A.X.E.: Judgment Day – Seeking a Plan for the End of the World

Unexpectedly, I can’t stop thinking about Kieron Gillen (writer) and Valerio Schiti (artist)’s A.X.E.: Judgement Day.  It’s unexpected because, while I love Gillen as a writer and adore Schiti’s art, of the three teams involved, I only regularly read Avengers.  I often avoid team books (as they lead to lots of tie-ins) but I read Avengers because I’ll read anything Jason Aaron writes.  However, I didn’t expect this story to connect to his run (and it didn’t).  Then, while I feel Eternals is the most gorgeously shot Marvel movie yet, I’ve never read any Eternals comics – now or in my youth.  Lastly, I LOVED the X-Men as a kid but I’ve really struggled to find a story to pull me back into the mutant world since returning to reading comics in 2015.  I dropped X-Men: Gold (Vol. 2) by issue #6.  I dug X-Men: Red (Vol. 1) but the run ended before I knew it existed.  I’ve tried to read Jonathan Hickman’s House of X and Powers of X twice but lost interest a few issues in each time.  Maybe I can’t go home again with the X-Men :/.  So, I was intrigued by the idea but didn’t expect this story to really grab me.  OH MY GOSH WAS I WRONG.  I’ve read it twice (once as it came out monthly and then all at once) and can’t stop thinking about what I’d do if I knew the world was going to end tomorrow.  See??  How can a story with a hook like that not captivate me?!?

By way of the obligatory summary, the Eternals are an immortal race created by the Celestials, cosmic space gods, to protect the Earth from Deviants.  The X-Men and all other mutans – Homo superior, the next step in humanity’s evolution – have relocated to the island of Krakoa, where they have formed a utopian mutant nation.  Their utopia has resurrection pods, which they use to bring back any mutant who dies making them, in effect, immortal.  Druig, the current Prime Eternal, rules this ability as excess deviation.  Using their Uni-Mind to conduct psychic warfare as they drop an invasion force of Eternals outfitted with ancient war armor on Krakoa, they target the five mutants whose powers generate the resurrection pods.  After this initial assault Druig calls the Hex (“towering death machine” Eternals who rise from the oceans) to burn Krakoa to the ground and execute all living mutants.  Not all Eternals want to see the mutants destroyed though.  The Eternal Sersi warns the Avengers and, while they and the X-Men push back against the Hex’s assault; Tony Stark/Iron Man, the Eternals Ajak and Makkari, and the mutant Mr. Sinister, attempt to resurrect the dead Celestial – the Progenitor, whose death on Earth shortly after it was formed was the catalyst for all life on the planet – whose body the Avengers have turned into their North Pole base (for real), hoping the space god will call off its warriors.

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Working to resurrect a god. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Instead, once it’s awake, the Celestial decides to judge humanity.  It’s like The Day the Earth Stood Still but with superheroes.

Oh, as this series ran July – November 2022 it’s worth noting this piece won’t contain any serious spoilers.  Rather it’s a thought experiment, an invitation to introspection if you will.  I’m going to dialogue with three of the pieces of this narrative I find most captivating and explore the existential questions and/or dread they raise in me.  And if you’re feeling in the mood for a li’l existential angst, you’re welcome to dialogue with them, too ;D.

With its words echoing in the mind of every human on the planet, the newly reanimated Celestial says, “People of Earth, listen.  You are bickering children.  The planet is ruined.  You have acted with unrelenting unkindness to one another.  You leave me no option.  This is your Judgment Day.  You have 24 hours to justify yourselves.  You will be judged invididually.  You will be judged as a collective.  If there is more that is just than wicked, you will live.  But if you are found lacking, there will be no tomorrow.  See?  You are all important.  Every single one of you.”

So, Existential Contemplation #1 – How do I think we’d fair under such conditions?

For me, this is the easiest of the existential quandaries this comic left me with.  No matter what it looks like when we read and watch the news, no matter what it may feel like some (or most?) days, deep down in the core of my being I believe we are more kind than unkind, more welcoming than exclusionary, more accepting than judgmental.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do what I do.  I have a degree in religious studies and I have my teaching certificate in social studies.  I tell my students all the time the reason I choose to teach religious studies as opposed to history is I truly believe we have the ability to change, that we can give ourselves over to God and build the transformed world all our religious traditions point to in one manner or another.  Admittedly, some days – on my darker days – it doesn’t feel possible.  But, as Søren Kierkegaard framed it, faith is the belief in the possibility of the impossible.  And on those dark days I warm myself by the light of such faith.  So yes, I believe we’d be judged just enough to live.

