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Sunday, October 4, 2015

Review: Pryde of the X-Men

People who follow me on Tumblr know I've been on a bit of an X-Men blitz recently. The upcoming release of X-Men Apocalypse (possibly the last in the franchise, along with the final Wolverine spin-off) has reawakened my love for these characters and their unique place in the superhero genre.
But I'll get to the films in due course. For the moment I want to head back to the small screen and my childhood to revisit the incarnation of the X-Men that I grew up with. X-Men: The Animated Series ran from 1992 to 1997 and is generally considered a valiant and influential (though since dated) attempt at capturing the spirit of the characters and the most famous story-arcs of the comic books.
A trip down memory lane was in order, but why stop there? From 2000–2003 another animated series called X-Men Evolution was aired to coincide with the successful release of the first feature film, and though this one belonged more to my little sister's generation (they were "her" X-Men in the same way the nineties cartoon was "mine") I remembered it fondly.
Then I found out that a third animated series called Wolverine and the X-Men was released sometime around 2009, one I had never seen (or at least never recalled seeing) and which was cancelled after only one season. And of course, there's ten Hollywood films and counting – the original trilogy, the prequel trilogy, the spin-off trilogy, and the cross-over.
The path seemed clear. I had to watch all of it. So I did.
And yet I'm not going to start this retrospective with any of the above projects. Instead I'm heading back to the very first appearance of the X-Men on screen. (Well almost – apparently a few had guest-roles in The Fantastic Four and Spiderman cartoons, but I have to draw the line somewhere). An animated television pilot called Pryde of the X-Men was originally broadcast in 1989 but never picked up for a full season.
That its title is a bad pun on the main character's last name pretty much sums up why.
X-Men: Eighties style.

