Transcending Time-Tested Tropes in Marvel’s ‘X-men Blue #20’

X-Men Blue #20
Cullen Bunn, R.B. Silva
Marvel Comics
24 Jan 2018

Time travel stories are kind of like those needlessly loud stereo systems that some people put in their cars. From a purely functional standpoint, there’s not much to gain by having the ability to project music at volumes that make most peoples’ ears bleed. However, the functionality of such a system is hardly reflective of its value. There are other, less tangible reasons why someone would want those systems in their cars. More than anything else, such elaborate systems create equally elaborate spectacles.

Time travel plots are similar in that they rarely function as a means to simplify or clarify a story. Most of the time, they create additional complications that only grow more complicated when time paradoxes enter the picture. Such stories may not be simple, but they can work even in light of those paradoxes, as multiple Back to the Future movies have proven. The X-men have a better track record than most when it comes to compelling time travel stories, going all the way back to Days of Future Past from the Chris Claremont era. Cullen Bunn and R.B. Silva are making a concerted effort to channel Claremont’s skills with Cross Time Capers in X-men Blue.

In some respects, this is a story that had to happen sooner or later. Going all the way back to the early days of All-New X-men, when the original five X-men first ventured into the future, those inescapable complications that come with time travel continue plaguing the young X-men. They can’t avoid the fact that their presence in the future and their absence in the past is bound to have serious ramifications. Some of those ramifications play out over the course of their story, particularly in events like X-men: Battle of the Atom.

With Cross Time Capers, though, Bunn puts the time-displaced X-men in a position to confront the consequences of their time-traveling shenanigans. It may have taken longer for them to feel those consequences, but they finally get a sense of perspective throughout the arc. It’s only in the concluding conflicts in X-men Blue #20 that they gain a better understanding of how they’re affecting the space-time continuum.

If there’s any lesson the original five X-men should learn from this, it’s that when there’s a gaping hole in the timeline, someone or something will come along to exploit it. Biff Tannen did it in Back to the Future. The future Brotherhood of Mutants, led by Charles Xavier Jr. and his omega-level daddy issues, do the same. While they’re not quite as ambitious as Biff Tannen, they are every bit as devious. What they do to exploit the time-displaced X-men’s absence is neither subtle nor minor. It leaves an impact, one that goes beyond the usual lessons learned by messing with time travel.

Bunn closely follows the traditions of Chris Claremont in that respect in that the sci-fi elements associated with time travel are secondary to the dramatic elements. The story is less about the original five X-men traveling through time to fix the past than it is about them confronting the consequences of their actions. Their continued presence in the future has consequences and these are the kinds of consequences that literally fight back.

It’s that element of drama that helps subvert the usual complications and confusion often associated with time travel. Classic stories like Days of Future Past show that this is an effective way to give time travel stories a genuine impact without making every other conversation an existential crisis on time paradoxes. Those conversations still happen in X-men Blue #20, but the assorted techno-babble is kept to a minimum.

Instead, Bunn relies on converging the various elements seeded throughout the journey that unfolds in Cross Time Capers, throwing a many of them as possible in the final battle. It’s a battle that Silva effectively turns into a colorful, vibrant spectacle that feels epic in both size and scope. While it unfolds quickly, it hits on all the necessary dramatic elements, from confronting Xavier Jr. to the original five X-men reuniting with their mentor. Each moment carries weight and without incurring more time paradoxes.

That’s not to say the time travel elements don’t also carry weight in this story. Given the circumstances and context of the original five X-men’s time displacement, those aspects of the conflict are unavoidable. The story clearly establishes that their decisions in the future have an impact on the past. It also provides some ominous, albeit not too surprising, foreboding about the decisions they’ll have to make at some point.

Like Battle of the Atom before it, Cross Time Capers makes clear that what the original five X-men are doing still has an impact on the overall timeline. The choices they make, the battles they fight, and the impact they have on the past and future all matter. It also puts the team in an awkward position because to some extent, they already know what they’ll end up having to do. It’s like reading an unwanted spoiler in that they can’t unread it.

This is where X-men #20 stumbles a bit into the inevitable complications of time travel stories. Even with the drama, there are some details that don’t get fleshed. There are moments that have the potential to become very emotional and impactful, but some of that potential is lost for the sake of keeping the story going. Certain elements from the early parts of the story don’t really play a role in the final battle, but they aren’t rendered meaningless by the final conclusion.

Regarding the most critical elements, X-men Blue #20 handles those very well. There’s reason and purpose behind every decision. The motivations and emotions of each character are clear. The events of previous issues influence the outcome of the final battle. Even with the complications of time travel and the erratic pacing of that final battle, the result is a concise, cohesive story that satisfies as much as any time travel story can without getting too caught up in paradoxes.

That’s not just an accomplishment that honors the standards set by Chris Claremont. It’s a testament to the unique challenges of time travel stories. They have so many moving parts and so many potential complications that may or may not result in someone like Biff Tannen messing up the timeline. Being able to tell that story and not lose track of all the frustrating time travel tropes that derail so many stories is quite a feat. While Cross Time Capers may not be in the same league as Back to the Future, it certainly makes the case that those stories are still worth telling.

RATING 8 / 10