Tag Archives: Wolverine

Bringing The X-men Into The MCU: What To Do And What To Avoid

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These are exciting times for fans of Marvel and superhero movies. We thought we had reached a high point in 2012 when “The Avengers” came out. Then, we reached an even higher point this year with “Avengers: Infinity War.” Between raising the bar for superhero movies as a whole and generating billions at the box office, it seems impossible that Marvel could ascend any higher.

Well, Marvel Studios treat the impossible the same way the Hulk treats puny gods. They made Ant Man a successful movie franchise. They turned an obscure comic book featuring a talking raccoon into a multi-billion dollar phenomenon. At this point, doing the impossible is just another day at the office for Marvel and their Disney overlords.

In wake of the recent Disney/Fox merger, Kevin Feige and the brain trust at Marvel Studios will have even more tools with which to raise the bar. Even if they’re just running up the score at this point compared to the competition, there’s still plenty of room to grow now that they’ve got the entire mythos of the X-men and the Fantastic Four to work with.

This is already set to happen. Bob Iger himself has already indicated that there are plans to integrate the X-men and Fantastic Four into the MCU. How Marvel Studios will go about this is anyone’s guess and plenty of people have been sharing their guesses. I’ve tried to resist the temptation, but being a lifelong X-men fan and a lover of superhero movies in general, my restraint only goes so far.

However, I don’t want to wildly speculate or push an elaborate fan theory. Again, more than a few people have already done that. Instead, I’d like to do something a bit more generalized. Similar to my other articles on how not to screw up certain movies, I want to provide a guide of sorts.

At the very least, let’s avoid this.

I’m not going to get into specifics. Kevin Feige and a host of other people way smarter than me or anyone else on the internet are perfectly capable of handling those. Being a devout X-men fan, though, I feel like I can offer some basic pointers on what to do and what to avoid in bringing mutants into the MCU.

I think the X-men need that more than the Fantastic Four, at this point. Unlike Marvel’s First Family, the X-men entering the MCU will have far greater implications and not just because the last “Fantastic Four” movie almost killed the franchise. Mutants showing up in the MCU changes everything from what defines a superhero to how the physics of that universe operate.

At the same time, the X-men embody a particular theme, one that was relevant in 1963 when they first appeared, but has become relevant in entirely new ways in the 21st century. The last 18 years of X-men movies have tried to capture those themes, some being more successful than others. For the X-men to work in the MCU, it needs to capture those themes and get the characters right after Hugh Jackman set such a high bar.

Yes, it’s a daunting challenge, but one that Marvel Studios and their Disney overlords are more than equipped to handle. To achieve that success, and all the billions that come with it, here’s what I think they should pursue and what I think they should avoid.


Do: Tie The Events Of “Avengers: Infinity War” To Mutants (But Only Indirectly)

This is already part of the wild speculation surrounding “Avengers: Infinity War.” It would make sense to some degree, having Thanos’ universe-shaking actions lead directly to the creation and introduction of mutants in the MCU. However, I think having a direct link might undercut both the X-men and ultimate resolution of “Avengers 4.”

That’s why it would work better for both franchises if the link was indirect, at most. Part of the appeal of the MCU is that there are connections everywhere, but most of those connections are fairly loose. Sure, Dr. Strange will get a mention in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” but the movie doesn’t center around setting up another franchise.

Ideally, the X-men would follow the same approach. Perhaps Nick Fury mentions some strange genetic anomalies popping up. Perhaps Bruce Banner or Black Widow mentions rumors of other living weapons, which could be a reference for Weapon X. Let those small hints establish that mutants exist, but save the particulars for an actual X-men movie.


Avoid: Having Mutants Appear Without Explaining Their Absence

This is probably the most daunting challenge for Marvel Studios to date, explaining how mutants exist in the MCU and why they’ve been absent thus far. Most people with an internet connection know why the MCU could never mention the X-men. Their movie rights were owned by another studio.

Just because Disney owns Fox now doesn’t mean that mutants can just suddenly appear. It’s not like magic in “Dr. Strange” or the Asgardians in “Thor.” These forces could operate under the radar, independently, and on a small scale. Mutants, by their very nature, cannot act like that.

