Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men is a lot like that time your dad promised to take you fishing but instead got drunk and passed out on the couch while watching reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard
It was a disappointment, that’s for sure.
To begin with, I should say that Whedon’s Astonishing was one of the first X-Men comics I actually read. Most of my exposure to the characters and universe had been from cartoons, films, and appearances in other comic titles. However, the X-Men had always interested me, and when I heard that Whedon had written a mostly self-contained arc, I decided that it would be a perfect place to jump into the main continuity. Best of all, it featured a classic roster, with fan favorites like Kitty Pryde, Colossus, and Beast, the issue-selling Wolverine, the boring but obligatory Cyclops, and everybody’s favorite Jean Grey substitute–Emma Frost! Actually, I wasn’t familiar with Emma Frost the first time I read Astonishing, and when I first saw her, I just assumed her mutant power was the ability to wear really ugly hotpants without feeling embarrassed.
In case you don’t know, Joss Whedon is mostly known for his work on television series, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He also created the tragically short lived sci-fi show, Firefly, which was actually pretty good for a piece of blatant Neo-Confederate propaganda. He is also the man responsible for Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, which, according to the last time I checked, is still ranked #2 on the list of humanity’s greatest achievements, just below putting a man on the moon and just above aerosol pancake batter.
Based on his previous work, I was totally on board with Whedon writing the X-Men. He’s a creative enough guy and I was sure he could put his talent to use on the preexisting X-Men universe. After all, the characters and themes frequently found in X-Men have a level of depth that is rarely found in mainstream superhero comics, but desperately needed. The most obvious feature of the mutants in the Marvel Universe is that they metaphorically work for any oppressed minority in the real world without ever being pinned down as a being a representative of a single group. When story lines are focused on mutant experimentation or genocide, the Holocaust immediately comes to mind. When a mutant struggles to keep their powers a secret from their family or friends, and when has to “come out” to the world, it’s a clear parallel to what many homosexuals have to go through. But why are all these not-so-subtle nods towards real life discrimination so effective? Because the mutants aren’t actually the Jews or the Gays (although that can be). The mutants are girls that can move things with their minds or boys with wings or they’re just a big torso with a face. Many of them don’t even look human, and plenty have dangerous powers. So, while it’s absolutely baffling to me that so many people allowed the Holocaust to happen, it isn’t hard to understand where all the mutant hate is coming from. Even though many mutants are portrayed as decent people who just want to live normal lives, it’s always the ancient, immortal, shape shifting mutants who has conquered the world in a future timeline that ruin it for everybody.
For the X-Men to be anything other than a generic and boring superhero group, this racial tension needs to be present throughout most of their conflicts. After all, Charles Xavier’s main mission is to improve human/mutant relations by teaching young mutants how use their powers responsibly for the good of everyone, right? This is also exactly what makes Magneto the perfect villain. He is the ideological opposite of Xavier and believes that there can never be peace between humans and mutants. In his worldview, either the humans will kill all the mutants, or the mutants will kill all the humans. So, when he acts like an evil bastard, it’s not because he just likes to fight for reasons that are never really clear, it’s because he is doing what he believes to be necessary for the survival of his species. The irony that he is just as bad as the anti-mutant humans is perfect, and shows that his character is not driven out of a lust for blood, power or money like so many supervillains. He’s just afraid.
I was disappointed that Magneto was not in Astonishing, but I understand that he can’t be the villain in every single story arc. That would be repetitive and get boring fast. However, I still wanted a villain that would present both a physical and ideological challenge for the mutants. I’m not saying he needed to be a cheap copy of Magneto with the exact same motivation, but I feel the X-Men are sophisticated enough to deserve a challenge that showcases them struggling for their ideals of a harmonious world where humans do not need to fear the mutants, and mutants do not need to feel shame for who they are. I pretty much just wanted something that wasn’t a giant monster or an evil empire of aliens. So who did Whedon come up with?
His name is Ord and he is from a planet called Breakworld. They stuff their pillows with diamonds. The Breakworld is shown as a violent place filled with Evil Green Guys where only the baddest of badasses can survive. Weak children are immediately discarded and anyone who is against the constant fighting and wars is called a traitor and a pussy. So, it’s kinda like a Space-America. But anyway, this brings me to a little something I like to call Bad Comic Book Cliché #7: people who are violent for no reason in particular. While Magneto acutally has motivation and it was society that turned him into a villain, Ord here is just a bad guy because he comes from a planet of bad guys who are also uncomfortable pillow enthusiasts. I guess this does make for a very clear view of who is good and who is evil, as opposed to the sometimes moral ambiguity of Magneto, but the problem is that Ord could be the villain for any superhero. He could fight Spider-Man or Captain America and it wouldn’t matter. He isn’t playing to the strengths of the X-Men franchise, which ultimately makes him pointless and forgettable.
