Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Stormy Present

Days Of Future Past offered Bryan Singer both a nightmare brief and the easiest task imaginable. The latter was almost absurdly simple: spend two hundred million dollars telling people X-Men: The Last Stand never happened. In this he was entirely successful, but does raise the question of whether it would have been cheaper to send a leaflet to everyone who had to sit through that film assuring them it was all a dream.

So what else do we have here? Well, that's where the nightmare brief kicks in. DoFP features at least fifteen actors who have had what could fairly be called major roles in previous X-Men films, and then adds in Bolivar Trask, Quicksilver, Blink, Bishop, Warpath and Sunspot (the last of those not even having time to be identified the film). That's a simply ungodly amount of people running around the place, and as a result almost every cast member from before First Class and many from the aforementioned are pretty badly served. I'd be amazed if Halle Berry's lines in the film hit double figures, Anna Paquin gets remarkably high billing for a silent cameo, and several characters from First Class are unceremoniously shuffled off-screen with barely a mention.

Of course, in all this ruthless streamlining the script can hardly be accused of deviating from its source material. I once read a comment on the internet - I really wish I could remember where it was and who wrote it - that essentially said the X-Men were like a company in which management never retires, leaving no room for those that follow to ever advance. One might argue that's an overstatement, but if so, it's not much of one. Ever since the X-plosion in the late '80s, it's become steadily more and more self-evidently impossible to juggle every character fans have become attached to in a way that can satisfy them all. Even the movie's cheapest stunt, declaring Angel, Emma Frost and - *choke* - Banshee died off-screen in what sound like horrific circumstances, is simply part and parcel of standard X-Men policy.  Hell, I've seen characters who were well-loved major players in comics that ran for years brutally murdered off-panel a decade later by writers who didn't even get all the victims' names right. And whilst I'm entirely aware that "Chuck Austen did it as well" doesn't constitute the most impressive of defences, his is just an extreme case of common comic practice.

(Poor Maggott.)

But whilst the script reflects the comics in many ways. it also outstrips it in one important regard. In the original "Days of Future Past" storyline, the nightmare future witnessed by Shadowcat (who travelled back herself in the comics, rather than sending Wolverine back by... actually I've now idea how she did that) was decades ahead of anything we'd seen in previous stories; one possible future brought about by many years of change.  Watching characters we loved getting massacred wasn't exactly fun, but there was a distance there - seeing their ends decades on from the time we knew them in meant their deaths could be processed at something of a remove. No such distance exists here. It might have been eight years earlier that we last saw our heroes (Wolverine aside) in Last Stand - though actually I've never seen it - but they are still recognisably the people we saw back then. In part this is the smaller time difference, and in part the advantage an actor has over a drawing. In "Days of Future Past" we learn one day a middle-aged man calling himself Colossus will die. In Days of Future Past we watch a woman who was a mainstay of the early series get stabbed to death. That is not a small difference.

Which brings me on to the future-variant Sentinels, which are just fucking horrifying, one part T-1000 to two parts the Fury, the superhero-killer from Alan Moore's Captain Britain run. I assume the link must be deliberate, and it's a damn smart choice. The brief scenes in which the Fury slaughters its way through the capes of the alternate universe whence it came still give me the shudders. This, if anything, by involving characters I know and actors I can watch emote, is even worse. The final scenes of the X-Men's actual last stand are almost certainly the most horrific and upsetting the Marvel cinematic universe has manage, going some way to making up for the fact that the original cast's role here is essentially to exposit, look sad, and die. It also allows for a smart use of a double finale, which is useful when you consider that the end moments of the '70s story - does Magneto use the weapons he's stolen from those who would kill mutants to kill those same people - which is rather reminiscent of the ending of First Class, albeit with some absolutely gorgeous Sentinels and Peter Dinklage, both of which are welcome additions.

Indeed, that's very much what the '70s scenes in the film end up feeling like, a fairly minor reshuffling of the previous film with some additional flourishes. Which in fairness, given the additional complexities of the time-travel hijinks and the second timeline, might have been a reasonable choice. Certainly the slightly reheated feel wasn't obvious to me whilst I was watching the movie, which is about all you can hope for from a blockbuster like this.

Friday, 13 February 2015

NMU #36: "Subway To Salvation!"

("Why is it during the hard times there are only one set of footprints in the sand?"
 "Those are the times I was flying over New York in a magic subway car.")


Finding God can do strange things to a person. Having God find you apparently makes things stranger still.

First, let's dispense with the obvious: the degree to which Sunspot is shaken here by meeting the Beyonder doesn't particularly make sense considering how that encounter actually played out in SW2 #8. Basically the Beyonder doesn't even engage the New Mutants there, busy as he is with other things. "Lucky escape" is the phrase, rather than "All existence has been rendered meaningless by this encounter".  I don't see this as a failing of this particular issue, though. If there's a decent story to be wrung out of how the New Mutants deal with meeting someone who, if not technically a god, is clearly more powerful than the actual gods our heroes hung out with just a few weeks earlier, there's little sense in ignoring that fact because the awful mini you're tying into has dropped the ball.

