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Monday, October 5, 2020

It’s a great time to be an X-Men fan (again)

X of Swords | Marvel/Larraz

X of Swords proves that the X-Men don’t need the MCU for a great storyline.

Halfway into the first issue of Marvel’s new X of Swords storyline, I realized two things: that X of Swords is the next great adventure the X-Men deserve, and that even though I have no idea what is going to happen next, I’m kinda scared all my faves are going to die.

The X-Men are preparing for the battle of their lives. Yes, they’ve been fighting for decades against Sentinels, religious zealots, supervillains, and whatever else the comics have thrown at them. But this time, they’re going up against foes whose capabilities we don’t even know.

Essentially, the 10 most powerful mutants — armed with 10 mythical blades — will go up against 10 villainous champions, winner take all. The X-Men are fighting to preserve their mutant utopia, while their adversaries look to kill and conquer.

Death is inevitable, and no one is safe.

Pronounced “Ten of Swords” — like the tarot card it referencesX of Swords dramatically flips the X-Men’s status quo at a time when it only recently started feeling safe to be an X-Men fan again. I say again because Marvel’s merry mutants have been subject to some not-so-great storylines in the last 10 years.

The story (mainly written by Jonathan Hickman and Tini Howard, and drawn by artists Pepe Larraz, R.B. Silva, Marte Gracia, and designer Tom Muller) is equal parts action-adventure, splashy spectacle, high myth, and absolute WTF. There’s a lot of fortune-telling and loopy mysticism that is sure to figure into future issues, but for right now it just gnaws at your brain long after you put the stunning story down. And while X of Swords may not exactly be the highly anticipated event that’ll earn the X-Men entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe — something fans have been puzzling over and clamoring for — it’s absolutely worth reading right now.

The current state of the X-Men

X-Men fans have had it rough for the last couple of decades. In 2005, a Marvel comics event called Decimation saw the Scarlet Witch de-power almost all of Earth’s mutants. In 2012, the X-Men were painted as the villains in the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover series. The same thing happened again in 2016, in the very similar Inhumans vs. X-Men series. Along the way, there were also unconfirmed rumors and conspiracy theories that Marvel’s most popular superhero team was being blackballed in the comics because Disney — which owns Marvel’s film properties — didn’t own the film rights.

Disney finally acquired the X-Men film rights in early 2019, putting an end to the rumors. That same year, Hickman and Larraz gave fans what they wanted in House of X: a well-constructed, A-list story that centered on the X-Men and one that also undid — by way of a time loop — a lot of the forgettable X-Men storylines of the previous 15 years.

House of X reset the bones of Marvel’s mutant universe by grafting a story onto one Moira MacTaggart. The new series revealed that MacTaggart, who readers previously had thought to be human, actually had the power of rebirth. Every time she died, the timeline restarted and she’d be reborn with all the knowledge gleaned from her previous life.

Through a bunch of lived lives, Moira learns in House of X that a symbiotic future between humans and mutants isn’t possible and always ends in mutant death. The only way for mutants to survive is for the most powerful mutants — Charles Xavier, Magneto, Apocalypse — to unite and convince heroes, villains, and every mutant in between to live together in their own mutant community on a living island called Krakoa.

The only way onto the island is to pass through a teleportation gate. Like a souped-up immigration department, the only people allowed to teleport through are either mutants or have mutant permission to visit. That safety measure, along with the Earth’s most powerful mutants gathering together, allows the X-Men and their allies to create a mutant utopia.

 Marvel/Pepe Larraz
See, Krakoa looks fun!

House of X functions as a power fantasy for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. Mutants, looked down upon by humans and sometimes even by fellow superheroes, build their own society on Krakoa where they can live protected and unbothered. Any place they want to go is just a teleport away, and they have diplomatic immunity in any country on Earth — a bargain Xavier brokered by supplying humans with powerful, disease-curing medicines. They’ve also figured out, by way of five individual mutants’ special abilities, how to resurrect dead mutants. House of X gives mutants in Marvel’s comic books a perfect world to live in.

But now X of Swords is here to change that.

X of Swords threatens the existence of a perfect mutant society

In the wake of House of X, the various X-Men comic books, from the ship-sailing adventure that is the Marauders to the dark and violent Hellions, have mapped out the very different ways an exclusive mutant society changes the world of Marvel Comics. All those mutants were used to fighting each other, and now they’re all on the same side.

Now that mutants aren’t in-fighting and are no longer some of their own worst enemies, the rest of the world looks at them with guarded suspicion. Black Panther’s home nation of Wakanda, for example, isn’t too happy about Krakoa because of its not-so-friendly history with X-Men characters like Namor and Emma Frost, but the countries have formed a begrudging truce because of the power the mutants possess.

 Marvel/Leinil Francis Yu
Magneto asks about Wakanda.

Within Krakoa, political disagreements between mutant leaders exist as well. The various X-Men writers have done a swell job in making sure the characters distinctly sound like and think like themselves. It leads to scenarios in which the conflicts between various mutants feel authentic to what we know of them.

