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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Review: X-Men The Animated Series

If you grew up in the nineties, it's a safe bet that you watched X-Men: The Animated Series, and in so many ways it captures that decade to perfection: the fashions, the hairstyles, the music, the totally radical codenames. In the same breath, one has to admit that in just as many ways, it's dated badly

But it's also a fundamental part of X-Men history, introducing the story and characters to a non-comic book reading audience, drawing in a lasting generation of fans, and leading to countless playground arguments over who was what character.  It perhaps even paved the way for the current film franchise.


Comprised of five seasons in total, X-Men: TAS is the longest running cartoon based on the X-Men franchise, and its principal goal was to translate as much of the comics into animated form as possible. It adapted some of the most famous X-Men storylines, including Days of Future Past and The Dark Phoenix Saga, and encompassed the most recognizable line-up of X-Men under the tutelage of Professor X: Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Beast, Rogue, Gambit, Jubilee and Jean Grey (she doesn't get a codename, presumably because even the nineties thought "Marvel Girl" sounded silly). Oh, and Morph of course.
Wait, who?  
Morph is an original character brought in for the sole purpose of dying to demonstrate how serious the situation is. It doesn't work for two reasons: firstly that the show almost immediately resurrects him, and secondly that it's obvious none of the characters who appear in the opening credits are ever in any true jeopardy.
But it's Jubilee who serves as our Audience Surrogate, and in the two-part premiere we're introduced to the premise of the franchise through her eyes. Though this show certainly has its highs and lows, it knows what the core themes of any X-Men story should be – bigotry, prejudice, fear – and never loses sight of them.
Of course, sometimes it gets a little too on the nose (one episode features a gas chamber death-trap; another depicts police escorting mutants to school through crowds of protestors) but it's telling that the antagonists of the first few episodes aren't Magneto or Mr Sinister or Apocalypse, but government officials and the atmosphere of fear and hatred festering among ordinary people.
Jubilee is a teenager foster kid, living in the shadow of anti-mutant hysteria and struggling to control her abilities under the roof of her worried foster parents. After they misguidedly report her to the Mutant Registration Act, a Sentinel turns up at the mall to abduct her.
Thanks to a handy Contrived Coincidence, it just so happens that Storm, Rogue and Gambit are shopping there at the same time, and each one helps Jubilee evade the giant robot that's hell-bent on kidnapping her (you'd think its presence would cause a tad more outrage among the casual shoppers) before eventually taking her back to the Xavier Institute to meet the rest of the team.
But you know all this. The drawback to X-Men adaptations at this point in time is what Cleolinda calls "the People in Dracula Don't Know They're in Dracula Problem", a result of audiences having seen so many iterations of these particular characters dealing with slightly-tweaked variations of the same situations that a lot of the time we're fighting impatience that they don't already know what we've seen countless times before.
Perhaps it wasn't so bad twenty-something years ago when this first aired, but all these cartoons and movies and reboots later? It feels like very well-trod material at this stage.
So suffice to say that the X-Men rescue Jubilee, break into a government facility to destroy files of their fellow mutants, and mourn the all-too-predictable death of Morph, gunned down by a Sentinel whilst Taking the Bullet for Wolverine. The story ends with Jubilee heading off to live at the Xavier Institute, promising to keep in touch with her foster parents (we never see them again).
From this springboard, the show delves into some of the most famous storylines of the nineties comics, including the aforementioned Days of Future Past and The Dark Phoenix Saga, as well as Age of ApocalypsePhalanx CovenantLegacy Virus and Wolverine's mysterious and convoluted past. There are also episodes that focus on the Savage Land, the Morlocks, Mr Sinister, Mojo, and the entire team's personal histories.
But here's the thing. Despite the existence of the Dracula Problem, there's always going to be a newbie in the audience who needs an introduction to the general premise. We all have to experience something for the first time, right? That's just an assumption the showrunners have to work with; of a completely ignorant viewer who has to be catered to.
And yet X-Men: TAS has one of the strangest attempts to accommodate both newbies and long-time fans I've ever seen. In many ways the cartoon comes across as a mere supplement to the comic books, with only rudimentary exposition and minimal background on its characters provided. It also packs in as much Marvel lore and trivia as possible, the assumption being that viewers will understand all these rather obscure references.
As such, a lot of the show's source material is included simply because it was in the comics, with little to no context provided. For example, Cable turns up for a single season one episode and disappears just as promptly without any sort of explanation as to who he is or what he's trying to achieve. He's just Cable, duh! You should know this already!
It's Cable. Just go with it.
Likewise, their take on Days of Future Past ends with Rogue discovering that the assassin about to shoot Senator Kelly is actually Mystique, who is actually her adoptive mother, who is actually working for Apocalypse. We're given no context to any of these life-shattering revelations whatsoever. Another episode has Graydon Creed kidnap Nightcrawler's biological mother, who turns out to be Mystique again, which makes Graydon half-brother to Nightcrawler and Rogue his adoptive sister. Again, we learn this at the same time the characters do.
Yet at other times, the writers feel the need to throw in obscure facts for those with no familiarity with the comics; exposition that would have been better Adapted Out for the sake of coherency – as when the X-Men are fighting Juggernaut and he informs them mid-battle: "I'm not a mutant! My powers are magical!"
Um, okay. Good to know.
The problem is that by the time X-Men: TAS aired, the comic books were nearly four decades old. That's forty years of convoluted plotlines involving time-travel, alternate dimensions, complex backstories, alien planets and extensive family trees. From Wolverine's flashbacks to intergalactic space battles to time-travelling back from Bad Futures to teen angst in the face of racial prejudice, the show dives headfirst into forty years' worth of comic book lore.
