TV Show ReviewsJosh Reviews X-Men ’97

Josh Reviews X-Men ’97

Wow! I wasn’t even sure if I was going to watch X-Men ’97, and what we got was a delightful, riveting, fiercely entertaining season that just might be the best non-comic-book version of the X-Men I’ve ever seen!

I watched and enjoyed the first several seasons of the animated X-Men show back in the nineties.  (The show aired on Fox Kids between 1992 and 1997.)  I don’t think I watched the whole run of the show; I definitely saw the multi-part adaptation of the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix sagas in the show’s third season, but looking at the episode descriptions online from seasons four and five, most of them don’t feel familiar to me.  I remember enjoying what I saw of the X-Men show.  It was fun; I appreciated the way the show was heavily grounded in the original comic book series, adapting many of the comics’ most famous storylines and character arcs.  The show mixed and matched stories and characters from across the different eras of the X-Men comics; that might have been frustrating, but I liked the way the show felt like it captured the “greatest hits” of the comics.  At the same time, even while I enjoyed the show, my young self realized it wasn’t at the same quality level of Batman: The Animated Series (which also began in ’92).  I recognized that the animation wasn’t all I’d hoped it would be, and that the storytelling could be a little flat and overly-simplified.  The show was also based primarily on the X-Men characters of the nineties, when it was being made, and that wasn’t my favorite era.  (Even as a kid, my heart was in the X-Men of the eighties.)

While my heart still yearns for Bruce Timm and the others behind Batman: The Animated Series to return to that series and tell more great stories in that world, I’ve never found myself desiring to return to the world of the nineties X-Men show.  (Similarly, while to this day I enjoy rewatching episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, I’d never rewatched a single episode of the X-Men show until last year, when this revamp was announced and I rewatched the first season on Disney+.  It was fun to revisit, but I petered out on my rewatch a few episodes into the second season.)

I was surprised and intrigued when it was announced that X-Men ’97 was in the works, an animated continuation of the nineties X-Men show.  I truly wasn’t sure I would watch it.  But I decided to give it a go, and I am so glad I did.

X-Men ’97 is spectacular.  It was way, way better than I’d ever expected.

The series does a great job at balancing nostalgia with a modern approach.  The character designs and animation beautifully capture the look and feel of the nineties show, but the quality of both is far higher than what we got in the original show.  They’ve skillfully utilized modern digital animation techniques so that the show looks great, with smooth animation and an appropriately epic scale, but in a way that still feels very much in the world of the style of the original show.  It feels like what the nineties show wanted to be; what it might have been had it had the time and money.  They’ve managed to capture what fans probably remember the show as being, rather than what it actually was.  This is exactly the right approach, and they’ve achieved that beautifully.

More importantly, they’ve crafted stories that are emotionally rich.  I was actually moved at several moments this season — particularly in the final minutes of the show-stopping fifth episode (about which I’ll have more to say in a moment).  I never expected to be emotionally affected by this X-Men cartoon!!  This is incredible.

The writing on this show was worlds better than I’d ever expected it to be.  Look, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t Shakespeare.  This is still a goofy X-Men cartoon with people in colorful costumes battling it out.  But I loved how much thought and attention they gave to all the characters.  Every single X-Men character has a strong, interesting, well-thought-out character arc that plays out over the course of the season.  Even some of the villains as well!  This is far more nuanced, sophisticated storytelling than I’d expected.  X-Men at its best has always been a soap opera, with the characters’ personal and emotional stories being as interesting, if not more so, than the super-villain fights.  This show gets that!!  I enjoyed the way each episode stood on its own, while at the same time each episode led into the next, and the character and emotional storylines played out over the course of the entire season.  Many streaming shows could learn from this approach.

As was the case in the original show, I was impressed by how heavily based in the comic-book lore this season was.  They dipped deeply into so many great storylines from the comics to adapt for the show.  As opposed to the way many of the movies have operated, in which the writers seem to have fancied themselves smarter than the comic books and tried to create all-new stories and situations, the makers of this show clearly recognized the gold-mine they were sitting on, of decades of great stories from the comics, and they took strong use of them.  At the same time, these weren’t direct adaptations — they took those classic storylines and shaped them to fit the show.  Again, many shows and movies adapting comic-book series and characters could learn from this approach.

Could this show work for a newbie who hasn’t watched the original X-Men animated series?  I think it would, though there’s no question that you’ll understand and appreciate the stories more if you’ve either watched the original show and/or have a solid familiarity with the X-Men comics.  My memory of the original X-Men show is wobbly, but I know the comics well and love them, so I really enjoyed this season on that level, as I recognized from where they were drawing all their references.  A newbie might be confused by some of that.  (The second episode whirlwind tour through the Madelyne Pryor and Inferno storylines might be particularly confusing.  More on that later.)  But I think the characters are so strongly drawn (no pun intended) that I suspect this show could work for fans with any level of knowledge of X-Men back-story, or lack thereof.

Let’s dig deeper!

