Summer crossover events are the sort of thing you have to accept, however begrudgingly, if you’re a month-to-month Marvel or DC comics reader. They’re the strange paradox of being stories in which “things happen” and a new, temporary status quo is created (until the next big event). Something big and dramatic always happens at the very end, boiling down an entire storyline to (more often than not) an excuse to kill a character off. And death is a revolving door in comic books anyway. Big events are polarizing, because it’s hard not to see the commercial gears turning as every comic even tangentially related to the main action gets pulled into its orbit.
So it was with some trepidation that I started reading Marvel’s big summer crossover, Avengers vs. X-Men. I’ve had a mixed bag with crossover stories before — Age of Apocalypse is my favorite of the bunch (and I refuse to read any of the sequels or follow-ups that have come out since); I had decent to good experiences with Civil War and House of M; and there are those whose word of mouth was so toxic I couldn’t convince myself to start (Fear Itself, Ultimatum). I’ve been spotty in my reading of Marvel comics for the past few years — those who know me know that most of my reading material is of the Star Wars and Ultimate Spider-Man variety — so I was curious about whether this might be any good.
Avengers vs. X-Men is a 12-issue series, with new issues out every 2 weeks. I recently read #10, the last issue before a month-long break. At the same time, every Avengers and X-Men comic is included in the event, and there’s also another new comic, AVX, which contains no story material, just fights. My opinion of the storyline ranges wildly depending on which comic I’m reading, so I’ll break it down as best I can (and I will be spoiling some month-old comics, for those who are sensitive to such things).
The basic storyline of Avengers vs. X-Men is that the Phoenix Force is returning to Earth. The Avengers want to stop that from happening; the X-Men, whose numbers have been decimated in recent years, see the Phoenix as a chance to improve their lot. The action centers around Hope Summers, Cyclops’ daughter from the future (who I had no idea existed before the crossover, because I don’t really read the X-Men comics, so I had some Wikipedia-ing to do), who will be the host for the Phoenix. The Avengers come to take her into custody for her own protection, the X-Men object, harsh words are spoken, and fighting breaks out, all while the Phoenix gets closer and closer.
There’s no nice way to say that the first four issues are really boring. Every issue is just everybody fighting over Hope all over the world and there’s not really a whole lot of resonance to it. It’s just superpowered people beating up other superpowered people, while Hope, who’s not entirely sure she wants the Phoenix power, mostly makes a run for it. These first four issues are pretty much wallowing in some of the worst excesses of summer crossovers, because nothing is happening and they’re baiting you into buying with hoping something will finally break.
Things finally pick up in issue #5, where the Phoenix Force finally arrives at Earth. It comes for Hope, but she rejects it; Iron Man fires a super-high-tech disruptor at it, hoping to scare it away from Earth; instead, the Phoenix enters five of the X-Men — Cyclops, Emma Frost, Namor, Magik, and Colossus each get one-fifth of its power. Issue #6 is the best in the series: the Phoenix Five (and no matter how many times I type that, it never sounds not silly) use their powers to make the world a better place. They declare world peace, create a global power grid, bring food to the hungry, etc. Everybody’s pretty happy that the world’s changed overnight, except for the Avengers, who know full well what the Phoenix can do (we all remember Jean Grey) and are waiting for the other shoe to drop. While we all know it’s going to go to hell eventually, it’s actually pretty cool to see the Phoenix Five following their better angels and using their new power exactly the way they’d hoped to. Even a few of the Avengers (namely Beast) point out that the Phoenix might not be as bad as we’ve been led to believe.