The most defining theme of mutants, as they exist in Marvel, is that they’re random. They manifest all over the world in every major human population, regardless of geography, culture, language, or ethnicity. That’s not something that can just be ignored while aliens invade New York or killer robots invade Sokovia.

At the very least, an X-men movie in the MCU needs to establish a valid reason for why they’ve been absent. Moreover, it can’t just be the result of experiments or mad science, which was done in Marvel’s now-defunct Ultimate line comics and is way too similar to the Inhumans, whose TV show failed miserably.

Luckily for Marvel and Disney, there’s already an established way to do this and it came from an underrated cartoon called “X-men Evolution.” In that world, mutants are there, but their existence is kept secret by Charles Xavier. The events of “The Avengers” could give them even more reasons for keeping that secret and the whole movie could be built around mutants finally coming out.

Considering how mutants have often been used to symbolize the struggle of minorities, I think that’s both appropriate and compelling.


Do: Make The First Team Of X-men Young And Idealistic

The early X-men movies were a lot of things. Upbeat wasn’t one of them. The original “X-men” trilogy was very serious, full of brooding and tension, even among the younger characters. That worked for the early 2000s when superhero movies needed to get serious after the “Batman and Robin” fiasco. It won’t work in this current era.

The original X-men were teenagers when they first donned their costumes. They weren’t hardened soldiers like Captain America. They were lovably idealistic in pursuing Charles Xavier’s dream, believing they could be the ones that change the world. Unlike most teenagers armed only with a cell phone and no adult baggage, they have the powers to actually achieve it.

The heroes in “The Avengers” already provided plenty of jaded adult perspectives. The X-men can offer the youthful, idealistic perspective that’s so endearing, but so easy to undermine. That’s how the X-men started in the comics and that’s how they’ll thrive in the MCU.


Avoid: Making Wolverine The Center Of Everything

This is a caveat that’s just as relevant today as it was in the early 2000s when the “X-men” movies first came out. Now, I love Wolverine as much as the next X-men fan, but he is not the center of the X-men’s world. As lovable as Hugh Jackman is, the world of X-men cannot and should not be defined by all things Wolverine.

I would even go so far as to keep Wolverine out of the first X-men movie that takes place in the MCU. Establish the team before bringing him into the picture because it’s inevitable that he’ll command a lot of energy. If anything, Wolverine should get his own solo movie before he meets the X-men. Having held down three movies, it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.

Wolverine is a great character, but he can’t be the main driving force of the X-men again. He already was with the original “X-men” movies and the MCU doesn’t need to follow that path again. Let Wolverine thrive on his own. Let the X-men thrive on their own. If they can complement one another along the way, then everybody wins.


Do: Highlight What Makes Mutants Different From Other Super-powered Beings

This is something that even the comics don’t do particularly well. Within that world, mutants exist alongside all types of heroes, from gamma-powered hulks to inter-dimensional refugees to Superman rip-offs. However, mutants are still hated and feared for being different.

The reasons for that are many, but poorly fleshed out. Unlike the Inhumans or unlucky teenagers who get bit by a spider, mutants are random. They’re born with their powers and they can’t avoid them. Being a mutant is like being a particular race. You can’t change what you are. That’s exactly what makes mutants both different and disconcerting for the public.

We already saw in “Captain America: Civil War” that the governments of the world are quite anxious about controlling super-powered beings. Add mutants to the mix and the potential for conflict is even greater. The foundation is there. The X-men just have to build on it.


Avoid: Making The Hatred And Mistrust Of Mutants Seem Contrived

This plays directly into my last point, but there’s a reason it’s worth highlighting. Like the comics, the MCU already has plenty of super-powered, super-capable beings that governments and average people rightly fear. There are legitimate reasons for that fear. Most people wouldn’t trust Elon Musk with a suit of armor. Why should they trust Tony Stark?

Fear and hatred of mutants is the primary driving force of conflict in the X-men. It’s also the primary motivator for characters like Magneto. That fear and hatred has to be different than the other logistical concerns that played out in “Captain America: Civil War.”

Dealing with mutants can’t just be about holding them accountable through some international treaty. Mutants are a lot more chaotic because they’re random and not every mutant seeks to be a superhero, which is part of why Charles Xavier formed a school in the first place.

