Ruby Nation

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Friday, October 30, 2009

New Avengers: Five Years New Retrospective-- Avenging killed the X-Book Star

In my previous essay, I touched upon the fact that Bendis’ take on the Avengers has been very similar Chris Claremont’s enduring X-Men formula. Both storytelling engines use long stories with extensive subplots and no designated end. Both have an ensemble cast that mix characters across various age, experience, and personality archetypes ( in addition to an even larger supporting cast ). And both the New Avengers and the Classic Claremont X-Men have the heroes as underdogs and outlaws struggling against a nebulous enemy that can’t ever be defeated. One might consider it redundant for Marvel to take their #2 team franchise and twist it into an imitation of their #1. I’d be surprised this complaint hasn’t been leveled more often at Marvel, but for the fact that the company has handicapped the X-Men franchise on a level that seems almost calculated to make the Avengers more significant.

I say “ seems “ because I don’t know for sure. And it would be stupid for a company to take something profitable and push it to the side in favor of a new version of something classically LESS lucrative. If Marvel really wanted the X-Men to fail so the Avengers could become their central franchise, they could just cancel the books; that’s a strategy they’ve actually used with the Ultimate Marvel revamp. They wouldn’t intentionally make the books crappy, and I don’t think the X-Books are outright bad even the franchise has taken several missteps in the past few years. But they have made the X-Men increasingly cut-off from the rest of the Marvel Universe, and that’s where the company’s creative and commercial emphasis has been of late.

So let’s say, in a strictly hypothetical context, that Marvel wanted the Avengers to be their publishing bread and butter, and wanted to diminish the X-Men to make it happen. First, they would need a motive. The exponential increase in comic book movies is good enough; Marvel’s bread and butter is in intellectual property, and while both the X-Men and Avengers have that appeal, they have the drawback that their individual characters/parts do not make up the whole. You can do a successful X-Men movie; it’s been done four times now ( even if only three of those were team movies, and only two of that fraction weren’t a waste of time, money, and Stewart ). But a Colossus movie would never happen, just as a Wasp movie wouldn’t get past the pitch; they’re decent enough as members of an ensemble cast, but don’t have the appeal or versatility for isolated endeavors. Hence New Avengers, a Justice League-style team comic made primarily of successful solo characters; Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, and even lesser heroes with untapped licensing potential like Luke Cage. 

Thus they give me the perfect perfect segue; one of the successful solo heroes put on the new team is Wolverine, the X-Man most successful as an independent protagonist. At the time, Wolverine was just “ lending “ his services to the Avengers, and still stuck with the X-Men. But from our hypothetical conspiracy perspective, this is the first blow to the X-Men. The most popular character of the X-Men has been partially exported to the Avengers, his marriage to the X-Men becoming a Salt Lake City affair. Phase one of eliminating Marvel’s own competition.

Of course, that leads to ( hypothetically ) sinister phase two-- House of M. This story brings the X-Men into an Avengers story for a mega crossover, and ends up DeciMating the mutant population. Homo superior, at that point numbering in the millions and able to fill their own nations, has been magically cut down to a small fraction ( which was supposed to vary to upwards of thousands, but once the name “ the 198 “ was attached, that became literal ). Most of the important characters keep their powers, but many villains and second-string heroes just become regular people, usually shuffled off to the background. Those who survive become cloistered within the mansion, all but ignoring super-heroing to focus exclusively on the problems faced by the few mutants left. Even those mutants are no longer special, because super-humans without the X-Gene stigma far out number them. There’s no reason being a mutant is different from being a radioactive spider victim or Super Soldier specimen or other, making the minority metaphor an arbitrary, self-imposed exile.

Which is even more convenient-- or deviously schemed. After House of M, mega-crossovers become even more prominent. Every year has a big event series, and every year, the X-Men decline to participate. Sure they get a tie-in book or two, but otherwise they remain peripheral ( except for Wolverine, who’s now readily identified with the Avengers and shows up for these events ). In Civil War, they remain neutral and simply don’t engage with either side; in World War Hulk, they’re just a brief pit stop on the Hulk’s rampage, as he attacks Professor X based on the possibility that he would have joined the heroes in shooting the green bastard into space ( even though Xavier was absent during the actual event ). And in Secret Invasion, all we see is the X-Men as the San Fransisco resistance for the Skrulls’ global attack. 

Now, the X-Men franchise has continued through these events, but their storylines remain stifled and insular. They try to undo the DeciMation and restore the depowered mutants, but each time receive a microscopic nudge towards success at best. Now their plan involves making their own closed island nation while waiting for the Messiah Baby to save them. But since the X-Men’s only real mission now is trying to save the dying species, any other stories are irrelevant. If they go into space, find a lost civilization, or make a hit squad to fight zombies, it’s just trying to draw attention away from the big picture, and failing. Thus, what was once Marvel’s most important franchise is now treading water with its island of just under 200 super-malcontents, with no concern other than protecting said just under 200 super-malcontents.

Meanwhile, the Avengers has gained many of the tropes that made the X-Men popular. Large, diverse, and dynamic cast? Check-- in addition to the traditional rotations of the Avengers line-up, the book’s importance in the shared continuity gives it a huge supporting cast that pops in and out. Long stories that branch outwards instead of reaching a resolution? Check-- even after Secret Invasion wraps up one conspiracy storyline, we go directly into Dark Reign, where Norman Osborn becomes the new Big Bad. Stories where the heroes are the outsiders? Check-- the Avengers were on shaky territory with the authorities from the start of Bendis’ series, and they became the literal underground resistance after Civil War.

The difference is that in the Avengers, they are at least trying to do good, to fight against a massive multi-layered foe even if they fail. The X-Men are holed up on their island, ready to take down anyone who looks at them funny. But as Norman puts it, the X-Men can just be ignored as long as they stay off the mainland. Better for the Avengers, and their new merchandising powers.

1 comment:

  1. Fascinating. I always read the X-Men (with the obvious exception of Wolverine) as essentially existing in their own pocket universe. Sure, they share continuity, but their central arc/structure/plot is fundamentally different than that of the mainstream heroes. One would imagine, for example, the whole "equal rights" dealio would be a bigger issue than it is in the Marvel universe, but it isn't because... well, that's the X-Men's bag, not Captain America's. And the whole "homo superior" angle should also dominate scientific and cultural discussion in the mainstream universe, but it doesn't because... well, that's also the X-Men's problem.

    I just saw the isolation as stemming from that - I mean, the Marvel universe has also been only tokenly acknowledged in big X-Men crossovers, for example (confined to a single miniseries in Age of Apocalypse). Is their lock-out a new thing?