2012 heralded an irrevocable change in comics and superhero fandom. The Avengers had just become the biggest movie of the year and one of the most spectacular movie successes of all time. To tie in and capitalize on this major movie, Marvel decided to make an end-all, be-all blockbuster comic event that could entice movie fans to check out the comics, as well as tie a bow on all the major plot threads going on in the comics at the time. The solution was Avengers vs X-Men: a climax to the era that had begun with the twin releases of Astonishing X-Men and New Avengers.
In AvX, the two biggest franchises owned by Marvel, The X-Men and The Avengers, went to war over the return of the Phoenix Force, with the fate of the world in the balance. In this conflict, one of the major tensions is the perceived lack of political action by other superheroes on behalf of mutantkind. After a series of major conflicts, Avengers vs X-Men climaxed with the murder of Professor X by a Dark-Phoenix possessed Cyclops and the restoration of the mutant gene by Hope Summers, the Scarlet Witch, and The Phoenix Force.
Out of the chaos of Avengers vs X-Men came Marvel Now!, an initiative that shuffled the creative teams of all the Marvel books in order to get fresh takes. As promoted by Marvel in the leading months, the flagship title of this initiative was Uncanny Avengers which featured a new team of the biggest names from both the X-Men and the Avengers primed to face the biggest threats concerning both teams. In universe, they were called the Avengers Unity Squad.
Previously: Marvel Then, 10 years later!
Uncanny Avengers was made by a top tier creative team of the time. On writing was Rick Remender, one of Marvel’s hottest rising stars who had turned Uncanny X-Force into a surprise hit. On pencils was superstar artist John Cassaday who drew the Astonishing X-Men. On colors was frequent Cassaday collaborator Laura Martin. When Cassaday was off the book, the legendary Daniel Acuña did both pencils and coloring.
Uncanny Avengers, as a title and in-universe, stood in direct opposition to Bendis’s All-New and Uncanny X-Men, which chronicled fallen idol Cyclops’s purported “mutant revolution.” Throughout the pre-Marvel Now! era, one of the main fan criticisms was that The Avengers hadn’t done enough to help mutants. This critique was especially potent in the wake of Genosha’s destruction, the Decimation of mutantkind at the hand of the Scarlet Witch, and the sequestering of mutantkind in Dark Reign. This context is pivotal to understanding Uncanny Avengers, framed as the next step in the story of the X-Men and Avengers.
To put it bluntly, the Avengers Unity Squad was “respectability politics” personified. The Avengers are, especially in their most popular iterations, intrinsically linked to governmental authority, status quo, and the military-industrial complex. The X-Men, however, are more closely aligned with political activism, grassroots organizing, civil rights, human rights, disability accommodation, etc. This tension between institutional authority and the need for progress on human rights issues was bridged by Professor X’s philosophy of peaceful coexistence. The original dream of Professor X, after all, was explicitly assimilationist in tone, for both better and worse. With him dead and heir apparent Scott Summers becoming a violent revolutionary in the eyes of the world, it is left to the former rebel of the X-family, Wolverine, to pick up the mantle of the dream’s standard bearer. Through the Jean Grey School faction of the X-Men schism, the X-Men involved with the school are explicitly choosing to “work within the system” set up by an oppressive society that actively causes material harm to mutantkind in order to enact positive change. More importantly, they are doing it under the banner of the in-universe premiere superhero group.
In some ways, Wolverine is actually a logical heir to Charles’ legacy, as his heroic turn is the greatest success in Charles’ checkered history as an educator, activist, and ethicist. Jason Aaron’s Wolverine run had also set up a natural progression for Logan as a mentor and educator instead of as a murderer. As stated by Captain America and Logan himself, he’s a high-profile member of the Avengers, who has publicly saved the world on multiple occasions. Of course, he’s also the superhero most morally compromised by the violence, death, and misery he has inflicted on society. He’s simply too blood-soaked to be a public figurehead, even if he’s a leader in the in-universe hero community. In the eyes of Captain America, there needs to be a trusted person to be the figurehead of mutant-human relations.
This leads us to the poster boy of the Unity Group, Alex Summers, aka Havok. Handpicked by Wolverine and Captain America, Alex Summers has spent the vast majority of his career as the black sheep of the messianic Summers-Grey family. At this point in his career as a superhero, while respected, Havok is a perpetual also-ran. He has been a government agent with X-Factor, second fiddle to Scott within the X-Men and as a field leader, a personal mess considering his multiple villainous turns, failed at messy romances with Polaris and Madelyne Pryor, and more. What’s even more tragic is that he has largely done these things at the request of the older brother he’s so desperately sought the approval of. That brother is now the most wanted man in the world, betraying everything he’s asked Alex to sacrifice his academic career and dreams of domestic bliss for. In some ways, it’s only natural Alex, after being named the leader of this squad, would worry about being undermined by another strong role model in Captain America when asked to lead this new initiative.
