A Beautiful Institutional Breakdown: “Uncanny X-men #22”

[7 July 2014]

By Jack Fisher

We’ve come to expect a certain level of ineptitude from government. It has nothing to do with liberal or conservative ideology, no matter what Ron Paul or Fidel Castro might say. Human beings are just inherently flawed. In the same way a fully rational adult sometimes accidentally puts a spoon in the microwave, fully rational adults will sometimes be subject to spectacular failures. They might make taxpayers feel a debilitating pain in their wallets, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be entertaining.

The conflict between SHIELD and Cyclops in the pages of Uncanny X-men demonstrate perfectly how human flaws can often interfere with legitimate government functions. Since the re-launch of this series, most of the conflict has stemmed from SHIELD treating Cyclops as a terrorist on the same level as Dr. Doom. Maria Hill has decided to dedicate the vast resources of SHIELD towards capturing this man and putting him back behind bars. Along the way, plenty of complications have emerged that would probably warrant more concern. Somebody has been launching Sentinel attacks on innocent mutants and in X-men: Battle of the Atom, it was revealed that SHIELD has dabbled in the Sentinel business. People may have misguided priorities, but focusing on one fugitive instead of a bunch of killer robots that attack innocent civilians is several steps beyond misguided. And in Uncanny X-men #22, this ineptitude finally catches up with Maria Hill and the X-men.

To say that Maria Hill or SHIELD was the villain in this affair would be a mistake, but say they were the victims would be an even bigger mistake. SHIELD happens to be the government agency where the margin for error is the smallest and the consequences of failure are incredibly dire. As Captain America: The Winter Soldier has shown, the extent of that failure can be pretty destructive. If Hydra had infiltrated the Department of Education, the worst they could have done was make standardized testing more tedious. But this time, they’re infiltrated by someone with far more petty ambitious aside from discrediting an entire government organization. There are lobbyists for that sort of thing anyways. This infiltration didn’t just compromise SHIELD. It compromised the X-men’s entire mission in a way that can only be accomplished by a massive government failure.

The way it unfolds is powerful in that it takes various plotlines, some of which have been negated and side-tracked to the point of obscurity, and brings them together into a strong, concise narrative. The origin of the Sentinel attacks, the broken powers that have plagued the former Phoenix Five, the infiltration of SHIELD by Mystique, and even the abduction of Dazzler are all addressed. Every plotline contributed something. All the loose ends and confusing sub-plots that have made this series more disorganized than the last three seasons of Lost finally converged in a meaningful way. Some of it felt forced, but it was still very satisfying.

The conflict it created was not on the same scale as X-men: Battle of the Atom, nor was it intended to be. The main theme of the story didn’t involve the X-men battling yet another army of killer robots. It was exposing the ineptitude of both themselves and SHIELD in handling this conflict. They didn’t know the extent to which they were being used and they focused too much on fighting the wrong battles. And it wasn’t just because the mastermind behind it all was that cunning. Both SHIELD and the X-men deserve some share of the blame.

The biggest failure on their part was making the conflict personal. Maria Hill focused so hard on arresting Cyclops that she didn’t dedicate much energy into uncovering the source of the Sentinel attacks. These were the attacks that Cyclops was responding to. Attacking him would be like a cop attacking the person who lent a killer the knife and not the killer. The whole Sentinel conspiracy was launched from within SHIELD, using SHIELD resources and SHIELD firepower. Maria Hill was in the best possible position to address this issue and she didn’t. She just filed it away in a memo and went back to pursuing Cyclops.

As for Cyclops himself, he made it personal too. He decided to declare war on SHIELD. To be fair, some of his reasons were warranted. He already knew that they were involved in Sentinel technology. Even if Maria Hill wasn’t directly involved, she was responsible. He even points this out to her at some point. But by focusing on SHIELD, he missed any chances he might have had to uncover who was behind it. So in a sense, nobody won this battle because both sides had their ineptitude revealed. But it could be argued that SHIELD’s ineptitude was far more egregious. Unlike Cyclops, they get to use taxpayer money to build all their fancy flying bases and are trusted with protecting innocent civilians with all that hardware. They have far fewer excuses and far greater reasons to be careful.

It’s because of this failing that Dazzler, who agreed to become an agent of SHIELD, rebukes their attempt to bring her back aboard. While anyone could be forgiven for not being able to uncover Mystique’s deception, Dazzler rightly notes that it wasn’t SHIELD who saved her. It was the X-men. Between personal vendettas and the bureaucracy that goes along with maintaining those fleets of helicarriers, they just made it way too easy for Mystique. They apparently didn’t learn anything from the last Skrull invasion.

There are so many satisfying components to Uncanny X-men #22. From its theme to its concise narrative, it realizes so much of the potential that seemed lost for a time. The overall disorganization of the series still shows. There are a number of instances where it feels like certain elements felt cut and pasted, disrupting the rhythm of the story. But the end result was nothing short of uncanny, if that’s not too fitting a word. It exposed a level of organizational ineptitude without getting overly political and in this day and age, that’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/182952-uncanny-x-men-22/