The measures in the MCU, as well as the logic behind them, need to be different. At a time when people being detained is a hot-button issue, the X-men have could be extra relevant.


Do: Establish Minor, But Relevant Links To Other MCU Characters

A big part of the appeal in the MCU is how everything seems connected. Captain America has links to Tony Stark’s father, Howard. Spider-Man has a close link to Iron Man, as well. “Thor: Ragnarok” established some ties with Dr. Strange. “Guardians of the Galaxy” created ties with Thanos that later played out in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

These kinds of links help make the MCU the box office powerhouse that it is and those links should continue in X-men. Again, the foundation is there. Carol Danvers, who is set to appear in “Captain Marvel,” already has close ties to the X-men in the comics. Wolverine even had close ties to Captain America during World War II.  Storm also has a documented, but flawed history with Black Panther.

How these links emerge depends heavily on how Marvel Studios decides to bring the X-men into the MCU. If they shake up reality or tweak the timelines, then there will be opportunities to establish these links. If they opt for something less messy, then they can just as easily focus on setting new links for future movies. Either way works, provided it’s done right.


Avoid: Creating Unnecessary Rivalries Or Conflicts

This is something that could very well happen if those connections I mentioned earlier aren’t done particularly well. I know it will be tempting for Marvel Studios to pursue a big “Avengers vs. X-men” event like the one that played out in the comics. Personally, I think that would be a mistake and not just because “Captain America: Civil War” already played that idea out.

Superheroes fighting other superheroes can be compelling, but it’s easy to overdo. It also has a nasty tendency to bring out the worst in all the characters involved. That has happened more than once in the comics, especially recently. Whenever heroes fight each other, nobody really comes off as heroes and that’s not a healthy way to develop quality characters. It just makes them seem petty.

The X-men already have a lengthy list of quality villains beyond Magneto. The original trilogy did a poor job of utilizing them. The MCU has already dealt with a significant villain problems in the past, but has since raised the bar with characters like Thanos and Erik Killmonger. Before the X-men start butting heads with the Avengers, let them clash with the likes of Sinister and Mastermold first.


Do: Let Ryan Reynolds Continue Being Deadpool

Does this really need an explanation? Deadpool is awesome. Ryan Reynolds is lovable, talented, and charismatic. It’s not broke so don’t try to fix it. Just let Deadpool be Deadpool and let the money roll in.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Deadpool, superhero movies, X-men

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters on X-23 #1. Enjoy!

It’s Back to Brutal Basics for Laura in ‘X-23 #1’

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July 12, 2018 · 6:03 pm

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters for “Hunt For Wolverine: Mystery In Madripoor #1.” Enjoy!

Friends Matter in ‘Hunt for Wolverine: Mystery In Madripoor #1’

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May 29, 2018 · 10:07 pm

A Meta-Level Marvel: A Review Of “Deadpool 2”

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When a movie becomes an unexpected hit, both with critics and at the box office, the biggest question isn’t whether or not the studio will make a sequel. Major studios just love money too much. It’s just a matter of whether or not the sequel will be able to capture the magic of what made the first movie so great.

The first “Deadpool” movie was an unexpected hit that Fox didn’t even want to make. It broke so many rules, both with its R-rating and with its unorthodox approach to making superhero movies. In fact, it spent a good chunk of its overly violent first act establishing that “Deadpool” is not a superhero movie and Deadpool, the character, isn’t a traditional superhero.

By daring to be different while also embracing everything that’s lovable and unique  about the character, “Deadpool” found a way to work, despite a paltry budget and an audience that still hadn’t forgotten Deadpool’s disastrous first appearance in “Wolverine Origins.” Now, “Deadpool 2” faces a new, but less daunting challenge in following up the unprecedented success of its predecessor.

Well, I’ll gladly spoil one detail about this movie. It matches, exceeds, and kicks the ever-loving shit out of those challenges. If you enjoyed the first “Deadpool” movie, then you’ll find plenty to enjoy with “Deadpool 2” and then some. Even if you found yourself unsatisfied with the first “Deadpool” movie, “Deadpool 2” will hit leave you feeling content in a way not possible without the aid of heavy stimulants and skilled hookers.