You can't say it's not ambitious, but people with no foreknowledge of the comics will be left utterly confused. Characters and concepts are just there, with little attempt made to explain what's going on – except, you know, that Juggernaut's powers are magical. None of the show's major plot-points emerge organically from the show or the story it's trying to tell, and are included not as logical reveals but as nods to the comic book audience.
And because comic book canon is so vast and complex, a lot of the storylines as they're presented here bounce about all over the place as the writers desperately attempt to cram everything in.
Of course, for many that's precisely the appeal, but I can't help but notice that subsequent adaptations of X-Men related material is a lot more selective in what they chose to adapt and (more importantly) what they leave out. For example, the film franchise completely jettisons the convoluted family trees, while X-Men Evolution avoids time-travel and alien invasions.
So in many ways, watching X-Men: TAS is like watching an animated power-point presentation on the most important parts of the X-Men comics.
And yet...
Marathoning this show over a two week period demonstrated that almost everything featured across the show's five seasons knits together. There is an underlying understanding of this fictional world: its people, its settings, its ideologies, and every new character or development is given some degree of continuation or closure in a later episode.
For instance, the likes of Cable (a time traveller from 3999), Bishop (a time traveller from 2050) and Apocalypse (world-destroying mutant who pops up in the past, present and future) are all thrown into the mix across several different episodes without any indication that they might be connected. And yet by season four, the seemingly disconnected threads of their stories are woven together, and the power of hindsight lends the show in its entirety a surprising amount of coherency.
Morph is another good example. We watch as Morph "dies" in the premiere, and are first introduced to Mr Sinister about halfway through the first season. In a season two episode we learn how Sinister rescued and brainwashed Morph and watch as the former X-Man disguises himself to secretly pit his team-mates against each other. At about the same time, Professor X and Magneto are lured to the Savage Land by an unseen puppet-master, and across the course of that season a number of short scenes depict them bushwhacking and dodging dinosaurs while the X-Men struggle to cope without their leader.
Think they'll put this in the movie?
The season finale links all these threads together when Sinister (still manipulating Morph) brings the X-Men to the Savage Land by using Professor X as bait. Though Sinister is defeated, Morph continues to be utilized after he comes to grips with his true identity, battling PTSD and eventually returning to the X-Men in the show's final episode.
Heck, even the origins of Mr Sinister are eventually explored in a very late episode, which gives us some retroactive understanding of why he's so obsessed with Cyclops and Jean's reproductive capabilities. (That’s a sentence I'd never thought I'd write).
There's also episode-to-episode continuity, which is surprising when you consider that these were the days before DVDs, in which networks often preferred episodes (especially children's cartoons) to be standalone. And yet here we see Sabretooth captured by the X-Men in one episode and analysed by Professor X in the following instalment. Beast is arrested by the police in the pilot episode, and spends the rest of season one incarcerated (occasionally visited by his comrades before his release in the season finale). When Professor X reads Gambit's mind, he sees a blonde woman whose significance is only revealed much later.
A lot of the story-arcs are divided across several episodes, with The Dark Phoenix Saga coming in at a whopping nine episodes, making it pretty daring stuff for a children's cartoon – not only in how complex it is, but how dark and gritty.
For instance, one thing that's always stayed with me since I first watched the show as a little girl is the tragic Wolverine/Storm love story, in which alternate-time versions of themselves sacrifice their marriage and love for each other in order to save a young Charles Xavier from assassination and so ensure a brighter future for others. I'll have more to say on the subject when we reach the filmic adaptation of Days of Future Past, but for now let it be known that the cartoon does all this far more justice.
***
Unfortunately, season five is when things really get bonkers. Obviously there was some downsizing in the budget, as the animation goes from passable to hideous, the opening credits are reedited with random clips from the show (instead of the familiar X-Men introductory sequence) and Gambit's voice actor has been switched for another.
Something was clearly going on behind the scenes, and because most of the major storylines from the comics had been dealt with, many of the episodes feel miscellaneous – either dealing with one-shot villains or exploring completely weird premises (one has Jubilee spinning a story to school children on a fieldtrip after they get trapped in the caves under the mansion; a story that casts the X-Men into a bunch of fairy tale characters).
There are also some screw-ups in the ordering, as one episode has the X-Men mourning the death of Jean. It was clearly meant to air mid-way through The Dark Phoenix Saga in season three, but since it was shifted to the fifth it feels like Jean just died off-screen before being resurrected (again off-screen) and carrying on as though nothing out of the ordinary happened.
And of course, there are just some odd creative decisions. Would you say the penultimate episode of the entire series is a good time to introduce Cannonball and Project Wideawake? Because I wouldn't.
But that's X-Men: TAS for you. The storylines were sprawling, the cast was vast, and despite the underlying sense of coherency when it's viewed as a complete whole, it's also bewildering to watch on an episode-by-episode basis. Being ambitious and capturing the visual style of the nineties comics are two points in its favour, but once the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia have been removed, it's also more than a little absurd in many respects.
What Works:
Oh my God, that opening sequence. Everyone knows the kickass theme, everyone anticipates the toll of the church bell, everyone has memorized the placement of each X-Man and the powers they demonstrate in front of their own names spelled out in giant letters. I want this played at my funeral.

