was going to say to Scarlet Witch, ‘you’ve caused a lot of pain to people like me, but everyone deserves a second chance, just like Xavier gave me a second chance.’ Wouldn’t that be a way of keeping Xavier’s dream alive? Instead, when Rogue is given that opportunity, she quite literally turns her back. What we instead get is the cliché, feel good scene that wouldn’t feel out-of-place in a Sam Raimi Spider-Man film – a human thanks Havok for the good work the team did with a handshake and a hug. The message is spread further with a headline from the Bugle:
This comic gives us moments like this, but they don’t feel as though they have any weight. I never felt like the spirit of Xavier’s dream was being kept alive because the script was ignoring the potential it had right in front of it. Sure Havok can shake hands with a human but so what? How does that cause real, tangible change. And how is that meant to have any lasting impact on the characters? Rogue doesn’t seem to be embracing it, despite how illogical that is, Wolverine says they’ve failed Xavier, but makes no attempt to keep the dream alive and Captain America and Thor spend a good chunk of the comic hating on mutants because of the Red Skull’s influence.
Again, I feel this comic should have been about people coming together and maybe it does do that in a later volume, but if that’s the case it is yet another example of having the eye on the long game instead of giving the reader something satisfying in the short-term This comic isn’t entirely bad, I’ve read a hell of a lot worse in my time. I do like the themes running through it, such as realising you can’t just stand on the sidelines and hope things will get better, and the tendency to blame ‘the other’ from problems that they are not the cause of. But inconsistent characters, terrible fight scenes and missed opportunities make it hard for me to like this. If anything it’s a disappointment as it could have been so much better.