I realize that’s an overly vulgar way of saying that “Deadpool 2” is a great movie, but after seeing it, I think that’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie. It is, like its predecessor, an R-rated spectacle that does plenty to earn that rating. There’s plenty of profanity, violence, adult themes, and a lot of butt jokes.

Seriously, this movie doubles down on the appeal of butt jokes. It’s not quite in the same cartoonish mold as “South Park,” but it works because it’s a Deadpool movie. It needs to be vulgar and crude for the same reason water needs to be wet.

However, it’s not just the butt jokes, the violence, the crude humor, or the inherent lovability of Ryan “Mr. Blake Lively” Reynolds brings to the table. There are deeper, less juvenile appeals in “Deadpool 2” that help distinguish it from other superhero movies. It’s true to the Deadpool brand, but still finds a way to transcend its genre.

In the same way the first “Deadpool” movie mixed its superhero narrative with that of a genuine, sex-positive romance story, “Deadpool 2” does something similar. Instead of a romance story, though, the movie frames itself as a story about family and how to find one in an unfair, unjust world.

It’s a story that deals with serious issues of abandonment, abuse, and injustice. It does much more than its predecessor to incorporate the struggles minorities face that have played out in previous “X-men” movies. However, “Deadpool 2” never feels too much like an X-men movie. It keeps things personal and that’s key to making its story work.

Besides butt jokes and breaking the 4th wall, the underlying theme that drives the narrative in this movie is how everyone’s family gets shattered by various forces. Deadpool loses his family. Cable loses his family. Russell, also known as Firefist, is basically without a family from the beginning.

Those respective losses are what drive the characters through the story. That gives it a level of emotional weight that you wouldn’t expect for a movie based on a wise-cracking, exceedingly violent character who was heavily derived from an established DC character. That emotional weight is critical for both Deadpool and his supporting cast.

It’s here where “Deadpool 2” further improves on its predecessor. Unlike the first movie, it digs a little deeper into the vast catalog of X-men characters. The most important of those characters is Cable, the time-traveling badass whose convoluted origin story involves a clone of Jean Grey. It’s a character that Josh Brolin brings to life perfectly.

Already riding high from how he played Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Brolin’s Cable brings a gruff balance to Deadpool’s quirky persona. That’s not just critical for the overall feel of the movie. It’s a critical element to their relationship, as established in the comics.

It’s not at all necessary to be familiar with their history in the comics to appreciate it in this movie, but as a life-long X-men fan, it’s nice bonus to see the spirit of the comics find their way into the movies. Given how often superhero movies take liberties with comic lore these days, that does count for something for fans like me.

As a result, Cable’s gruff, overly serious demeanor complements Deadpool’s eccentricities perfectly. Having both suffered immense personal losses, they both seek the same thing. Their methods are just very different and that makes for some glorious conflict, complete with references to Brolin’s role as Thanos and his role in “The Goonies.”

Aside from Cable, “Deadpool 2” also brings in other familiar X-men characters. That includes Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who had significant roles in the first movie. It also involves newcomers Bedlam, Shatterstar, and most notably, Zazie Beetz’s Domino. While not all these characters get a chance to shine, Domino does plenty to steal the show in multiple scenes.

There’s even a lengthy list of cameos throughout the movie and not just of the Stan Lee variety. The movie, even with its more serious themes involving family and loss, still finds plenty of ways to lighten the mood and have fun with itself. It never takes itself too seriously or gets too dark. It finds a way to mix in just the right amount of humor into everything.

By nearly every measure, “Deadpool 2” checks all the necessary boxes for an appropriately uncanny sequel. It offers a rich array of content that builds on what the first movie established along with plenty of bonus material, including one of the best post-credits scene of any superhero movie. Even if you don’t care for the movie, that post-credits scene will put a smile on your face, especially if you hatedWolverine Origins.”

That’s not to say it’s a flawless movie. I wouldn’t put this movie above “Avengers: Infinity War” and not just because it’s a different kind of movie. “Deadpool 2” does a lot of things right, but it leaves some things unfinished. There are times when it rushes certain plot elements. As a result, characters like Vanessa and the lovably under-powered Peter feel wasted.

There are also a few instances where the the story feels choppy. Those instances are minor, though. While it would’ve been nice to establish a few other details about characters like Cable and Domino, the overall structure of the movie still works because it keeps the plot of “Deadpool 2” concise. It never tries to cram too much into the story, which has derailed more than a few superhero movies. See “Spider-Man 3.”

