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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Review: Wolverine and X-Men

It's been SO LONG since I last reviewed an X-Men cartoon, but I finally got myself together and finished up Wolverine and the X-Men. Whether or not my Polytech paper will suffer as a result remains to be seen.
I have a vague recollection of watching some of this show back when it first aired in 2009, but for whatever reason I tuned out again pretty quickly. Maybe I was burned out on the X-Men franchise (this coming so soon on the heels of X-Men Evolution and the nightmare that was X-Men: The Final Stand); maybe it was because the title was a clear indicator of Wolverine Publicity taken to its logical extreme.
Yes, after keeping the character pleasantly second-tier throughout X-Men Evolution, Wolverine is pushed firmly back into the spotlight – so much so that the show is essentially called: "Him and the Other Guys." As though the entire team has been relegated to supporting cast. Yeesh.
But this means it was only a few weeks ago that I watched the show in its entirety, marathoning all twenty-six episodes from start to finish. And turns out it was fantastic. So much so that I was dreading its conclusion since I knew there was no forthcoming season two.  

In terms of plotting it manages what its predecessors aimed for but often fell short of: an intricate and sustained story-arc with plenty of clever twists involving time-skips, flashbacks and pivotal events that are not understood with complete clarity until much later.
If X-Men: TAS had a strong narrative foundation but rather bizarre standalone episodes, and X-Men Evolution had plenty of expendable teen-drama from which a singular storyline eventually emerged, then Wolverine and the X-Men captures the best of both shows: twenty-six episodes that form an ongoing storyline with very little that's self-contained and virtually no filler (unless you count the occasional foray into Wolverine's mysterious past – writers just can't resist going there, can they?)
Combining plot-points from Days of Future Past and The Dark Phoenix Saga, the show manages to be complex without getting convoluted, juggling a variety of different factions: Magneto's Genosha, the Brotherhood, the X-Men, the Mutant Response Division, even (at the eleventh hour) the Inner Circle, and their interactions with each other that reflect – well, real politics. Senator Kelly is staunchly opposed to mutant-kind, the Brotherhood committed to stirring up resentment and fear, and the X-Men focused on quelling open conflict between the two.
About halfway through the season, a pivotal episode reveals that Senator Kelly and Magneto are actually working together, with the Senator secretly sending registered mutants to Genosha to live under Magneto's jurisdiction (at least the ones that don't pose a threat to humanity's wellbeing – those ones are sent to a MRD facility). It's a great episode that demonstrates the depth of the show's setup, with these two men – in direct opposition to each other – using their rival to achieve their own ends; a relationship that's exemplified in the following speech that intercuts between the two:


The show captures the real sense of a volatile political landscape that contains half a dozen different agendas in play, sometimes vying against one another, other times surprisingly in accord – and of course, with the deeper machinations of Apocalypse lurking beneath the surface.
***
By this point the writers knew they were coming on the heels of a popular film franchise and a recent animated adaptation, and it's clear they didn't want to go through the rigmarole of introducing the franchise's key themes and characters all over again. After all, there's only so many times an audience can watch new reiterations of Bruce Wayne's parents getting shot.
But at the same time, you can't fully jettison these intrinsic elements, even as the nature of comic books opens up the possibility for some tinkering with established events.
The creators of Wolverine and the X-Men get around the problem by starting their story well after all the main characters have been assembled at the Xavier Institute. This is an X-Men story that opens In Media Res, and so for the first time in any animated or filmic adaptation there is no teenage girl to serve as the Audience Surrogate as she's ushered into the world of mutants, global prejudice, and a secret paramilitary strike force. A working knowledge of these characters and their story is assumed, and so it's easy to imagine newcomers feeling in over their heads (or believing they've missed a few introductory episodes).
But for old-time fans the show feels surprisingly fresh, especially since they're not required to waste any time in re-learning stuff they already know by heart. Having been thrown into a new version of this world, with most of the relationships and animosities long since established, it can be an adrenaline rush to try and catch up.