It's better than any singular episode, for it manages to do in fifteen seconds what Pryde of the X-Men couldn't do in twenty minutes: introduce eight individual characters, their codenames, their abilities, and even a little of their personalities. Don't believe me? Wolverine's scene ends with him actually punching the screen. Says it all.
In less than sixty seconds we know the general setup: that these individuals have superpowers, that they're up against equally powerful villains, that normal human beings are caught in the middle, and that they work for a bald guy in a floating wheelchair. 


It's a brilliant encapsulation of the entire franchise, and watching this for the first time in years, I honestly felt chills at the sight of Rogue and Storm swooping down over the logo and around the Blackbird.
***
Then there are the female characters; more specifically the role they play throughout the series. I touched on this briefly in my review for Pryde of the X-Men, that the reason why the X-Men resonated so deeply with me as a little girl was that – quite simply – there was more than one woman on the team.
And let's be honest, that's still a rare thing. These days we can reasonably expect at least two female characters per team, who are bound to fall into the Tomboy And Girly Girl categories, but throughout early comic book history it was unusual enough to portray a female character as a superhero in her own right, let alone give her another female team-mate. The Fantastic Four had Sue Storm, the Avengers had Wasp, Justice League had Wonder Woman, and even the X-Men themselves were not immune when it came to their original line-up: Jean Grey/Marvel Girl was the only female amidst Cyclops, Beast, Angel and Iceman.
And yet the gift of the X-Men premise is that anyone can be born a mutant, and that naturally the X-gene would be equally distributed between males and female. By the time this cartoon was put into development, there were dozens and dozens of female characters in the canon.
So X-Men: TAS has a number of women with different personalities and ethnicities that speak and interact with each other. They're friends and teachers and confidants. They have storylines and independent arcs and obstacles that are as often gender-neutral as they are gender-related. And among the four female team-members of the X-Men, there isn't a single relationship that's not portrayed as warm and supportive and affectionate.




Storm and Rogue in particular are just – wow. Take a shot every time they cradle each other or catch each other in mid-air or provide the other with comfort and encouragement. Take ten shots for the scene where Storm tells Rogue: "restrain me, I beg you!"
Okay, I took that one out of context. But still.  
The menfolk on the other hand?




They hate each other.
What's more, they actually have very little to do with each other, from an emotional as well as a narrative standpoint. With the obvious exception of Professor X as everyone's paterfamilias, it's largely the women who make up the crux of the team dynamic.
Gambit for example, only really interacts with Jubilee and Rogue. Yet Jubilee is just as often paired with Wolverine, and Rogue with Storm. When the show isn't delving into his murky past, Wolverine's characterization either revolves around his mentorship of Jubilee, or his unrequited love for Jean. Naturally Jean sits at the centre of The Phoenix Saga, while Storm gets plenty of episodes to herself, is just as likely to be paired with Rogue as she is with any of the men, and is explicitly stated to be second-in-command of the team.  
And that's not even getting into the dispersal of power. Though Gambit and Cyclops can blow things up, and Wolverine and Beast are effective at tearing things apart, the women are undoubtedly the heavy-hitters. Heck, the first action sequence of the entire show goes to Storm and Rogue as they try to save Jubilee from Sentinels (Gambit is there too, but he ends up getting thrown into a mall display).
There are little moments strewn throughout episodes in which Rogue's overwhelming strength is treated as no big deal, either by the story itself or her male colleges. At one point Rogue and Wolverine have to shift their unconscious team-mates; without discussion Wolverine picks up Storm while Rogue effortlessly throws Gambit and Beast over her shoulders. There's no expected cut to Wolverine's abashed face; it's all treated as business as usual.
In another episode, Wolverine and Beast are struggling to hold open an automatic door that slides down from the ceiling. Rogue simply flies up and takes over, securing their escape. It's amazing.

