In Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, the team must stop an alien race from destroying Earth while simultaneously dealing with the announcement of a mutant cure, fighting off a murderous A.I., and confronting the ghost of a villain from the recent past. And the truth of the matter is none of this is new.
One consequence of over 40 years’ worth of storylines in a comic is that writing up a brand spanking new plot is hard if not impossible. But it speaks to Joss Whedon’s scripting talent that he was still able to write a wildly entertaining and sometimes touching story despite his writing quirks and flaws (he just cannot let three pages go without cracking a joke, regardless of the its quality or effect on the mood).
Whedon worked on this project with illustrator John Cassaday whose artwork is realistic but not to a fault. It is colorful and vibrant in a way that works for action scenes, from Wolverine being thrown through the air at an escaping spaceship to Colossus punching a bulky alien. It also effectively communicates the characters’ complex human emotions, which plays to Whedon’s melodramatic style of writing.
The team line-up for Whedon’s run consists of Emma Frost, Cyclops (Scott Summers), Wolverine (Logan/ James Howlett), Beast (Hank McCoy), Shadowcat (Kitty Pryde), and Colossus (Peter Rasputin). His series is broken up into four chapters: Gifted, Dangerous, Torn, and ending with Unstoppable.
In Gifted, a company called Benetech unveils to the public that they have found a “cure” for mutants, sparking hysteria within the mutant community. Investigating the legitimacy of the claim, Beast finds that Benetech’s cure came with a price—the experimentation on their formerly dead teammate, Colossus. In addition, behind the cure is Ord, an alien from the Breakworld who is trying to make sure the prophecy of a mutant destroying his home world does not come true.
It’s a lot of story and drama crammed into just these six issues but Whedon is able to keep it engaging by playing it close to the heart. He makes it about the characters, especially about Shadowcat, who recently just return to teach at the school. Readers sympathize with Kitty’s shock at the return of Colossus and are interested about where Emma and Scott’s relationship is going. Sometimes arguably the book is a bit melodramatic and forced, like a needless fight between Beast and Wolverine, but the scripting nonetheless keeps the story active and moving.
All the while one doesn’t realize that in these few issues he’s setting up groundwork for the overarching story arc of his entire run. In Gifted, he sets out the goal via Scott to present the X-Men once again as a spandex superhero team as opposed to the black wearing agency they had become during Grant Morrison’s run (not knocking New X-Men, of course). Also, he introduces the government’s alien agency, Sentient Worlds Observation and Response Department (S.W.O.R.D.); S.W.O.R.D.’s leader, Agent Abigail Brand; and an intergalactic prophecy saying a mutant will destroy Breakworld. All of these are important for the final chapter, Unstoppable. He even hints at the motivation for Emma’s “betrayal” in Torn and sets things in motion for the danger room’s A.I. being conscious in Dangerous.
At the end of Gifted, a student’s power was forcibly taken away and in the next chapter this causes him to commit suicide in the danger room. In turn this triggers the A.I. (Danger) to gain consciousness and try to kill the X-Men, including Professor Xavier who was staying at the wreckage of Genosha. By the end, it’s revealed that Xavier knew the A.I. was conscious but kept it quiet in order to train the X-Men.
This revelation causes Cyclops to sever ties with Xavier but it also shakes his faith in his quality as a leader, since it was a quality that he was originally told he by Xavier. It was one of the mental hang-ups Emma used in Torn to psychoanalyze Scott into losing the use of his powers (yeah, therapy works kids!). All the while Cassandra Nova’s consciousness, which is locked-up in a Brood larvae, manipulates Emma through her survivor’s guilt—for not having died in the Genoshan genocide—to psychically attack her teammates. In the same chapter, Danger frees Ord and it is revealed that Colossus was the mutant prophesied to destroy Breakworld.
If one looks at these stories closely, many of the interesting elements… are not really used to explore the moral implications of free will and identity that they seem touch on…