The writers compensate for the break-neck pace by using the Putting The Gang Back Together trope to reintroduce the cast, as well as an opening credit sequence that showcases the X-Men's abilities and what they're up against (namely the MRD and its Sentinels). Further exposition is delivered through the arrival of Emma Frost, who joins the team in the second episode and so needs certain characters and concepts explained to her.
It can be confusing at times, for although there's a long sense of history between the X-Men, Mr Sinister and Senator Kelly, at other points it's made obvious this is the first time the team have run into the likes of Gambit and Mystique.
Perhaps a newbie would flounder a little under the sheer weight of the assorted characters and the universe they inhabit, but as the third animated adaptation of this property, it was a wise decision to simply assume most viewers would be long-time fans, and so not to waste time with any elaborate setup.
But the show's real genius lay in its hook: the introduction of a mystery in the pilot episode that justifies the dissolution of the team (and its subsequent reformation) and which is gradually unravelled across the course of the season. As the show begins, Wolverine is about to leave the busy, bustling environment of the Xavier Institute for one of his walkabouts, bidding farewell to each of the X-Men in turn, when a massive explosion destroys the mansion.
Yes, this is the third time in as many adaptations that the school has been destroyed, but instead of being used as a climax as its predecessors did, this show uses it as a catalyst. In the aftermath of the blast Professor X and Jean Grey cannot be found, and one year on the cause of the explosion remains unexplained.
This relatively short opening scene forms the basis of the entire season, introducing fragments of a puzzle that are gradually pieced together across the twenty-six episodes: from Professor X's whereabouts, to the reasons behind the explosion, to why Scott and Jean were having an argument in the moments before the destruction.
When the story properly starts up, the X-Men have disbanded, Jean and Xavier are presumed dead, the Institute remains a pile of rubble, and team leader Cyclops has sunk into a deep depression. What reunites them is the growing threat of the MRD, and after Wolverine stages a Prison Break to rescue a human family arrested by the swat-team for helping him, he gradually begins to reassemble the team. But not all of them come willingly – or at all.
***
As I said before, you really get the sense you've been dropped into the middle of these characters' stories, with the writers trusting most viewers will have the necessary background knowledge to infer the details behind this particular group dynamic. And for the most part, it works. It's not so much an AU as a different context that these characters have been placed in, and the show leans heavily on the assumption that the viewers can bring baggage from other adaptations (particularly the films) to add weight to the characters and their situations.
For instance, though we've never seen this version of Cyclops as a team leader, we're familiar enough about his other incarnations to know that this new persona makes for a dark contrast to his usual role. Likewise, our awareness of Rogue's relationship with Wolverine in X-Men Evolution and the movie trilogy gives us some context to why this version is so frustrated with Logan taking off all the time.
It's a fascinating way to tell a story; one that relies heavily on the existence of other adaptations for a sense of history and established dynamics, whilst technically existing in a brand new continuity. We already know these characters; the show depends on us already knowing these characters, and yet we're initially ignorant as to where the trajectory of their stories will go.
***
Having discovered that Professor X has been washed up on the shores of Genosha, the team retrieves his comatose body from Magneto's care only to learn that he'll remain unconscious for the next twenty years before waking up in a post-apocalyptic nightmare wasteland. Where do they get this information? From the man himself, who is using Cerebro to telepathically reach back in time to share crucial information from the future. Namely, that the X-Men themselves are the cause of the desolation he's currently living in, and that they are the only ones who can prevent its inception.
It's a genius premise, one which involves plenty of fascinating interplay between the present and future, with each impacting the other in various ways over the course of the season. As Xavier struggles to stay alive in the dystopian future and gather vital information about the last twenty years to pass back to his students, the X-Men use his intelligence to avert various disasters before they occur. Sometimes they succeed, often they don't; some steps lead toward war, others toward a peaceful resolution. The state of the future is constantly in flux.
The two strands of the storyline speak to each other in interesting ways, and we are clearly shown how one affects the other. For instance, one episode has Wolverine spot the word "Master Mould" on a computer screen during an unrelated mission; he relates this to Xavier who investigates the matter further. At other times it's Xavier who brings back information from the future, warning Wolverine of pivotal events that need to be averted lest they set off a chain reaction in the past. At another point the present Wolverine is captured and his DNA acquired – in that same episode Xavier comes across Sentinels that have been fitted out with Wolverine claws, a direct consequence of Wolverine's present-day capture.