Overall, “Deadpool 2” is awesome because it has an identity and sticks to it. There’s crude humor, violence, and plenty of 4th wall breaking. There’s also genuine heart. In the same way the romance elements in the first movie felt sincere, the themes of family and finding a place in an unjust world feel just as sincere in this movie.

You’ll laugh and you’ll feel throughout “Deadpool 2,” but chances are you’ll probably do more laughing. As a whole package, “Deadpool 2” gives you plenty of reasons to leave the movie with a big smile on your face. Whether you’re an X-men fan, a superhero fan, or a fan of neither, this movie gives you something to enjoy.

If I had to score “Deadpool 2,” I would give it a 9 out of 10. It’s not flawless, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s exactly what you want it to be and then some. The ability to make more butt jokes is just a nice bonus.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, superhero movies, X-men

The following is a review I wrote for PopMatters. Enjoy!

Mixing, Mashing, and Monsters in Marvel’s ‘Weapon H #1’

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March 23, 2018 · 5:45 pm

Why Wolverine Of The X-men Is The Perfect Counter To Toxic Masculinity

During a debate, the biggest challenge is making a point that strikes the right chords, evokes the right emotions, and has some semblance of logic. Anyone who has ever engaged in a meaningful debate, be it a formal contest or an argument on a message board, understands the extent of that challenge.

Sometimes, you have to get creative to make those points. Thankfully, getting creative for an aspiring erotica/romance writer and die-hard comic book fan is easier than it is for most people. Every now and then, your mind makes unexpected connections that perfectly encompasses the message you’ve been trying to convey.

This brings me back to “toxic masculinity,” a term I still believe should be retired from the English language, and every other language for that matter. I’ve dedicated multiple posts to deconstructing this concept. Now, I want to take it a step further.

I want to re-frame my stance on this concept by offering a different kind of argument. I’ve already argued that context and social situations are the primary driving force of the traits often ascribed to toxic masculinity.

I still think the point I made about context and social situation is difficult to grasp, even with the references to the rat park experiments. Most people outside of psychology buffs aren’t familiar with those experiments. Instead, I want to make my point by referencing a character that the vast majority of people have heard of to some extent.

Some know him as Logan, James Howlett, Weapon X, or that snarling guy with the claws who helped make Hugh Jackman famous. Most simply know him as Wolverine.

Yes, I’m going to bring Wolverine, one of the most famous male superheroes of all time, into a discussion about toxic masculinity, but not in the way you think. Being an ardent X-men fan who has used superheroes to make points in the past, I feel uniquely qualified to link this iconic character to this concept that so many resent.

On the surface, that sounds like a losing battle. Bear with me, though. When you take a step back and look at Wolverine in the context of masculinity, as a whole, you’ll find that he’s the perfect embodiment of a man who guts the idea of toxic masculinity with his claws and spits on its corpse.

That may seem counter-initiative because anyone who is even somewhat familiar with Wolverine might see him as a man who embodies all the negative traits associated with masculinity. He’s brutish, crude, ill-mannered, ill-tempered, impulsive, violent, and irresponsible. He has all those traits on top of a tendency to go after married women.

However, before anyone starts attributing those traits to toxic masculinity, it’s important to understand the complexities of Wolverine’s story. There’s a reason why he’s often ranked as one of the most compelling characters in the history of comics. His life, persona, and story are full of all sorts of twists and turns. More than anything else, though, Wolverine’s story is one built on dehumanization.

Whether it’s the comics, movies, are cartoons, this is the primary driving force of Wolverine’s story. From his earliest origins to his most defining moments, Wolverine is a man who has been subjected to extreme forms of dehumanization. Some of them, especially those involved in the Weapon X program that made him, have no real-world parallel outside the mind of a North Korean mad scientist.

He’s had his memories erased, his mind warped, his body tortured, and even his soul stolen by a demon. Even by comic book standards, Wolverine has been roughed up more than most. Many people of exceedingly villainous tendencies have tried to strip him of his humanity and turn him into a living, breathing weapon. Needless to say, most of those people died horribly.

