"Uncanny X-Men" #542 is the third chapter in a "Fear Itself" crossover, and credit where it's due: each new installment is better than the previous one. What initially looked like a throwaway story is turning out to have real chops, thanks to writer Kieron Gillen.
In many ways this is turning out to be "the ultimate Juggernaut story" (not to be confused with an "Ultimate Juggernaut" story, of course) as Gillen turbocharges an already unstoppable foe and then makes it nigh-impossible to defeat him. We end up with two threads running through the issue: Cyclops and the X-Men using every possible plan to stop Juggernaut, and then a side team of Colossus, Shadowcat, and Magik trying a dangerous emergency back-up plan simultaneously.
Long-time fans will appreciate the first thread; it feels in many ways like an ultimate, "How would you stop the Juggernaut?" brainstorming session played out for the reader. From the simplest of options (teleporting him as far away as possible) to the more esoteric (Siryn's scream super-charging Dazzler's lasers, or Gambit turning Rockslide into a living bomb), each new plan of attack is bigger and bolder than the one before. It's a lot of fun, it nips in the bud readers' "why didn't they...?" questions, but best of all it makes Cyclops a smart leader. The past few years have involved "Uncanny X-Men" telling us what a good leader Cyclops is, but with a few exceptions (the "Utopia" crossover being a notable one) we haven't always seen that. Gillen's showing rather than telling, making Cyclops' "anything and everything" level of planning and creativity impressive.
That said, it's the other storyline that grabbed my attention the most. Magik's plan is clever, and at the same time specifically devised for this sole situation. It's not one that would've worked any other time, and at the same time makes perfect sense. It also promises to change the status quo for one character big-time, and I'm now dying to see the fallout from the decisions made here. For a "Fear Itself" tie-in, Gillen is making this storyline truly count.
Greg Land and Jay Leisten provide the art this month, and it's exactly what you'd expect. The blatant modeling off of photo reference is still ever-present, but so are some of the smaller, better moments (like the visual for how Juggernaut stops Earthquake's chasm, or some of Magik's expressions once she's on the mission with Colossus and Shadowcat). It's Land's usual mixed bag, and while he can provide some serious drama, the weaknesses from the heavy photo references (the stiff poses are hard to ignore) keep Land from progressing and growing.
Gillen's hit his stride quite well in "Uncanny X-Men," and with the book about to end and get split in two, I'm glad that he's still in charge of one of them. This is a vastly entertaining story, and while I don't know what we'll get next, I'm eager to find out. It's a pleasant surprise how much fun this is.