It doesn't always work, however. Though Wolverine successfully bridges the gap between the two storylines (with past and future incarnations of his character) the writers don't succeed in their decision to include Domino in both plots. Her presence suggests a degree of importance to her role, especially in how she goes from antagonist to ally in the twenty year gap, but oddly enough no real correlation is made between her past/future selves. She could have been anyone.
The writers do much better with Lorna/Polaris, someone who is witness to key events in the past that she shares in the future, and who has an important role to play in both times.
***
Naturally, it falls to Wolverine to shoulder the burden of leadership in Xavier's absence – though at least they provide decent justification for Scott stepping down: his soul-crushing grief over Jean's supposed death (more on this in a bit).
As the show's title implies, Wolverine is the protagonist, appearing in every episode and existing as the focus of most of them (especially during the very few filler episodes that deal with his requisite Mysterious Past). Professor X is the deuteragonist, with his own character-arc in the dystopian future (though even his storyline is eventually hijacked by Wolverine) and occasionally the focus shifts away from Logan to fall on Nightcrawler, Gambit and the Cyclops/Emma Frost duo.
And yet the emphasis on Logan (when it's removed from the context of Wolverine Publicity) is not necessarily a bad thing. It focuses the story's point-of-view and prevents it from getting too unwieldy. His immortality means he's a natural link between past, present and future sequences, and – let's be honest – there's a reason why this character is so popular in the first place. A gruff loner that gets roped into an extended family and team dynamic, won over by their commitment to each other and a higher cause, eventually becoming invested in their wellbeing and throwing in his lot as a friend, protector and teacher? Plus the whole "claws come out of his knuckles" thing? It's a winning formula, and the show easily captures that fundamental appeal.
What Works:
Emma freaking Frost! Along with the inevitable inclusion of all the usual X-Men suspects, there's a real effort here to flesh out (or at least showcase) some of the franchise's less mainstream characters, and Emma is foremost among them. Though she appeared briefly in Pryde of the X-Men and X-Men: TAS, she has never been as prominent in any adaptation as she is in this one, and I found her to be the show's most compelling character.
In fact, the internet was so desperate to insist I had to hate January Jones's take on the character in X-Men: First Class that I had no idea HOW AWESOME she was. Easily the highpoint of the show and its most innovative addition, Emma is to Wolverine and the X-Men what Rogue was to X-Men Evolution: the lynchpin of the overarching plot, with her narrative importance foreshadowed early and paid off magnificently.
Intelligent, manipulative, determined and mysterious, the character's newcomer status allows for a degree of audience surrogacy as she's brought up to speed on various people and events that went down prior to her arrival. With her clipped British accent and Ice Queen design she certainly makes an impression on characters and viewers alike, and though they stop short of putting her in white lingerie, her civilian outfit is enough to tell you how aware she is of her own sex appeal.
She's a suitably cold and secretive figure, but her relationships with other team members feel more mature and the ongoing act of winning their trust is earned. Which means that when it appears she's betrayed them in the last handful of episodes – it hurts.
Her presence also disrupts the familiar Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle that permeates so much of this franchise. With Wolverine forced into the role of team leader and Jean largely out of commission, it's the relationship between Emma and Scott that's given extra attention. The two explore a tentative attraction over the course of the show, one that's ironically enough brought on through their mutual investment in Jean.
Yet Emma's most important bond in the story is with Wolverine, so much so that I'm willing to invoke The Not Love Interest trope, which describes the central and most important dynamic of any given story, the caveat being that it's not romantic in nature. Logan and Xavier also serve as an example of this, but there's no discounting Logan/Emma as a vitally important element of the plot.


In fact, the entire course of the future comes down to a simple, single choice Logan must make: whether or not he can trust Emma.
***
As is to be expected from the X-Men, there are plenty of female characters involved, though it's not quite as impressive as other adaptations in regards to what they actually do in the narrative. Along with Emma Frost, Rogue and Kitty are also given plenty of screen-time and narrative import. But Storm and Jean are mishandled (more on them later) and despite making Domino the leader of the Brotherhood, the writers never quite realize her full potential.