The women are also the fliers, which means they're constantly transporting or catching the boys as they fall helplessly through the air. Oh, and of course any combat that takes place off the ground is handled exclusively by the women. In the very third episode of the show, Storm single-handedly disarms a bunch of warheads in mid-air as Wolverine and Cyclops watch from the ground.
There are all-female teams, female solo missions, and female characters that exist outside the X-Men who are leaders and scientists and warriors (one episode has the Morlocks led by Callisto fighting mercenaries led by Lady Deathstrike). Women give orders, save the menfolk just as often as they're saved themselves, and have backstories, foibles and challenges of their own – all of which is done without the sense that the writers are making a conscious effort to cater to girl power. These are simply the stories that organically arise from these particular characters and over four decades of original source material.
***
The show also manages to capture what Pryde of the X-Men barely touched on: that in a world of mutant factions and human reactionists every side has a valid point. As ever, there are three sides to any given conflict – human beings who can be anything from frightened to hateful, mutants who respond to this prejudice with violence and terrorism, and the X-Men, committed to harmony and unity.
The complexity of this setup depends on the quality of the episode in question, but across five seasons the show manages to keep a careful balance between these factions and a willingness to present each one's point of view. The humans have reason to fear, Magneto has reason to hate, and Xavier has reason to hope.
(And sometimes hatred is not just born out of fear; one episode featuring Colossus explores the fact that one mutant can effortlessly do the work of several dozen construction workers, effectively robbing them of their livelihood. It's a scenario with no easy answers).
As with all the best takes on Magneto, he's portrayed as more of an anti-hero than a villain. His background in World War II has been tweaked slightly (presumably for the younger audience) so that he's not a Jewish victim of the Holocaust but a young boy whose unspecified Eurasian village is invaded and destroyed.
And surprisingly, he spends more time as an ally to the X-Men as he does an antagonist (more so than any other cartoon adaptation). Sure, the first episode in which he appears features him trying to drag human civilization into an anarchic state so it's ripe for a mutant takeover, but his very first appearance in that same episode has him attempting to break Beast out of prison as an act of mutant solidarity.
And yes, the slash-fodder is as present as ever.
Later they handle storylines such as his isolationist policies on Asteroid X and his dysfunctional relationship with Pietro and Wanda, as well as his ongoing friendship/feud with Xavier. And to be honest, he often comes across a lot more sympathetically than Professor X, who is frequently portrayed as making morally dubious decisions without any self-awareness from the narrative itself. At one point he "defeats" Magneto by forcing him to relive memories of his family's deaths. Wow.
But between the two of them, you get the sense that their mutant followers joined up out of personal loyalty as much as belief in their specific cause and ideals. Both are two sides of the same coin, and both carry enough charisma and conviction to make them persuasive figures in the show's worldview.
***
Subtlety. Sometimes the show manages it, as in this shot:
Or this one:
Or when Rogue later catches the bouquet at Scott and Jean's wedding and quietly mutters: "fat lot of good this'll do me."
There are also plenty of nods to comic book canon that would only mean anything to those with a wider knowledge of the Marvel universe, as when Storm tells Gambit "I know you better than anyone" (with a quick glance at Rogue) or when Cyclops and Havok find their powers don't work against one another with no further explanation given.
And of course, all the cameos! Deadpool, Maverick, Thor, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spiderman (or at least his hand) and plenty of others I probably missed, most of which have no lines and only a few seconds of screen-time. To be honest, I'm in two minds about their inclusion – on the one hand they don’t add much to any given story and are pointed winks at an exclusive part of the audience, but on the other they also give the sense that the X-Men exist in a much bigger universe than the one we spend most of our time watching.
And like I said, it's not like they impinge on the plot anyway.
What Doesn't Work:
Some truly weird shit happens in this show. Check out this compilation from YouTube, comprised of scenes that honestly don't make any more sense in context:
There's also the team dynamic to consider. Because this show begins with the X-Men (sans Jubilee) already assembled, there's little chance to understand how these people came together or how they currently relate to one another.
This is not in itself a bad thing. Other shows have successfully held off on exploring the formation of a team until later episodes (such as in Firefly) or begin with at least part of said team already brought together (X-Men Evolution). But in those cases there's still an element of an outside factor shaking up the status quo. Firefly's pilot episode involved introducing Shepherd Book and the Tam siblings to Serenity's crew, while X-Men Evolution depicted Kurt, Kitty, Evan and (later) Rogue being brought to the Xavier Institute that already housed Scott, Jean, Storm and Wolverine.
But as a writer, you should never underestimate an audience's enthusiasm for discovery, especially in regards to your characters. The first instalments of any given book, film or television series are often considered the best partly because they contain the most capacity for surprises and exploration. It's fun to gauge the first impressions of a character, to watch how they interact with others, to draw conclusions about them by what they say and how they act. It's one of the best parts of experiencing any new story!  
There's not much opportunity for that in X-Men: TAS. Although certain dynamics emerge across the course of the first season (that Cyclops and Jean are a couple, that Wolverine has the hots for Jean, that Gambit is still something of an unknown) it never really coalesces. Instead, it often feels like these people don't know each other that well or have bonded much over their shared experiences. There's no sense of why they came to the Xavier Institute in the first place or what inspired them to become X-Men.
Sure, there are a couple of flashbacks that give us glimpses of their childhoods or young adulthoods, but without understanding them or their relationships very well, it's hard to imagine that they work cohesively as a team much less consider each other a surrogate family.
In short you can either have one or the other: an already-assembled team that may have its disagreements but still understands each other's strengths and weaknesses, or a disparate group of people who have to learn to get along with each other on-screen where the audience can see it.
Because when we do actually get to see these guys working as a team... well, to be frank: they suck.
They bicker in life-or-death situations. Their plans make no sense or hinge on ludicrous amounts of luck. They often seem to forget they even have powers. Much like Team America, they occasionally cause more damage than they fix. And every now and then, they employ some highly questionable tactics. My favourite would have to be the time they instructed Jubilee to get herself arrested at a high-security facility to provide a distraction while they stole a space shuttle.
Another time they dispose of Juggernaut by first having Storm drop a building on him (Jubilee's reaction: an excited "you killed him!") and then by Jean mind-wiping all his memories and sending him wandering off into the streets by himself (Jubilee's reaction: "Excellent!")
Perhaps their methods can be summed up best in this scene from Wolverine:
Needlessly destructive? Check. Forgetting he has claws in his knuckles? Check. Endangering a minor with potential head injuries? Check. Completely and utterly pointless? Check.
Of course, this type of behaviour is inherent throughout the entire show, and there's simply too much nonsense to list it all; from a Sentinel punching a hole through a house and garnering no more reaction than the home-owner yelling: "honey, is everything okay in there?" to super-genius Professor X leaving a teenage girl to guard freaking Sabretooth by herself while everyone else heads off on a mission.
The animation can be quite ugly, to the point where it's openly painful to watch. Faces get weirdly distorted, figures float or lumber about, and the lip syncing is completely off. And being made in the nineties is no excuse; lest we forget that Batman: TAS was airing at the same time. (That said, these characters often changed their clothes and hairstyles, successfully demonstrating that they weren't forever stuck in their uniforms and/or a single set of clothes).
But the writers and animators never allowed the characters to be particularly creative with their powers; they came across as flashy and unwieldy instead of subtle and natural to the people that possessed them. Heck, even psychic powers involved pink mist, disco light shows and expanding yellow rings.
***
Then there's the subject of suspense and pacing, and it's here comparisons with its immediate successor are most pronounced.
X-Men Evolution starts small, with the first season dealing with the rivalry between our teenage protagonists and the (also teenage) members of the Brotherhood. Mystique is threatening only insofar that she's posing as the school principal, and Magneto doesn't turn up in any meaningful capacity until the season finale.  
Season two is more-or-less evenly divided between teenage angst and government response to the exposure of mutants in the Bayville area. Only one episode foreshadows the onset of Apocalypse, and is done in such a way that it'll go completely over the heads of casual viewers.
Apocalypse's presence becomes more overt in season three, with the season finale depicting a slow-motion resurrection that all but demolishes the X-Men, followed by a fourth season that establishes the momentousness of the threat he poses and a two-part confrontation with him and his Horsemen that serves as a grand finale to the show itself.
In short, the show builds up the appearance of the franchise's biggest and baddest villain over the course of three seasons, upping the ante as they went, leaving the audience in no doubt as to how powerful and dangerous he was.
So how is Apocalypse introduced here in X-Men: TAS?
He first appears in episode nine of season one, hiding behind a door. Seriously. Hiding behind a door.
Then there's the destruction of the Xavier Institute, an event which also occurs in both X-Men: TAS and X-Men Evolution. In the latter show it's staged as the climax of season two, with Mystique setting the mansion to self-destruct and Cyclops just managing to save the younger students from certain death. The premiere of the third season concludes with the X-Men watching the mansion from afar, sad and vulnerable, and following episodes are devoted to the dangers of having no safe haven and the struggle to live in the mansion's underground complex while the rebuild takes place.
In X-Men: TAS? The mansion is trashed off-screen by Juggernaut in episode seven of season one and has been rebuilt by episode nine. It's practically a throwaway development, with no emotional resonance attached to it at all.
In short, this show has no sense of scale or of how to build to a climax. I can appreciate the fact that it's surprisingly coherent when looked at in hindsight, but on the whole the show is more like one of Steven Moffat's puzzle-box plots than Russell T. Davis's myth-arcs, with all of Moffat's familiar weaknesses: great ideas that aren't fleshed out, lame pay-offs to promising setups and complete incomprehension as to how human emotions actually work.
Which leads me to Cyclops and Jean. I hate to say it, but they're terrible here, and sadly it no doubt has to do with the on-going struggle writers/actors have in portraying righteousness and decency as characteristics that aren't tedious or annoying. Cyclops gets the worst of it, as he's constructed entirely from passive-aggressiveness, snotty comments and constant disapproval, with nary a supportive word to say about the team he's supposed to be leading and without an ounce of the charisma or tactical planning abilities you would expect (and desire) in a leader.
I feel ya, Wolverine.
Jean is just bland. I can't think of a single interesting thing she says or does outside The Phoenix Saga, and when that occurs she's not really herself anyway. The rest of the time she's deflecting Wolverine's advances, wincing whenever she puts on Cerebro, and falling flat on her face while wearing the ugliest costume imaginable.




