Monday, July 13, 2015

A Murky Age: Age of Apocalypse #1

The following is my review of Age of Apocalypse #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


We live in an era where apocalyptic futures aren’t nearly as interesting as the latest cat videos on Youtube. There have been so many dire stories about bleak, desolate futures that we’re all somewhat numb to it. Watching movies like the Terminator or the Matrix no longer fill us with dread or uncertainty. They’re more likely to make us complain about how movies use too much CGI these days. But there was a time when apocalyptic futures could tell compelling, meaningful stories. And during this brief moment in time, Age of Apocalypse was one of those stories.

In many ways, Age of Apocalypse was imposing bicep of the 800-pound gorilla that was X-men in the 90s. This was the era before conflicts involving movie rights and Brett Ratner. X-men events were to comics what Avengers movies are to today and there was no event bigger than Age of Apocalypse. It was an event that consumed every X-men series for one fateful summer and crafted dark, complex narrative about a world where there was no full victory. There could be no Return of the Jedi type moment where the Empire falls and everybody dances in the streets. This was a struggle for survival and that struggle took on so many forms and brought out the best and worst of so many characters. It’s a story that Bryan Singer is trying to capture at least in part. While he has an uphill battle, Age of Apocalypse #1 has a different kind of struggle.

This isn’t the 90s. Dial-up internet is no longer sufficient. Nicholas Cage is no longer an A-list actor. This epic world now exists within the convoluted context of Secret Wars. As part of Battleworld, Apocalypse can’t be the all-powerful demigod he fought so hard to be. He has to function in a world where Dr. Doom is a god and where his rules trump that of evolution.

From a conceptual standpoint, it’s like trying to mix beer and toothpaste. How can Age of Apocalypse function in a world where Apocalypse might as well be an extra on Game of Thrones who could get killed off at any moment? It sounds like a doomed concept, if that’s not too fitting a term, but Age of Apocalypse #1 manages to craft a functioning narrative. Beyond that, however, it doesn’t accomplish much else.

This issue doesn’t attempt to re-tell the same story that was told in the 90s, nor should it. As the third and fourth Terminator movies proved, this effort is almost always doomed to fail. Instead, the story here centers around Doug Ramsey, a D-list X-men character that few outside hardcore X-men fans will recognize. But it’s for that very reason that he’s the perfect guide through which this story is told. He’s not Wolverine. He’s not Princess Peach either. Like the explosions in a Die Hard movie, he’s the catalyst for this story.

It’s a story that really hits the ground running, almost the point of tripping over itself. For reasons that aren’t clear until later, everyone in Apocalypse’s domain wants Cypher. The X-men want to save him. Apocalypse wants to capture him. However, nobody seems to know why. The only one who has a clue is Destiny and she gets killed off quicker than the henchmen of a Bond villain. She only establishes that Cypher is very important and whoever captures him will have the key to the future. It’s like Lord of the Rings meets Taken.

It leads to some brutal and visceral clashes that help capture the apocalyptic essence of the Age of Apocalypse. However, it ends up going overboard when several major X-men and one Horseman dies in their effort to take Cypher. In the 90s, the entire comic book world would’ve gasped. In the Game of Thrones era, it barely warrants a raised eyebrow. It’s somewhat callous, throwing major characters into the fire for the sake of Cypher. And since it happens before he’s done anything to make himself really likable, it feels like the kind of shallow shock tactics that the original Age of Apocalypse did such a good job of avoiding.


That’s not to say it completely derails the story. It is eventually revealed why Cypher is so important. However, it’s revealed in a way that’s very vague and confusing. That’s to be expected for someone whose powers involve deciphering languages, something that’ll never look as good in a comic as adamantium claws. But even if the methods are confusing, the end result at least reveals what’s at stake in this domain of Battleworld and how it might annoy Doom.

The conflict here feels like something that could’ve worked just as well in the 90s. The humans of Apocalypse’s domain don’t really like being relegated to impoverished ghettos that make Detroit look like an upgrade. They’re willing to go to extremes to end this tyranny and Apocalypse is willing to go to just as many extremes to maintain it. For a story that came from an era that gave rise to extreme sports, it’s as fitting as it is poetic.

While the big picture in Age of Apocalypse #1 is pretty clear, the details are still lacking. We get some compelling insight through Cypher’s narrative, but not much else. He doesn’t really do much of anything to make himself lovable or relatable. And aside from characters like Sinister and Cyclops, nobody really distinguishes themselves in this story. It’s just the X-men trying to save what’s left of the apocalyptic wasteland that is Age of Apocalypse, minus the drama and personal struggles.

Age of Apocalypse #1 might not make everyone miss the 90s, but it will capture at least some of the spirit that this era had for X-men fans. This is a dark world right out of a Soundgarden music video where survival trumps heroics. It’s gritty, but not too grim. It has flare, but not in the style of MC Hammer. It still offers enough intrigue to make Cypher a relevant character and that in and of itself is an accomplishment.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

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