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The Progenitor rises. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

if whatever was judging us was judging us with some sort of divine objectivity.  Where A.X.E.: Judgment Day twists the existential anxiety knife all the more is this reanimated Celestial is a god but it’s a god shaped by its creators.  So Tony Stark, Ajak, Makkari, and Mr. Sinister are the consciousness through which the newly resurrected Progenitor filters its omniscience.  Soooooooo how would we fair if the better (and worse) angles of our nature were the shadow scaffolding of such judgment?  Oof.  I dunno.  Thankfully after three and a half years in therapy this is no longer always the case, but for the majority of my life I had a far easier time forgiving and excusing others (even when maybe I shouldn’t’ve) than I had forgiving and excusing myself (even when maybe I should’ve).  If consciousness with active self-critical parts like I’ve had for much of my life brought that Celestial to life it may not look so good for us.

Existential Contemplation #2 – Who would appear to judge me?

In Amazing Spider-Man #10 (Vol. 6), the A.X.E. tie-in issue by Zeb Wells (writer) and Nick Dragotta (artist), Peter calls Tony to ask about what’s going on.  “Okay, so if someone who should be dead shows up and stares at me in a very judgmental way, I’m probably not crazy,” Peter asks.  Tony tells him, “We woke a Celestial, yes.  And it’s first order of business was putting all of humanity under judgment.  All of it.  The Progenitor is omnipresent.  Everywhere.  WatchingJudging.  Sometimes he appears as himself, sometimes a person from your past.  That’s all I’ve got.”

For Peter, naturally, the Progenitor arrives in the form of Gwen Stacy, his first true love who died during a battle between Spider-Man and Norman Osborn/the Green Goblin. 

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Peter on the phone with Tony as Gwen appears before him, thumb poised for judgment. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

For twenty-four hours she’s beside Peter every moment.  Like a creepy cosmic Santa Claus only he can see, she watches him while he tries to sleep and as he goes about his day.  Of course its Gwen who comes to judge Peter.  In the infamous Amazing Spider-Man #121, the Green Goblin throws Gwen from the top of a bridge.  Peter manages to grab her with his webline but the abrupt force of stopping her fall and the angle with which he caught her snaps Gwen’s neck.  And it will haunt Peter forever, an unresolved trauma as deeply wounding as Uncle Ben’s death.

As soon as I began to put myself into this story and speculate about it, I knew whose form the Progenitor would take to judge me.  I didn’t even turn inward to contemplate.  It was already there, coming to me unbidden.  Years ago, when I was in my mid-to-late twenties, I had a very close relationship with one of my very best friends and her son.  When he was an infant, I learned to change diapers and load a car seat with him.  Whenever she’d come home to visit, we’d all be together.  Moving as much as they did, as a toddler he was understandably nervous when he couldn’t see his mom, crying whenever she was out of sight.  I’ll never forget the first time he cried when he couldn’t see me and I realized there was a far larger relationship developing here with a far greater responsibility than I had known.  They moved back home for an extended period when he was 5-7 years-old.  She was a single-parent and when circumstances around her job led her to be out of town for stretches at a time, I was one of the people who watched her son.  I’d pick him up from school, take him to religious ed., take him to little league, help him with his homework, and I had a few informal conferences with his teachers at their request as well.  We watched the Star Wars Saga together (Episode I-VI, of course).  We built forts and “camped out” and he came to Friday night dinner at Grandma’s all the time, too, as did his mom when she was in town.  They are some of the happiest memories of my life.  I loved him so much.  I love him so much.  While I don’t have children of my own, I can’t imagine loving another human being more.  I can still feel his hugs or the way he’d nestle against me and fall asleep.

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Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

When his mom decided the time had come to move again, she didn’t tell him.  She had asked if he’d rather stay in PA or go back to where they lived before and he chose PA.  So she said they were going to visit their friends from before but she didn’t say they were leaving for good.  As a result, he never got to say goodbye.  I felt I had no right to upend my friend’s plan but it was deeply traumatic for me not to say goodbye to him.  I tried – I really tried – to keep in contact after they left.  I’d call her and text her but those calls and texts were rarely, if ever returned.  Finally, after a year of calling and texting at least once a month with no response, I gave up.  It hurt too much.  And I understand logically (and emotionally now too, thanks to therapy) that there was nothing I could’ve done.  I did all I could.  I had no control over the situation.  Still, for over a decade it haunted me.  I felt as though I gave up on him.  I became one more person who disappeared on him.  I should’ve been able to handle the pain of unreturned call after unreturned call for him and kept pressing until we got to talk.  I failed him.

I carried that guilt, that pain, that trauma for a very long time.  And while I know there was literally nothing I could’ve done, it still saddens me that I lost him.  He’s probably in college now and I’ve not seen him since he was nine-years-old.  While I no longer carry that guilt and sense of responsibility for losing contact, it still echoes.  If a Celestial was to appear before me to judge me and my worthiness, I’m sure it would do so in his form.

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My helper part latched on to Spider-Man at a very young age (when I was three-years-old!) because in him it saw a justification – this is what heroes do – for helping others to the unhealthy degree it wanted to. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Existential Contemplation #3 – How would I spend my final day on Earth?