Still, her presence does allow for that time-honoured X-Men tradition: Scott hollering "Jeeeeeeeeeean!" the top of his lungs.
And last but not least: Juggernaut. Does anyone else find this character unspeakably dull? I've never found him remotely interesting in any incarnation, and yet he's considered an iconic villain and one of the few characters to turn up in every X-Men adaptation. Personally I've always felt he existed more as an indomitable physical threat to the X-Men rather than anything resembling an actual character (what with his Achilles Heel being a helmet that protects him from telepathic interference – you know, just like Magneto only not interesting) and there's nothing particularly compelling about his familial relationship with Xavier either.
Oh, and this show taught me that apparently he's not even a mutant? His powers are magical thanks to an inscription on an ancient tablet? Gah, who cares.
Partial Success:
Pretty much the rest of the main cast falls under this category. In many ways they're the quintessential depictions of each X-Men character, from their costumes to their powers to their voice-actors, and yet if you divorce yourself from the context of the franchise (and all your foreknowledge of their backgrounds and personalities) it's clear they exist more as archetypes than actual characters.
Urgh, this animation is HIDEOUS.
There's the feral loner, the uptight Boy Scout, the regal queen, the sassy Southerner, the charming trickster, the intellectual "monster", the headstrong teenager. And Jean. Like I said, she's very bland.
Perhaps I'm simplifying it, but there's still not a lot of exploration into what exactly makes these characters tick or why they've chosen to join a paramilitary mutant strike force run by a bald guy in a floating wheelchair. As such, a lot of their behaviour and motivation feels a bit random, and their personalities are drawn in very broad strokes.
Rogue probably gets the best deal, with a striking balance made between her physical super-strength and her emotional vulnerability, and voice actress Lenore Zann providing a Southern lilt that everyone hears in their heads when they read the comic books.
But of course, the accent isn't enough for these writers. We have to be reminded constantly of her Southern roots with lines such as: "you look as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs" and "it's colder than a leftover hushpuppy" and "that boy as slick as pig fat." Sheesh, we get it.
Beast is probably the most successful after Rogue, as it's difficult to go wrong with the menacing exterior/intellectual interior dichotomy. In fact, he's summed up perfectly in the opening credits: taking off his glasses, putting away his book, and leaping into action.  
His thing is that he quotes Shakespeare and other literary sources at the drop of a hat, often in the middle of battle when everyone else is concentrating on staying alive.
Storm's very first line is: "Storm, mistress of the elements, commands you to release that child!" and she seriously doesn't get any less hammy from here on out. I'll be honest – it often feels as though the voice actress is mocking her own lines, or at least playing Storm as if she's a kid telling a scary story by extending all the vowels. Every single bit of dialogue is delivered as though it's the most important declaration EVER.
And yet for the most part Storm works. As the Professor says of her, she's "mighty as a hurricane, as gentle as a summer rain", and there are a lot of facets to her role in the team – probably more than any other character. She's not only den mother and second-in-command, but her background in Africa is explored, she's given a myriad of love interests, and her claustrophobia is an important part of several episodes.
Gambit for whatever reason speaks in third person, and is perhaps best known for his Slap Slap Kiss relationship with Rogue – minus the actual slapping and the kissing considering he can never touch her. I'll admit Rogue and Gambit were my very first OTP, before I even knew what shipping was, and there's a very good chance that he's the reason behind my predilection for charming tricksters with the gift of the gab.  
But in hindsight, there's a lot of dodgy stuff about how their relationship is portrayed. Her vulnerability doesn't jive well with his blatant sleaziness, and he straight up negs her at one point. Still, I have to admit that Rogue can give as good as she gets (one of my favourite scenes is when she saves Gambit from a fall only to dump him in the nearest lake when he starts gloating about it) and sometimes you just have to take things in the spirit in which they're given.
A nice touch is that he's given a cute big bro/lil sis vibe with Jubilee, one which is often given more attention than the mentorship bond she has with Wolverine. He's at his best when he's calling her "petite" and gently deflecting her precocious crush.
Admit it, this was always your favourite part of the credits.
Ah, Jubilee – this show's attempt to plug into the youth of today. Or at least the nineties. There's no getting rid of the iconic yellow rain jacket, but most of her design and characterization has dated horribly. At one point she says: "does a mall babe eat chilli fries?" as a variation on "do bears shit in the woods?" and her favourite insult is "dweeb", which she uses on everyone from robot Sentinels to berserker Sabretooth to faceless government officials.
And finally, Wolverine. What can I possibly say about him that I won't be repeating in every other review to come? Thanks to Wolverine Publicity he ends up dominating the back half of the show, with several episodes devoted solely to his mysterious backstory that concerns his team-mates not at all.
Well before it became a meme, voice actor Cathal J. Dodd was using Christian Bale's Batman voice to bring Wolverine to life, making the character sound constantly aggressive, often for no reason. And yeah, I get that this is his thing, but often it comes at the strangest of times – like, they're all just hanging out in the rec room and Wolverine is furious about it.
But one can't deny the strength of these characters, for although they don't quite gel in a group capacity, taken separately they're six (okay, eight including Scott and Jean) potent personalities with unique gifts that shape those personalities. Heck, that opening sequence alone speaks to how effective they are as part of an ensemble: each distinct enough to allow for preferences among the audience, and each facing the same obstacles in their own individual ways (I'll never get tired of watching Rogue flip that Sentinel).
Mixed Bag:
One day my nephew will ask me: "what were the nineties like?" and on that day I'll show him this and say: "this is exactly what they were like." It's easy to look at the past through the rose-coloured glasses of nostalgia, but let's be honest: the nineties had some truly appalling fashions and hairstyles, all captured here in their hideous technicolour glory.
Yup, this is pretty much how we rolled back then.
Then there's the strange dissonance of the show attempting to animate a not-too-distant future but only making it look dated and clunky, with cutting edge technology such as videotapes, giant cell-phones and portable CD players.
And having dropped Jean's alter-ego "Marvel Girl" because it presumably sounded too passé even for this show does nothing to explain why they decided to keep "The Nasty Boys" as the moniker of a dangerous gang of mutant terrorists.
Ah, nineties. You were fun while you lasted, but may you never, ever return.
***
X-Men: TAS does its level-best to showcase its large cast of characters, but eventually it falters under the weight of just how many there are. For the most part the revolving cast works, but as the list of supporting characters grows (what with the show's commitment to include as many comic book characters as possible) the team dynamic – what little of it there is – suffers.
What we end up with is an ensemble cast in which certain characters can go missing for long stretches at a time before returning to dominate the show. Jubilee for example doesn't feature in any of the lengthy Phoenix Saga, but then completely takes over the final season. Meanwhile Gambit is featured heavily in the first half of the show, only to get marginalized toward the end (so much so that they bring in a new voice actor). They do their best with what they've got, but the balance just feels off most of the time.
And of course, the aforementioned Wolverine Publicity eventually kicks in. I'm pretty sure there's only one episode that doesn't feature him at all.
Miscellaneous Observations:
The show gets points for portraying a woman as the future President of the United States (albeit with a truly bizarre voice) though perhaps I shouldn't be too impressed considering she gets booted out of office and replaced with Senator Kelly only a few episodes in.
There's a lightsabre battle. For real.  

