When it comes to magic, you can often apply your own set of rules that will only make sense to you and not to everyone else. This is not always the case, as works like Harry Potter and Earthsea lay enough groundwork for audiences to accept the fantasy world the author has conceived. Although magic is just as common as science-fiction in the Marvel universe, the X-Men has always felt more rooted in a variety of sci-fi tropes, which is very apparent with Jonathan Hickman headlining the Dawn of X relaunch, as he puts an emphasis on sci-fi world-building that feels new and refreshing towards mutantdom. And then, there’s Excalibur.
Originally conceived by Chris Claremont and Alan Davis in 1987 as a usually-UK-based offshoot of the X-Men, Excalibur deals with the intersection of magic and science in the new mutant world order of Krakoa. As the Otherworld is rocked by war while Morgan le Fay is determined to terminate the mutants to rule Camelot, Apocalypse (now a member of the X-Men nation) and the new Captain Britain (a mantle now carried by Betsy Braddock, formerly Psylocke) lead a team against le Fey’s army of witches.
Having read the first volumes of Hickman’s X-Men and Gerry Duggan’s Marauders, I was on board to see what other factions of Krakoa have to offer through the other X-titles. I’ve said this before in earlier reviews, but whatever X-book you’re jumping into as a newcomer, you will read references to previous continuity, whether it is the other Dawn of X titles or even earlier X-Men comics.
Through the lens of both Apocalypse and Captain Britain is where the positives come out of Excalibur. As one of the greatest villains in X-Men canon, it was surprising to see En Sabah Nur accepting Charles Xavier’s invite to enter Krakoa in House of X/Powers of X, which also gives us possible hints of Apocalypse continuing his villainy. Acting as an advisor to the new Excalibur team, as well as declaring to harness mutant magic, he still raises suspicion — including from the team itself, especially since his experimentation seemed to put one of the members into a mysterious floral coma.
Just like Hickman’s X-Men focuses on the Summers family, Excalibur is about the Braddocks, in particular Betsy and her twin brother Brian, who gets captured and cursed to become Morgan le Fey’s dark champion. Given her brother’s Amulet of Right, the source of his powers, Betsy inhabits the mantle of Captain Britain. As much as I miss the bad-ass Psylocke from the ’90s, Betsy is a compelling protagonist here with an arc, which is not just about saving a family member, but proving herself to be a worthy successor of the title that has been thrust upon her.
Even though the team includes Gambit, Rogue and Jubilee — delighting those who grew up watching X-Men: The Animated Series — the characters don’t get much development. There are some cool moments along the way, such as Jubilee’s baby son Shogo having a surprising mutant ability, they all get lost in the storytelling, which is over-packed with information.
Drawing all six issues is Marcus To, who gives the book a presentation that looks different from other X-titles as it depicts the exploration of mutant magic. Given the overloading content of the storytelling that juggles witches and monsters, let alone mutants, To draws some dazzling imagery, even if at times you feel like a panel or two is missing in several pages, lacking in emotional beats that punctuate in either action sequences or simple drama.
There is a good amount to like about Excalibur, but it delves rather too deeply into mutant magic, somewhat negating the dynamic of its eponymous team.