Watching cartoons from the eighties/early nineties is the equivalent of a small hyperactive child leaping about in front of you and yelling incoherently at the top of their lungs. I'll forever side-eye any of my peers that lament the loss of the old cartoons, for although there's plenty of nostalgia to be had in revisiting some of the classics, the truth is that most of what we watched was virtually incomprehensible. In any given cartoon the voice acting was over-the-top, there were plot-holes big enough to drive a forklift through, and often the pacing and volume made it difficult to understand just what the heck was going on.
Such is the case with Pryde of the X-Men.
It's starts weirdly enough, with a PSA from Spiderman encouraging me to register to vote.
"For registration forms, visit your local participating video store."
Then a voiceover from Stan Lee helpfully spells out the premise of the show as we're shown Magneto being held captive in a military convoy seconds before he's busted out by White Queen who has the voice of an old lady despite wearing her trademark white lingerie. This is an amazing start.
We then cut to Xavier's mansion, where Kitty Pryde pulls up in the back of a taxi cab. According to the letter in her hand, the Professor found her with the help of Cerebro, contacted her without her parents knowing, and invited her to come to the mansion to discuss her mutant abilities. Presumably she doesn't find any of this the least bit shady.
It's there she meets the rest of the team, and it's – well, a rather unexpected line-up. The inclusion of Cyclops and Storm is no surprise, and neither is Wolverine (notwithstanding his inexplicable Australian accent). 
Somewhat more unusual is the presence of Colossus and Nightcrawler – sure, they're fairly iconic X-Men characters, but to be chosen over Jean Grey or Beast? Angel or Iceman? Gambit or Rogue? That's a bit odd.
But rounding out the team is everyone's favourite: the Dazzler!
Yeah, I had no idea who the hell this was. I don't pretend to be an expert on X-Men, so it took me a quick trip to Wikipedia to ascertain that this character did have comic book precedence. That said, it probably would have made more sense if Dazzler was created especially for the show, since the writers clearly don't know what to do with her and she achieves precisely nothing over the course of the episode.  
As for Magneto's team (which I don't think is ever explicitly called the Brotherhood, just "mutant terrorists" even by themselves) we've got Juggernaut, Toad, Blob, Pryo, and White Queen. Oh, and a baby dragon.
Again, Wikipedia informs me that this has precedence.
I've already mentioned White Queen's old lady voice, but Toad sounds like the quintessential Igor, complete with obsequious manner and distinctive raspy voice. At least Pyro has his Australian accent intact.
They're sent to a space-station to steal something or other, which has the added benefit of providing a distraction so Magneto and Juggernaut can attack the Institute.
Magneto's nefarious plan is to steal Cerebro's power circuit (which looks like the Holy Hand Grenade from Monty Python) so he can change the course of an orbiting comet and make it crash down to Earth. Apparently the resulting dust and debris will block out the sun and plunge Earth into a second Ice Age, effectively killing the world's population and leaving the planet ripe for a mutant takeover.
Yeah, I don't think Magneto thought this one through.
In a stroke of genius Xavier gives the all-important MacGuffin to fourteen year old Kitty so she can protect it. Unfortunately she forgets all about her ability to phase through walls and loses possession of the circuit in under three seconds.
So it's off to Asteroid M in the Blackbird to stop Magneto's evil and incredibly illogical plan, with Kitty stowing away in the lockers in the hopes she can rectify her mistake.
After a fairly bland use of the Dwindling Party trope, with each X-Men facing off against a member of the Brotherhood, Nightcrawler makes it to the control room. He and Kitty manage to avert the comet's course, only for Nightcrawler to get trapped in the circuit and forced to remain there if the comet is to remain on its trajectory away from Earth. After the requisite 1.5 second mourning period, it's revealed he teleported to the Blackbird at the very last second before the asteroid exploded.
Stan Lee takes us out with this platitude: "Yes, the X-Men have won, but only for now. Magneto is still out there, waiting, planning, plotting the destruction of the human race. But whatever the challenge, whatever the peril, the X-Men will be there."
Yes, there - standing on the rim of the planet itself. 
What Works:
The animation for this pilot is impressive; frankly better than the wobbly lumpiness of the series that directly follows it. I couldn't find many details about where exactly it was animated, but the eyes and faces of the characters definitely suggest anime, a style that's not apparent in any of the shows that follow. Motions are fluid and the faces are consistent – as opposed to a lot of animation in which taking a screen-cap of any given moment can result in deformed expressions and body contortions.
The initial introduction to the team is handled well, with the Professor identifying each of the X-Men to Kitty while they're training in the Danger Room. It's an elegant way of showcasing their powers and codenames, a method that surprisingly enough isn't utilized in any of the other adaptations.
And this representation of the Danger Room, described as a combination of computer simulations and robotics, has an inventiveness in it's depiction that's missing from later portrayals. Though others have the occasional simulation, they're mostly just nondescript training rooms with grabby robotic arms: this one creates actual environments with matching obstacles.  
What Doesn't Work:
The narration by Stan Lee, in which he warns us to look around with the knowledge that mutants are already living amongst us, including "mutant terrorists" that want to kill all humans, is – a bit silly. No one can understate this man's contribution to the Marvel Universe, but a voice actor he is not. Of course, he's not helped by the lines he's given, which begin with raw exposition and end with a reminder that the X-Men are the good guys. It's all horribly generic and completely unnecessary.
The voice acting is just plain weird. We'll get plenty of over-the-top readings in the next animated series, but here the creative decisions are really bizarre. Like I said in the summary, Wolverine is an Australian (it's two decades too early for it to be a deliberate Hugh Jackman joke), White Queen sounds like an old lady, and Toad has the high-pitched, ingratiating  tone of Doctor Frankenstein's assistant.
Kitty's voice is also very familiar, though it took me a trip to IMDB to place her. She's voiced by Kathie Soucie, using the same voice for Kitty as she would later use for Phil and Lil on Rugrats. Which pretty much illustrates the problem: it's a baby voice.
And apart from briefly showcasing their powers in the Danger Room, none of the X-Men's powers really make an impression (compare to the nineties version, in which the opening credits alone leave you in awe of what they can do).
Finally, even though the X-Men are in many ways defined by their powers, they're still more than what they can achieve with them – but you'd be struggling to come up with any defining qualities of this lot. Cyclops gives the orders, Wolverine is rude, Storm is motherly, Nightcrawler is awkwardly flirtatious (I think?), Dazzler is there, and that's about it. And don't tell me it's because this is just the first episode, as decent writers are perfectly capable of combining powers and personalities into a single vivid Character Establishing Moment – and do so in later incarnations. There's really nothing that sets these characters apart beyond their crazy accents.
Case in point: when Kitty arrives at the manor house it's established through the Professor's voiceover that she can phase through solid objects. And yet the doors open by themselves for her as she nears. Way to miss that opportunity, guys.
Partial Success:
When I think of the X-Men franchise in its entirety, what first comes to mind are its unique themes and attributes – the ones that set it apart from every other type of superhero narrative out there. The X-Men are not treated with adulation, but suspicion and hatred. Their powers are not granted through gamma rays or radio-activity, but are the natural result of human evolution. And their greatest enemies are not alien overlords or billionaire master-minds or psychotic clowns, but the mundane evils of bigotry and fear.
This richness of story potential is almost entirely missing from Pryde of the X-Men, and though you could argue there's only so much you can squeeze into twenty minutes, X-Men: TASX-Men Evolution and the opening ten minutes of the first X-Men movie managed to establish it all pretty effectively. That said, there are two moments in which this pilot does touch on the prevalent themes of the franchise.
The first is when the cigar-chomping army general overseeing the transportation of an imprisoned Magneto announces: "Mutants. I hate em. Take this mutant we're hauling tonight, for example. He's too dangerous to live. He's a mutant, a stinking mutant. He doesn't deserve to live on the same planet as decent human beings."
Wow. Subtle.
But the second takes place at the space station after the X-Men defeat the Brotherhood and rescue a family being held hostage. Nightcrawler returns a little girl's doll to her, only for her father to yank her aside and demand he back off. That's the kind of scenario this franchise excels at, one in which the audience can sympathise both with a frightened father and a strange-looking individual who's only trying to help.
It only lasts a moment, but it's a scene that demonstrates an awareness of what X-Men in all its incarnations is actually about.
Mixed Bag:
Kitty herself. Her introductory scenes are certainly not impressive: she immediately gets scared of Nightcrawler and phases through a computer, disrupting the simulation in the Danger Room. When Magneto attacks the mansion she panics again and phases through the security system, giving him unencumbered access to the grounds. And despite having the ability to walk through solid walls, she somehow gets cornered, restrained and knocked unconscious.
The ability to phase would come in SO handy right about now.

