coverjeanBattle of the Atom #1 & All-New X-Men #16
Marvel Comics
Brian Michael Bendis
Frank Cho & Stuart Immonen

In 1980’s “Days of Future Past,” Kate Pryde travels through time to change the events that lead to her dark, Sentinel-overrun dystopian future. The year of that dystopian future? 2013. Now that 2013 is actually here—and just so happens to be the X-Men’s 50th anniversary–Kate Pryde returns in Battle of the Atom #1, and she’s not alone.

But first, we catch up with present-day Kitty Pryde, leading the original teenage, now time-displaced X-Men—Cyclops, Marvel Girl, Iceman, and Beast—in a mission to contain a new mutant attacking Phoenix, Arizona. In “Future Past,” Kitty was the youngest and most inexperienced of the X-Men, and Battle of the Atom shows us how far she’s come—when she commands, “To me, my X-Men!” it’s a powerful moment.

Things spiral out of control when the Sentinels arrive, though present-day Cyclops and his Uncanny X-Men join the fight. The two teams work surprisingly well together (probably since Wolverine isn’t there to threaten Scott with disembowelment) but a Sentinel blasts teenage Cyclops, and for a moment it seems that the time-space continuum is in jeopardy, the comic book equivalent of Marty McFly’s fading photograph.

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Before the X-Men can recover from this shock, time cracks open like an egg and Kate Pryde’s X-Men of the future appear with a warning: the original X-Men must return to their own time, or mutantkind is doomed! But young Jean Grey and Cyclops, who have the most to lose if they return to the past, run away in defiance of their seemingly predetermined futures. And the Battle of the Atom is on.

Battle of the Atom promises to be an enormous event, built on decades of comic book history: not only “Days of Future Past,” but “The Dark Phoenix Saga” (look for a character-reversed homage to Phoenix’s famous death scene) and Grant Morrison’s New X-Men as well. The problem with this is that much of the story feels very familiar. Apocalyptic futures have become a Marvel Universe cliche. When the future X-Men warn that the original X-Men could cause “the end [of] our species” it’s hard to take the threat seriously, since Cyclops-the-revolutionary and Xavier’s son Legion are also the potential destroyers of mutankind, depending on which current X-book you read. The X-Men just can’t have nice things.

There is potential for a fascinating story here about the passage of time, as well as free will versus fate. We’ve heard the old saying that superhero comic book fans don’t want change, only the illusion of change. But the X-Men have changed over the decades in new and unexpected ways. Just as Kitty Pryde has grown up from Sprite to “Professor K,” the young X-Men are shocked to face their future selves and discover (humorously, in Iceman’s case) that they did not become who they expected to be. The X-Men are no strangers to taking in super-powered refugees from apocalyptic futures (especially if they’re from the Grey-Summers family tree), but for the original X-Men, who have traveled across five decades of their own history, our present is an apocalyptic future.

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Jean Grey’s escape may seem impulsive and immature, but she is a character who has always fought to control her own destiny, to live—or die—on her own terms. As Phoenix, she chose to die on the moon to save the universe from the threat of Dark Phoenix. Here, she refuses a “death sentence” because she fears her final death will have been for nothing, and she wants a better future for her loved ones than either the present or future X-Men can give her. Young Cyclops is so disturbed by his future self that he’s willing to risk dying, and that version of himself never existing, rather than go back and forget what he’s seen. Somewhere, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” starts playing.

Frank Cho and Stuart Immonen are justifiably beloved artists, and Brian Michael Bendis’s script plays to their strengths. Animax, the new mutant antagonist with the ability to create monsters out of thin air, was surely created for Frank Cho’s pencils—and who could resist the spectacle of Kitty Pryde decapitating dinosaurs with a katana? Bendis and Cho also present Animax’s history in a single page of Jean Grey’s telepathic projections that quickly tells us everything we need to know about her. In a few pages, Animax is already more interesting than most of Uncanny X-Men’s new mutants (sorry, Goldballs) so hopefully we haven’t seen the last of her. The future X-Men, a mix of new and familiar faces, are also impressively rendered by Immonen—I especially love his take on the older Molly Hayes, who’s built like a mutant Rosie the Riveter. Illustrating four separate X-Men teams is no small feat, and Immonen excels at capturing body languages and facial expressions, so that despite extreme physical mutations, the Icemen and Beasts are recognizable as the same characters at radically different points in their lives.

All-New X-Men #16 features a big surprise at the end, one that’s all the more striking for coming in an unexpected form. If that surprise is what it appears to be, it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time than the X-Men’s 50th anniversary, and “Battle of the Atom” is already a major event for that alone. But we’ll see. Even “Days of Future Past” couldn’t resist an “only time will tell” ending, so I can’t either.