As the fourth chapter of "Black Vortex," "All-New X-Men" #38 has one primary duty to the event: to keep the momentum going. In this regard, it's a success. The issue is swift-paced, with sweeping fight scenes from Andrea Sorrentino and an efficient script from Brian Michael Bendis, but it can't overcome the trivial premise of "Black Vortex." The story isn't set up for success: the mechanics and stakes of its MacGuffin are too vague for the event to feel cosmically important, and the cast is too large to accommodate longer, emotionally satisfying character arcs. Weighed down by all this, "All-New X-Men" #38 is satisfying but not memorable.
With a strong eye for the cosmic and epic, the artistic team of Andrea Sorrentino and Marcelo Maiolo is generally a huge asset to the book. They even make the carrying of the Black Vortex, sometimes comically toy-like in previous issues, feel plausible. In particular, the two-page arrival of Ronan the Accuser is a vigorous, atmospheric achievement. Sorrentino's figures are full of force, both when Ronan raises the Universal Weapon and when he brings it down. These two larger-than-life moments are overlaid with three long, narrow panels that zero in on precise details, spaced over the pages like an Italian triptych. The sequence tells a clear story in an unconventional way with powerful visuals -- that's basically the Platonic ideal of sequential art. Maiolo matches the power of Sorrentino's figure work with supernova skyscapes, blinding halos and some pretty gorgeous space porn.
However, there's a more experimental element of the artwork that doesn't always land. Sorrentino and Maiolo create call-out panels around particular details, and both the coloring and selection of these boxes can be confusing. It isn't always clear why certain elements are highlighted over others, and the modified color scheme doesn't seem related to anything in the content. Sometimes, the boxes call attention to the most pertinent details; at other times, they're intentionally insignificant. When it works, it creates a cool effect, but when it doesn't, it really doesn't.
Bendis, to his credit, seems to recognize the problem of "Black Vortex" and does his best to establish a sense of stakes. Angel and Beast's creepy, condescending dialogue certainly sounds foreboding. Lines like "change terrifies the weak" and "Do it... change these primitive creatures into something more advanced" speak to the dangerous arrogance and colonial contempt for others brought on by the Vortex.
Aside from these three, though, none of the characters get any real emotional beats. It's all crisis management and, though Bendis handles his huge cast well enough, there isn't anything particularly satisfying here -- until the ending. I'm at least excited to see Cyclops and Corsair join the group. Corsair's gesture in the background is a great detail.
"All-New X-Men" #38 does what needs doing, and that's as much as I can ask from a middle issue in an event with a massive cast. It includes enough surprises and tension to keep the reader interested, even if it can't overcome the limitations of "Black Vortex."