Time Travel and Superheroes

Time travel is kind of a popular plot point in superhero fiction.  Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an understatement.

Time travel is a really popular plot point in superhero fiction.

After one too many irritating lava deaths in Minecraft (I feel that as someone who takes on the persona of a dwarf whenever I play that particular game, it is my responsibility to not only dig, but always dig too deep), I recently jumped back into reading X-Men comics in my spare time, and in the couple days I’ve been binging, I’ve read three separate stories by different writers that revolve around time travel.  When I write that down it seems excessive since the span of issues that I read were probably all published within the same twelve-month period.  Of course, then I think back to all the really famous X-Men plotlines (“Days of Future Past,” “Age of Apocalypse,” anything relating to Cable) that involve time travel, and I realize that there’s just a very strong superhero tradition of mucking around with the time-space continuum (at least with the X-Men).

And I can see why it’s such a popular plot device too.  Comics are a highly visual medium, and in the superhero genre part of the appeal of the format is that you get to show off a lot of rad looking pictures of your characters doing incredible things.  Introducing time travel to a story gives the artist more or less free reign to reimagine however they like existing characters as alternate versions of themselves.  In many ways it’s a visual feast because superhero fans love to see new character designs.

Besides the visual element, it’s also just a lot of fun to play what-if games with characters in ongoing series where the writers don’t have the editorial freedom to enforce change and growth in their characters (who must be handed off to other writers in the publisher’s stable relatively intact).  If you do an alternate future (or present, because sometimes changing stuff in the past happens too) then it’s cool to go weird places because nothing has to impact the core continuity when the story’s over if the editor doesn’t want it to.

So the three stories I recently read about time travel also happen to take three different approaches to the format, which is pretty nifty.  Two of them fall into a pretty standard “beware the future” structure while the third takes that whole thing and inverts it.  What I mean is that the typical “beware the future” plot revolves around the heroes’ exposure to a potential timeline where something goes horribly wrong (typically related to a recent bit of drama in whatever book where the story is being featured).  Fairly often a major villain has come to power, or someone on the team has been corrupted and taken over the world (superheroes are rather vulnerable to future corruption; the whole genre might fall apart if someone ever found a way to just make the alternate future evil versions of everyone jump back into the past at the same time).  In both “Fight the Future,” the final story arc from the third volume of New Mutants, and “Final Execution,” the final story arc from Uncanny X-Force Volume 1, the respective teams get confronted by future evil versions of themselves and have to make decisions about the way they are handling their missions that will impact whether or not they become what they’re fighting against.

In the New Mutants’ case, they’re trying to prevent a future Doug Ramsey (calling himself the TrueFriend) who has taken over all of humanity with a cybernetic virus that allows him to control everyone who’s infected from reaching into the past and eliminating all possible future timelines except his own.  There’s a good bit of pathos poured into present Doug, since much of that series deals with the ramifications of him being rather unceremoniously resurrected (as a villain) during a previous major crossover event for the X-books.

For X-Force, the future timeline involves the team’s decision to take over the world as a totalitarian police force that executes all known criminals and then resorts to executing potential criminals through the use of precognitive technology (you know, like Minority Report).  The problem here is the apparent escalation of X-Force’s stated mission (to kill the enemies of mutantkind) to the point of becoming fascists (the story brings up a recurring theme in superhero fiction of the dilemma between being reactionary heroes or pre-emptive enforcers).  The whole alternate future hinges on decisions that the team will have to make only hours after it returns from that timeline, and I think it works pretty well as a bit of drama, even if it’s really nothing terribly new (most of the stuff in superhero fiction isn’t anyway).

Those are both pretty typical examples of how the convention tends to work, and I honestly thought they were both perfectly serviceable stories that capped off some character threads that the authors (Daniel Abnett for New Mutants and Rick Remender for Uncanny X-Force) had been working on for most of their runs.  Pretty good stuff.

Now, the third example is still kind of blowing my mind, mostly because of the way it’s been framed.  In the first arc for All New X-Men, the book that replaced Uncanny X-Men Volume 2 (Volume 3 apparently started up in 2013, but I haven’t gotten to those issues yet), Beast is dying (he gets better) from something in his secondary mutation (the one that turned him into a lion man way back at the start of Grant Morrison’s run on New X-Men in 2001) going haywire, and he’s despairing over the thought of dying while the X-Men are in shambles with Cyclops a fugitive terrorist and Charles Xavier dead (because of Cyclops, naturally).  Beast is so desperate, in fact, that he decides to go back in time and persuade the teenage versions of the five original X-Men to come see how the world has turned out and, he hopes, persuade Cyclops to see just how off base he’s become.

Alright, so that’s a little convoluted and involves a lot of stuff that happened in the Avengers vs. X-Men event that happened about two years ago.  The important thing about this time travel story is that we’re following everything from the perspective of Beast in what we would think of as the present.  When he goes back and we see him juxtaposed with the young, clean cut (still absurdly white and affluent) original X-Men, it hits home that unlike every other time travel story involving a bad alternate future, we have the full context of how Beast got to where he is now.  There’s fifty years of history leading up to this point in continuity, and (if you’re obsessive like me) we can read it.  The X-Men’s present is a bad alternate future from the perspective of their past selves.

Oh, and that plot arc ends with all the teen originals deciding to stay in the present until they fix things (whatever that means), which is just fun and nifty because it means that the continuity that’s been the primary one for Marvel since the ’60s has just been turned into an alternate future.  Also, it’s probably the most elegant way to bring Jean Grey back into regular continuity that I could imagine, since it has absolutely nothing to do with the Phoenix, and it creates a nice tension between the immense history of the character (both in-universe and out) and this new iteration who hasn’t experienced any of that stuff.

I think that’s a pretty cool twist on time travel.

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