So the position of "most interesting female character after Emma" goes to Wanda, aka Scarlet Witch. It strikes me that this character (along with Quicksilver) goes through the most variation in the way she's depicted from one X-Men adaptation to the next, from Magical Girl to Psycho Goth to Mysterious Waif to this: The Mad Scientist's Daughter.
As the eldest of Magneto's children, she serves as his second-in-command and law enforcer on Genosha, who crucially not only supports her father's aims, but truly believes that they are good and righteous (a far cry from their fraught relationship in X-Men Evolution). Her arc gradually sees her realizing that Magneto's cold-blooded "destroy a few to save the many" tactics aren't her own, challenging her to question who she is and what she stands for.
She's even given a great What You Are In the Dark moment, in which Wolverine's life lies entirely in her hands – and her actions play out a little differently than how you might expect. 
Granted, it's a tad irritating that her internal conflict is defined by the two men in her life (her loyalty to her father is set against her quasi-romance with Nightcrawler – which to its credit, is a ship that actually works) but she's also explored as a character in regards to her role as a sister: an overprotective one to Lorna, and a somewhat unsympathetic one to Pietro (who is The Unfavourite this time around).
She ended up being one of my favourite characters, not least because she takes over Genosha as its new leader by season's end.
***
Which brings us to the show's take on Magneto, which as it turns out, ends up being the best animated depiction of the character. Whereas X-Men: TAS cast him into the role of ally, and X-Men Evolution into that of enemy (only touching lightly on the character's capacity to be both), Wolverine and the X-Men captures Magneto at the height of his power, in all his complicated, compromised, charismatic glory.
Courteous, manipulative, equitable, and ultimately ruthless in pursuing his goals, this is a Magneto who is gentle to his daughters, dismissive of his son, generous to his people, scornful of humanity and respectful to the X-Men (until it suits him to be otherwise). Not without reason or compassion, but with a final solution that's devastating, this Magneto is one that's (much like Emma Frost) designed to keep you guessing.
Professor X also gets plenty of great material, and is allowed to be a man of action for a change thanks to some robotic leg braces. Yet it's still him: a guiding sage and source of wisdom for his students, but also a leader forced to make the tough (and morally questionable) calls.
***
But perhaps my favourite element of the show is its commitment to the Rule of Cool factor in how it portrays mutant powers. In the past, they've been depicted as either flashy and unwieldy (in X-Men: TAS) or as dangerous as they are useful (in X-Men Evolution), but here the writers exercise their imaginations to be as inventive as possible. In other words, when a group of writers is given a range of characters with superpowers, their key objective should be to make their audience go: "ooh, that's cool!"
These characters are neither idiots nor students; they are trained and experienced combatants who know how to utilize their abilities, how to combine or use them in tandem with team members, and how to use an enemy mutant's power against them.  
The X-Men franchise in general avoids depicting practical uses for mutant abilities, focusing almost exclusively on fighting, but this show takes a cue from Avatar: The Last Airbender, in which elemental bending is used for mundane activities such as cooking, building, transport and entertainment. So among other things, Wolverine and the X-Men depicts Iceman making a landing site for the Blackbird by freezing the surface of a lake, a panic-stricken Jean telepathically knocking out everyone within a five-mile radius, Psylocke helping a frazzled mother get out of a parking ticket by messing with the mind of the traffic warden, and Gambit telekinetically charging a fountain by dipping his fingers into the water.
We all know that Nightcrawler can teleport himself and other objects, but here we see him empty a flooded cargo hold by teleporting the water around him and letting it drop over the side of the ship. 



Oh, and then there's the sequence in which he escapes Genosha by teleporting as far as he can out to sea, free-falling down toward the ocean, and teleporting up into the sky again before he hits the water. Over and over again. By the time he reaches the mainland he's exhausted, but he's made it.