Whether there is such a story lurking beneath the surface, of course, is a different matter.  And the early indications are pretty good. It appears that a close encounter with the Beyonder has knocked all the fight out of Sunspot, leading to him seeming distracted in training sessions and loudly announcing he didn't join the New Mutants to become a superhero, but just to learn how to live with being a mutant. Which might have been true initially, but even the most cursory glance at Sunspot's attitude over the last 36 issues and assorted specials - most especially his time in Asgard - makes it pretty hard to swallow the idea that his goal is a low profile and a quiet life. It's not as though it's tough to understand why the concept of the Beyonder could shake Roberto up, obviously, but the timing is interesting. After all, young master DaCosta has only just emerged apparently unscathed from the adventure which saw his mind invaded by a seemingly unstoppable tyrant who forced him to slaughter innocents, and seemed poised to use him and his closest friends as murderous flesh-puppets for the rest of their lives.

So why the sudden change of heart now? Why is Roberto suddenly once more consumed with regret and sadness over the death of his girlfriend Juliana, gunned down before his first meeting with Professor Xavier?  Well, I'm rather giving the game away phrasing it like that, so I'll come out with it. Before Xavier, Roberto's authority figure - one he didn't choose - was an egomaniac with a thirst for power and very little interest in how chasing after that power would affect those in the way. With Charles gone, Roberto's new authority figure - whom he didn't choose - is an egomaniac with a reputation for thirsting for power and having very little interest in how chasing after that power will affect those in the way. This isn't about the Beyonder, it's about daddy issues. Or rather, to the extent that this is about the Beyonder, it's because the Beyonder is yet another solipsistic berk on a power trip. He just happens to have all the power already.

All of which is pretty interesting, and another smart riff on the crossover Claremont found himself lumbered with. Alas, the rest of the issue can't really deliver on this opening. Again, it's not clear whether this is Claremon't fault - the problem here is the need to include the Beyonder, much as it has been for this whole miserable crossover, and I don't want to lay that at Claremont's door either. But an understandable problem is still a problem, and watching the Beyonder stick his omnipotent mullet-framed fizzog into the proceedings is as frustrating and disappointing as always.

Still, whilst there's nothing in the rest of the issue to match the inspired conflation of religious crisis and daddy issues, there is more on the subject of sudden shifts in faith, as Sam and Illyana both declare themselves Team Beyonder. In the latter's case, this is at least partially because the Beyonder removes her Darkchilde persona and attendant responsibilities, transferring them to Shadowcat without either girl's consent or knowledge (Claremont declines to explore the obvious mile-in-her-shoes opportunity this presents, probably due to lack of space). Sam's conversion, in contrast, comes about because he's brought to visit Illyana's new flying subway car of evangelism. Yes, this is a thing. No, I've no idea why. Forget it Jack, it's Claremont town.  You'd rather hope that neither of these events would cause so vast a sea change as signing up for the Big B newsletter, but that seems to be what's happened. I'll bet mind control is involved there somewhere. There always is. Forget it Jack, and review my previous comments.

Either way, there's something rather familiar in Illyana's conversion. Towards the end of the issue Kitty finds herself captured by some of the rampaging demons currently tearing through New York - why? No-one seems bothered enough to ask - and about to be sacrificed, and all Illyana can do is insist her mission for the Beyonder is too vital to interrupt for anything so trivial as her best friend's imminent death. And yes, she changes her mind in the end. Of course she does; this is a Claremont joint, and this is more or less exactly the same ending as he wrote for UXM in the same month. But before she returns her mind to earthly concerns, she acts as an admittedly hyperbolic example of a certain subset of the born-again religious. You might well know the type; the ones who have lived their lives in the eye of a hurricane of their own selfishness, and so can't help but make their new faith all about themselves too. When all you can do is talk about how important your relationship is with God, you're not fooling anyone about where your obsession lies, any more than those parents who can't shut up about how well their kids are doing.

Which is interesting. Well, I thought it was interesting, anyway. It does at least tie in with Sunspot's concerns at the start of the issue, giving us a bridging theme to help us get over the weak monster-runaround in the middle (and did we really need another instalment of "Who can Warlock kill for sustenance guilt-free?). I might not be inclined to thank God for that, but I can't deny that it's something.


This story takes place over a single afternoon.

Bobby is mentioned as still being thirteen in this issue.  This is flatly ridiculous, as an absolute bare minimum of twenty-one months have passed since his debut, at which point he was already a teenager.

