Fifty years ago, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the Uncanny X-men and the timing couldn’t have been more fitting. It was during an era when the Civil Rights movement was in full swing and the future of minorities was in question. It’s difficult to imagine how hard it was for racial minorities at that time, not knowing whether the dream Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of was attainable. It’s even more difficult to imagine how much harder it would have been if opponents of their dream had killer robots on their side. But that’s what mutants have had to deal with in the pages of Uncanny X-men for five decades.
The Civil Rights movement is now a cornerstone moment in history for minorities. There are still significant conflicts, which have since expanded to other groups such as homosexuals and Muslims. However, they’re still a long ways away from having to worry about killer robots. It could be endlessly argued as to just how much of Charles Xavier’s dream has been realized over the past 50 years, but there’s no denying that the X-men’s struggle to achieve that dream has resonated with generations of readers.
Everyone can appreciate the drama, sorrow, and hardship that the X-men have endured. They haven’t just fought for peace in a world that hates and fears them. They have fought for their very right to actually have a future. That future is fittingly at the core of X-men: Battle of the Atom #1. The minorities of the past may never have had to worry about some random stranger reading their thoughts or some angry teenager freezing them in a block of ice, but the struggle for peace goes hand-in-hand with the struggle for the future.
As the first issue of a 10-part event, X-men: Battle of the Atom #1 covers a lot of ground. The X-men have a long, convoluted history that is as confusing as quantum physics and as dramatic as every Julia Roberts movie ever made. The stage was set last year when the Original Five X-men that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby began with traveled to the present. They saw the future that their struggle had wrought and didn’t like it in the slightest. And despite the potential damage they could do to the timeline, they decided to stay to make things right. That decision lit a long fuse on a ticking time bomb. That bomb blew up in everyone’s face in this issue in a way that undermines the very future the X-men are fighting for.
In the post Age of Ultron Marvel universe, time travel is no longer akin to a cheat code in a video game. Influencing the past now has consequences in the future that could destroy the timeline in ways that no version of Dr. Who could hope to repair. The original X-men managed to avoid doing too much damage since their arrival. However, an ill-fated mission in X-men: Battle of the Atom #1 gave the X-men a painful reminder about how one simple mishap could destroy the future.
It is probably the clearest instance of Marvel following the strict temporal guidelines of Back to the Future. Frank Cho’s artwork actually gives the impression that time itself is trembling at what happens in this battle. It is akin to Father Time himself waking up with a bad hangover and the X-men were the ones that got him drunk.
The timeline is saved just barely, but it is way too close for comfort for the X-men of the present. The future of their kind is already tumultuous enough. The Original Five are only doing more damage with every moment they remain in the present. They’re essentially betting with house money at a casino. Sooner or later, the odds will catch up to them and they need to cash in their chips before they’re in a debt they can’t repay. But the Original Five X-men already know there’s no jackpot waiting for them in the past. Jean Grey knows that she still ends up dead. Cyclops still knows that he murders Charles Xavier. To them, this is not the dream they fought for. To them, the timeline is worth risking to make things right.
This conflict, along with the incredibly high steaks, fuels a special kind of drama that is unique to the X-men. It isn’t enough to just struggle for survival. They aren’t the Avengers, whose struggle never goes beyond the next battle with Hydra or the next clash with Thanos. Like any minority, they seek a better future for their people and the weight of that future now threatens to destroy them all.
The convergence of past, present, and future help make X-men: Battle of the Atom #1 feel like a love letter of sorts to the earliest issues of Uncanny X-men. It has a lot of the same elements as those early comics such as dangerous new mutants manifesting powers and mutant-killing robots. But the major conflict for each team of X-men feels both contemporary and compelling. It’s the kind of story where emotions run high for both the characters and the readers while avoiding excessive melodrama. At no point does X-men: Battle of the Atom #1 feel less like X-men and more like the Vampire Dairies.
At its core, X-men: Battle of the Atom #1 embodies by Jean de La Fontaine often ignored warning, “Our destiny is frequently met in the very paths we take to avoid it.” The very future of the mutant race is at stake in a ways that covers the past, present, and a potentially dire outcome. It effectively connects with the vast history of X-men into one event that really does feel like it was 50 years in the making. Whatever may happen in the next 50 years for the X-men and the struggle of minorities, the message that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby sent in that fateful first issue will continue to resonate in a way that is, if nothing else, truly uncanny.