Reviewed in the United States on November 28, 2014
Longtime readers of Marvel's event comics may get through this and be left with a feeling of déjà vu. A long succession of major crossovers have in recent memory been billed with the promise of offering a "culmination" of events that were set in place more than a decade ago. For instance, the Siege crossover (2010) ran with the byline, "Beginning with the ravaging effects of Avengers Disassembled and following the aftermath of House of M, Civil War and Secret Invasion, culminating with the evil Reign of Norman Osborn..." Likewise, Avengers: The Children's Crusade (2012) tied up the loose ends created when the Scarlet Witch went crazy and triggered Avengers Disassembled. The X-Men event Second Coming (2011) "seemed" to be the conclusion of the magical prohibition on new mutant births that began in House of M. And yet, nevertheless, here we are again, faced with another sprawling crossover which intends to draw a line under everything that came before it. Does it succeed this time? Does it really put a fork in a decade's worth of stories? Sort of...
Avengers vs. X-Men is written by a committee of current, former, and future architects of the Avengers and X-Men lines of comics. Brian Michael Bendis (Avengers) and Jason Aaron (Wolverine and the X-Men) were the current writers at the time, as so they get the first and last words in this crossover. Former X-Men writers Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction, and upcoming Avengers writer Jonathan Hickman, round out the rest of the cast. Despite the involvement of so many creators, the tone and progression of the book is surprisingly consistent, possibly with the single exception of Bendis's distinctive dialogue. Even Matt Fraction, whose insufferable wit I could not stand on his Uncanny X-Men run, seems toned down and flattened out in his contribution to this series. Who knows how heavy a hand editorial had to take to produce that result.
Artwork is provided by the remarkable workhorse John Romita, Jr., who depicts the all-out melee between the two teams that defines about the first half of AvX. Olivier Coipel and Adam Kubert tag-team for the second half, which depicts the acts of the Phoenix after it has found its host(s), and the two combine for some pretty and gritty pages, respectively. Covers are turned in and meticulously numbered by Jimmy Cheung.
Overall, the story is very action-oriented, which is what you'd hope for in book with the word "versus" in its title. Unfortunately, that action is largely one-sided and unoriginal. Once the Phoenix assumes its host(s) from the ranks of the X-Men, the Avengers and the other members of the resistance persist in continuous frontal assaults against the Phoenix's host(s). This gets tiresome quickly for its lack of direction. Even the genius Tony Stark admits to being completely out of news ideas when it comes to challenging the entity, and he uncharacteristically (for him, anyway) turns to "faith" instead. Presumably this lack of innovative brainstorming is meant to signal to the reader that the Phoenix is Just That Powerful and Unbeatable, but it comes across as lazy plotting, too, when all the writers are able to do is throw more superhuman fodder at a villain with godlike powers. (It's ridiculous how many times Captain America throws his shield at the Phoenix, apparently expecting some miraculous result.) From the opposite side, the Phoenix's hosts, for much of the story, are intentionally unwilling to kill the Avengers that oppose them, as their corruption by the entity is not yet entirely complete. This creates a dramatic impasse: The Avengers can't beat the Phoenix and the Phoenix won't kill the Avengers. This may be somewhat of an oversimplification, though; there is a sort of Phoenix force "musical chairs" that takes place during these battles, but I won't delve too deeply into that so as not to spoil anything. My point is that no real progress is made on either side for a large part of the crossover.
In a wider sense, the story just is not that inspired. We already know from the classic Phoenix Saga what the Phoenix essentially is/does. It's powerful on a cosmic scale; it destroys, it creates; it possesses a host(s); it seduces and corrupts with its power. In this story, it demonstrates all of those established traits, but we never get to go beyond any of those old retreads. (The emulation of old stories runs so deep that two of the Phoenix's current hosts recite, verbatim, the mantra of the Phoenix coined by Jean Grey in 1976.) There is one twist, already alluded to, pertaining to a multiplicity of hosts that the Phoenix finds this time around. And, in fairness, the Phoenix does not simply possess Hope, the presumed host since her first appearance back in Messiah Complex (2008), so there are aspects of the plotting that play off against the reader's expectations. And yet, in the end, there is no profound reinvention of the event comic here, nothing that challenges the usual tropes. 1) An immense Threat appears. 2) There are Disagreements as to how to address it, with unlikely Alliances forming. 3) The Threat performs an immense display of its Power. 4) Fighting ensues. 5) A hero (or heroes) is Sacrificed (only to be brought back from the dead after a period of mourning and reflection, and a publication hiatus of approximately one year). 6) A new "Era" begins and the deck is reshuffled.
According to this form, one character does in fact die and another is repositioned as a villain (or at least a more blatant villain than before). The character who dies has a long and established track record of dying, or apparently dying, at the end of major crossovers. So we know that he or she should be back in no time at all. But what's even more unfortunate than the recycling of this tired cliche is that this character appears to have been trotted out of limbo for the sole purpose of being Sacrificed, as he/she has not played a significant role in either title for some time. In terms of the plot, this is bewildering, and it goes to show that a crossover of this scale has specifically been engineered for only established fans of these series who are expected to have familiarity with these characters and their significance.
On the bright side, Avengers vs. X-Men is competent and entertaining, and it does seem to legitimately end the decade-long uber-storyline that began in Avengers Disassembled, if only because of the fact that at the end of it Brian Michael Bendis, who was at the helm of the Avengers for that entire time, has finally ceded that franchise to the new direction of other writers. From the point of view of the X-Men, the existential quagmire that that franchise has found itself in since House of M also seems to have been decidedly resolved.