I’d mentioned above that my heart is most taken by the X-Men stories and characters from the eighties, when Chris Claremont was in the middle of his epic run writing the book.  And so I was surprised and impressed by how many of the stories in this 2024 TV show were taken from those years!  The trailers had teased that the show would adapt “The Trial of Magneto”, and its aftermath, which had me so excited.  In that multi-year storyline, the villain Magneto found himself in charge of Xavier’s school and students, and he attempted to give up his violent path and adhere to Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants.  I’d always hoped that the Fox X-Men movies might eventually get to that story — I’d have loved to have seen Ian McKellan play those moments — and so I was beyond delighted to see this show take that on right at the start of this season!  I was also bowled over when the final moments of the season premiere introduced Madelyne Pryor, another classic and beloved (by me at least!) character & storyline!  That was a big surprise to me — I never thought the show would tackle that weird, thick-with-continuity story.  That made me very happy!

And then, a few episode later, they de-powered Storm and adapted “LifeDeath”??  Oh wow!!!  “LifeDeath” — the story in Uncanny X-Men #186, written by Chris Claremont and gorgeously illustrated by Barry Windsor-Smith — might just be my favorite single issue of X-Men of all time.  The issue is a beautiful, poignant meditation on grief, in which Storm is driven into deep depression following the loss of her powers.  It’s also a riveting character study of both Storm and Forge, as they dance around one another throughout the issue, achieving emotional intimacy before being shattered apart.  It’s a magnificent story, and I was thrilled to see it adapted here.

Once I saw the Madelyne twist at the end of the first episode, I was hooked into the show.  The closing moments of the second episode sealed the deal.  That episode ended with a wonderfully poignant montage, in which it was clear that this show wasn’t going to resolve every storyline at the end of each episode and give every character a happy ending.  I suddenly got very excited for what this show might be.

But I still never expected the enormous punch that episode five had.  It’s been described on the internet as “The Red Wedding” for this show, and that is an accurate assessment.  I wouldn’t dream of spoiling it here.  I’ll just say that it was riveting and shocking, and they took a specific X-Men character who I’ve never much liked and made me care about that character more than I ever thought I would.  What an achievement.

X-Men ’97 was overseen by Beau DeMayo.  Mr. DeMayo was fired by Disney very soon before the show was released.  It’s unclear what happened, but it must have been pretty serious for Disney to mess around with the promotional release of this new series by publicly firing the creator and show-runner right before the show came out.  Despite that, I have to applaud Mr. DeMayo for his vision in crafting this series.  It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.

If the show has a flaw, it’s that they tried to do too much, and there are several storylines that I think were far too compacted.  I’m thinking specifically of the Madelyne Pryor/Inferno storyline.  That unfolded over years in the comics, but it was basically all squeezed into the second episode.  I think that was a mistake.  And while the Magneto storyline unfolded over the course of the entire season, I still felt like some of the beats were rushed.  When Magneto finally turned back to evil in the comics, it was an incredibly sad moment because his storyline had played out over years.  (I still remember the panel in Uncanny X-Men #273, illustrated by Jim Lee, in which we see Magneto closing his fist — and murdering someone off-panel.  Chris Claremont’s writing had beautifully set up the situation — we understood where Magneto was coming from, that person had it coming — but still it was a tragic fall from grace for the character.)  I wish they’d given more time to this story, or found a way to spend a little more time with Magneto struggling to be good in the episodes in the middle of the season.  (He was entirely absent for several stories — the Jubilee/Mojo story, the “LifeDeath” story, and the check-in with Xavier and Lilandra in space — and when we arrived at the end of the season I retroactively regretted that choice.)  (It’s funny, this particular complaint reminds me of season three of Star Trek: Picard That was another show that was way, way better than I’d ever expected it to be, and where really my only main complaint was they tried to do too much and squeeze too many beloved characters and storylines in, without giving them all as much time and focus as I think they deserved.)

Other thoughts on the season:  (Please beware some minor SPOILERS below, though I won’t ruin any of the really big surprises.)