Having infiltrated the Brotherhood, Rogue uses her powers to absorb Quicksilver's thoughts and learn Magneto's plan, then uses his super-speed to escape after Domino confronts her. Later she combines the super-strength of Juggernaut with the phasing ability of Kitty (both knocked out in battle) to penetrate the giant shell of a mutated creature, there calming the little girl within who has been unknowingly powering it.


But what about Kitty? She's mastered the art of running straight through a person and grabbing their weapon on the way, but her ability to simply phase through things removes a lot of suspense when it comes to putting her in danger. Nothing can touch her – literally, and though this resulted in perhaps the only worthwhile sequence to come out of X-Men: The Final Stand (Ellen Page's petite Kitty going up against Vinnie Jones's massive Juggernaut) it threatens to undermine her action scenes.
Often the show resorts to drastic measures to remove this narrative pitfall: either she's left at home or the obstacle she tries to phase through inexplicably fails to accommodate her – but in one episode the team travels to Genosha and sneaks into Magneto's metal citadel to confront him. Unsurprisingly, Magneto makes short work of the others (especially Wolverine), leaving Kitty as the last one standing. After all, he can't defeat a girl who simply phases through anything he throws at her, right?
No, but he can give her a metal tile to hold onto as he melts the metal floor beneath her feet. If she lets go, she falls to her death, and so is rendered powerless for the duration of the lecture that follows. Genius.
The writers actually have a lot of fun with Kitty's abilities, establishing early on in the Danger Room that her Achilles Heel is heights (obviously there's no point in phasing through restraining bonds when she's twelve feet in the air) and later giving her a subplot in which she has to take out an entire squad of MRD soldiers at the mansion all by herself. Perhaps that's easy enough, but she has to do it while simultaneously keeping a small child calm out of fear her mutant power will reactivate and turn her back into a huge Godzilla-type monster.
Then there are the little things: that Magneto makes a point of taking off his helmet to speak to his youngest daughter, that Bobby freezes over when he's asleep, that Emma finds it impossible to telepathically read Rogue because of the patchwork of other people's memories in her head. 
It all helps create a world in which mutant powers are complex and manifest in different ways – and yet are treated as organic parts of these individuals, which they've since learned to fold into the day-to-day minutia of their lives.
What Doesn't Work:
I could have easily put Scott and Jean in the "mixed bag" category since they're not bad persay – but on the heels of their best animated incarnations in X-Men Evolution, they're definitely something of a disappointment here.
Inevitably, the act of propping up Wolverine as team leader and protagonist means that Cyclops must be diminished. This is achieved by making him unfit for leadership due to his crippling grief over Jean's death – an apt justification, but one that's conveyed in a rather muddled manner. In fact, it's amusing to scroll through the TV Tropes entry on the show and see how opinions differ. Half the comments seem to be sympathetic toward Scott, pointing out that he's grieving for the love of his life and probably suffering from depression; the other half think his attachment to Jean is obsessive and creepy.
Honestly, it's difficult to know what side the writers expect us to take. Wolverine is our protagonist, so presumably we're meant to agree with him when he tells Scott to "quit feeling sorry for yourself" and "when the going gets tough, the tough pack it in," and "Xavier wouldn't kick you out, but don't think for a second I won't", a tough-love attitude that does rile Scott out of his apathy, though not his heartache.
But this adaptation gives us what has to be the most poignant portrayal of Scott's early childhood. It's difficult to reconcile such an over-the-top soap-opera background with a narrative that asks us to relate to the character it belongs to, but in just a few short scenes the plane crash, the two-year coma, the bullying at the orphanage and the manifestation of his mutant powers demonstrate just how lonely and isolated Scott really is. 



By the time Jean enters his life and gives him some warmth and kindness, it's easy to understand how and why she becomes the centre of his universe. She was the first good thing to happen to him in years.
Which brings us to Jean. To discuss her, let's go back right to the genesis of X-Men, when the first comic book introduced them as a team of five young mutants: Cyclops, Beast, Angel, Iceman and Marvel Girl. Four guys with unique powers and diverse personalities – and The Chick. As a rule of thumb, you do not – just do not – have a compelling character when the foundation of their creation is tokenism.
