Overly elaborate plots rarely justify their complexity. But there are exceptions.
Uncanny Avengers #21Publisher: Marvel
Writer: Rick Remender, Daniel Acuña
Publication Date: 2014-08
It’s a common challenge in engineering. The more moving parts there are, the more opportunities there will be for something to go horribly wrong. The human brain is only capable of accounting for so much complexity. This is why rocket science and quantum physics gives most people headaches and why any attempts to engineer such complexity require two parts genius and ten parts insanity. The genius of a man like Steve Jobs understand that, absent such insanity, the best plans usually involve machines with one button or less. But if Steve Jobs had the insanity of Kang the Conqueror, it’s doubtful that the iPhone would fit in any pocket.
It was Kang the Conqueror who set into motion the events that pitted the Avengers/X-men Unity Squad against the Apocalypse Twins. He’s the one that took the Apocalypse Twins into the future and inflicted on them the kind of cruel parenting that an army of Dr. Phils and Operas could never hope to undo. He’s the one that equipped them to doom Earth, manipulate the Scarlet Witch, and create Planet X for the entire mutant race. In doing so, it’s hard to imagine how this could possibly serve a man whose idea of a vacation is conquering third world country. For a time, it looked like it completely backfired because the actions of the Apocalypse Twins were nullifying his future. But in Uncanny Avengers #21, his true plans are revealed. It’s confusingly elaborate, ridiculously epic, yet remarkably effective.
Every great mastermind and/or slacker learns early on that it’s far better to get others to do the hard work so they don’t have to. Kang takes that to the kinds of ridiculous levels that walks a fine line between elaborate and absurdity. But in doing so, he heightened the scale of the conflict to an epic level that kept that prevented that complexity from derailing the narrative. While Kang was the one pulling the strings, it was the collective efforts of the X-men and the Avengers that gave depth to the story. They finally turned the tide against the Apocalypse Twins, who seemed downright bored at times with their efforts to oppose them. It doesn’t just make the tone of the story less depressing. It makes it incredibly satisfying.
A big part of that satisfaction involves showing the Unity Squad come together in a big way. This sounds like standard superhero gimmicks, but it’s actually pretty remarkable considering that at one point, things were so hostile with the team that some ended up stabbing each other. They went far beyond merely being a dysfunctional team. They might as well been a couple of rival prison gangs. But thanks to the foresight they gained from the future, they understood the mistakes they were about to make and could go about fixing them. That fix involves an alien god getting its throat slashed and Rogue soaking up the powers of Avenger and X-man. Considering the scale of the problem, the scale of the solution is more than appropriate.
As satisfying as it is, it feels like an elaborate form of cheating at times. The Apocalypse Twins beat them on every level, putting painstaking effort to ensure that every sliver of hope was snuffed out before it could even appear. Yet thanks to time travel, the Unity Squad had what amounts to a strategy guide for a video game and the perfect cheat code. It would be like a Call of Duty player getting so frustrated with their opponent that they choose to hack the whole system rather than try to match their skill. But when the entire planet and the future is at stake, that kind of cheating isn’t so egregious.
On every level, the elaborate plan Apocalypse Twins laid out fails. The Unity Squad systematically undermines every possible detail, so much so that they immediately suspect that time travel is involved. That does seem to be the modern day Deus Ex Machina for stories such as this. While time travel stories have been oversaturating the market since the last Terminator movie, this one still feels satisfying, if only see the Apocalypse Twins actually get upset. It’s a testament to the newfound unity in the Unity Squad that they’re able to achieve this. It only took another apocalyptic future and more convoluted time travel for them to come together. On some levels, it feels like they should have better teambuilding exercises than that.
But what ends up making the plot very confusing and exceedingly elaborate is the role played by Kang. Apparently, all these elaborate conflicts, including the elaborate solutions that required time travel, were just part of an even more elaborate plan to gain ultimate power. It’s a very basic goal with an exceedingly complicated path. While it does answer the lingering question about why Kang would go through the trouble of putting the Apocalypse Twins in position to destroy the world, it doesn’t feel quite as meaningful. That said, the plan does end up working. Kang does succeed in achieving his goal and does the obligatory boasting, but claiming that every character was a pawn somewhat cheapens the extent of the story. However, it’s hard to argue with results.
All too often, overly complicated stories have mixed results. Like trying to scramble an egg with a pin, the finished product rarely justifies the complexity of the methods involved in making it. But Uncanny Avengers #21, for all its complications, has incredibly satisfying results. The epic struggle, the personal drama, and the sheer scale of the narrative come together in such a powerful manner that it’s more than worth the confusion. It might have been nothing more than an elaborate stage play for Kang, but it still put on a hell of a show.