Ok, ok. It’s not quite as bad as it seems. Ord was sent to Earth to kill all the mutants because there is a prophesy that a mutant will destroy his home planet. After winning a bunch of battles, Ord is allowed the honor of going to Earth to fight the mutants. However, upon going to Earth, he meets up with the government defence force, S.W.O.R.D, who convince him that they’ll come up with a cure for the mutant gene. Of course, this brings us to Bad Comic Book Cliché #12: people doing things that are contrary to their nature for no reason in particular. Ord is from the Breakworld. They were already established as a society that likes to fight for no reason, so shouldn’t they be excited for an epic showdown with a worthy adversary? This guy doesn’t seem like the type who would compromise anyway, so he probably would have just told the S.W.O.R.D people to get out his way or he would fight them to, because that is how they roll on Breakworld. Then again, I wanted something to tie in with mutant hate, so this was Whedon’s attempt. But the real problem here is that this conflict is not as relatable or interesting. Especially because the prophesy predicting the destruction of Breakworld was really just bullshit, and there was another Evil Green Guy who just wanted his planet destroyed so there can finally be peace. The conflict doesn’t feel organic, and all these twists and turns were forced plot points that offer nothing other than the opportunity to send Wolverine into space so he can fight Evil Green Guys.
Of course, there were other conflicts in Whedon’s run that distracted from the overall plot for a few issues here in there. On of them involved the Danger Room becoming sentient and turning into a sexy robot lady. I feel like I don’t need to elaborate here because I’m sure we can all agree that this is the stupidest thing ever.
The Cassandra Nova arc was actually interesting and offered some of the only character insight and development of the entire run. Whedon does understand the characters he is writing, and this shows when Cassandra Nova starts messing with the minds of the X-Men. The sophisticated Beast has always prided himself on his intellect, but fears that because of his appearance if he were ever to lose his intelligence or appreciation of the arts, he would become nothing more than a feral, well, beast. Nova alters his mind, regressing him into a savage animal, and then sets him loose at the academy.
Wolverine hasn’t always been the Official Badass of the Marvel Universe, as he was once a spoiled, sickly rich Canadian boy who could never gain his mother’s affection. *Note to Mothers: If you don’t want your child to grow up with a bad attitude and muttonchops to match, hug him every once in a while* Nova reverted Wolverine back to his childhood in a scene that was humorous and served as a reminder that there is more to Wolverine than he likes to let on.
Of course, we are reminded of Wolverine’s softer side again when he and a young mutant girl called Armor fight there way through Breakworld. Armor was just the latest in a series of young girls (Kitty Pryde, Jubilee, Rogue in the film version) that Wolverine has, er, “taken an interest in,” and while I think it is supposed to show that Wolverine is actually capable of caring for other human beings and that he isn’t as tough and callous as he seems, I think it’s just starting to get creepy. Anyway, this is Bad Comic Cliché #27: using children as a way to show a tough character’s softer side. At this point, we already know about Wolverine having a softer side. We don’t need another annoying kid tagging along for the ride. Armor was fairly forgettable herself, and I don’t think she has been used much since Whedon left the title. It seems like the only girl sidekick of Wolverine’s that had any staying power was Kitty Pryde.
But the worst sins from Whedon’s run is when he used Bad Comic Cliché #1: dead people coming back to life. Early on, it is revealed that Colossus was brought back to life with Breakworld technology so Ord and the humans can experiment on him to find the cure for the X-gene. He reunites with his old girlfriend, Kitty and everyone is very happy about it, except for you, the reader. Why? Because when death is meaningless, all the tension in the story is gone. Sure, you know that the main characters of a story have a slim chance of dying, but when the rules of universe acknowledge that dying is just a minor inconvenience, why should anyone, including both the characters in the story and the reader, care about all the bad guys facing the heroes? If anybody dies, they can just use Ord’s de-deadening machine to undeaden them, right? This is especially annoying when Cyclops purposely drives a spaceship into the path of a bunch of enemies, to allow the others a chance to escape and so he can be killed. He knew that his dead body would be recovered and then brought back to life so that he can blast the bad guys with an optic beam. But it’s alright if he killed anybody. They’ll be coming back.
But anyway, Cyclops’s noble sacrifice is suddenly not so noble, it’s just a pathetic reminder that in comic book universes, it doesn’t matter how bad things get for a character, everything will be ok after a writer pushes the undo button. Resurrection may be ok in moderation, or if there is some point to it, like with Jean Grey coming back as Phoenix, but most of the time, it is painfully obvious that a writer just wants to bring everything back to the status quo from when he was reading comics as a kid (I’m looking at you, Geoff Johns). Maybe this is more of a problem with continuity, and if that is so, then maybe writers should stop killing of main characters. Readers have learned that death won’t be permanent, and now writers are killing off people just to bring them back a few issues later. But the real thing to understand, is that when death becomes meaningless, life becomes meaningless as well.
All in all, there were some good moments and a lot of potential, but ultimately, Astonishing X-Men falls a little flat. However, if you do enjoy the characters and you just want to see them fight people for no reason, then you’ll probably like this. If you were wanting something with a subtext that is actually interesting, then maybe you should look into Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men, more specifically the “E is for Extinction” and “Riot at Xavier’s” storylines, because even some of GMo’s run becomes bland in places.
I give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men 2 Hugh Jackman’s Manly Muttonchops out of 4.