Of course, in the context of long-running franchises, Token Girls do not have to stay one-dimensional. The likes of Marvel Girl and Invisible Girl and Wasp have grown and evolved in complexity over the course of the last few decades – though it doesn't change the fact that with each new incarnation, writers are forced to return to that character's basics. And in Jean's case, the basics are: The Chick.
In X-Men: TAS Jean was a bit boring, with a tendency to collapse or faint at twice the rate of her colleges, but who nevertheless was treated as an active and valued member of the team. X-Men Evolution did even better by making her a teenager struggling with the demands of perfection placed upon her, though she didn't escape unfavourable comparisons to the likes of Rogue and Kitty, or fandom accusations of Mary Suedom. But despite these missteps both versions hold a superior position within the narrative than this Jean, who is a plot device first and a character second.
The ongoing problem with portrayals of Jean (even in the movie franchise) is the confusion writers have with the concept of a "strong female character". They think it literally means "powerful" instead of "complex and three-dimensional". So here's a quick checklist for future reference. Your female character, like Jean Grey, may have enough raw power to make her the equivalent of an atomic weapon, BUT IF SHE...
1. Has little understanding or control over her abilities,
2. Has amnesia and therefore no sense of identity,
3. Has no agency due to the fact she's a pawn in a larger game played by others
...then no – you have not written a strong female character, or even a strong character, period.
A female character with self-control, a sense of identity and agency in her own story will always be "stronger" than one who has none of those things, regardless of whether or not she can level a city.
And while we're on the subject of disappointing female characters, we have to mention Storm. Storm is ... there. That's honestly all that can be said about her. She gets a couple of nice moments (giving Scott a disappointed look mid-battle which not only captures the weight of the history between them but does more to snap him out of his funk than any of Logan's insults; holding silent vigil beside Professor X's comatose body with Logan's arm around her) but a vaguely shippy vibe with Angel feels shoehorned in, and her introductory episode –which is also her only character-centric episode – is more about Emma proving herself to the team than anything to do with Storm (who, like Jean, spends the episode unable to control her abilities and confused as to who she really is).

It's really quite glaring how underused she is, especially since she's always been recognized as second-in-command after Cyclops. Wolverine favouritism strikes again...
***
Although the season on the whole elegantly melds the present with the future plot-lines, keeping up a dialogue between the two that only intensifies as the finale nears, there are a couple of subplots and characters that are introduced only to go nowhere or get abruptly jettisoned.
Appearances from Mr Sinister and the transformation of Warren into Archangel are clearly meant to be lead-ins for larger story-arcs in season two, along with Apocalypse's big entrance in the season's final moments, but a good portion of the show's first few episodes are spent with Rogue and the Brotherhood, and with Nightcrawler on Genosha – subplots that open up a lot of interesting possibilities, but which are cut short.
Rogue for example, plays a dangerous game that involves her infiltrating the Brotherhood, striking up a friendship with Domino, and grappling with both her own abandonment issues and the mistrust of her former teammates. But the fallout of her broken relationship with Domino is never explored after it's revealed Rogue as a double-agent, and the Brotherhood quickly fade from the spotlight.
Meanwhile, Nightcrawler is approached by Dust while on Genosha, who tells him she has something important to show him – but she's never seen after this, and it's unclear why Kurt is so enraged at what he does find: mutant prison cells. Surely the existence of law and order on Genosha shouldn't be horrifying, but apparently his discovery of it is enough for Nightcrawler to be taken into custody.
There are other bits and pieces that just sort of fade away: the Wolverine/Beast bromance is strongly established in the first couple of episodes, and then dropped as the cast grows. Colonel Moss (in charge of the MRD) has notable scratches on his face that suggest a history with a certain clawed mutant that's never delved into. And Colossus appears in the very first episode, only to disappear completely after that.
Again, perhaps a second season would have alleviated this "stop-start" quality, but as it stands, it's frustrating to see so many interesting characters and plot developments fall through the cracks.
This was our lead-in to season two. *deep sigh*
Oh, and at one point the post-apocalyptic mutants hide a giant robot behind a curtain so that dog-like Sentinels don't spot it. It's just a single throwaway scene, but I still need to mention how unbearably stupid it is.

