Fuck that shit, let's talk comics.
The problem with AvX is not that it's terrible - really, do we expect better than terrible? why would we do this? - but that it's terrible in a really repulsive way. As in, I feel dirty reading the thing because I think the "ideas" on display are really, really (can I say "really" anymore? I really mean it this time) ill-thought. It's not that the story presents a legitimate difference of opinion between rival squads of superheroes. That's what Marvel would have you believe the story was about (at least at the outset), in much the same way as was Civil War. I was about to type something relatively complimentary about Civil War here by way of using that faint praise as a club with which to bash AvX soundly across the head and shoulders, but that's not really helpful. Civil War was bad for a myriad of reasons but at its core was the germ of a good idea, and some semblance of thought was given to charting how individual characters would react to a line being drawn in the sand on a matter of deep principle. I may not have believed every minute of it, and any number of characters acted "out of character" according to the experiences of people who have been reading about superheroes for longer than the five minutes it takes to read the back of a DVD box (I'm assuming that is how long it takes you to read the back of the DVD box for Iron Man 2 if you believe that the political commentary in Civil War was "trenchant") - but you know what, Civil War still took the time to attempt to justify most of the main characters' opinions throughout the narrative.
If you think I'm trying to compliment Civil War here, I'm really not. Civil War provided the bare minimum of narrative meat necessary to string together a series of "awesome" story beats. Seriously - pick up the collected edition and skim through it. It's one of the great examples of "momentism" in comics storytelling - the story isn't paced so much as defibrillated. Every time characters are talking to each other, the story sort of murmurs along and then BLAM they shout "CLEAR!" like we're watching E.R. reruns and, whoops, Spider-Man is ripping his mask off, whoops, here's the Punisher.
One problem with AvX is that it actually makes Civil War seem better in hindsight. If Civil War was a series of "kewl" moments strung together with bad exposition, AvX is nothing but bad exposition - with the actual meat of the series - you know, the part where the Avengers fight the God-damned X-Men - farmed out to spin-offs. Think for a minute about just how seriously fucked-up it is that a superhero comic event series actually has to have a spin-off specifically dedicated to fight scenes, because there's no room for these fights in the actual series itself.
I'll let that sink in for a minute.
People don't talk a lot about decompression anymore, but I think it's fair to say that the war has officially been lost. They at least make an attempt now to make the comic take longer than five minutes to read - at last six, six-and-a-half if Bendis is writing a scene with Luke and Jessica talking about their relationship - but they don't pace these things right anymore. They don't know how to write fight scenes. You know how it used to be that writers would have to spend time thinking about how characters would use their powers and teamwork to defeat enemies, and we'd see the give-and-take of individual fights and different characters ding different things and the plot would actually be pushed forward by actions characters committed during pitched battles? You know? No, of course you don't, because if you started reading superhero comics anytime in the last ten years all you know is the artist drawing a bunch of characters ramming into each other for a big two-page spread and then some random characters have ironic asides and the plot grinds to a halt, then they stop fighting and the plot moves forward again. Some are better than others, true, but the vast majority of these things are written so unimaginatively that the superheroes are just cogs in some paramilitary law-enforcement fantasy, with endless ranks of colored action figures being pushed up against each other at random. But the point is that the fights aren't important anymore - the fights themselves are so perfunctory in the series itself that you almost get the feeling that the people writing this book are ashamed that they have to put them in there. So much easier to write characters talking to each other about their feelings - or talking to the President, there's a lot of talking to the President.
(And the worst part is that most of the fights in the AvX: VS spin-off haven't been that bad - fairly imaginative character pieces with decent-to-good art. But man, how weird is it that the book devoted to showcasing two groups of superheroes fighting has to outsource the actual fighting itself. I just can't get over this.)
The major problem at the heart of AvX, if we're being honest with ourselves, is that the central conflict is completely stupid. As in: one side of characters is so obviously right and the other so obviously wrong that it sort of demeans them all to come to blows. If we didn't know that the X-Men were actually supposed to be superheroes - a perhaps erroneous assumption predicated on fifty years of previous X-Men comics - then we would have no idea that they were supposed to be in any way sympathetic. To put it as plainly as possible: the X-Men take actions that endanger the safety of the almost seven billion people on Earth because they think the gamble might pay off. The Avengers point out that this isn't really a reasonable thing to do, regardless of the possible positive consequences, because the potential negatives are just too high. The X-Men, instead of realizing that they are in fact endangering the lives of every man, woman, and child on the planet for something that could charitably be characterized as a craps-shoot, get all defensive and start calling the Avengers bigots. You know, the same Avengers being led by Captain America.
