Even though Bendis has been setting up a lot of things in his run so far -- Mystique kidnapping and replacing Dazzler, the sentinel attacks from unknown sources, tension between Scott’s team and S.H.I.E.L.D. -- I wasn’t sure if he was actually going to pay off on any of that or if things would have to be left for the next writer to follow up on. Turns out I didn’t need to worry as he deals with most of those threads in the opening story for this volume. The whole “Vs. Shield” bit. It’s actually a pretty solid wrap-up that goes to show that the writer does know what he’s doing with this series. Then we dive straight into the next story and I start waiting to be convinced again.
S.H.I.E.L.D. has a sentinel problem in the sense that someone is controlling a bunch of the mutant-hunting robots and they haven’t been able to put a stop to them. Making matters worse is that after the events of “Battle of the Atom,” it looks as if this someone may be part of the organization itself. Scott Summers is convinced of this and when his team is ambushed by these new-model sentinels while trying to track down the appearance of a new mutant in Chicago he decides that it’s time to take the battle to S.H.I.E.L.D. Which happens to suit the plans of the person who has been manipulating all sides of this conflict just fine.
The story succeeds not just because it brings together several different plot threads, but also because of the well-played escalation of chaos throughout. This is an arc whose first starts off with Maria Hill interrogating former X-Man David “Hijack” Bond in his apartment, Mystique revealing her supply of Mutant Growth Hormone to be the captive Dazzler, and Scott’s team being ambushed by sentinels. It ends with a gigantic battle royale between the compromised elements of S.H.I.E.L.D. and just about every major mutant on the grounds of the Jean Grey School. The progression from beginning to end came off as quite natural and it was nice to see everything culminate in a satisfyingly explosive climax.
There are also some nicely executed character moments along the way. While it looked like Hijack had been written out of the series, he gets a solid moment of redemption here while showing off that his powers are more all-encompassing than first thought. Seeing Mystique finally lose control of her situation was fun, as were the various thoughts dragged out of Maria Hill’s head by the Stepford Cuckoos. Also, and this is true of the whole volume, it appears that the sniping between Scott and his former friends at the JGS is never going to get old. Whether it’s the comedy relief bits provided by Iceman, or the more cutting determination by Beast that he didn’t reveal the location of Scott’s team because he does not want any more of his life to be dictated by Scott’s actions.
While much of this arc works quite well, there were some nits to pick. Things like wondering what Magneto is doing back in Madripoor after he stormed out in such a dramatic fashion in the previous volume. Mystique’s involvement also fizzles out about three-quarters of the way in because she’s no longer of any use to the story despite her prominence early on. These are minor nits to pick in comparison to the reveal of the individual behind all of this. It’s the kind of thing you wouldn’t have been able to guess beforehand and there was only the smallest bit of foreshadowing given in the story itself. Really, it could’ve been any of the X-Men’s longstanding foes in this role, though I guess that Bendis wanted to make some larger point about Beast by using this one. It doesn’t really work. However, I will give the writer credit for finally giving this villain the fate he’s needed for years now.
If I’m being honest, this arc would’ve been able to stand alone as a single volume. Yes, four-issue collections do annoy me, but there’s enough going on here that it likely would’ve made a satisfying read if packaged by itself. That the first three issues of the next arc are also collected here does add some value to the package, pushing the cover price to $25 in the process. I want to be optimistic about this next story given the whole “Vs. Shield” arc, but it’s founded on a premise that is more or less old news to me.
That would be the idea that Charles Xavier wasn’t the honorable man that everyone assumed he was. The character’s image has been battered over the years by the secrets he has kept -- like imprisoning the A.I. which served as the basis of the danger room and lying to Scott about his brother Gabriel -- that it has made a good deal of sense to push him into the background. This has also allowed for plot developments like Scott taking over the X-Men and Wolverine starting up a new school, things Xavier has been responsible for in the past, to work as well. Now we’re being asked to believe that the latest secret of his to come to light is just as shocking as the previous ones!
Backing up a bit, this latest revelation comes as a result of Xavier’s will finally finding its way into the hands of She-Hulk, who promptly heads over to the JGS to let everyone there know about it. The catch is that all of the old team, including Scott, has to be there for the reading. After being informed, he shows up -- with Emma Frost, Kitty Pryde, Magik, and Dazzler in tow -- and the first thing everyone is told by the holographic Xavier from his will is that there was an immensely powerful mutant named Matthew Malloy whose powers and memories he kept in check and manipulated to prevent him from becoming a danger to human, mutant, and superhero alike. While Xavier was able to keep these memory blocks in place while he was alive, now that he’s dead the team needs to make sure Matthew’s powers are still sealed off.
Everyone is surprised by this, but Scott is the one who takes it most personally. He believes that this makes everything behind Xavier’s school and the X-Men themselves a lie. Really, Scott? You’re taking this more personally than the time the man lied to you about what happened to your other brother? I can understand him being angry at this kind of news. Yet it seems like there would be more resignation to his anger as well. This being just the latest unsavory revelation regarding the actions of a man he used to look up to and idolize. There is a great rejoinder from Iceman after Scott’s outburst which helps to put things in perspective while adding some genuine drama to the proceedings.
Really, the interaction between the characters is the best part of these three issues. Mutants who used to be the closest of friends and comrades are now forced to stand in the same room and listen as the man who brought them together brings a couple of drama bombs into their lives. Bendis has always been strong with setups where there’s a need for more talking than fighting, and he makes the most of it here. I have a feeling that if this does wind up being a decent arc, it’ll be for the interplay between the various X-Men rather than their efforts to keep the powers of this new mutant under control.
(If anyone’s wondering about the plurality of “drama bombs” in that previous paragraph, that’s because we also find out who Xavier was married to when he recorded his will. It’s a real What. The. Hell. moment that Emma finds thoroughly entertaining, and I considerably less so. While it does explain the whole “Charles Xavier Jr.” business over in “All-New X-Men” we’re not given any explanation as to why Xavier would marry this person in the first place. In fact, I’m willing to bet that’s because there is no explanation which would allow for it. I’m with Iceman’s reaction on this one, and I expect this particular development to be swept underneath the rug in short order.)
Much as I liked the first story here, the start of the second leaves me with plenty of misgivings. I can see what kind of story Bendis wants to tell regarding this immensely powerful mutant, but he has only managed to get tripped up by its details so far. There’s still time to turn it around, of course. If not, then it looks like “Vs. Shield” may wind up being the highlight of his run on this title with a lot of wasted effort and potential following after it.