It’s easy to forget that everyone was an awkward teenager at some point in their lives. Being a teenager is akin to being a young bird that’s still learning to fly. However, birds don’t have to deal with their raging hormones, reckless impulses, and bodily changes that would put most caterpillars to shame. They also don’t have to deal with an army of adults that can’t stand the notion of trusting teenagers to make responsible decisions. Whether it’s because of their own experience as or because they’ve forgotten what it was like to be young, adults often try to make big decisions for teenagers and teenagers usually don’t like that.
This is the situation that the time displaced Cyclops and Jean Grey have to confront in “Battle of the Atom”. Now the adults are essentially taking their decision to stay in the present out of their hands and like Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion, their actions have prompted an equally opposite reaction from the two young teenagers. In X-men #5, this reaction manifests in a way that would frustrate most responsible adults while reminding others that teenage melodrama is like a beehive. Disturbing it the wrong way and it’ll only make things worse.
Each part of the “Battle of the Atom” event has focused on elements of the story, but the main plot has not changed. The X-men are trying to preserve their past and save their future by sending the Original Five X-men back to their own time. At first, the X-men from the present and the future are united in their efforts. They share resources and manpower to track down a teenage Cyclops and Jean Grey. After the shocking revelations in the first two issues, nobody seems to be thinking critically about what they’re doing. They’re basically trying to hoard a couple of deeply distressed teenagers into doing something they don’t want to do. Even with the aid of future knowledge, that’s every bit as daunting as an attack from an army of Sentinels.
But as X-men #5 unfolds, the mission becomes secondary to the drama it inspires. Throughout this issue, Cyclops and Jean Grey don’t act like the mature superheroes that inspired generations of X-men. They act like teenagers. They find themselves in some beautifully awkward moments that don’t involve killer robots or mutant powers. Everything from raging hormones to complicated emotions plague them at every turn. And they have to deal with this while trying to avoid detection from a team of adult X-men equipped with resources the NSA could only dream of. It’s like trying to impress a date while being chased by hungry wolves, but that doesn’t keep them from sharing a few dramatic moments.
These moments help add some emotional resonance to a story that has already had plenty of emotional moments. These moments feel somewhat overdue and Jean even admits this in the issue, admitting that she had been treating Cyclops as if he had the plague since they arrived in the future. Like many teenagers, she made some overly simplistic judgments about Cyclops based on what his future self did and had some overly emotional reactions. However, they still trust each other in the same way they have trusted each other since the earliest days of Uncanny X-men. For an entire generation of readers that only know Cyclops and Jean Grey as the overly responsible adults, it serves as a pleasant reminder that they weren’t always the uptight role models that have to come back from the dead every few years.
Since “Battle of the Atom” is meant to be the X-men’s 50th anniversary event, it’s fitting that it brings two of the most iconic X-men back to their roots. Like the cantankerous old men on Fox News who complain about today’s youth, many readers forget that Cyclops and Jean Grey were teenagers at some point. And in their youth, they embodied the spirit of Charles Xavier’s dream and a big part of that dream was self-determination. Now they are fighting to determine who will decide their fate, even if it means risking the integrity of the timeline. While most of the X-men aren’t content to leave this determination in the hands of a couple of teenagers, some understand their overly dramatic reaction more than others.
This leads to a pivotal turning point in this issue and in “Battle of the Atom” as a whole. Some of the present X-men start to question the intentions of the future X-men. They may not sympathize with two teenagers putting an entire timeline at risk, but they do have a problem with forcing them to accept their fate. This stirs up the first round of tension between the present and future X-men, which allow Cyclops and Jean to continue running. Because as most teenagers probably know, when adults start arguing, their capacity to harass them diminishes.
The growing tension and the unfolding drama help give X-men #5 a special kind emotional resonance. The action never goes beyond an extended chase that probably wouldn’t make the final cut in any of the Fast and the Furious movies, but impact is still on par with the rest of “Battle of the Atom”. There are times, however, when plot flows inconsistently and a number of scenes are a bit underdeveloped. But it still moves the story forward in a compelling way.
Every great superhero was an awkward teenager at some point. But even for those who weren’t born with superpowers, these awkward years were very influential. The Original Five X-men began their path as teenagers. Between near-extinction and spats with other superheroes, it’s easy to forget that the X-men went through these formative phases. And after 50 years, they still make for a compelling narrative and despite their awkwardness throughout X-men #5, Cyclops and Jean Grey are still the best embodiments of that narrative.