Even in a mythos as vast and diverse as the X-men, there's still a place for a definitive A-team of sorts. The makeup and purpose of that team may change over time, but its presence still carries a special impact. Whatever happens to them or whatever path they chart tends to affect the X-men mythos as a whole. Like a major summer blockbuster or the premier of a new Vince Gilligan show, it's an event that sets the bar for others to achieve.
Astonishing X-men has an established history of being that A-team. Under Joss Whedon and John Cassaday, it acts as the gold standard by which all other X-men comics were measured. In other eras, Chris Clarmeont's work on Uncanny X-men or or Scott Lobdell's work on X-men carry the same weight. Creating a series with such an impact is difficult to achieve, but the ingredients are fairly simple. It needs only a cast of top-tier, well-known characters. If they've been played by major actors in an X-men movie or get fans talking about more than who can lift Thor's hammer, they're a candidate.
After the latest round of relaunches that spun out of Marvel's ResurrXion effort, the X-men comics still lack that definitive A-list book. X-men Blue and X-men Gold contain major characters and prominent stories for the greater X-men narrative. However, they still lack a lead blocker of sorts to pave the way for the future of X-men.
Now, Charles Soule and Jim Chung, two of Marvel's most prominent talents, attempt to create that book with Astonishing X-men #1. They have all the ingredients, namely a strong cast full of familiar and prominent faces. They even have major stakes already in play with Marvel Legacy just on the horizon. It's not unreasonable to say that Astonishing X-men is the most critical X-men comic to come along since Secret Wars. The stakes are high and the margin for error is low, but Astonishing X-men #1 really rises to the occasion.
The story hits the ground running like a summer blockbuster movie, complete with a monster attack, random explosions, and snarky remarks from beautiful women. Short of including transforming robots, it's hard to imagine a series beginning with more style. That's not to say it's lacking of substance though. Soule and Chung don't rely too much on spectacle. The structure of the story is built on establishing the stakes and that's where Astonishing X-men #1 shines brightest.
The story doesn't try too hard to build off the events of another book. It does mention some recent events in the X-men comics, but it doesn't try too hard to act as a connecting point. If anything, it avoids the kinds of complicated tie-ins that tend to make some books too confusing. It's presented as a story that anyone can pick up, not be too lost, and be entertained. It's a simple formula, but one that proves potent.
Even those who haven't kept up with X-men comics in recent years won't be too confused. So long as they know that attacks by Shadowking are bad and giant psychic monsters in the middle of London are dangerous, they'll be able to follow the story. So long as they also like fast-paced action, high stakes, and Chung's colorful art, they'll enjoy that story as well.
On the surface, the plot isn't very groundbreaking. Shadowking, a well-known X-men enemy who has been while the mutant race overcame their latest extinction plot, is back in action and attacking psychics. With Charles Xavier dead, he doesn't go for the biggest, most powerful mind first. Instead, he attacks psychics who are isolated and ill-prepared, using them as preseason games, of sorts, to get himself ready for prime time. Then, he gets a little bolder and attacks Psylocke. The spectacle only escalates from there.
It's the kind of plot that can easily fall flat. With Chung's artwork, the visual appeal alone is usually enough to give it value. Soule, however, never lets the story become too devoid of substance. From the first few pages, he uses every opportunity to provide context and depth. He does this primarily through a mystery narrator who provides insight early on, helping to establish the setting and identify the characters involved. The identity of that narrator isn't revealed until the end, but he still serves an important purpose that helps make Astonishing X-men #1 feel like more than just a generic summer blockbuster.
Despite all the action, explosions, and snooty remarks made by Fantomex and Gambit, there's a sense that there's a larger vision for the story and the series. It's not just throwing together all these A-list X-men characters and expecting it to sell itself. That's a tempting trap that many X-men comics have fallen into over the years. Soule makes a clear effort to avoid that by setting up a larger conflict for the characters to take on.
That's not to say those efforts are entirely seamless. There's not a lot of rhyme or reason as to how and why these particular X-men characters are where they are when explosions start going off. There are some small connections between characters here and there. However, the story never tries to overthink certain details. It provides just enough to make the more explosive, action-oriented elements more meaningful than a typical Sentinel attack on a Tuesday afternoon.
Soule and Chung have an rich batch of ingredients to work with in Astonishing X-men #1. They have plenty of chances to overuse one at the cost of the other, but they don't. They still manage to take each element, mold it into a story, and let it cook until it has the look, taste, and feel of an A-list blockbuster. The final result couldn't be more potent without casting Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart.
Even in an age where superhero blockbusters capture a huge chunk of the pop culture market, there's still a place for Astonishing X-men. The story is still unfolding, but if the final page is any indication, there's plenty of potential for astonishment.
Final Score: 9 out of 10