The afternoon this story takes place on is referred to being an Indian summer, which would place this story somewhere in Autumn. This gives us some real headaches, however, since we know Madelyne had to have given birth to Christopher both around Christmas and only days before Magneto took over the X-Men. With that latter event still clearly something which our protagonists are having to adjust to, there's no way to sensibly push this story forward eight months, especially since Claremont wants us to believe this is taking place less than a year after the graphic novel which preceded NMU #1.


Tuesday 12th March, 1985



Contemporary Events

Stromae is born. Twenty-five years later he takes Europe by storm with this, which I'd never heard of before, despite it reaching number one in a pretty impressive nineteen different countries.

(Clip officiel!)

Standout Line

"And with that, the subway car -- as beautiful and pure a machine as Illyana has become a person... takes to the sky... as if this is what it was born to do!"

I just... I got nothing.

Friday, 6 February 2015

UXM #202: "X-Men... I've Gone To Kill -- The Beyonder!"

(Unclear Non-present Danger)


So here's an accolade no-one was ever holding their breath over: best Secret Wars II tie-in ever.  But that's what we have here, and there's other positives too. This is an issue that is Saying Something.

At first glance the plot here might seem slight, its lashings of Claremontian melodrama notwithstanding. Essentially Rachel Summers concludes the Beyonder is simply too threatening to live, and dashes off to kill him. This is of little concern to the Beyonder, of course, but he takes the opportunity to force her to choose between attacking him and saving the lives of her teammates from future-model Sentinels he's whipped up to kill them. The fact that Rachel chooses the latter option is a solid 24-carat nugget of purest non-surprise, obviously, but then the fact she chooses to abandon her quest isn't what's interesting here.  It's that she embarked on it in the first place.

Objectively speaking, two things seem almost undeniable. Firstly, whatever risks the Beyonder might pose to the planet going forwards, as of his initial arrival he's not done anything that the Marvel universe of the time would suggest he deserves death for.  I mean, if you spend any time at all thinking through what the Beyonder has been up to since his first introduction he's almost certainly a serial rapist and a genocidal murderer, but that's clearly not the way we're supposed to be thinking, which we know because none of that has been so much as nodded at since it happened.  In the morality structure of these stories as written, Rachel's actions here are a pre-emptive strike rather than an application of justice. Further, they're clearly being portrayed as a massive overreaction. Heroes Do Not Kill, not here and not now, and although this rule seems to get bent an awful lot when non-human intelligences are involved, the Beyonder looks sufficiently human that having him murdered whilst minding his own business by one of the X-Men would cause an awful lot of problems. And all of this is without noting that Ororo has an excellent point on page 3: if you're worried you're only alive because of a godlike being's sufferance, resolving to attack said being it utterly deranged. As the old saying goes, if you come at God, you'd better not miss the entirety of existence that he might wipe out in response to teach you a lesson.

It's not, though, that Claremont hasn't thought any of this through.  The idea here is very clearly that Rachel is on a hair-trigger, because she's the only person in the narrative for which the future is literally something she has seen happen already.  What does it even mean to describe something as a pre-emptive strike when it's designed to mitigate a crisis you have already lived through?

Even just all that provides us with interestings question to chew on.  But we can go still further. Because there's every chance Claremont is offering up an analogy here. With the "Days Of Future Past" future so clearly having borrowed from the horrors of the Holocaust, with Magneto's backstory being rewritten four years previously to tie him in to that same period, and with the book's very last issue having taken place at America's (at that point still fictional) National Holocaust Memorial, it's not hard to see a through-line in this point in the title's history. Anti-Semitism might not be the only kind of bigotry Claremont is reflecting in his stories, but it's certainly a major ingredient. And just as he liked to do with Kitty and her favourite N-word, Claremont isn't just interested in how bigotry expresses itself, but how it is responded to.  Which brings us back to Rachel. Eventually, that is.

In late 1985, the time when this issue was presumably written, the Israelis finally finished withdrawing from the areas of Lebanon - other than the South Lebanon "security belt" - they had taken during the war which began in 1982 after the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to the UK.  During that war over 600 Israelis died, as did almost 20 000 other people - including civilian casualties that couldn't have been lower than 5 000 people and might actually have been over 10 000 - as the Lebanese fought a civil war whilst Israel clashed with the PLO and the Syrian army. I'm not a historian, so I'm not going to stick my neck out too far here, but the general opinion seems to be that a) Israel didn't do too well out of this exchange, and b) invading a country over a failed assassination attempt was at best a massive over-reaction and at worst an example of what Naomi Klein might call "disaster foreign policy".  Either way, when the IRA came within a hair of blowing up Margaret Thatcher (And killed two high-ranking members of her party), we didn't respond by taking Dublin, and I've a hard time understanding an argument that says we made a mistake in that.