The flip side to Alex’s commitment to mutant rights at the behest of his family is that he’s the Summers least committed to the mutantkind as a people. Unlike the rest of the family, he had a normal childhood and young adulthood, graduating college and even starting doctoral work before ever discovering his mutant gifts or becoming a superhero. He’s the sole member of the Summers-Grey family who almost made it out of the perennial sacrifice and misery of mutant superheroics. He’s able to pass, to use an analogy, and has successfully done so in an assimilationist way that none of the other Summers mutants ever could. In this context, Havok’s infamous M-Word speech is the ultimate embodiment of Alex Summers’ personal politics up to 2012. He’s Clinton-Post-Racial politics personified. It’s his lived experience and it’s what he wants for himself.
Amazingly, Havok isn’t even the most controversial member of the team. On the Avengers side of the Unity Squad, the Scarlet Witch is picked to join, as she is a mutant with a long-term affiliation with the Avengers. Wanda was infamously the cause of the Decimation, which stripped millions of mutants of their birthrights and nearly caused the extinction of an entire species. While having reversed part of this damage in AvX, she’s still looking to atone. In this vein, she has decided to latch onto the martyred figure of Charles Xavier, which causes immediate tension with a still mourning Rogue.
Now, Wanda is a longstanding Avenger who has saved the world many times. But at this point in time, she’s also the individual responsible for the biggest act of cruelty against mutantkind since the invention of the sentinel. She’s a boogeyman and a villain in the way that a Pol Pot or Mussolini is in the real world. Now the establishment in the form of the Avengers is telling the mutants working alongside this villain, AND to have M-Day be both forgiven and forgotten. It’s an extraordinary and unreasonable thing to ask of any marginalized group, and one that not everyone is able to overcome, to the detriment of the Unity Squad’s mission. One could argue that there is no way that the Avengers should have put Wanda in the group. Others might say that Wanda and Pietro were the only longstanding and high-profile Avengers who were also mutants, and was a necessary measure to pay actual service to the Unity Squad’s mission. Ultimately, it made for great character moments.
Narratively, these political and inter-team tensions are the main thrust of the story. The X-Men and Avengers are imperfectly trying to get along in order to rebuild human-mutant relations, as three major threats come to test their fledgling coalition. The initial arc sees the reborn Red Skull steal the brain of Charles Xavier, gifting the most heinous fascist in the world the powers of the world’s most powerful telepath. Immediately, Red Skull puts these powers to use in order to sow discord and national unrest in a manner similar to a real-life psyop. While this initial threat is defeated by the Unity Squad, the Red Skull would surreptitiously continue amassing power, culminating in 2014’s AXIS crossover.
The vast majority of the 25 issues of Uncanny Avengers functions as a direct sequel to Remender’s Uncanny X-Force, dealing with the twin threats of Kang and the Apocalypse Twins. In this story, we continue Remender’s fascination about what happens when heroes fail to be heroes. This works especially well at Marvel, as the “Hero vs Hero” trope is intrinsic to the DNA of Marvel comics, dating back to the conflict between the Sub-Mariner and the original Human Torch in the early 1940’s. That being said, following Secret War, House of M, Civil War, World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, Siege, Fear Itself, and AvX, Marvel had spent the better part of a decade in nonstop clashes of heroes fighting heroes, morally compromising themselves, and allowing the bar of what is considered to be morally permissible to be lowered. Uncanny Avengers is a reckoning, showing the major heroes of the Marvel Universe the consequences of what happens when they fail to believe in each other and make too many moral compromises.
One by one, the sins of characters such as Wolverine, Thor, and the Scarlet Witch damn the Unity Squad to failure in their mission to build human-mutant goodwill and stop the Apocalypse Twins. In the process, they fail to save the world. They are attacked by their deceased comrades and largely killed at the hands of these very heroes. Atrocities such as the murder of a child Apocalypse are made public knowledge. Their inability to trust each other leads to Rogue murdering the Scarlet Witch, and despite a valiant last stand by founding Avengers Wasp, Captain America and Thor, the Celestials arrive and condemn humanity. This leads us to the climax of “Avenge the Earth”, where Havok and Wasp, now married with a child, seek to find a way to undo the destruction of Earth while on the run in the all-mutant Planet X. Ultimately, when the Avengers and X-Men work together, they can save the universe.
While there’s a lot to recommend about Uncanny Avengers, especially some of the best action scenes in Marvel history, there’s more than a couple of dropped plot threads. The Red Skull plot gets taken from the book and spun into AXIS instead, to mixed results that would ultimately lead to Remender’s departure to independent comics. At one point, Kang steals the daughter of Wasp and Havok, and to this day we have never found out what happened to her, presumably still lost in the timestream. Characters such as Wonder Man and Sunfire never have the page time to reach their full potential, despite many great moments. And Of course, the real-world scandal around both the M-Word speech and Remender’s public reaction to the pushback quickly burned a LOT of the remaining goodwill around this comic, leading fans to latch onto Hickman’s Avengers and Bendis’s X-Men sagas instead.
Uncanny Avengers is most fascinating for me as a study in how a flagship book, in following its’ creative teams’ vision, can actually be detrimental to the long term success of a comic. But there’s a lot to recommend outside of that context. Uncanny Avengers features a wonderful cast of characters, some killer action set pieces, great concepts, and an ingenious mixture of both X-Men and Avengers lore to tell a story that could not be told in just one of the franchises. If you’re a fan of either franchise, this is a 25 issue run well worth revisiting.