I don't understand Sabretooth's design. Are those weird protrusions on his stomach meant to be his abs?
Guess which well-known and fairly popular X-Man doesn't appear, not even in the capacity of a cameo? Kitty Pryde, which is quite an amazing oversight all things considered. I mean, they find room for the most obscure cameos imaginable, but not an appearance from Kitty? I wonder if the failed Pryde of the X-Men pilot had anything to do with it.
Keeping in the tradition of its predecessor, which gave Wolverine an inexplicable Australian accent, this cartoon gives actual Australian Pryo a Cockney accent.
Remember when Jubilee died five years ago? Awkward.
Here's a fun anecdote. When I was at high school I wrote lots of silly stories about my friend's pets, one of which involved them getting kidnapped at the hands of a cheesy villain called Mr Sinister. I deliberately chose the name because it sounded utterly stupid, only for my better-informed friend to tell me this was an actual X-Men villain who was taken completely seriously.
Other dubious creative decisions include an episode where Nightcrawler helps Wolverine find Jesus, one in which a woman fakes her own kidnapping in order to break up with her boyfriend (I guess that's what we did before text-message dumping became a thing), and a corny Christmas episode that ends with this statement:
Marvel at my ignorance: before this show I had no idea that Hank was a diminutive of Henry. I only pegged to it because these characters addressed Hank McCoy as "Henry", just as often as they used Hank or Beast.
One thing I found somewhat amusing was that despite the Xavier Institute being repeatedly described as a school, there's no actual school to speak of. There are never any mutant students running around, just the fully grown X-Men and Jubilee (who never attends any classes).
Some of the locational captions are hilarious, including: "Meanwhile Elsewhere," "Alternative Future", "Cable's Future" and "The Present" (which is not hugely helpful when it's referring to the nineties).
There's one genuinely funny line, when Jubilee is in Japan looking for Logan and comes across the tail-end of a brawl. Seeing this, she cries: "everybody's fighting. Logan's gotta be here!"
There's also a particularly ingenious line when Cyclops (unknowingly) meets his father, who tells him: "I would never forget my son; he had his mother's eyes."
Along with the aforementioned Very Special Christmas Episode, there's also the Inevitable Marvel Crossover Episode. I generally dislike these things, simply because there's more than enough material in the X-Men franchise to explore without delving into other superheroes, so suffice to say that it involves Wolverine teaming up with Captain America during World War II to fight Nazi scientists. Yeah.
Did you think I was exaggerating earlier about all the Rogue and Storm subtext?