Charles Xavier’s unflinching ideals of diplomacy clash with Magneto’s similarly idealistic but disparate ideology of mutant separatism. Added into the mix is Frost’s inclination toward capitalist opportunism, and other X-Men and X-Women’s beliefs about morality, sacrifice, survival, and death.

This all gets back to a core idea of mutants as a species. While they all share the mutant gene, they don’t all share the same lived experiences. Their different experiences have taught them different methods of survival, and when you put them all together, the result is a collision of opposing worldviews and dueling visions about what survival looks like. Krakoa, with its limitless potential, is a struggle among all of them to craft an idyllic utopia that fits their individual visions.

And that complex, chaotic knot of politics and relationships might all be for naught after X of Swords.

The story, first explored in X of Swords: Creation #01, vaults Marvel’s mutants into high myth by plunging everyone into the dark history of their utopia that traces back thousands and thousands of years ago, thanks to an introduction of a character called the Summoner.

The Summoner explains that there’s a sister island to Krakoa called Arakko — complete with its own mutants — that exists in a different dimension. Arakko was once under constant onslaught, fighting a relentless barrage of daemons. Apocalypse, the legendary X-Men villain who is as old as time itself, feels responsible for and attached to Arakko because he had roots there (his wife and his four horsemen) before Apocalypse sealed his past and the enemies on Arakko to protect the rest of the world. And now, with the mutants united on Krakoa and a teleportation gate at their disposal, there’s an opportunity for Apocalypse’s redemption.

 Marvel/Larraz
Apocalypse just wants to go back to Arakko.

The challenge with legends like Arakko is to pare truth away from fantasy. The closer Krakoan mutants get to Arakko, the more they find out that what they’ve been told isn’t the whole story. And when they and Apocalypse finally arrive to unite with their lost counterparts, they find out those people weren’t really lost at all.

They’ve been backstabbed.

As is Hickman’s MO, X of Swords veers toward complex, sometimes impenetrable fantasy. He’s an architect of sublime maximalism. X of Swords introduces a sprawling maze of rules and bylaws and lore that would be difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t cracked the book. At the same time, it kicks off the kind of story you immediately want to share with your friends because you need someone to talk to about what you just read.

The story quickly ascends to high myth and gets even more complicated. Enter the magic-wielding, semi-omniscient being known as Opal Luna Saturnyne, the Omniversal Majestrix and guardian of the Starlight Citadel in a place called Otherworld. Fancy name aside, she’s more or less in charge (and has her own agenda) of the order of Marvel Comics’ topsy-turvy multiverse. Instead of letting an expansive war ravage everything she oversees, she lays down a gauntlet: 10 champions of Arakko will take on 10 mutants of Krakoa, and the victors will claim it all.

 Marvel/Larraz
X of Swords.

The fates of Krakoa and Arakko are both at stake. And if Arakko’s champions kill some of the Marvel universe’s most powerful mutants, then the entire mutant world is at risk, too. And perhaps even Earth.

In X-Factor #04 (written by Leah Williams and drawn by Carlos Gomez), the second and most recent of the X of Swords crossover issues (the whole event will span 22 issues), we find out a huge twist: Mutant resurrections are now off the table. Without giving too much away, the mutants who die in battle will remain dead. That means the most powerful mutants on Krakoa — mutants who also tend to be the most popular and widely read, like Storm or Wolverine — are at risk.

The age-old question is always: What does this mean for the X-Men and the MCU?

Since Marvel’s acquisition of the X-Men’s film rights in 2019, the looming question has been when and how will Marvel introduce the X-Men to the MCU?

Helping that hype along are casting rumors about specific characters like Iceman, and fan theories about Marvel’s upcoming WandaVision series on Disney+; that show and 2022’s Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness look poised to dabble in alternate dimensions, which could easily be a gateway for X-Men to drop in. The other part of the puzzle is trying to figure out which comic book arc might function as a vehicle for the X-Men’s eventual MCU introduction.

But I don’t think X of Swords is the story that will finally bring the X-Men to the MCU.

A story like House of M (which is alluded to in Marvel’s WandaVision trailer) or even House of X is easier to imagine (my kingdom for an Into the Spider-Verse treatment of House of X) as the children of the atom’s grand entrance to the MCU.

X of Swords’ dependence on House of X and its robust roster of characters and mythology makes it feel like one of those stories that’s way too big to serve as a starting point. It’s working with an established world and adding all kinds of wrinkles and dramatic plot points that would need a different foundation to build on onscreen. X of Swords is more finale than beginning.

With that said, it’s a fantastic moment to be a longtime X-Men fan, but also a moment where casual fans can get into the X-books. House of X is written in a way that fans with even just a basic operating knowledge of the X-Men could pick up, especially since it eschews a lot of extraneous storylines from the past few years thanks to MacTaggart’s reboot plot.

X of Swords is the reward for sticking with the X-Men through a tumultuous era, and it hurtles their story forward with real consequence and thrill. And while I’m as big a fan of the X-Men onscreen and am eagerly awaiting their inevitable MCU entrance at some point, there’s a lot of joy and adventure in the current comic books that are worth reading on their own terms.


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