Ultimately, the Progenitor tells itself, “I do not address the world.  I have spoken enough.  I have watched enough.  I have judged enough.  And I have decided.  You have all lived enough.  If you had a million years, you’d never do enough.  You’ll always be better tomorrow.  But you didn’t realize that one day, tomorrows would run out…and that day is today.”  Its cosmic thumb turns downward as the Avengers, X-Men, and Eternals scramble to do all they can to try and save the world and the human race.  Though, as exciting as that was, it wasn’t what pulled me into the deep reflection that served as the genesis for this post.  What affected me so was Tom in London, Katrina in Vancouver, Arjun and his wife Komali in Mumbai, Daniela in São Paulo, Jada in New York, and Kenta in Yokohama.  The story follows these six “regular” people, checking in with them each issue.  They will be judged, alongside our heroes, to determine the fate of the world.  And like our heroes, once the god reanimated in the image of Tony Stark, Mr. Sinister, Ajak, and Makkari makes its judgment, they will have to decide how to use their last day.

It is such a fascinating question – what would you do with your last day on Earth?  As Kalie pointed out when I was discussing this post with her, I doubt any of us can ever really know how we’d react if we knew the world would be ending tomorrow.  Still, the lack of certainty doesn’t make pondering it any less interesting.  Perhaps it even makes it more so. 

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Nightcrawler, a devout Catholic, speaks with Wolverine about how he plans to use their final hours on Earth. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Kalie also observed the “Live every day like it’s your last!” philosophy can be, and often is, very beneficial.  It gives us perspective and helps us appreciate what we have as we have no way of knowing how long we have left.  However, what A.X.E. presents is a very different scenario than trying to live everyday like it’s your last.  This isn’t valuing what we have while we have it as all things are impermanent.  This is the idea that a cosmic space god has told us all – definitively – that we will die tomorrow so it’s speculating about how we would use our final day when we know it is the world’s final day.

Returning to our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, Peter goes with his friend Randy Robertson to the fitting for his wedding tux.  Randy’s fiancé wasn’t really buying the whole end-of-the-world thing so Randy was happy to be optimistic with her and get the tux.  He visits Aunt May and tells her how much he loves her.  He goes to J. Jonah Jameson to forgive him for all the pain he’s caused Spider-Man over the years.  He tries unsuccessfully to find his clone-cum-brother, Ben Reilly to try and help him.  He swings to Miles to tell him how proud he is, “…to share this job with you.  This name.” 

With the Progenitor’s waves of destruction rolling over the Earth, Tom, Katrina, Komali, Daniela, Jada, and Kenta must make their choices, too.

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It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel…well, I’m not sure how I’d feel! That’s what this whole post is about. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Reading those panels, it’s Daniela and her mom which rang most true for me.  “Daniela’s mother says, ‘Why are people rioting?  They should be with their families.  They don’t need a new TV.  They need each other.’  Daniela holds her and never wants to let go.  As long as there’re still seconds in the world.”  Amen.

I love to read.  I love to write.  I love to watch movies.  I love Doctor Who.  But, granting I have no idea how I would actually handle facing the impending destruction of the world, I can’t imagine I’d spend any of my last day reading, writing, or watching anything, Doctor Who included.  There are five people I’d call, people I’d need to talk to if it was our last day but people I don’t think circumstances would allow me to get to.  But then I envision a day, much like our regular Friday night dinners.  I envision gathering at Mom and Dad’s with my brother David and his fiancé Irene, with Kalie, with Aunt Judy, with my cousin Melanie and her daughters, Jaelyn and Jordan.  These, save Grandma who passed away in the summer of 2020, are the people I’ve shared every Friday night with for the last twenty-six years.  These are the people I’d want to sit with, cry with, laugh with, play games with, and talk with in all those confusing and overwhelming emotions as the world winds down.  While I can’t imagine any reading, writing, or watching going on, maybe we’d all take turns playing our favorite albums one last time so there’d be music as we held tight to the love which has always bound us in the face of the ultimate unknown.

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Peter visits Aunt May on Judgment Day. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

Writing this has been an interesting experience.  A lot of feelings moved in and through me.  A lot of different parts were active and blending.  There was hope, thinking of how I’d judge our chances of being saved or condemned by a celestial being.  There was a bit of hesitation with a touch of anxiety going back to those memories of my long ago friend and her son.  And – while it may seem like this post ends with a somber note – there is really so much gratitude for the people I’d want to reach out to and be with if I was living the Earth’s final day.  After all, the world isn’t ending :).  So my thought experiment just led me to consider those I love enough that I’d need to talk to and be with them on the world’s last day!

I’m sorry, dear reader, if this post seems heavy.  That wasn’t my intention :).  This series led me to some surprisingly deep and contemplative places.  In those places, I found a chance to reflect on those who are most important to me and writing about it has proved as cathartic as thinking about it all.  And I feel so much gratitude as I hold them all in my heart right now.  All in all, that’s not a bad gift to get from A.X.E.: Judgment Day, a comic story where I went in only reading 1/3 of the teams it centers on!

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Steve and Jada talk, seeking a friend for the end of the world, and finding hope and inspiration even at the end. / Photo Credit – Marvel Comics

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