I really wasn't.
In Conclusion:
So that was X-Men: The Animated Series, our first real adaptation of the X-Men comics and the longest running series based off this material (the closest any other comes is X-Men Evolution, which had four seasons to this one's five).
As ambitious as it is convoluted, the series nevertheless introduces the key characters of the X-Men franchise, the core dynamics of the world they live in, and the most famous storylines of the comics (even if they're heavily abridged). There are season-long arcs that tie the plot-points and themes together, a cast of voice actors who defined how these characters sound and behave, and the sense of a deep and complex world (albeit a rather stupid one at times).
It all ends not with a definitive conclusion, but in keeping with the themes of change and transition and hope you would expect of the X-Men after Xavier is mortally wounded and transported into space by his alien-bird-empress girlfriend for intensive healing. Yeah, it's a long story, but all you really need to know is that Xavier's departure from the X-Men is somehow the perfect note for the show to end on.
It also involves Morph returning to the X-Men, Magneto forsaking his mutant uprising in order to get Xavier the help he needs, and the Professor's genuinely beautiful goodbyes to his surrogate children. Look, I'm even going to transcribe them here in full:
"Morph, it's nice to see you home. In facing your fears, you have proven yourself truly an X-Man.
Gambit, how often must the scoundrel prove himself a hero before he believes it himself?
Jubilee, you are the future. When I look at your face, I see hope.
Storm; my beautiful Storm. Mighty as a hurricane, gentle as a summer rain. You honour me with your friendship.
Wolverine. Loner, you have found a family. Wild savage, you have found dignity. Cynic, you have found faith.
Rogue, unable to touch. Yet look around you – you will find you have touched us all.
Jean, first in my heart. Your courage allowed you to see things no other human ever has, yet remain the same innocent child I met so very long ago.
[To Beast] The friends thou hast and their adoption tried; grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.
Scott, were I your father, I would tell you that no truer son could ever be.
I am proud, proud of you all. My X-Men."
Are you crying yet? Because despite the hideous animation I bawled like a baby.
It's an inspired ending, one which is better described as a new beginning, as well as a ballsy move on behalf of the showrunners. But then again, the X-Men franchise and the conflict it portrays holds no solid hope for a peaceful resolution, and since comic book continuity never ends, the sight of Professor X departing the mansion and his students remaining to carry on his work is perhaps the only way this show possibly could have ended.
The jury is still out on its long-term value. It was obviously a huge success at the time, but despite my very fond memories of watching it as a kid I can't deny that it's aged terribly. And because the quality of animation and the way in which television shows are structured have changed drastically since the nineties, I can imagine plenty of contemporary children being utterly bored and baffled by it.
On that note, let's finish off on some amazing out-of-context screen-caps. These are all 100% from this show with no tampering whatsoever:







Next Week:



8 comments:

  1. Just wanted to let you know, I read this entire thing and LOVED IT! Coming from someone who has read the comics and loved this show as a kid, everything you said is absolutely true. From the horrible team dynamic, corny 90s one-liners, to the poor animation, I still feel a bit nostalgic and rewatch episodes on Hulu!lol

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  2. Just wanted to let you know, I read this entire thing and LOVED IT! Coming from someone who has read the comics and loved this show as a kid, everything you said is absolutely true. From the horrible team dynamic, corny 90s one-liners, to the poor animation, I still feel a bit nostalgic and rewatch episodes on Hulu!lol

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad I was able to straddle the line between objectivity and nostalgia - I think in years to come it'll only be nineties kids who can really appreciate it for what it was at the time!

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  3. As a fan of the comics and the 90s cartoon, this was a joy to read.

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    1. Thanks! I'm glad people are still reading this so long after I posted it!

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  4. dear lord, that group photo of them from the last season XD! looks like they all had a high speed collision with the ooglay tree LOL!

    what a great read tho. I just read this and the X-men evolution review you also posted, on to Wolverine and the X-men ;)

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  5. نقدم لكم شركه الحمد للنظافه العامه بالرياض حيث لدي عمالنا العديد من الخيرات في هذا المجال ليس عليك سوي الاتصال بنا
    شركة نظافة عامة بالرياض
    شركة الحمد للتنظيف نعد افضل شركه في مجال االتنظيف في المملكة العربيه
    شركة تنظيف بجازان
    j

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  6. I showed this to my little niece and cousins and they enjoyed it. So I wouldn't say this show aged as terribly as you say it does especially with the shows they got out now. X men TAS certainly has tons of flaws but even after so many years it's still the best X men cartoon show.

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