As a result, Wolverine is one of the most violent and unpredictable characters in all of comics. He’s also one of the most dangerous, having killed every major hero in the Marvel universe at one point and survived death itself on more than one occasion.

The most remarkable feat though, which also happens to strike directly at the very foundation of toxic masculinity, is his continued desire to cling to his humanity and be the iconic hero that so many X-men fans love.

It’s that drive, and the endearing persona that emerges from it, that makes Wolverine the perfect counter-punch to toxic masculinity. Despite all these dehumanizing forces, he still clings to his humanity. That effort, which has played out in many comics, movies, and cartoons over the years, reflects one important concept.

In essence, Wolverine reflects the idea that it’s really hard to make a man behave in such a toxic way. In order for him to be the kind of man that most people attribute to toxic masculinity, it’s necessary to torture him endlessly, strip him of all identity, and undercut his humanity in the worst way possible. If that kind of force is required, then how can anyone claim that masculinity is inherently toxic?

If those sorts of traits were inherent in men, then someone like Wolverine wouldn’t need that kind of conditioning. He wouldn’t need to be tortured or coerced into being the brutish, blood-thirsty monster that Weapon X wants him to be. If toxic masculinity were valid, someone would just have to give him some metal claws, send him out into the world, and let the magic of testosterone do the rest.

That’s not how men work, though, even in the fictional world. In X-men comics, as well as real life, ideas of masculinity guide men in different ways. For Wolverine, those ways led him to becoming an X-men, an Avenger, and an iconic hero who helped make Hugh Jackman famous. It shows in more than just his heroism.

Throughout his history in the X-men comics, Wolverine has shown that when he’s not being coerced or tortured, he makes an effort to live an honorable life. He seeks love, having even married a couple of a times. He seeks friendships and relationships, some of which have helped make characters like Kitty Pryde and Jubilee famous in their own right. He basically tries to be his own man.

Even though he’s still an asshole at times, he’s an asshole in a way that’s gender neutral. The things Wolverine does that make him an ass are the same things that apply to women. Whether it’s going after someone else’s spouse, undercutting someone’s authority, or randomly running off to do his own thing, there’s nothing Wolverine does that a woman couldn’t also do.

That leads directly to what might be an even more compelling argument for Wolverine being the antithesis of toxic masculinity. That’s because there is a female character who shares many of Wolverine’s experiences and exemplifies the same traits. Those who saw the “Logan” movie last year already know where I’m going with this.

It’s his clone/daughter, Laura “X-23” Kinney. In a sense, she doubles down on the idea that these “toxic” traits are not inherently masculine because she endured dehumanization to a similar extent. In fact, her dehumanization was even worse because she wasn’t given a name, only a number.

Like Wolverine, being subjected to such dehumanization rendered Laura violent, impulsive, and callous. If she were male, then it would be easy for advocates of toxic masculinity to slap her with that label, just like Wolverine. However, her being female undercuts that argument from its very foundation.

Together, the character and story surrounding Wolverine and X-23 undercuts toxic masculinity by establishing that the toxic effects of dehumanization don’t apply to just one gender. Strip away someone’s identity, social support, and humanity and they’ll demonstrate more than a few toxic traits.

What this means in terms of the bigger picture is that those traits attributed to toxic masculinity have a larger context that goes beyond gender. These traits that are tied to certain male behaviors are correlated to one thing, but not necessarily tied to the actual cause. Being a man doesn’t make Wolverine who he is. Being a man who was subject to dehumanizing treatment did that.

Now, apply that to a world where the very idea of masculinity is being subject to all sorts of scrutiny. Joss Whedon went so far as to call certain masculine tendencies a disease when making excuses for his infidelity. By linking everything bad in the world to masculinity, it dehumanizes men by making them seem inherently flawed.

That’s the most insidious implication of toxic masculinity. It’s very much akin to the forces behind Weapon X in that it attempts to deconstruct a core part of someone’s identity, reducing them to a hunk of flesh to be molded for someone else.

Most men don’t want that. Most people, in general, don’t want that. It’s yet another reason why the idea of toxic masculinity needs to be gutted with adamantium claws, locked in an adamantium case, and thrown into the deepest, darkest pits of the real and fictional world.