After the Avengers abscond with Hope, the Phoenix Five decide the Avengers are never going to leave the X-Men alone, and go on the offensive — hunting down and imprisoning everybody who opposes their new utopia. The Avengers hide in Wakanda; Phoenix-empowered Namor invades; the Avengers throw everything they’ve got at him; Namor actually falls. That’s when things get interesting — the Phoenix Force within Namor transfers over to the remaining four. And the last four are having a harder time holding onto their sanity now — the Phoenix is driving them to bigger and bigger things, and oh hey, there’s that other shoe now. Now Magik is creating a prison by ripping a portion of Limbo onto Earth; Colossus goes on a date with Kitty Pryde (mostly to try to prove to himself he’s still human), which ends with him nearly killing her and destroying Xavier’s school before he backs off; Emma Frost’s telepathy now connects her to every mind on the planet, making her deeply afraid she’ll lose control, a fear which proves to be founded when she starts killing anybody who’s ever crossed mutantkind and telepathically forcing the X-Men into obedience.
Where the series is at now, Colossus and Magik have just taken each other out of the fight, and Cyclops and Emma, both holding half of the Phoenix Force, are starting to eye each other’s half. It’s a lot of escalation, which makes for some good reading, but I’d be lying if I said the last third of the series hasn’t been a bit of a drag. Nearly-all-powerful Cyclops is pretty much a straight-out villain at this point (and even admits so), and Hope Summers has finally tapped into some power that can actually hurt the Phoenix Force, so we’ve got some momentum building into the final two issues, but once the Phoenix Five became Four became Two, a lot of the moral ambiguity and strong characterization that made issues 6 through 9 such a treat has gone out the window and it’s turned into a straight us-vs.-them story. It was inevitable — as the Phoenix Five gain more power, it’s overriding their better impulses — but it’s kind of blah to read otherwise interesting characters (Cyclops in particular) stop questioning whether they’ve become monsters. At this point, it’s not hard to see that the story will boil down to Cyclops fights Emma, one of them becomes the full Phoenix, big knockdown fight, someone dies, crossover over.
The spinoffs have been shaky, as well. X-Men Legacy has featured Rogue trying to bust Avengers out of Magik’s Limbo prison, with not-great results; Uncanny X-Men featured Mr. Sinister trying to capture the Phoenix Five for his own ambitions, which amounted to a lot of cool buildup and surprises that I actually found myself getting into, but kind of a weak ending. The only real standout has been AVX, a mini-series that promises “no story, just fights.” Every cover advertises two big fights — say, Colossus vs. Spider-Man, or Thor vs. Emma Frost — and covers them in loving detail. You might not always agree with the outcomes, but for just goofy, straight-up action (with goofier narration), they’ve been a blast (although there’s been one or two that have been just eye-rollingly bad; Captain America vs. Gambit, I’m looking at you).
What works about Avengers vs. X-Men as a whole is when it breaks away from its title and explores how the Phoenix Force affects all of them. There’s a lot of room for good storytelling and character work in there, and seeing what leads the Avengers to not implicitly trust the Phoenix Five (as the rest of the world seems to), as well as how the Five are trying very hard to hold onto their humanity, leads to some good stories. (The Avengers vs. X-Men #6 Infinite comic does a very good job of showing Cyclops trying to convince himself his power won’t corrupt him.) But when it’s just superheroes punching each other and beloved characters acting as smug jerks because that’s what the plot requires them to be, well, then it’s just kind of hoping the next issue will be better. I’ve enjoyed the crossover when it’s shown me sides of the heroes I’ve never seen before and made me think about “can infinite power ever be responsibly used.” I’ve loathed it when it’s splash pages showing fights happening on pretty much every continent, with no real rhyme to it, and Cyclops eventually not even questioning his use of his new power, implicitly accepting that might makes him right — that’s not true to the character. (One could argue that that’s the point, that Cyclops is losing more of himself to the Phoenix, but that doesn’t always make it particularly interesting or fun to read — when plot dictates character, and not the reverse.)
I’ve enjoyed my brief foray into mainstream Marvel comics for the summer, even if it’s amounted to a lot of interesting ideas, some of which paid off really well, some of which suffered in execution. It’s reminded me why big summer events can be enjoyable as well as headache-inducing. I’d recommend reading Avengers vs. X-Men #6 through 9, at the least, and maybe more depending on how it hooks you. Excelsior!