“Battle of the Atom” Didn’t Really Have a Villain, Did It?

In the ever-evolving landscape of fandom, there are simply some things that should not have happened. In Retcon This!, we examine some of the more questionable aspects of our beloved geek properties.

The concept of the original five X-Men running around in the modern day should have worn out its welcome a long time ago, but Bendis and co. managed to keep it interesting. The kids out of time eventually led to the “Battle of the Atom” crossover between several of the core X-Books. X-Men from the future came to the present with the simple goal of sending the kids back to their past, hopefully ensuring that time unfolds as it was meant to since they are little more than living breathing paradoxes at this point. Despite some superstar talent, the story wasn’t without its flaws. Several of the early issues devolved into various groups of X-Men talking in circles about the danger of time travel. Pick two groups of mutants (any group will do) and follow along as I catch you up on the first half of the story.

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Group 1: “Time travel is dangerous! The X-kids have to go back”

Group 2: “We/They don’t wanna!”

Group 1: “But it’s dangerous! You/They have to!”

Group 2: “We/They don’t wanna!”

Group 1: “You/They have to!”

Group 2: “We/They don’t wanna!”

Group 1: “Fine. Let’s fight!”

This tended to happen a lot. Basically every new group of X-Men had something to say and there was always someone from a different group to argue with them about it. It was tiresome. As weird as that was, the real problem started to peek out as we entered the final act of the story. With Xavier, Beast and Xorn from the future revealed to be the Brotherhood instead of the X-Men from the future… They still weren’t wrong.

The pretender X-Men came from the future to send the original five back to the past where they belong. This is without a doubt the right thing to do. They don’t belong in the present. They’re doing damage to the very fabric of reality by staying where they are. Sure, they don’t all want to go back, but they need to. They’re just kids. They don’t know any better, but the adults around them (who know a thing or two about time travel) certainly should. Even after Future Beast and his merry men were revealed to not be X-Men at all, their mission remained the same. Sure, they had to fight the present and future X-Men to get to the time machine, but when they did, they tried to send the originals back. They lied about being X-Men, but they told the truth about their plan.

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It’s hard to root for the good guys when the bad guys are doing the right thing. Wolverine, Cyclops and the rest of the X-Men got so hung up on the lie that they paid no mind to the very honest mission they set out on. They weren’t looking to kill a bunch of people. They were just trying to fix the time stream. If anything, this story did little more than make the present and past X-Men look like petulant dicks. It’s not until the penultimate chapter that the Brotherhood does anything remotely bad other than slapping the X-Men around, and who among us hasn’t wanted to slap the X-Men at some point? Sure, going on supervillain on a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier isn’t a super awesome move, but that could have been avoided had the parties involved had a conversation. But no. These are X-Men, and X-Men fight one another.

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Quick! Catch those flies!

Complicated villains are sometimes the best villains. It’s what makes Magneto (when he’s wearing his villain pants) and Doctor Doom interesting. They’re doing what they believe is right. If written well, the reader can identify with their warped moral code and at least see where they’re coming from, even if their actions are reprehensible. In “Battle of the Atom,” the bad guys simply didn’t do anything wrong for a huge majority of the story, so much so that it read weird when things actually did go south and they had to kickstart Plan B, which ultimately led to future/past Jean Grey blowing up in a ball of crazy. The future X-Men said the Brotherhood was lying, so that meant the present X-Men had to fight them, despite them doing nothing wrong. Even the hellicarrier attack was designed to prove that S.H.I.E.L.D. had anti-mutant weapons rather than just killing a bunch of civilians. Maybe that nugget of truth would have gone down better over dinner instead of surrounded by missile fire. They had to fight because it’s a comic book, but it all felt hollow.

In the end, “Battle of the Atom” propelled Uncanny X-Men and All-New X-Men forward so much that the story would have probably worked a bit better were it contained to just those two titles. Spread out across ten chapters in four books, there seemed to be a lot of filler and the motivation for most of the cast was lost beneath repeating rhetoric. Most of the Brotherhood survived, so we’ve surely not seen the last of them. There certainly are some interesting developments beyond the hollow deaths of future versions of some X-Men, but none of that changes the fact that for nine issues, the bad guys’ biggest crime was fibbing. A good villain can certainly be sympathetic, but the reader shouldn’t be actively rooting for them.

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Who ARE these people!?

Lee Rodriguez is a co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Panels On Pages. He is also a freelance graphic and web designer, action figure customizer, swell guy, and an awesome dad.

I'm even on Google+... Kind of.

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