After more than three decades as a comic book fan, there’s little I enjoy more in my superhero stories than when everything in any given story is telling you that it’s going to go in Direction A, only for it to head in Direction B, and it somehow feels entirely right. When a superhero comic executes a feint particularly well, it feels almost like a magic trick to me; we’re all so very familiar with these kinds of stories, but we really didn’t see this twist coming? How did that even happen?
Marvel’s current event miniseries A.X.E.: Judgment Day has managed to pull that trick twice, and it’s only two thirds of the way through its run. Spoilers are going to follow, so continue at your own risk.
The first feint
The first of these two feints took place at the end of the story’s first act, in the second issue in the series — when it was gleefully revealed that the entire series promotion and high concept wasn’t actually what the story was about. Yes, there’s no denying that the idea of the X-Men fighting the Eternals over whether or not they count as Deviants and therefore have to be eradicated has a pleasing nod to the 'heroes meet and fight because of a simple misunderstanding' tradition of Marvel comics, and sure it’s fun when the Avengers get stuck in the middle of events, trying and failing to keep the peace — but that’s nowhere near as fun as the idea that, as the result of a misguided attempt to bring events to an end, parties from all three groups accidentally unleash a near-omnipotent being on Earth who wants to judge humanity with genocide if things don’t go well.
This plot twist is a swerve that achieves a handful of outcomes: it reminds the reader that they don’t actually know what’s going to happen in the story after all — a great benefit when it comes to events, which many readers approach with a cynical eye, certain they know what’s coming — while also repositioning the story in a direction that doesn’t closely parallel earlier events (Civil War, Civil War II, Inhumans vs. X-Men); perhaps more importantly, it makes the title make sense in a literal way, rather than the more traditional 'it’s a metaphor, the judgment is the fight that shows who’s better' sense that Judgment Day tends to be applied.
The second feint
By wrong footing the readers once — 'you thought I was doing X, I’m actually doing Y' — there’s also an added benefit of making everyone more susceptible to whatever other games the creators are trying to pull. For example, after ending #2 of A.X.E.: Judgment Day with pulling the rug out from under the readers’ feet, there’s a moment in #4 where it looks as if creators Kieron Gillen and Valero Schiti are about to do the same thing for a second time, and it’s a moment that only truly works because the reader is aware that this is the kind of story where that’s actually a possibility.
That they don’t end up doing so becomes a feint in itself, with a threat that had been quietly built up over the series to that point as a deadly threat actually dealt with remarkably quickly, and the notion that the series was about to be redefined for a second time itself upended, making the actual cliffhanger of the issue — essentially, 'the threat that was in place is actually worse than everyone thought' — even more of a surprise. It’s a double-feint, two for the price of one. It’s a sign that Gillen and Schiti aren’t just being playful with their storytelling, although they undoubtedly are, but they’re having fun with the audience as much as with the story itself.
When feints are cool... and when they're not
This isn’t an argument in favor of all reversals or attempts at conning the audience, I want to point out. I’m reminded of the 1991 DC series Armageddon 2001, where the big reveal of the mystery was leaked ahead of time, and DC made the decision to rewrite the entire ending in response — the reveal that Captain Atom was the big bad guy all along was dropped, and that responsibility was shifted onto the broad shoulder of Hawk (of, 'And Dove' fame), despite it being established earlier in the story that Hawk was one of the few characters who could never be the villain.
In one sense, changing the reveal serves the same narrative purpose as a planned feint — it fulfills the 'you thought it was X, but it’s Y' model — but it lacks the intentionality and, to be blunt, the common sense of having planned for something as opposed to making changes on the fly. A good feint, a well done one that plays fair with its audience, is ultimately an act of confidence on its creators part, and something that feels as if it’s inclusionary in an important way, rather than intentionally changing plans to ensure that people can’t join in the fun.
There’s something genuinely thrilling about being part of that experience, for me. In part, because it feels as if there’s a shift from being a passive reader to an active one — the trick requires an audience, the joke requires a patsy; if you don’t have the reader, then the whole thing’s for naught. A good feint in storytelling can only ever work with our participation, with our presence.
By falling prey to A.X.E.: Judgment Day’s feints twice in a row, I find myself appreciating the comic even more and wanting to keep going, to see what’s next. As much as I want to see how Captain America, Cyclops, and Sersi save humanity from certain doom, I’m even more excited to see whether or not Kieron Gillen and Valero Schiti are going to keep messing with my expectations.
Wondering what happens at the end of the fourth issue of A.X.E.: Judgment Day, as references above? Thankfully, here’s a breakdown to keep you up to date.