When Marvel Now looked to the past to drive the future of the X-Men
When Marvel Comics’ two biggest franchises, the X-Men and the Avengers, joined together for the sprawling “Avengers vs. X-Men” event storyline, the two teams came to blows over the fate of young Hope Summers as the cosmic Phoenix Force bore down on the planet. In the real world, the storyline represents something of a pivot point in Marvel’s history. Prior to the crossover event, the Avengers and the X-Men were in two very different places. Throughout the 1990s (and really, much of the 80s), the X-Men had been one of Marvel’s top franchises, consistently posting strong numbers across the line and helping keep the company afloat during its corporate malfeasance-triggered bankruptcy. But in 2000, acclaimed independent writer Brian Michael Bendis came to Marvel and launched Ultimate Spider-Man, reimagining Spider-Man for a modern audience. The critical and commercial success of that project expanded Bendis’ profile at Marvel, and by 2004, he was handed the keys to the Avengers.
Previously: Marvel Then, 10 years later!
Long established as the pre-eminent superhero team in-universe, the Avengers rarely sold comics on a level commensurate to the stature of its characters within the Marvel Universe – and by the time Bendis came aboard, they’d spent several decades looking up the sales charts at the X-Men. But Bendis overhauled the lineup, making controversial membership decisions that saw popular characters like Wolverine and Spider-Man become a consistent part of the roster for the first time, creating a sort of “greatest hits” Avengers lineup. Under Bendis, and driven in part by the return of high profile event stories like “Civil War” and “Secret Invasion,” which drew in large numbers of characters from across the Marvel Universe, the Avengers became the locus of the Marvel Universe, with comic books featuring Avengers becoming consistent top-sellers.
The X-Men didn’t sit idly by during this period, with high profile runs from then fan-favorite TV writer Joss Whedon and superstar artist John Cassaday, as well as the ascendency of the next wave of Bendis-esque “auteur” writers like Matt Fraction keeping the franchise humming along. But the X-Men largely sat out those big universe-wide event series and puttered along, doing their own thing.
Then, in 2008, the Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with the release of Iron Man. The X-Men had been to the multiplex already, of course; the first X-Men movie was released in 2000, and a well-regarded sequel followed a few years later. But 2006’s The Last Stand was a stinker and left fans disappointed. The nascent MCU meanwhile, did two new and notable things: for one, it promised a series of interconnected films – not just sequels but films starring different characters building off and crossing over with one another just like in the comic books, something heretofore mostly unseen in cinema. For another, it put the Avengers characters, especially its core trio of Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America, in front of a mass audience for the first time.
Thus, when the X-Men and Avengers met for battle in 2012’s annual event storyline, the typical positions of the two franchises relative to each other had shifted considerably: the Avengers were the franchise on the rise for the first time in decades. One month after the story began, the first Avengers film was released. Though it is now known as simply the end of the MCU’s first phase (of four to date), it was, at the time, the culmination of all the movies that had come before it, proof that the MCU’s approach to storytelling could work creatively and commercially. The Avengers were flying higher than ever before. And it was at this point that Bendis, having spearheaded, at least in part, the Avengers’ rise to commercial success and narrative relevance, decided to jump ship. Where was he going to go?
The Marvel NOW initiative launched in the wake of “Avengers vs. X-Men,” with Marvel using the event as a way to kickstart new series and new creative directions. Arguably the most notable (or at least newsworthy) of those new directions was Brian Michael Bendis – arguably the biggest writer in comics – jumping from the Avengers to the X-Men. The signature series coming out of that transition was All New X-Men, and it featured a signature hook at its core.
At the end of “Avengers vs. X-Men,” Cyclops – having spent the previous decade becoming increasingly more radicalized as mutants were pushed to the brink of extinction, with the fate of an entire species increasingly resting on his shoulders – snaps. Possessed by the cosmic Phoenix Force, he kills Professor Xavier, an unthinkable escalation to even some of his staunchest allies. Beast, in an effort to bring his former friend to his senses, decides to pull younger versions of the original X-Men – Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Angel, Iceman and his own younger self – out of the past and into the present. All New X-Men, launched in November 2012, chronicled the adventures of those time-tossed young X-Men as they came face-to-face with a world – and adult selves – they hardly recognized.