The problem with someone calling you a bigot is that, regardless of the merits of the particularly claim, it's just not something anyone wants to see deal with first thing in the morning. It's a bit like the old, "when did you stop beating your wife?" question. And it doesn't make sense because, as I say, we've got a good fifty years of (mostly) peaceful coexistence and cooperation between Marvel's mutant heroes and the Avengers. So it just doesn't make sense - and is quite off-putting - to see the mutants now turning on the Avengers and accusing them of being bigots trying to keep the mutant man down. It feels sordid. Especially since, you know, this is Captain America we're talking about, and we as readers know for a fact that anyone who calls Cap a bigot is just not playing with a full deck of cards.
Now, based on the surprise twist at the end of issue #5 (I assume you've all either read it or don't plan to at this late date), it's become somewhat clear that the X-Men are being played as the villains here. The five X-Men who just happened to be possessed by the Phoenix force were the five most morally compromised X-Men - imperious and arbitrary Namor, ex-villain White Queen, unpredictable and occasionally evil Magik, Juggernaut-compromised Colossus, and bat-shit extremist Cyclops. (I do call shenanigans, however: the Magik vs. Black Widow story mistakenly asserted that Magik had no soul, when in fact they spent the better part of a year in New Mutants telling the story of how Illyana got her soul back - do these people not even bother to read the Wikipedia pages? Because folks, that's free.) It's fairly obvious that they're setting the X-Men up for a fall here, and that's fine, I guess. This last week has established that the X-Men have built a prison for the Avengers out of a chunk of Limbo placed in an active volcano - as in, an actual piece of Hell torn from the inferno and designed to torment Earth's Mightiest Heroes.
You can't even say that any of this is coming out of leftfield. One of the problems (one among many!) with Fear Itself is that the storyline emerged seemingly out of nowhere. It was actually a pretty good evocation of a truly "old-school" crossover, in that it presented a new threat that appeared fresh in the first issue and ran roughshod over everyone else's plotlines. It did so in such a haphazard, off-putting way that it came off as kind of desperate, a little bit of "old school" flop-sweat channeled through the market wisdom of the "dead cat bounce." But you can't say that AvX is in any way arbitrary or unplanned: they've fairly clearly been planting the seeds for this story since somewhere around 2004. I believe them completely that this story has been brewing for almost a decade. The same people in charge of Marvel then are the same people in charge now; the same people writing AvX are the people who wrote all the other stories that fed into this one; and - at least on paper - this does actually appear to be the culmination of almost a decades' worth of event storytelling. But in actuality - well, yeah, this does read like the kind of story that they've been building to since 2004, in that it is so clearly a set of bullet points put together to clear out eight years' worth of dead-wood continuity problems.
AvX makes a great argument as to why the X-Men franchise is currently broken beyond recognition. Everyone knows that the X-Men are based on a series of simple metaphors relating to prejudice and tolerance. The problem is that while this is a great thematic starting point from which you can tell any number of stories - and there have been many good X-Men stories over the years, let's not kid ourselves, there's a reason why the books were so popular for so long - there are also natural limitations to the kinds of stories the franchise can tell. Because you can only push the civil-rights metaphor so long before it starts to break down in the face of the fact that mutants are a substantially different kind of creature than black people or gay people, who are still always, you know, people. You can say, yes, irrational prejudice and hatred is completely wrong, but then you've got a story wherein the most vocal proponents of "mutant rights" are unilaterally making decisions with such far-reaching consequences that the death of the human race might be considered acceptable collateral damage - you've blown any sympathy for mutants as an avatar of real-world minorities out of the water.
Let's put it another way. Say for a minute that the United States government found out that the ghost of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was heading towards the planet Earth for unknown reasons. The only thing they know is that Dr. King's ghost has recently destroyed a number of planets with billions of people on them, and we have no reason to believe that Dr. King's ghost will behave any differently when it reaches earth. So the world unanimously decides to try and prevent Dr. King's ghost from reaching Earth, except for a small group of African-American activists who accuse the rest of the world of being racists for not wanting to risk getting the planet destroyed by the pissed-off revenant spirit of America's greatest civil-rights leader.
The preceding paragraph, in case you hadn't noticed, doesn't make any sense at all. The reason it doesn't make any sense is that the X-Men have gone so far off the reservation in terms of a clear adherence to their thematic core that trying to make sense of the state of the mutant race in terms of being an allegory for real-world prejudice is completely absurd. We're supposed to be sympathetic with the X-Men because they represent a repressed minority fighting for their rights, fighting for tolerance, cooperation, and acceptance. Now again: it has become patently clear that Marvel is specifically playing up the fact that Cyclops's faction of X-Men have essentially become Magneto's Brotherhood of Evil mutants in all but name. They're not fighting for acceptance and toleration: they were fighting for survival and now they're fighting for dominance because now that they have the power they have the right. A while back people figured out that the proper "new" valid metaphor for mutant rights in the X-books was actually early-to-mid-twentieth century Zionism. The problem is that this isn't really a productive long-term metaphor, because sure it's great when you get to retell Mila 18 and Exodus with superheroes, not so good when you try to figure out how to explain who the Palestinians are in this scenario, especially when your characters are owned by the Walt Disney Corporation and boy howdy do you not want to wade into that firestorm. All of which is to say: telling these stories in this way was a terrible mistake and it has already done great harm to the X-Men franchise. The X-Men don't make sense anymore. They are unambiguously villains, and it makes me feel all kinds of weird to say that.
