ALL-NEW X-MEN VOL. 4: "ALL-DIFFERENT"
This collection is half character work, half time-wasting diversions. While I enjoy some of the new dynamics created by having young Scott and young Jean closer to adult Scott, Emma and Emma's teenage clones, you can only focus on this so much issue-by-issue before it feels like the series is spinning its wheels. Some action is interspersed tied to William Stryker, but it never feels like real peril and it struggles to hold on to my interest.
Bendis, to his credit, makes up for a bit of this with an intriguing addition to the roster: X-23. In a brilliant move, the team member Bendis has her latch on to is Scott. Remember: X-23 is the teenage, female clone of Logan. This makes for an awkward cover page of one issue, though what it depicts never actually happens in the story itself.
Really, the main series is outclassed by the bonus 50th anniversary issue included here: "X-Men: Gold." It brings back five classic X-Men writers examining the eras when they were on board, headlined by an early 80's-era flashback written by Chris Claremont. It is a joy seeing him re-assume his characters from that era, as his story about a battle with Sentinels feels like going back in time. It's a similar feeling to what I had when I read the "Vignettes" collections. Stan Lee, Len Wein, Louise Simonson and Fabian Nicieza chime in too, with Wein winning the title of "second best." His story goes back to a scene in "Giant Size X-Men" number one (which he wrote,) in which we get a peak at Wolverine's inner monologue when he first meets the team as he plots - in a pinch - how he would kill everyone in the room. It's a bonus issue so good for X-fans that it's worth buying the entire collection for.
UNCANNY X-MEN VOL. 3: "THE GOOD, THE BAD, THE INHUMAN"
Meanwhile, Cyclops' team is starting to be badass again, with surprising contributions from their new young charges. Proximity shapeshifter Benjamin Deeds is the centre of a great single issue with some cool espionage, and eyebrow-raisingly takes the name "Morph." It's only then that I notice he has a certain resemblance to Morph from the 90's X-Men cartoon. I know there have been other versions of Morph, including in Age of Apocalypse (this Morph was an alternate version of short-lived villain Changeling,) but here with Bendis it feels like we're finally seeing the original character for that adaptation finally appearing in the main line. If this is what they finally choose to do with Morph, it's a good choice.
Magneto heads off on a solo mission that is a precursor to his actual solo series. This is as good as Cullen Bunn's work, with a sadistic Erik/Max/Magnus intimidating the opposition by letting them choose which of their weapons he's about to use against them. Then he takes on a bunch of his old brotherhood charges single-handedly. It's almost Daredevilesque, and Bendis sure knows how to write that style.
As the plot involving SHIELD thickens, this all should be a sure sign that Bendis is heading in the right direction.
THE TRIAL OF JEAN GREY
And then it all goes to hell.
This is a crossover between the All-New X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy. Given the X-Men's space-hopping past (though it's the first trip for the young teens,) this is a great idea on paper. The problem is the basis of the plot is monumentally stupid.
The Shi'ar discover that Jean Grey is once again living on Earth, and abduct her to answer for the crimes committed by Dark Phoenix. This makes absolutely no sense for several reasons. First of all, Dark Phoenix was not Jean Grey. Sure, it took on her look and personality, and as controversial a retcon as it was, it's still what happened. Also, the question has to be asked: Why didn't the Imperial Guard abduct the adult Jean Grey who had come back to life years before?
This dumb premise completely undermines what should have been a fairly good crossover with outstanding art by Stuart Immonen and Sara Pichelli. Issue after issue the prevalent thought in my head is: Why is this even happening? The end result is Jean gets a new power, Scott takes off to spend some time with his space pirate father (which is a pretty cool development, actually) and an inter-team romance begins that I have a hard time buying. And, no, it doesn't involve the raccoon or tree.
ALL-NEW X-MEN VOL. 5: "ONE DOWN"
But then a funny thing happens: Bendis puts out his best X-Men collection yet.
It begins with Beast at the Jean Grey School as Hank is visited by a mysterious figure who verbally eviscerates him and calls him out on all the crap he had recently pulled by showing a series of alternate realities drawn by different artists. They range from dark to hilarious to both. The end result forces Hank to confront that he may be as guilty as Scott - if not moreso - when it comes to committing acts of questionable morality. Who the figure ends up being is eyebrow-raising, and what he has to say is harsh.
Back at the Weapon X homestead, things are starting to get a little weird for the now young Scott-less All-New X-Men. This is especially true of Jean who does an about-face on her thoughts about adult Cyclops, creating quite the uncomfortable situation. Meanwhile, X-23 starts a fling with Angel continuing the irony of her attraction to teenage versions of X-Men Logan despised at some point. Maybe there's a young clone of Sabretooth hanging around somewhere.
This creates the perfect time for the future Brotherhood of "Battle of the Atom" to return and assault the base. We learn more about Charles Xavier Jr. and Raze before they lead a brutal attack. I'm a sucker for any superhero story that does an effective job at making it look like the good guys are screwed. For the first time since he came on board, Bendis pulls it off as the action has meaning and his group of players gels.
Despite his cyclical storytelling, "One Down" leaves me genuinely excited to see where Bendis heads next. He can spin his wheels on the time-traveling plot as long as he wants for all I care, because his X-teams are quickly turning awesome.
I mean, he can't pull another "Trial of Jean Grey," right?
I sure hope not.