According to Bendis, the idea of bringing the original X-Men (or “O5”) forward in time had been kicked around at Marvel for a few years, and he liked the idea. When it came up during an “Avengers vs. X-Men” storytelling retreat (in which various creators and editors come together to hash out future storylines), he seized on it as the plotline which would justify his transition from the Avengers to the X-Men. He was joined on All New X-Men by penciler Stuart Immonen, whose own ascendance to comic book superstardom parallels Bendis’ own (the pair worked together on Ultimate Spider-Man and assorted Avengers books, as well as the previous year’s event, “Fear Itself”), while Immonen’s longtime partner Wade von Grawbadger handled the inks. The resulting artwork was bold and lively, imbuing kinetic energy into Bendis’ infamously-wordy scripts, with Immonen and von Grawbadger proving more than adept at making the different temporal iterations of the X-Men visually distinct. Post-“Avengers vs. X-Men,” All New X-Men was positioned as a middle ground of sorts between the opposing sides of Cyclops’ extremist faction in Uncanny X-Men and the school-centric, Wolverine-led Wolverine and the X-Men, with the time-traveling O5 youngsters interacting with characters from both series as they lived out a sort of bizarre “this is your life!” scenario. Fans generally received the series well – so much so, in fact that O5 ended up sticking around in their own future for years of publication time.
It remains unclear what the official plan was (if there ever was one) regarding the endgame of the O5 storyline in All New X-Men, but the funny thing about serialized narratives in a shared universe is that they’re rarely allowed to end. About a year after “Avengers vs X-Men” concluded and All New X-Men launched, a new crossover event – between the three main X-Men titles – began. “Battle of the Atom” intended to grapple with the consequences of the younger X-Men learning about their futures. I’ve heard – but can’t definitively source – that the original plan for the time traveling X-Men was to send them home by the end of the “Battle of the Atom” event, but the popularity of the concept led to them sticking around. Whether that was ever the plan or not, the fact is that by the end of the crossover, the young X-Men remain in the present day, and push their narrative arc in a new direction by throwing in with Cyclops’ team, accepting the very mindset their presence was meant to challenge.
Meanwhile, the departure of Brian Michael Bendis hadn’t slowed down the Avengers. Stepping into his shoes as the leading visionary of the franchise was writer Jonathan Hickman and, buoyed by the success of the ever-expanding MCU, the Avengers remained at the center of the Marvel Universe. Even with Bendis steering the overall directing of the X-books, there was a sense in fandom of the X-Men settling into “second fiddle” status behind their movie star peers. This feeling was driven by the fact that while both franchises continued to inspire film adaptations, the movies of the MCU were Marvel’s top priority, given the company itself (via Marvel Studios) produced those films (and thus stood to reap all their profits), whereas the X-Men films were merely licensed out to be produced by rival 20th Century Fox studio. Thus, keeping the Avengers front and center in the comic book world made more financial sense to the company than doing the same with the X-Men, as Marvel retained the rights to fully profit from future movie adaptations of Avengers characters and stories.
In many ways, the presence of the time traveling O5 came to represent the feeling of malaise that hung over the X-Men franchise. They were, by definition, characters from the past, giving the impression that the X-Books were perpetually looking back instead of pushing forward. This impression intensified when the O5 stuck around after “Battle of Atom” and when they outlasted even the creator who orchestrated their trip to the future in the first place. By June of 2015, fewer than three years after he took over the X-Books, Bendis left. Shortly thereafter, a second volume of All New X-Men launched, still featuring the time-tossed O5. With Bendis gone, this new series began amidst an overall new direction for the X-books which was a reaction, in part, to Marvel’s efforts to position the Inhumans (genetically-altered beings who once lived on the moon) as the “new” mutants in the Marvel Universe, a new superpowered minority to be feared and hated by regular humans (a move many fans felt was due to the fact that Marvel owned the cinematic rights to the Inhumans while the X-Men movie rights remained the purview of Fox).
