This year we are hosting a variety of looks back at 2019 as hosts and friends-of-the-show offer up the things that defined the year for them. We start by having co-host, D. Bethel, talk about––of course––the X-Men.
Many people view 2019 as the coda for the entire decade, wiping away the expectation and skepticism that has built up over the last nine years as we head into the twenties. I don’t usually subscribe to such notions because time is ever and always a series of causal relationships, but––stepping back from the year as December ends––the evidence certainly points to this year closing a lot of doors. With Game of Thrones coming to a close, Avengers: Endgame definitively ending the first era of the MCU, and even Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker concluding a supposed nine-movie arc, 2019 does actually seem to be not only winding down the year but, in some cases, doing so for decades-long cultural monuments.
However, 2019’s sense of closure and finality landed nowhere more––across multiple mediums––than on the house that Charles Xavier built. At least to me.
Of course, the X-Men aren’t dead nor are they going anywhere; in fact, many look at the events of 2019 that Marvel’s merry mutants went through––20th Century Fox’s purchase by Disney and Jonathan Hickman’s takeover of the comics––and anticipate the beginning of a promising new age.
To me, however, the theatrical release of Dark Phoenix and the comic book reboot with House of X and Powers of X marked a definitive end to eras of the team that mean so much to me.
The much derided Dark Phoenix landed with a thud, but more importantly (and as unwarranted as the derision was) it marked the last main installment in the 20th Century Fox-owned X-films. Its finality (and finale) hit me hard as I realized that this series I followed since it redefined superhero cinema in 2000 actually kind of became “my” X-Men.
Through the ’90s, I developed a codified portrait of what this superhero team meant to me in an intense and focused consumption of this property––mostly built upon the triptych of X-Men #1 (1991), X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men––and, with that done, it kind of went dormant in my mind as I grew up and started absorbing other things.
And then these movies came around.
For all of their successes and flaws, they wove a tone and ethos that very much aligned with “my” X-Men, and I appreciated and eagerly supported each film released (except for X-Men Origins: Wolverine; that movie is hot garbage).
Again, whether you like them or not, Dark Phoenix ended this era (though we still wait for New Mutants to find a way out of the vault). I very much liked these movies––especially Dark Phoenix––and think that it handled its own mortality (though unknown at the time) with grace, maturity, and one hell of a good movie. In a summer where Avengers: Endgame became a powerfully emotional moment for the folks who are longtime Marvel Universe readers as well as those who literally grew up with the MCU (starting with 2008’s Iron Man), Dark Phoenix stands as an astonishing and powerful goodbye for me and my superheroes. Yes, in terms of emotional resonance, Dark Phoenix is my Avengers: Endgame. Don’t @ me.
The movie affected me profoundly, made worse by the vitriolic discourse around a movie that is, at the very least, perfectly fine or, by my estimation, very good. Because of how much I enjoyed it, I expected myself to go to the mat for it in discussion; however, because it so infuriated me how people treated this movie, I realized exactly how much emotion I had invested in it.
It got to the point where I had to disengage from any conversation around it because I just assumed everyone was on the offensive. So, Dark Phoenix became a very personal movie for me, one for me to enjoy on my own and quietly. That’s okay; I gladly place it on the “just for me” shelf with my other beloved films like Willow, The Postman, and Highlander––movies people love to insult but have a profound and private meaning (while fully aware of their flaws).
Although, I eagerly await the Dark Phoenix retrospectives five or ten years from now when nerdy critics reconsider their stance after the hot takes have cooled and just appreciate it on its own merits.
HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X
When Marvel announced that fan-favorite writer, Jonathan Hickman, would be revamping the mutant sector of its universe, the speculation became a non-stop hype train. Before the books even released, Marvel was proudly declaring that the dual titles that launched this reboot––House of X and Powers of X (HoX/PoX), the latter pronounced “Powers of Ten”––already earned a place on the shelf with the other important moments in X-history: the first reboot, Giant-Sized X-Men #1; the industry-shifting story The Dark Phoenix Saga; 1991’s record-breaking X-Men #1; and Grant Morrison’s daring revamp with New X-Men in 2000. HoX/PoX was that important. The hubris of it made me skeptical but intrigued if only because I wanted to get excited about the X-Men comics again. I wanted to jump in at a clean start like I had years ago with X-Men #1. I wanted to become an X-Men comics super-fan again.
Marvel published HoX/PoX weekly as interweaving limited series, bouncing back and forth between the two very oblique and mystery-laden books, I had a lot of fun diving into this new premise populated with familiar characters. Hickman’s story was big and the sheer scope across the globe and millennia was striking in its boldness.
Whether Hickman’s HoX/PoX becomes the paradigm shift Marvel and Hickman touted it as being, I noticed I slowly slid off of it the further it went on throughout the year, especially as HoX/PoX came to a close and the “Dawn of X” (DoX) titles (the disparate titles spun out of the events of the HoX/PoX limited series) started getting published. HoX/PoX definitely lived up to its promise of building a new status-quo from the ground up, but I realized that meant burning down what came before, echoing what will surely be done on the movie side of things when that happens.
While not wholly ignoring the fifty-six years of continuity, Hickman certainly subverted it, making the comic’s printed history merely a series of “things that happened” while the actual, more important story was going on underneath. To that end, HoX/PoX effectively closed the book on the epic socially-conscious soap opera that started in September of 1963, a wave I jumped in on mid-way through but had fun learning about what came before as I rode the wave forward at the same time.
That, however, has been freeing as the HoX/PoX run and the subsequent DoX books feel like a brand new series cast with actors I know––the same faces in a new context. So, there’s no catch-up the reader needs to do. As the prominent anti-continuity voice on the show, that’s only a good thing and it’s amazing that Hickman was able to pull it off not only with the readers, but with Marvel. Admittedly, it’s much smarter than arbitrarily slapping “#1” on the cover and hoping for a sales spike.
HoX/PoX fundamentally turned the idea of the X-Men on its ear from my holy texts of X-Men #1, X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills, and Pryde of the X-Men. Instead of being a thinly veiled and often problematic metaphor for social injustice set in a superhero world, it is now an eco-sci-fi-utopian-political experiment, and maybe that’s what mutants need to be in 2019, 2020, and onward.
I don’t expect franchises to grow with me and my tastes, but part of the excitement of hopping on HoX/PoX was to get in the ground floor and, with hope, be a part of the audience for whom this becomes “my” X-Men. But it hasn’t done that, and it’s likely because my nostalgia got in the way and not a fault of HoX/PoX. And that realization, combined with my powerful reaction to Dark Phoenix, forced me to fully examine my fandom for the X-Men. It showed me what it means to me, and––more importantly––how I want to interact with it.
That’s important going into 2020 when Hickman’s plans gain more steam and continue to define and refine what the X-Men are now. It’s also important as we get closer to whenever Marvel Studios does what it decides to do with these characters in the MCU. I’m incredibly excited to see where both of these things go, but as I get older such excitement becomes academic rather than gleeful appreciation.