Whew, thank goodness this giant curtain was here
to hide us from super-sensory robots!
Partial Success:
Let's be honest, Warren Worthington III was never a hugely interesting character in the first place, and of the five original X-Men, his appearances across various adaptations of the franchise feel the most obligatory (remember how X-Men: The Final Stand promoted him relentlessly only to give him just three scenes?) And yet this is probably the best take on Warren, simply because it focuses less on his rather uninspiring powers (he can fly – that's it) and more on his background.
Unlike the other X-Men, and in stark contrast to the Brotherhood, Warren comes from privilege, with an incredibly wealthy father who hypocritically supports Senator Kelly's policies while trying to conceal his son's mutant abilities from the public. This puts Warren in the tenuous position of wanting to openly work alongside his fellow mutants, but being forced to toe the party line if they're to benefit from his father's wealth (it's what's funding the rebuilding of the mansion under the pretext it's an elite boarding school).
But playing the long game with Daddy's money has its consequences, with Worthington Senior believing he's entitled to remove his son's mutation when the opportunity arises – cue Apocalypse's Archangel emerging in the wake of Warren's trauma.

It's a fairly predictable arc for the character (one we're sure to see again in the latest Bryan Singer film) but it's still the best portrayal we've had of this particular character, and the scene in which he awakens in the hospital after having his wings surgically removed is genuinely harrowing.
***
As with X-Men Evolution, the show is on somewhat shaky ground when it comes to the Brotherhood. In theory, joining the organization would be pretty tempting for your average teenage mutant who's been ostracized from society and running in fear of their life. After all, the Brotherhood not only provides safety in numbers, but is a group that takes affirmative action against those who are persecuting mutants. Thank goodness Professor X lives in a cushy mansion, otherwise there would be little incentive for his students to stick around.
But when it comes to the Brotherhood, there's an unfortunate tendency to make its members a collection of minorities and/or criminals. It leads to the question: are these characters portrayed as multi-ethic street kids because that demographic is most vulnerable to joining a quasi-terrorist group promising them empowerment, or are they deliberately portrayed that way to subtlety code them as inferior to the more elite X-Men?
It's a question X-Men Evolution also struggled with, and (perhaps not coincidentally) the Brotherhood resembles their Evolution counterparts more than any other set of characters in this series. Granted, they've swapped out Scarlett Witch for Domino and Avalanche is back to being Greek, but Quicksilver, Toad and the Blob are virtually identical in appearance and personality.
Yet they're no longer the "troubled teens" of Evolution, for these guys are older, more dangerous, and begin the series as the first major threat the X-Men must face after they threaten Senator Kelly's life – only for their subplot to end pretty quickly and their involvement in events to be revealed as part of someone else's much bigger plan.
Mixed Bag:
As I've already mentioned, making Wolverine the show's protagonist has its pros and cons. It allows for a certain amount of focus that comes with picking a central character to ground things within the wide scope of the ensemble cast, with particular emphasis on Logan's relationships with Professor X, Rogue and Emma Frost (and to a lesser extent, Scott, Jean and Beast).
And yet the fact that he's in every episode, often to the detriment of other characters, paints him as a bit of a Gary Stu, and by this point I was sick to death of his mysterious past being teased out for the third time. So much time has been spent on it across all three cartoons and the film franchise, and yet despite this latest regurgitation of all the prerequisite story elements (the Mutant X experiments, the Sabretooth vendetta, the romantic past with Mariko) I still don't feel as though I have any solid answers about what actually happened to Logan. Wolverine and the X-Men offers a few unique additions, such as swapping out Silver Fox for Mystique and adding a collection of X23 clones, but its failure to link Logan's flashbacks to present and/or future events (which could have been fascinating) means it all just feels like filler. As Professor X explicitly says at one point: they have bigger things to worry about.
Still, if you're a hardcore fan of Wolverine, you'll love his characterization here. His Character Establishing Moment sums him up perfectly: on witnessing an explosion on the horizon, he deliberately turns his motorbike in the opposite direction – and gets maybe ten feet before changing his mind and turning around to go help.


