Yes, I realize I’ve backpedaled on my original decision to pass on picking up this hardcover and going back to read my thoughts on the matter doesn’t make it any easier. What changed? Deep Amazon discount aside, a buddy of mine pointed out that the size of the volume made it unlikely that they’d be able to bind all of its contents -- the 13-issue main series, 6-issue “AvX” fight anthology, some of the “Infinite” comics, and assorted backmatter -- into one edition. This was two weeks ago and a quick check online proved him right. So rather than wait a few months to pick up two volumes that might not collect everything here, I took the plunge and got the “Limited Edition Print + Digital Combo” hardcover edition.
How was it? As someone who is invested in following the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Universe it is virtually my duty to pick this up in some shape or form to absorb the knowledge it imparts for the future of its fiction. For anyone else who might be interested, if you can’t say that sentence out loud with a straight face, this probably isn’t for you.
Decades ago the cosmic energy force known as the Phoenix attached itself to Jean Grey and eventually led to her downfall in one of the most well-known and beloved Marvel stories. While its presence and the storyline have been touchstones of “X-Men” ever since, the force itself has never really made a full-fledged return... until now. The Phoenix is cutting a swath of destruction through the cosmos on its way to Earth where it will merge with its intended vessel -- Hope Summers. Once its presence is known, Cyclops views the inevitable event as the vindication of everything he has done since the majority of mutants lost their powers on M-Day. Avengers Captain America and Iron Man look at the carnage it has caused so far and are not convinced. This being a superhero comic, they choose to solve their disagreements through the universal language of fisticuffs.
That’s only the first part of the event which takes up the first five John Romita Jr.-illustrated issues. This opening act does a good job of laying down the stakes, setting up the twists, and most importantly selling the scale of the event. If there’s one thing this storyline does well, it’s that it really imparts the idea that this is an epic-level threat and confrontation. It may start out as two teams fighting over who is in the right before eventually morphing into “Everyone vs. Dark Phoenix” but you’re really given the sense that the fate of the world is truly at stake here.
The problem is that though there are some cool moments -- the unveiling of the “Phoenix Five,” Spider-Man facing off against two of them by himself, Wolverine finally putting his claws through Cyclops’ head (more of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment than a spoiler) -- the story never shakes the feeling that a lot of it was driven by editorial dictate. I imagine it was, but the main achievement of its five writers -- Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Jonathan Hickman -- is that it doesn’t read like a stylistic trainwreck when you consider the unique voices they bring to their creator-owned work. The key problem here is that the “Phoenix Five’s” descent into “Dark Phoenix” territory doesn’t feel like a gradual, “slippery slope”-esque turn like Jean’s was all those years ago. Instead, it’s pretty much laid out from the beginning that they’re the bad guys with almost zero moral ambiguity.
Also keeping with that overriding feeling of editorial dictate is who was chosen to be the “Phoenix Five.” Cyclops and Emma make perfect sense given their prominence in the comics over the last several years. But to also have Namor, Colossus and Magik be gifted with this cosmic power? The latter two have a more interesting storyline going with the “Juggerlossus” thread in “Uncanny X-Men” and Namor’s addition to the series has never really gelled with me. He seems to be there only because Marvel feels that hanging out with more popular characters will eventually broaden his appeal at some point.
Why not have characters with more of a connection to the title’s history and to Cyclops and Emma get this gift as well? After all the vitriol they’ve exchanged over the past few years, it would’ve been great to see Beast given this great power and then forced to work with someone whose viewpoint he has come to utterly detest. At the other end of the spectrum: Iceman. Bobby has always been the carefree, perpetual teenager of the group and now he finally has responsibility thrust upon him. How would he deal with that? My final pick: Storm. Cyclops asked her in the wake of “Schism” to be part of his team to make sure that things didn’t go off the rails. How does she maintain that kind of accountability now that she’s one of the most powerful beings on the planet? Why did we get the characters featured here? Because being part of the “Phoenix Five” had already been decided as being an integral part of their status quo coming out of this crossover.
That last paragraph also represents what is the book’s greatest failing, in my opinion. I couldn’t stop thinking of ways to improve on what I was reading. Part of this is also due to Rich Johnston’s musings on the series’ failure to meaningfully parallel real-world issues, but it really got me thinking about how the series could have gone. Say about halfway through -- when the Avengers make their HALO infiltration into Utopia to get Hope out -- Captain America comes to the realization that provoking these god-like beings is doing more harm than good and instead volunteers the team’s service to help and act as a conscience. Cyclops... agrees to this and you get this uneasy tension from these beings who are trying to make the world a better place but also steadily losing touch with their humanity with the metahumans who are trying to act as intermediaries between them and everyone else.
Of course, something has to upset this tension. Fortunately the Marvel Universe has no shortage of villains who would want to exploit this situation for their own ends. Chief among them: Dr. Doom. More than anyone else, Doom would chafe at the idea of these five individuals being granted the power to reshape the world in their own image -- something he has been trying to do for years. So, using his many connections he starts to organize his fellow villains into a covert force bent on undoing everything the Phoenix Five is trying to change. A popular revolt here, a government speaking out there, the judicious application of mind-controlling techniques to certain key individuals... Put all of this in the right place and -- well I’d better stop before this degenerates further into fanficiton.
My point is that “Avengers vs. X-men” ultimately commits one of the worst sins I feel any form of entertainment can inflict upon me: I was left feeling that I could’ve written something better. That’s extremely unlikely, but I just can’t shake the feeling that the old-school there-was-a-supervillain-behind-it-all approach may have yielded better results here. It’s certainly a competently executed piece of work, but I’m also left hoping that the involvement from the five writers involved helps boost the profile of their creator-owned work.
The book does, however, boast some very nice art from Romita Jr., Oliver Coipel and Adam Kubert on the main series. Romita Jr’s old-school style gives the fights some real kick in the first half and imparts some real energy on the narrative as well. Coipel and Kubert give the second a more modern feel, rich in detail and spectacle. Big props go to Kubert for not only getting his four issues out on time, but also having clearer panel layouts than Coipel.
So for those of you who read these comics for their art, there’s a lot to appreciate here. In fact, the “AvX” miniseries was pretty much commissioned to give artists a chance to show off with the fight scenes. It’s utterly inessential to the overall narrative and the fact that it’ll likely wind up as its own softcover down the line is no great loss to the main series. However, if the thought of seeing guys like Stuart Immonen, Steve McNiven, Salvador Larrocca, Lenil Yu, Terry Dodson and Ed McGuinness strut their stuff over these pages then you’ll definitely want to add this to your collection.
I’ve certainly read worse, but it’s hard to get worked up one way or the other about this title. The involvement of four of Marvel’s best writers (and one guy who should stick to his creator-owned work) ensure that there’s a decent level of craft on display, but they’re never able to transcend the editorially-driven nature of the book. Maybe if one writer had been involved, we could’ve gotten something along the lines of what Aaron did in “Schism.” As it stands... hey, if you’ve already read this far then you’ve probably already realized whether or not this book is for you. All I can say now is that if you are as invested in the ongoing narrative of the Marvel Universe as me, then you’ll probably be better off waiting to read this in softcover after picking it up for half-off at a convention or somewhere else.