When does a time travel paradox become the equivalent of a video game cheat code?
Uncanny X-men #13Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis, Chris Bachalo
Publication Date: 2013-10
It’s human nature to take the easiest way out. Sometimes the easy way is dishonest, contrived, or irrational. That doesn’t matter for some people. Like gamers that use cheat codes and hacks to win, they offer a much easier way of navigating obstacles. And for a series that has over 50 years of continuity, the X-men present some pretty imposing obstacles. There are probably plenty of writers that want to tell certain stories with certain characters from certain eras, but in some cases they probably weren’t alive during these eras of X-men. Maintaining continuity from multiple eras remains one of the biggest challenges for any X-men story. It’s only a matter of time before a story comes along that seems to utilize the kind of cheat codes that would take the fun out of most video games.
Part of what has made "X-men Battle of the Atom" such a compelling and gripping story is that the actions of all the characters involved have the potential to impact the past, present, and future of the X-men. This story began with an event that literally rocked the timeline, reminding the X-men that anything that happens to the Original Five X-men could have significant ramifications. That has been the main driving force for the X-men of the future, who used treachery and deceit to try and force the Original X-men to go back to the past. Now that their deceit has been revealed, Battle of the Atom has become an action thriller that would make Arnold Schwarzenegger proud.
Uncanny X-men #13 focuses primarily on continuing the battle that began in X-men #6. For the most part, it succeeds in maintaining a race-against-time style tension. Unlike before, the fraudulent X-men from the future don’t have the element of surprise. They have to take on Cyclops and a team of present and future X-men directly. But fittingly enough, they do have time on their side. They only need to delay their attack so that they can send the Original Five back to the past. It’s like they have the lead in the final minutes of an American football game and they just need one more first down to seal the win.
This desperation leads to some pretty intense battles, especially those involving Colossus and Magik. For the first time in Battle of the Atom, characters start dying. But it’s only those belonging to the fake X-men that fall. And since they spent a good portion of the story using treachery to manipulate the X-men, their defeat is quite satisfying. The struggle at times is visceral and very personal. It’s the exact opposite of a battle between the X-men and Sentinels. These aren’t just killer robots with creepy faces looking to commit mass genocide. These are future versions of former X-men. That helps make the struggle meaningful.
But as visceral as the battle is at times, it’s detailed in the wrong places. A full page is dedicated to Magik and Colossus taking down Molly and Deadpool. However, there isn’t a single panel that shows how the young Beast and Iceman were tricked into being captured. There’s a very poor transition from the end of X-men #6 to the beginning of Uncanny X-men #13. It may actually take a few repeat reads to figure out what happened, but it feels like a scene that is glossed over. Seeing what Molly’s face looks like when Colossus punches it is only necessary when more important details are covered.
This unequal distribution of detail doesn’t make the battle less meaningful. However, the resolution is where the story takes a twist that calls into question the very merit of the plot to send the Original Five X-men back to the past while also potentially undermining future plots. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, the Original Five X-men can’t be sent back in time. Beast even goes through the trouble of testing the time cube to show that it is working properly. It’s like they’re trying to cash a check in someone else’s name and the bank isn’t accepting their fake IDs.
Beast theorizes that a paradox has been created and unlike the ones described by Doc Brown in Back to the Future, this one doesn’t unravel the fabric of the space-time continuum. If there really is something keeping the original X-men from going back to the past, then that implies that everything the fake X-men did in Battle of the Atom was for nothing. The struggles and the drama that led to them convincing their younger selves to go back was completely unnecessary. It would be like Bruce Lee entering a Kung Fu tournament, fighting through every round, and finding out at the end that he had already won by default.
In addition, such a paradox also creates the possibility that future Marvel writers will have new cheat codes to work with. If there are no longer any consequences to the original X-men staying in the future, then what they do will have no effect on the past anymore. They might as well be clones, allowing new writers to do things with these young X-men that they couldn’t do before. And as events like the Clone Saga and One More Day have shown, being able to do something isn’t the same as doing it right. Anybody can walk barefoot over a carpet of Legos. That doesn’t make it a wise thing to do.
There may still be certain consequences to the original X-men staying in the present, but it isn’t made clear yet. It only makes clear that the efforts of the phony X-men were almost entirely for nothing. It doesn’t cheapen the overall story told in Uncanny X-men #13, but it does make the conflicts surrounding it seem more complicated and less meaningful. With only two issues left, there is still time to make this paradox less contrived. It would be an unfitting celebration of 50 years of history with the X-men to treat it only as an obstacle.