And yet having made these mistakes, her motivation for the second half of the episode is explicitly stated as trying to set things right. It makes sense that she has to start off a bit hopeless if there's going to be anything resembling character growth, so it's unfair to peg her as a distressed damsel without any follow-up episodes to track her development.
And if there's another thing I've always liked about this franchise, it's that teenage girls have a central role to play in it. Wolverine may dominate all the promotional material, but when it comes to introducing new viewers to the world of the X-Men, it's always through the eyes of a teenage girl. Here's it's Kitty, in the next series it's Jubilee, in the films it's Rogue.
Teenage girls sit at the heart of the X-Men – it may not have started out that way, but it's certainly the truth now.
Miscellaneous Observations:
Kitty's bond with Nightcrawler, in which she's initially uncomfortable with his appearance before warming up to him, is a rapport that's echoed between the two characters in X-Men Evolution. It may just be a coincidence, but it's interesting to compare the relationship between the two series.
For some reason, this pilot takes the time to establish the familial relationship between Professor X and Juggernaut, but not the old friendship-turned-adversarial one between Charles and Erik. And which one do you think is more important to this mythos?
In Conclusion:
It's certainly no great loss that Pryde of the X-Men never made it past its pilot episode. As clunky and bizarre as the next animated series could sometimes (or often) be, it was still infinitely better than this, with more vivid characterization, a deeper interest in its themes, and a more accomplished sense of storytelling that didn't immediately leap to Magneto trying to destroy the entire planet. It's a shame the quality in animation didn't translate between the two shows, though these character designs have dated horrifically. Kitty in particular looks as though she's been modelled on Molly Ringwald, and the less said about Dazzler the better.  
"I forgot to set the VCR to tape Pretty in Pink!"
But it was a start. The X-Men were on a show of their own; one that may have failed but which obviously turned enough heads for a second one to get the green light.
Next Week:
Seriously, this was the best screen-cap I could get of the intro.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this blog post it actually couldn't have come at a better time for me !!

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