Ah, but Israel, the line goes, is different. Unique.  The IRA might have hated us, but they didn't surround us. We were fighting over the size our country should be, not whether that country should be swept into the sea. Most important of all, the English and Irish had been at war with each other on and off for at least eight centuries when the Grand Hotel exploded and killed five people, and England never came close to actually losing, you know, the English. We weren't just getting back on our feet after a brush with extinction.

Much has been said from many perspectives about the argument that non-Jews cannot criticise Israel because they can't conceive of the existential horror brought about by Hitler's Final Solution. This isn't the place for me to go into detail about what I think of that, but it's relevant for considering this UXM issue, because it's an argument that reflects Rachel Summer's position here. If someone believes that anti-Jewish atrocities will simply keep happening in an endless cycle of blood that can only be delayed and never broken, that person could well reach the same conclusion as Phoenix: that their future will simply be their past, unless they act quickly and decisively enough. Whether any piece of that thinking lay behind Israel's pre-emptive strike in June 1967, or whether the decision to attack before they could be attacked was grounded in impeccable military logic, I'm not qualified to comment upon. But clearly the instinct is there.

(Another interesting parallel: Phoenix's initial attack against the Beyonder takes the shape of a nuclear mushroom cloud. With a bird's head, admittedly, but still. Israel's long-suspected nuclear arsenal was finally revealed to exist eight months after this issue's cover date.)

And, just as it was with Phoenix, that instinct doesn't always work out. Not every problem can be solved by the lavish application of massive military force. Some, indeed, can only be exacerbated by that approach. What did the first Lebanon War gain Israel except for hundreds of dead soldiers and thousands of new enemies? Countries, like gods, do not become less troublesome after you've attacked them. An exchange where you remove a government's capacity to hurt you for a year and guarantee their desire to hurt you for a lifetime isn't difficult to see as problematic. Even back in the '80s, before the rise of portable media made it so much easier to track how Israel responds to provocation, it must have been clear that the country's frequently maximalist approach to defence and security was locking in its own form of vicious circle. Simply put, to many observers Israel's attempts to render the kind of hatred that fuelled the Holocaust impotent was simply helping that hatred to spread. The people of Israel were being put at risk by the very people who wanted to protect them.

Claremont is not interested in being subtle in pointing out this risk of counter-productivity.  As soon as Phoenix refuses to back down despite her first attack achieving precisely nothing, the Beyonder summons her fellow X-Men to threaten them with death. Worse, his chosen method of execution is the exact same model of Sentinel that slaughtered so many of Rachel's friends when she was younger. I don't think the Beyonder could make his point any clearer, but then I guess having the powers of a god does rather help when driving your metaphors home.

All of which, as I say, makes the fact that Rachel does indeed to save her friends more or less irrelevant. What matters is what forcing her to make the choice has demonstrated. Rachel is none too pleased about receiving this rather perilous lecture, naturally, and I'm inclined to sympathise. It's one thing to object to the dreadful cost Israeli policy has upon the Palestinian population, It's quite another to presume to lecture survivors of terrible tragedy how they can best prevent it from happening again. But then it's not as though Rachel's counter is all that great either. She complains bitterly about the Beyonder trying to force her to achieve enlightenment before she was ready to process things herself.  Which might be an entirely reasonable suggestion if no-one else was involved.  Demanding she be left alone so that she can decide on her own timetable when to stop trying to murder people is not a particularly good look, just as it isn't when Israeli officials demand no-one has the right to lecture them about how many Palestinians they decide need killing in any given month.

Basically, then, no-one on either side of this ends up looking particularly good. Which makes it one more example in a very long list of commentary about Israel that nobody is going to find satisfactory. There are worse things your narrative can do. And it's always smart to remember that disliking answers does not necessarily mean it's not worth being made to face the questions.

(Two quick notes about artwork here. First of all, I love how Romita Jr. draws the Blackbird in panels that are both orientated in the direction of flight and elongated to match the jet's speed.  That's a lovely little idea.

Falling without power here, hence the wider panel

I also dig the visual link between the flowers the Beyonder is spending his time his considering and Rachel when she's curled up, the wisps of her power curling like petals (the colours make this harder to see, admittedly).  It's a subtle but rather grim reminder of how little the Beyonder distinguishes between people and flora.

Great stuff.)


This story takes place in approximately real time.


Wednesday 13th March, 1985.



Compression Constant

1 Marvel year = 3.19 standard years.

(At the time of this post, Beast is 34 years old)

Contemporary Events

American painter Mabel Alvarez dies, aged 93.

Standout Line

"You have seen everyone you care for slaughtered. In a sense, you are the sole survivor of your world, of your race. Small wonder, now that you have a second chance... you are determined to defend them at any coast. Shamed by what was... terrified of what may yet be..." - the Beyonder.