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Filed under gender issues, sex in media, sex in society, sexuality

Romance And Tragedy Done Right (In An X-men Comic)

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When it comes to two genres that are often associated with one another, romance and tragedy are the literary equivalent of peanut butter and jelly. When you think of one, it’s not long before you associate it with another. Romance without tragedy is like fries without ketchup. Both are still good on their own, but it’s only when they’re together that they maximize their potential.

In that same spirit that the likes of Shakespeare and “Titanic,” superheroes often follow that narrative, but with more spectacle than old playwrights and even James Cameron could ever imagine. Being such a huge fan of superhero movies and comic books, I’m more familiar with their take on romance and tragedy than most aspiring erotica/romance writers.

As such, when an amazing, uncanny, astonishing, or whatever other adjective that a comic book puts before their title tells a story that truly embodies those ideas, I take notice. Seeing as how I’m also an unapologetic romance fan on top of being a comic book fan, those kinds of stories resonate especially well for me. They don’t come around too often, but when they do, they’re worth appreciating.

This particular story involves the X-men, which should surprise nobody who has followed this blog over the past couple years. It also involves the romance/tragedy of Cyclops and Jean Grey, which should also not surprise anyone. I’ve mentioned them before when talking about balanced romances and insufferable love triangles. This might end up being the most heart-wrenching, albeit for all the right reasons.

The name of the story is called Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey by Matthew Rosenberg. Now, if you don’t want to be spoiled, I strongly encourage everyone to read it. Either buy it at a comic shop or buy the digital version. Even if you’re not a comic book fan, it’s a great story that will still evoke all the right emotions.

That’s because this story does something that’s very rare and very difficult to do. It’s something that everyone form Shakespeare to Tolken to Stan “The Man” Lee struggled with at some point in their creative endeavors. It gets the balance between romance and tragedy right. It gets it so right, in fact, that I intend to judge all future romance/tragedies by this comic. That includes any I write.

To understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to understand the context of the story and why it had such a powerful impact. To do that, it’s necessary to point out the circumstances of this story. When it was announced last year, it’s stated goal was to bring Jean Grey back from the dead. Anyone who has even a passing familiarity with comics knows that’s not all that groundbreaking.

Superheroes have been dying and coming back to life for decades. While “The Death of Superman” might have been the most high-profile, the initial death of Jean Grey in the original Phoenix Saga is probably the most iconic. That story established Jean Grey as a character who would be defined by death, rebirth, and everything in between. That’s part of the reason it’s the foundation of the “X-men: Dark Phoenix” movie.

That original story had a lot of romantic elements in it, but it was largely defined by its tragic ending. In that original story, Jean Grey willingly sacrificed herself in front of Cyclops and her friends to stop herself from becoming corrupted by the cosmic power of the Phoenix Force.

It was a truly gut-wrenching moment. It’s because of that moment, though, that it’s often singled out as one of the best X-men stories of all time. It was the culmination of Jean Grey’s struggle to deal with the immense power with which she’d been imbued. Moreover, she reached out to that power in order to do the impossible to protect those she loved, even if it corrupted her.

That’s an important detail to note because that’s a theme that would go onto play out on many occasions for Jean, eventually culminating in her second death in 2004. Her constant struggle to manage the immense power granted by the Phoenix Force and the corruption that often came with it is one of the primary driving forces behind Jean’s character. It’s also a big part of her appeal.

Rosenberg uses those same themes, as well as the immense power afforded by the Phoenix Force, to build the tragedy and romance that plays out in Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. It’s a story that has more drama going for it than most because, despite the presence of time travelers, Jean Grey has been dead since 2004. Her coming back after such a long absence is a big deal for X-men fans and for her character.

The challenge Rosenberg faced was making that resurrection feel more compelling than overdue in an era where dead characters come back all the time. On top of that, Jean’s association with a cosmic force known for death and resurrection means her character basically has a built-in cheat code for bringing her back. How can that be so compelling, let alone raise the bar for romance and tragedy?

This is where the spoilers come in so again, please take the time to read the comic if you can. That’s because the way Jean comes back in this story has less to do with tragedy and more to do with agency. Way back in the original Phoenix Saga, Jean reached out to Phoenix Force in an act to save her friends. It was a choice of desperation.

