Every great magic trick requires deception. In the same way it can pull a rabbit out of a hat or saw a woman in half, it can also make major twists in a story resonate. M. Night Shyamalan made a career out of it and movies like the Sixth Sense made people appreciate it. But in the same way too much deception makes a magic trick look like excessive CGI in a movie, it can also make a twist in the story feel incomplete or downright confusing.
Ever since X-men: Battle of the Atom began, there have been plenty of hints that someone is being deceptive and some are too willing to be deceived. It never seemed clear cut that the future X-men who are trying to convince the Original Five X-men to go back to the past were being truthful. If it were, then a teenage Jean Grey and Cyclops wouldn’t have been convinced that there was something very wrong. While teenagers aren’t known for their ability to uncover deception, they are pretty adept at stubbornly avoiding what doesn’t feel right. Usually they try to avoid something like chores or homework, but few teenagers go to the lengths that Jean and Cyclops have gone through to avoid being sent back to the past. But in Wolverine and the X-men #36, they’re out of places to run and now have to fight their way out. At the same time, however, the deception becomes less subtle.
Unlike the past few issues of Battle of the Atom, Wolverine and the X-men #36 is heavy on action. The characters abandon their efforts to persuade each other through convincing rhetoric and opt to battle one another in hopes that this will somehow get the message across. It’s an approach that would not sit well Charles Xavier, but when emotions are running so high, it’s the only approach that makes sense. However, the emotions aren’t quite as compelling this time around.
The biggest battle of the issue took the form of a psychic battle between Xorna, Emma Frost, the Stepford Cuckoos, and a teenage Jean Grey. On paper, this sounds like the kind of battle people would gladly overpay to see on pay-per-view. It’s Emma Frost battling someone she has many reasons to despise and Jean Grey fighting with her inexperienced psychic abilities for the right to forge her own future. In practice, however, it was only about as epic as a spat in a Jerry Springer re-run.
Now this is to be expected to some extent. Emma Frost’s powers are broken and even with the Stepford Cuckoos, she’s clearly overmatched. However, the way she lashes out against Jean and Xorna lacks the punch of her previous psychic battle with Jean during Grant Morrison’s run in New X-men. She doesn’t make it personal. She just basically whines about Jean Grey’s inability to stay dead. Given the breadth of her hatred of Jean Grey, it came off as shallow and downright childish.
In a similar manner, the battle between Cyclops and the future X-men also fell flat. Even though he committed to helping his younger self, the motivations and emotions fueling the battle were basically cut and pasted from the arguments that Cyclops and Wolverine had during Schism. And the only argument that Cyclops’s teenage self brought to the table was a desire to not be treated like a kid. There’s very little difference between the arguments made in the heat of this battle and the arguments a child makes when he or she whines about not getting their favorite brand of cereal.
This doesn’t make these battles any less meaningful to the story. While each battle lacks depth, they do effectively move the story forward in a way that culminates in a significant realization for Jean Grey. Even without depth, the way in which she comes to this realization is fitting and it’s only reinforced by the way the other future X-men, most notably Deadpool, approach the battle. It’s like a bad hangover after being drunk on emotions. It keeps the battle from becoming too excessive. It also drops some more overt clues about the deceptive undertones in the story.
Outside the battle, similar undertones are revealed when the story catches up with a teenage Iceman and Beast. Having not been heavily involved in the story for the past few issues, it’s fitting to see them follow a different part of the plot. What they discover promises to expose more deception, but the problem is that it isn’t very clear. When Wolverine and the X-men #36 was first solicited, it promised a major twist. And the end does certainly hint at one, but it leaves way too much for the imagination. Unlike M. Night Shyamalan, this issue will evoke more confusion than awe.
The revelations and hints in this issue will mostly likely be explained in future installments. When Battle of the Atom is finally over, these deceptive details may eventually fit into a cohesive narrative. But on its own, Wolverine and the X-men #36 is akin to a magician that uses so much slight-of-hand that it isn’t clear what the trick is. The only obvious implications that can be drawn from this issue is that the future X-men have been lying and those lies are about to be exposed. It would only be more compelling if there were more hints as to what those lies entailed because deception for the sake of deception is no different than confusion.
The underlying plot of X-Men: Battle of the Atom is still strong. The emotions portrayed in this issue and every other issue to date are still meaningful and genuine. But by throwing in a twist without including enough details to reveal why it matters, the plot just stalls. It’s like a chapter of a book that ends in mid-sentence. It may not dissuade anyone from continuing to follow the story, but it does make doing so more difficult.