  • I didn’t love the use of Mr. Sinister in the show.  He’s a classic eighties villain and I have a warm spot in my heart for him, but I never quite understood his goals here on the show, or why he’d agreed to work with Bastion.
  • On the other hand, Bastion — a character I never much liked in the comics — was terrific.  I loved his voice (performed by Theo James), which felt very modern and normal, clearly a very purposeful way of distinguishing himself from the more theatrical X-Men villains from the original show.  That was clever.
  • I love how many of the original voice actors they were able to bring back.  Bravo to Marvel for making that effort and recognizing how important those original voices were.  It was also cool that when they didn’t reuse the original voice actor, they still brought back those performers to play other roles.  (So, for instance, original Jean Grey actress Catherine Disher now played Val Cooper, and original Jubilee actress Alyson Court played an older version of Jubes in the Mojoverse episode.)
  • I was thrilled they used the classic, iconic X-Men theme music, and that they so beautifully recreated the original opening credits.  Even better was how they slightly altered the opening credits from episode to episode!  It was cool to see Magneto swapped for Professor Xavier; to see Jean Grey’s hairstyle change when she was Madelyne Pryor; to see Nightcrawler added to the credits (to replace a character whose death I shall not spoil), etc.  I love when shows give a reason to always watch the opening credits each week!
  • Episode 4 (“Motendo”/”Lifedeath — Part 1”) was the season’s sole major misstep.  I’m all for a Jubilee solo story, and I have a soft spot for Mojo, but that storyline wound up feeling way too disconnected from the rest of the season.  It felt meaningless and like a waste of time.  It would have been far stronger had they found a way to involve the other X-Men characters in the adventure, while still letting Jubes take the lead.  I also felt that the weird way the show split up the “LifeDeath” story didn’t work for me.  I wish either they’d just devoted one full episode to tell the story in full, or split it up so Storm and Forge’s story could have been a subplot running through several episodes.  Having it just be half the story of two episodes (four and six) felt awkward to me.
  • Cyclops, in the wrong hands, can be boring or a stiff.  (James Marsden was perfect casting for him in the Fox X-Men movies, but it often felt like the movies didn’t know what to do with him, and I hated how he was written off in X-Men: The Last Stand.)  By contrast, I loved the way the show gave Scott a ton of cool moments, right from the beginning.  He kicked ass in episode one — that sequence of him falling out of the Blackbird and then landing triumphantly was epic — and I loved hearing him say Xavier’s usual line: “To me, my X-Men.”
  • Magneto was wonderfully used this season, as I’ve already noted above, and my heart sung to see him in his purple outfit from the eighties.  Amazing.
  • I recall that the original show used Bishop and Cable in a variety of ways that didn’t always jive with the original comics — for instance, involving them in “Days of Future Past” — but their stories are so complicated and it’s been so long since I saw the original show that I’ve lost track of their backstories.  This season brought back both characters but wisely didn’t get too bogged down in past continuity.  This season clearly established Cable as Nathan Summers, which might contradict the original show (which I think was being made before Cable’s identity was fully revealed in the comics), but I don’t mind, I liked seeing the Cable/Nathan stuff this season.
  • I’ve praised how much I loved all the storylines from the eighties the show borrowed, but I also got very excited when it became clear they were borrowing heavily from Grant Morrison’s “E for Extinction” story from the early aughts.
  • The season really built to an exciting climax in the season-ending three-parter “Tolerance is Extinction.”  I really had a hard time waiting between episodes.
  • I’m not sure I understand how the Phoenix was used in the finale.
  • I also got excited when it became clear the show was building to the “Fatal Attractions” storyline from the nineties.  In the comics it was Colossus who betrays the X-Men.  They made a strong choice with the character they picked to use instead.  I loved that.  My only complaint — getting back to my feelings that some of these stories were too compressed — was the way all seemed to be forgiven by the end of the finale.  I wanted to see that play out longer and/or have more ramifications for that character’s choice.
  • Considering that Wolverine is generally considered the most popular X-Men character, I was surprised he didn’t have much to do this season!  He had some cool moments (his fight alongside Nightcrawler in episode eight was terrific — and wow, as someone who has always loved Nightcrawler, I was thrilled to see the swashbuckling elf fighting with a sword in each hand and one in his tail) but not much else.  They did include a major Wolverine moment in the finale… but weirdly we don’t see what happens to Logan after.
  • I liked that they took Morph — a character created for the original animated show — and included him in this new season.  I liked that his default design was the white face, as opposed to the more human-looking face he had in the original show.  I also love how this non-binary character seemed to clearly be in love with Wolverine!  That was so fun!
  • I liked seeing the team split into blue and gold squads in the finale, a nice nod to the comics from the nineties.
  • I liked that, like the original show, this series was clearly set in the Marvel Universe and filled with cameos to other Marvel heroes.  Also cool: this wasn’t the current MCU versions of these characters — this show is clearly not set on the “sacred timeline” — but rather the animated versions of the characters!  (I didn’t catch it, but fans online were happy to see Peter and Mary Jane from the nineties Spider-Man animated show, which I never watched.  Apparently that show ended on a cliffhanger which X-Men ’97 helped resolve by showing Peter and MJ reunited.  Cool.)
  • I was thrilled by the appearance of Rachel Summers/Askani in the finale!!  I love Rachel Summers.  And she was voiced by Gates McFadden (who played Dr. Beverly Crusher)??  Fantastic.  I hope she gets a lot to do in season two.  (I was shocked — shocked — that this scene teased an adaptation of The Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix, the very weird comic book series from the nineties in which Cyclops and Jean Grey travel into the future and raise their son Nathan, who becomes Cable.  That is a super-obscure comic book and I never ever expected it to be adapted or even referenced here.)

I’m delighted by how much I enjoyed X-Men ’97.  It’s been so fun to see the vast, rich, deep, crazy world of the X-Men comics brought to animated life in such a fun and well-made way.  I can’t wait for the second season.

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