In addition to outlasting their original storyline, the characters launched as part of Marvel Now had been around long enough that they began to stray even from their original Silver Age forms and attitudes: Beast traded science for magic, Cyclops quit the X-Men to travel with his space pirate father and eventually joined a new iteration of the superhero team Champions, Iceman dealt with the revelation that his adult self came out as gay, Angel’s feathery wings became replaced with mechanical fire wings and Marvel Girl (whose adult self was still dead) became more assertive and grew into a leadership role. Yet as entertaining as some of these changes could be (Jean’s development in particular is a highlight of the O5 era), they felt ultimately ephemeral, as readers believed all the developments would eventually have to be undone in order to preserve the timeline, that these weren’t the real X-Men, that having two versions of the same character running around further isolated the X-Men from a mass audience more likely to be confused by the presence of similar yet contradictory characters. Meant to be the bold centerpiece of Bendis’ new X-Men direction, the O5 had settled in as just another facet of an overlooked and overcomplicated franchise’s creative malaise.
Eventually, the O5 went home. Jonathan Hickman, after taking over the Avengers from Bendis and blowing up and reorganizing the Marvel Universe in 2015’s “Secret Wars” event, was coming to the X-Men. He would eventually launch the current “Krakoa Era” of the franchise, starting with the release of House of X #1 in 2019, but first, the X-Men had to get their narrative house in order for Hickman’s arrival. That meant, amongst other things, sending the O5 home.
Across the five issue Extermination miniseries by writer Ed Brisson, events conspired which finally led to the O5 resuming their rightful place in the timeline. To Brisson’s credit, this is done in a manner which both protects the existing timeline and allows the adult versions of the characters to remember their experiences in the future, thereby ensuring the previous six years of character development weren’t a complete waste of time for readers. The timing of all this (in what is surely a coincidence, it should be noted that this planned new direction and newfound attention on the X-Men by Marvel coincided with the purchase of 20th Century Fox by Marvel parent company Disney, thereby paving the way for the X-Men to become a -profitable for Marvel Studios- part of the MCU) only adds to the reading of the O5 as representatives of the X-books’ late 2010s creative inertia: despite outlasting both their initial narrative purpose (the adult Cyclops – whose extremism their presence was meant to temper – died during the earlier fracas with the Inhumans) and the creator who executed the plotline in the first place, the moment Marvel wanted to start elevating the profile of the X-Men and recenter them within its universe, the O5 were punted back into the past and written out of the narrative for good.
It’s hard to call the “O5 era” a complete failure. While there is some humorous irony in a Marvel Now book using characters from the past to push the narrative forward, the time-tossed original X-Men did do what Brian Michael Bendis wanted them to do, challenge the perspectives of the present day characters – and readers – in new and interesting ways. Had they returned to the past at the climax of “Battle of the Atom” (whether that was ever the original plan or not), their sojourn may be held up today as one of the all-time great X-Men stories. Instead, what was one book launched with a specific narrative purpose became not a limited plotline, but a series of volumes defining an entire era of the franchise. It was an era filled with misstarts and missed opportunities, with questionable creative decisions and an overall feeling of narrative water treading that the time traveling characters came to personify.
Yet it was also an era that lasted for six years, which can be a long time in the world of comic books. There are likely fans out there who came into comics during that period of time, or who encountered the X-Men for the first time while the O5 were in the present day, especially given the sheer popularity of Bendis and Immonen when All New X-Men launched. Those readers may well carry a great deal of affection for those specific iterations of the characters. The old canard goes that every issue is someone’s first, and while the number of people picking up an issue of a comic for the first time is steadily decreasing, there is still truth in that thinking. For some readers, fiery winged Angel or spell-casting Beast may well be their first encounters with the characters, their place within the larger context of X-Men history and what their presence in those stories meant to the larger corporate relationship between Marvel Comics and its once best-selling franchise irrelevant to their enjoyment of them.
Taking the long view, it’s impossible to divorce All New X-Men from the era it launched, an era that never quite clicked and stands as one of the more fallow periods in the tumultuous history of the X-Men. But zoom in, and there’s still enjoyment to be had in some of the stories, in reading the execution of a sci-fi gimmick to cast long-standing characters in a new light, in asking “what if?” and probing the question of what someone, like the original five X-Men, might have done differently in their life if their past and future selves had been able to hang out together. It’s easy to see why Bendis found that idea appealing, even if he ultimately left All New X-Men before it fully ran its course.