Well, since that fateful choice, the Phoenix Force has been like a clingy ex, wanting desperately to stay bonded to her, even thought it often corrupts her. I’ve argued before how the context of that corruption might be more complicated than it seems, but on the basis of history alone, Jean Grey has many reasons to regret that choice.

The Phoenix only gives her another in this series. After having bonded with plenty of other hosts since her death, it goes to great lengths to bond with Jean again. It goes so far as to resurrect both her and everyone she ever cared about, creating this own little world in which Jean never experiences the many tragedies that befell her. It’s like the Matrix, but with a volatile cosmic bird running the show.

 

As part of that fantasy world, Jean Grey’s long-time love, Cyclops, is alive and well. That’s critical because, at least for the time being, he’s also dead. The Phoenix Force basically gives her everything to be happy, content, and loved. Keep in mind, though, it’s not doing this out of pure altruism. It wants to bond with Jean again. That’s the goal and the fantasy world is just a means to an end.

That makes the tragedy inevitable. As is often the case with fantasy worlds, even those created by a cosmic power, they tend to crumble under the harsh weight of reality. The way in which this happens is best revealed through the story. However, the part of the story that really balances out that tragedy occurs in the final issue.

In that issue, the fantasy world crumbles, thanks largely to the efforts of Jean’s fellow X-men. Naturally, the Phoenix Force fights this and tries to tempt Jean into bonding with it again, saying its power can give her everything she desires. It can even bring back those she loves.

As part of a last-ditch effort, it demonstrates this by bringing Cyclops back to life. He’s not a clone. He’s not a time traveler. He’s not some illusion either. He’s the real, flesh-and-blood Cyclops, complete with the thoughts, feelings, and passions of the man she married.

It’s a dick move on the part of the Phoenix Force, to say the least. It’s also the moment where the romance balances the tragedy in an important way. That’s because in that moment, Jean makes another fateful choice, one every bit as dire as the one she made in the original Phoenix Saga. This time, though, she lays her heart on the line, knowing damn well it’ll be broken.

Rather than just reject this tactic as another attempt by the Phoenix to lure her in, she embraces it for a brief moment. In that moment, she gets to say goodbye to her husband. She and Cyclops even go out of their way to make clear how much they love each other, both in life and in death. Even if you’re not a big romance fan, this is a moment of pure, unadulterated heart.

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We still know the tragedy is coming. We know it’s a moment that’s going to end with tears and sorrow. Anyone that ever had to read “Romeo and Juliet” in high school English class knows it’s coming and is might think they’re numb to it, especially if they flunked the test.

That’s why it was so important for the story to reaffirm that sentiment. Rosenberg did something critical when he had Cyclops and Jean Grey remind each other just how deep their love went. He gave even greater weight to the loss.

At least with “Romeo and Juliet,” the characters involved had just met. They barely knew each other. Cyclops and Jean Grey’s love story spans 50 years of X-men comics, complete with weddings, clones,  and raising a child together in the future. To know the extent of their love is to know just how much that tragedy hurts.

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That, more than anything, is what puts Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey in a league of its own in terms of romance and tragedy. Instead of the tragedy defining the romance, it’s the other way around. It’s the romance that gives that tragedy such immense weight.

In too many stories, both in comics and in other mediums, tragedy relies too heavily on its own weight to make an impact. Making a love story dependent on that tragedy gives the impression that the love needed it in order to have depth. That’s why, when the tragedy eventually occurs, it doesn’t always hit all the emotional chords.

Rosenberg left no emotional chords unstruck with this story. It’s because Jean shared that special moment with the man she loved that her decision to reject the Phoenix Force carries so much weight. That decision comes with so much pain, anguish, and sorrow. It’s one thing to just depict it. It’s quite another to truly convey it.

That’s what truly makes Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey so special. It conveys both the breadth of the romance and the extent of the tragedy. Moreover, it does that in a way where one complements the other. For a romance built heavily around two characters operating as equals, I can’t think of anything more fitting.

Again, if you’re fan of romance, tragedy, or both, check out Phoenix Resurrection: The Return of Jean Grey. Even if you hate comics and the X-men, this one will evoke all the right emotions. You’ll shed tears of sorrow and joy at the same time. It’ll feel so weird, but so right.

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Filed under Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, Marriage and Relationships, X-men