So yeah, I see where they're going: in trying to save the mutant race, Cyclops and his coterie have in fact brought about the exact circumstances that will lead to even worse prejudice and oppression against mutants. Classic hubris, etc etc. Kind of like how they did the same thing with Iron Man a few years ago - only, you know, it took years to make Tony Stark an even vaguely sympathetic character after Civil War, and it only required giving him a partial lobotomy and erasing his mind in the process. But that's just one character, and one who always had a reputation as an asshole to begin with. It was at least slightly in Iron Man's character to act unilaterally on the belief that he's right.
What are we supposed to take away from AvX - it's OK to hate and fear minorities because if they had the chance and the power they'd destroy all us normal folk?
The slipshod nature of the crossover is such as to betray a reflexive contempt for their audience. The basic, bare minimum that should be required of any crossover is that the main series and the tie-ins fit together - this is one of those simple concepts that didn't used to be a problem. Go back and read Inferno or Acts of Vengeance - not particularly well-regarded today, but I'll be damned if they don't stand up as marvels of crossover engineering. Everything fit, there was a definite reading order, characters weren't in two places at the same time indiscriminately. I remember I used to have a definitive reading order for Acts of Vengeance worked out in my head: it was so well-designed that you could fit the Captain America issues in between two pages of the Fantastic Four sequence. The key was figuring out that the two most crucial series for keeping track of the chronology were Solo Avengers and Damage Control - you could plot out the rest of the story with those two books as your spine. It was great fun, although I was sorry to see that the recent Omnibus did not go to such lengths to replicate the correct reading order. The point is, that type of consistency used to be the norm. It was fun to follow these things and see how they all fit together. That they fit together wasn't ever in doubt. These were fun stories and if you enjoyed them you wanted to read the crossovers to get more of it.
Now, though, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of care put into constructing a strong through-line. Characters show up in places where they can't be according to the chronology of the main series. The Avengers crossovers are stuck months behind the main series on a tangent with almost no relevance to the main series. Don't even try figuring out how the AvX: VS series fits into AvX - no care at all has been taken to fit these fights into the actual story. They are more . . . variations on a theme. There's no consistency at all. They may as well be taking place in another universe for all the impact they have on the main storyline. Even Civil War - again, I know I keep beating AvX with the Civil War stick, but damned if the former doesn't make the latter seem like Proust in hindsight - even Civil War exercised a fair degree of consistency with its tie-ins. Plot threads dropped in the main series were picked up in the tie-ins with a surprising degree of fidelity. Characters who were supposed to be on the other side of the planet didn't just appear in Manhattan for no reason. And there were no God-damned polar bears in Antarctica.
Am I belaboring the point? For a story that has been eight years in the making, there is a surprising amount of fucks not given in the production thereof. Are we just not supposed to notice these inconsistencies? Are we just supposed to not care? Isn't the whole point to get us to care, to get us to want to drop $3.99 American on these flimsy pamphlets, to be carried away on the wings of our child-like imaginations to a world of larger-than-life heroes and villains? Have the people involved in the making of these comics simply become so cynical in the making thereof they they literally cannot see how cynical these books look, how sloppy they read, how carelessly they are throwing out the most important facets of these beloved characters? I am going to extend the benefit of the doubt to the people involved in the making of this story that they're trying their best to create a good story. But this is so far away from actually being a good story that I simply cannot fathom the thought processes that led these intelligent people to make these creative decisions.
I've been reading Marvel comics since I was a little kid and I still feel a great attachment to these characters and their stories - but more and more the emotion I am filled with when I read these books is not affection or even nostalgia but contempt. It's certainly possible to write fairly intelligent superhero comics that can amuse and entertain intelligent adult readers. Marvel even publishes a few of these. But this is the jewel of their line, the big climax of a decades' worth of storytelling and promotion. This just feels exhausted, the product of lazy and incestuous ideas brought past fruition and into decay and fermentation, turned rotten and sour. How could they possibly have ever signed off on an idea that turned the X-Men from a metaphor for tolerance into an argument in favor of racism and xenophobia? If they didn't see that, how could they not have thought through the consequences of ideas that they've been building for eight years?
Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit. Shit.