When “Avengers/X-Men: Utopia” was announced, one of its selling points was that it was the first direct crossover between the two teams since “Bloodlines” over fifteen years ago. Technically that’s not true since this crossover involves the X-Men fighting Norman Osborne’s “Dark Avengers” team, which is made up of villains working for him. Early word of mouth indicated that this crossover wouldn’t have to work too hard to be considered the better of the two since “Bloodlines” was reputedly pretty dire. Mainstream comic book writing has come a LONG way in those fifteen years, though, and while I haven’t read “Bloodlines,” I can say that “Utopia” is well worth reading for X-Men fans.
Things start off with tensions between San Francisco’s human and mutant populations boiling over into mob violence on the streets. After the X-Men’s initial efforts to quell the uprising only succeed in making matters worse, Norman Osborne comes to town with his Avengers team in tow to restore law and order. But Osborne has bigger plans in mind than just restoring order, as he wants to use this opportunity to set up his own team of “Dark X-Men” with Emma Frost as its leader. As this also involves arresting Cyclops and effectively taking control of all mutant affairs, the X-Men aren’t going to take this lying down.
It’s that struggle to outwit and out-fight both of Osborne’s teams that forms the driving force of “Utopia’s” narrative, and in contrast to “Messiah War” the story isn’t focused on having superheroes fight each other. We get a lot of scenes showing how both sides are reacting to each others’ moves and planning on how to counter them. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that the X-Men triumph in the end, but it’s immensely satisfying to see Cyclops’ plan play out perfectly by the time he addresses the nation on the mutants’ new status quo.
That’s also another thing that separates this from “Messiah War:” the story effects lasting change. While that story was essentially a big blast of sound and fury that signified nothing, “Utopia” actually sets up an interesting new status quo for mutants in the Marvel Universe. Whether or not it’ll actually play out into interesting stories is yet to be seen, as the team’s much-vaunted move to San Francisco really didn’t add up to much in the end. Still, this change has much more potential since it is physically and geographically much more interesting than having the team move to another city.
Another thing separating “Utopia” from “Messiah War” is that nearly all of the story is written by one man, regular “Uncanny” writer Matt Fraction. While I liked the fact that you couldn’t tell the difference between the writers in “Messaih War,” Fraction’s accomplishment here is greater not just for the above-mentioned reasons, but because he’s also dealing with a cast of over twenty characters in the crossover. With a cast that large you’d expect there to be a certain amount of chaos in the proceedings, but Fraction keeps things focused on the Cyclops/Emma/Osborne dynamic and manages to give the rest of the cast their own moments to shine as well. That being said, the only thing Fraction hasn’t managed to accomplish here is write a story that’s accessible to someone who isn’t already well versed in current X-Men/Avengers/Marvel Universe continuity. While the well-worn idea of the X-men being a metaphor for the struggles of minorities is on full-display here, this isn’t the story you’re going to want to use to get someone interested in the X-Men or comics in general.
While the main “Utopia” story is a clear success, the same can’t really be said of the other half of the collection which brings together all of the tie-in issues and stories for the crossover. “Dark X-Men: The Confession” written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost technically falls into this area because it’s not part of the crossover proper, but actually an epilogue detailing the emotional fallout between Cyclops and Emma from all the secrets they’ve been hiding from each other up until now. It’s a nice, measured bit of character drama that works well because instead of resorting to the histrionics that you’d expect from this time of story, the couple involved just takes the time to talk things out and come to an understanding based on everything that’s happened. Good stuff overall.
Everything else, however, isn’t nearly as relevant. To be honest, just about everything else here feels like filler in order to justify the $40 cover price of the collection. The two issues of “X-Men: Legacy” by Mike Carey are standard crossover material, with Rogue, Gambit, and a reformed Danger showing up in San Francisco to help out where they can. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t really add anything to the crossover, which is a shame since I’d have loved to know how Professor X winds up in a cell at the superhuman prison in Alcatraz after his meeting with Osborne at the very end of the latest volume of “Legacy.”
What these two issues have over the rest of the stories in the book is the room to tell an actual story, since the rest of the collection is filled out by short stories revolving primarily around the other mutants/superheroes picked to be in Osborne’s “Dark X-Men” team. It’s not that they’re bad, but the problem here is the same as they’re not telling stories that are in any way essential to the crossover. Personally I liked Jason Aaron’s short “Get Mystique [Slight Return]” mainly because it ties into his excellent “Wolverine” story involving Mystique, and his knack for character detail makes her meeting with Osborne in a bar in the middle of nowhere suitably tense. Also of note is the last story in the book, “The One Who Got Away” by Simon Spurrier, which is interesting because it tells of Osborne’s only failure in recruiting: getting the Canadian mutant Aurora to join his team.
Overall, I did enjoy “Utopia” mainly on the strength of its main story, and the “not badness” of the filler didn’t do much to drag it down. While I’d like to recommend this to X-Men and [Dark] Avengers fans, I realize that the $40 price point for the collection is probably a little more than most fans are willing to spend for something like this these days, and I have to admit that the book isn’t THAT good. However, if you do what I did and order it from Amazon.com, you’ll only be out $26, which is a much more reasonable price for everything. It’s also possible that Marvel could release the core “Utopia” storyline in its own book (as they’re doing with the “X-Men: Legacy” issues and “Dark X-Men” short stories collected here), but I have this nagging feeling that’s not going to happen. So if you can find the price point that’s right for you, you’ve got a good story in “Utopia” that sets up a potentially interesting new direction for the X-Men franchise.