[15 October 2013]
Every great division from civil wars to petty bar fights has a definitive turning point. It’s that one wrong turn on a long road trip or that one transgression that cannot be forgiven. Like the Hatfields and McCoys, a single division can trigger a very destructive conflict. If the Hatfields and McCoys had mutant powers, the conflict would have probably been much more destructive. In “Battle of the Atom,” multiple teams of X-men from multiple timelines are doing everything they can to prevent that destruction. It was a hard enough task to begin with, convincing a bunch of confused and hormonal teenagers to go back to the past. Then it became much more complicated when it was revealed that the future X-men weren’t being completely honest about the horrible future they came from.
The details surrounding that future have been vague, but All New X-men #17 finally sheds light on it. And the most shocking detail of all is that this future isn’t apocalyptic. It’s not the utopian world of the Jetsons or the future promised in Star Trek either, but it is a future where the mutant race hasn’t been rounded up and thrown into internment camps. That may be jarring to anyone familiar with Marvel’s many alternate timelines where apocalyptic futures are a dime a dozen, but this is actually good for “Battle of the Atom” because it offers a nice change in perspective. By creating a future that doesn’t involve a mutant holocaust, the turning point that set the stage for Battle of the Atom is much more compelling.
In many ways, this future has more real-world parallels in that its biggest moment is Dazzler becoming President of the United States. Now if “Battle of the Atom” had been told eight years ago, this idea would have been pretty outrageous. It really wasn’t that long ago that a minority President was unthinkable. But like Barack Obama, Dazzler was a popular and respected figure in the future. She wasn’t just another mutant. She wasn’t just another hero either. She was seen as someone who could foster support from both humans and mutants alike. In fact, the scene of her inauguration was very reminiscent of Barack Obama’s. This event, which is still fresh in the minds of many, helps give the resulting turning point its impact.
What should have been the ultimate triumph in the X-men’s fight for peace between humans and mutants turns into an apocalyptic event of a very different kind. In the middle of her speech, Dazzler is killed. It would be like a team winning the World Series and being disqualified just as they were about to be handed their trophy. It’s a far more demoralizing moment than a steady progression from bad to worse. At least in an apocalyptic future, the expectations were clear. But in this future, all the work the X-men had done to make things better was destroyed. It’s the kind of emotional devastation that no army of Sentinels or attack by Magneto could ever match.
This devastating moment provides an important detail that had been lacking from previous issues. In the future one team of X-men kept fighting for Charles Xavier’s dream, but the other gave up. The future version of Beast articulated this perfectly when he lamented at how humans would never stop hating mutants. This moment nicely parallels the concerns the Beast in the past articulated at the very beginning of All New X-men. Now his team is the one trying to influence the past. They’re basically telling the Original Five X-men to fold their cards in a game of poker when they know they’ve got a good chance of a winning hand. That’s why the other team refers to themselves as the real X-men.
This turning point may offer some important insight into these future X-men who have been trying to influence the past. However, there are still some details that aren’t sufficiently explored. It isn’t necessarily clear who was behind the attack that killed Dazzler. The power on display appeared very similar to what was shown by Animax, a new mutant that appeared in the first issue of Battle of the Atom, but there’s nothing to indicate that it isn’t someone completely different. There is also some inconsistent characterization with Colossus. What he and the future X-men tell Magik, Beast, and Iceman is no different than what many others have told the Original Five. They have to go back to the past. At this point that argument has become staler than every argument ever made in favor alcohol prohibition. So it really isn’t too surprising when the argument fails and they get roped into the ongoing conflict in the past.
The underlying plot for “Battle of the Atom” didn’t really progress that much in All New X-men #17. However, it did fill in a few important blanks. There are still plenty of unanswered questions, but this issue firmly establishes a path for finding these answers while providing a context for the future X-men. And that division is now poised to converge with the ongoing conflict in the past. It marks yet another turning point in this conflict because now the lies are being exposed and the liars behind those lies will have to answer for them.
“Battle of the Atom’s” greatest strength continues to be the emotional impact it offers with both the story and the characters. This issue offered an impact of a different kind, creating a future that has far more contemporary parallels than previous time travel stories like Days of Futures Past. While the impact of Days of Futures Past was established in its own time, the impact of Battle of the Atom is resonating in a much more modern context. Yet it still uses elements from the past in a very literal sense, which makes the story seem all the more appropriate.