I’d really like to be able to write that the newest issue of Astonishing X-Men, and the last issue of the “Torn” story arc, managed to exceed the diminished expectations that I set out in my review of the previous issue. I’d really like to, but I don’t think that I can.
I can say, at least, that it didn’t end with a fastball special, as did the last two. But while I gestured broadly toward some similarities between “Torn” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga” in my last review – whereas I categorized and listed the nearly identical plotlines of all three AXM arcs – the final issue puts those similarities in sharp and undeniable relief. Call it an homage or a reinterpretation if you must, but “Torn” is unmistakably “The Dark Phoenix Saga: 2006”. Rather than draw my own list and risk seeming like I’m repeating myself, I’ll copy-and-paste the list created by X-Universe Message Board poster Omar Karindu:
*Psychic female teammate goes dark and evil.
*Hellfire Club turns up, and swiftly wrecks the team.
*One lone X-Man survives, plunging into the waters below the mansion where the fight takes place.
*A villain who casts illusions into the mind of the X-Man-gone-bad is responsible for their heel turn and is allied with the Hellfire Club.
*A psychic event in Scott's mind involving his telepathic teammate gone bad leads to his breaking loose and free the rest of the cast.
*There is debate about whether the team will need to kill the psychic gone bad.
*Just as the inner conflict of the psychic teammate is reaching the point of resolution, aliens abduct all of the heroes.
To this point, I had been suspecting that Whedon was purposefully re-imagining classic stories and rewriting his own with some end in mind. He did, after all, seem to set a mission in his first issue. When Cyclops discards the leather uniforms of Morrison’s run and decides the X-Men need to dress as super-heroes again, it's with the goal of rebuilding trust between the team and the public – ‘dressing as something they [the people] recognize’. Implicit in his words, of course, is that the costumes are part of an act - the X-Men can never really be super-heroes, but they can try to look like them. The issue of super-heroics and a kind of performance was mostly ignored through “Gifted”, but came up again at the beginning of “Dangerous”, where the team saves the city from a monster but is questioned by the Fantastic Four and fails to make it on to the evening news. Cyclops, for one, seemed disheartened – maybe, then, the slightly crazy Cyclops shown here is our link to that initial plot? Whedon is heading somewhere interesting and new with the team leader, it would appear. Just don’t ask me to explain how it all ties together. Or if it actually ties together.
I'm torn between admiring AXM #18 for its beautiful and idiosyncratic visuals, characteristically snappy dialogue, and wonderful characters – unexpectedly, Danger and Ord are shaping up to be a wonderful comic duo – and admonishing Whedon for plot twists that are increasingly predictable and/or contrived. It’s not that I dislike retellings and reinterpretations – I love The Authority and Ultimates, Marvels and Astro City – but I don’t know that Whedon has a point or goal beyond giving us immediate, visceral satisfaction with his own witty and fun revision of “The Dark Phoenix Saga”. Admittedly, I ask a lot more of Whedon than I do of most comics. And maybe I should realign my expectations – maybe I should just enjoy Astonishing X-Men as pure ‘pop art’, bubble-gum entertainment. I just wish that I didn’t have to.