Friday, October 20, 2006

Astonishing X-Men? Sure. Painfully Repetitive? Doubly so.

On Joss Whedon/John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men #17... (written on September 23, originally posted to

There’s a certain element of “been there, done that” to Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men. No, not in the sense of nostalgia for Claremont or even Morrison – both of which are there, by the way, especially in the recent storyline’s allusions to both the Dark Phoenix Saga and E is for Extinction – but rather in the sense that Whedon is simply repeating himself.

So doing my best to channel the structuralist literary critic Vladimir Propp, I present a Morphology of the Astonishing X-Men. Here are my constituent parts, with specific examples bracketed:

Friends and Enemies:
*A wolf in the flock (Danger; Cassandra Nova; Lockheed - the mole throughout)
*The villain knows a secret (Ord knows a mutant will destroy Breakworld, #5; Danger knows Emma Frost is in league with Nova, #10)
*Allies have a secret connection to the enemy (SWORD and SHIELD, #6; Xavier, #12; Emma Frost, #13 and expanded on subsequently)
*The team concludes that their allies can no longer be trusted (#6; #12)

*The initial battle is either a diversion or a set-up (Ord fakes a terror-attack to test the team, #2; Danger tricks them into freeing her, #9; the Hellfire Club defeats them in order to gain control of Kitty and free Nova, #14-16)
*An entire issue is devoted to the team being defeated systematically by someone who knows them better than they know themselves (Danger, #10; Nova, #15)
*The previously unbeatable villain is beaten by the physical brutality of a single X-Man (Colossus vs. Ord, #5; Beast vs. Danger, #12)
*A fastball special by Colossus leads directly to the end of the confrontation (with Wolverine, #6; with Kitty, #12)

*Almost perfectly linear storytelling, the rare flashback or dream the exception
*The return of an old friend (Colossus, #4; Xavier, #10)
*The final page splash with a hero’s surprise appearance (Fury, #5; Xavier, #10; Cyclops, #17)
*The last item might also be a subset of Whedon’s habit of making every final page contain some sort of surprise or revelation, though not one that necessarily takes up the entire page

And the Morphology itself, expressed as a linear story outline (there are minor variations in order, but the steps themselves are consistent on the whole):
*A first encounter with the enemy is not all that it seems
*The enemy, who is from within, easily defeats the X-Men
*A hero’s surprise appearance shifts the balance
*The enemy is overwhelmed by an X-Man’s fury
*A terrible connection to the enemy is revealed
*Colossus throws a fastball special and the battle is quickly ended

But the point of this review is to assess Astonishing X-Men #17 in particular, right? It remains impossible to fault Cassaday’s crisp, filmic framing and sequencing – even the strategic abandonment of deep focus resolution, as exemplified in the two panels where Wolverine stares at a can of beer, is deceivingly suggestive and powerful. This said, an artist can only supply the sizzle – the writer has to bring the steak. And after a few tastes, it’s become clear that Whedon’s plots are mass-produced burgers, the toppings being the only difference.

So is it enough that Whedon gives us all the pickles we want, with Portobello mushrooms and half a dozen varieties of cheese? Yes and no. While utterly engaging in the moment, Whedon’s narratives display all the surprise of a screenwriting textbook’s write-by-the-numbers lesson. The dialogue continues to ring with authenticity and snap with perfect timing – but like the plots, the timing is almost too good. It’s an odd sort of backhanded compliment to say that something works too well, but that’s the case here. Whedon has nothing left to prove and spinning wheels can only prove amusing for so long. Here’s hoping that he steps outside his box and tries something daring and different – another berserker fury and fastball special just isn’t going to cut it.

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