Grading on a Curve: “Spider-Man and the X-men #1”

Teachers are heroes in their own right. It really takes superhuman courage to walk into a class room and attempt to educate a bunch of kids who would rather have their wisdom teeth pulled than learn algebra. Give those kids mutant powers and suddenly teachers have to worry about more than spitballs, cheating, and texting during class. Concepts like responsibility and respect do not yet fully compute in an undeveloped mind. It just isn’t as cool to them as texting each other pictures of pets and body parts.

Few characters understand the importance of responsibility like Spider-Man. His strength and personality is built around responsibility almost as much as it’s build around his wise-cracking. After what happened to his uncle, he had to build it the hard way. In that respect he’s in a unique position to teach kids about responsibility. But it’s one thing to teach under-privileged kids in a failing public school this lesson. It’s quite another to teach that lesson to the students of the Jean Grey Institute, whose idea of responsibility is restricted to cleaning up the Danger Room and staying away from Wolverine’s liquor cabinet.

This is exactly what Spider-Man attempts in Spider-Man and the X-men #1. As one of Wolverine’s final requests prior to his death, he’s taken it upon himself to honor his fallen friend by contributing to the school he founded. It’s an entirely noble and responsible endeavor. It’s also one that even involves skills with which he has experience, having been a teacher at one point. It all sounds so good on paper. Then again, communism sounded good on paper as well. Spider-Man’s efforts to work with the X-men didn’t result in another Russian Revolution, but the results left room for improvement to say the least.

From the beginning, it’s painfully clear that Spider-Man does not get along with the rest of the X-men. He arrives at the Jean Grey Institute like someone who got invited to a frat party by mistake. He also does little to make it less awkward, showing the social skills of Mormon at a strip club. He is able to connect with some of the other X-men he’s teamed up with before, like Iceman and Firestar. But as a whole, Spider-Man and the X-men do not get along. They’re like Windows and Mac users. They both do similar things, minus commercials starring Justin Long. They struggle to interface, even though their goals are the same.

This sets up a unique yet engaging tone for the story. It’s harsh and crass in revealing how little the X-men have in common with Spider-Man, but that’s exactly what helps give it its appeal. Just because the X-men and Spider-Man consider themselves heroes doesn’t automatically mean they get along. That’s not to say they clash like nitro and glycerin. They just deal with very different circumstances and go about their business in a very different way. They can still coordinate well enough to stop some lesser challenge like Unus the Untouchable. But teaching young mutants the value of responsibility? That’s right up there with Apocalypse and an army of Sentinels.

It makes for a messy, but entertaining narrative. Spider-Man tries to be one of those teachers that will later be played by Edward James Olmos, attempting to connect with a bunch of young mutants who are already alienated from a world that sees them as freaks. He struggles at first because he tries to do things his way, as though dealing with students who have 50 eyes and shark fins respond the same way. But he eventually does adapt, attempting to convey his message to these young mutants in a way they understand. Unfortunately for him, that way involves teaching while fighting killer robots in the danger room, but it helps add to the entertainment value.

And Spider-Man’s message is one that’s worth conveying. He points out that these young mutants spend so much time learning to fight and survive, but they don’t put that much time into actually using their powers responsibly. It’s not an unfair criticism to them and the X-men as a whole. In their defense, they have been facing extinction, extermination, and a string of bad movies. But it’s still a valid point. They wouldn’t have to fight so hard to survive if they showed they could do more than just fight. It sounds like one of those ideas that makes too much sense, like raising the minimum wage or giving free school lunches to poor children.

The strength of this message, along with the general dysfunction that surrounds these young mutants, helps create a nice blend of depth and fun. There are serious issues at hand in this story. There are also plenty of entertaining moments that involve deranged mutants, killer robot holograms, and mischievous bamfs. It creates an engaging story, but one that doesn’t take itself too seriously. If it were an actress, it would be right up there with Jennifer Lawrence.

However, that potent blend becomes somewhat messy down the line. It’s not that the story starts getting overly serious. It just ends up trying to hide these issues, but does a very poor job of it. Instead of Spider-Man trying to teach these students, it devolves into another conflict involving dinosaur humanoids and kidnapping. It’s really not that far away from being a blatant rip-off of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And because of that, the underlying message Spider-Man is trying to convey gets lost.

There are a lot of strengths to build on with this narrative. Spider-Man and the X-men #1 establishes an awkward set of circumstances, but in a wonderfully entertaining way. It just goes off-track before it can develop into something truly cohesive. It still has the potential to become a more polished product that blends all these themes. It just needs to find a better way to do so without resorting to killer dinosaurs.

RATING 7 / 10