You can almost HEAR his internal sigh.
***
They've got an interesting take on Gambit, depicted as a sleazy thief that the writers recognize as a sleazy thief. Perhaps mercifully, he and Rogue don't interact (not least because the age difference is even more pronounced here than in X-Men Evolution) as a considerable chuck of his story involves him working for the bad guys, planting a bomb on Genosha, and seducing the naïve young Lorna. 
Perhaps a redemption arc was in the cards for season two, but this is certainly the darkest we've ever seen Gambit, who is insulted when Wolverine accuses him of selling out his own kind for a little cash, quickly amending that he does so for a large amount of cash.
The inevitable Avengers crossover occurs early on, though this time it involves Bruce Banner instead of Captain America, for a one-off mission with Wolverine that feels like the only true filler of the show. Nick Fury turns up for a cameo (now portrayed as black in the wake of 2008's Iron Man) but it's not a hugely interesting story, and feels more obligatory than anything.
As with X-Men Evolution, there is little in the way of the more extreme science-fiction elements from the comics, with enemies drawn from a pool of terrorist mutants and fear-mongering politicians rather than the far reaches of space. It's a wise decision, as I've always thought the franchise was ill-served by the inclusion of aliens, space travel and other planets (its premise is rich enough without these trappings) but Wolverine and the X-Men does briefly include the likes of Mojo, Spiral and the Reavers.
They end up being the equivalent of the Asteroid X episodes in Evolution: characters that feel drastically out of sync with the rest of the show, which rests more on interpersonal relationships and political struggles. However, I'll admit my comic book ignorance plays a part in my lukewarm opinion – for instance, I'm sure there's a very good reason why this girl is chained to a ship, but I've no idea what it might be:
Miscellaneous Observations:
I've already mentioned this, but it's worth repeating: that a lot of this show's characterization is heavily based on other X-Men adaptations, lending it a sense of history (at least for those familiar with the franchise) which it might not have otherwise contained. It's a clever way to take some shortcuts in the setup, by drawing upon impressions and assumptions already established in the audience's mind. Here Rogue has a special bond with Logan, just as she does in the film franchise, and a close link to the Brotherhood, just like in X-Men Evolution. Even her movie!Rogue's tendency to wear a long hooded coat is carried over.
Kurt is practically an animated version of Alan Cummings's Nightcrawler (he looks and sounds just like Cummings), keeping his Catholic faith and gentle nature, but largely dropping the prankster qualities of his X-Men Evolution incarnation. Unlike the comics, in which the Phoenix is a cosmic entity that possesses Jean, here the show (rather riskily) takes its cue from X-Men: The Final Stand and reimagines it as a supressed part of Jean's subconscious, as well as the hub of her physic powers.
In her subconscious, the Phoenix is a caged canary.
Toad is pretty much an older version of himself as he appeared in X-Men Evolution, and the sibling rivalry between Pietro and Wanda is also maintained (though in this case, Wanda is a stanch supporter of her father).
When the show first aired the similarities led to some speculation that it was meant to be a direct sequel to X-Men Evolution. I suppose you could get away with thinking that if you squint really hard, but there are some things that just don't match up. Angel, Iceman and Beast are introduced in a flashback as part of the original X-Men team, whilst X-Men Evolution portrayed them as latecomers. Amara/Magma is now white instead of her darker skinned Evolution counterpart. Wanda's characterization is drastically different, as is Gambit's motivation. In all, it's best to treat the whole thing as a Spiritual Successor to its immediate forerunner, though one that fulfils the promise made in the epilogue of Evolution regarding its exploration of the Phoenix Saga.
The shipping aspect of things was handled well – perhaps there wasn't enough time for the fandom to get riled up, perhaps the writers were savvy enough to keep things on a low simmer, but I can't recall any online drama in the shipping department (which is pretty astonishing, all things considered). The show lightly teases Bobby/Kitty, Emma/Scott and Kurt/Wanda, and even the Wolverine/Jean/Scott love triangle is relegated to a flashback. Nothing is too heavy handed, just low key and enjoyable.
Unlike the last two animated versions, which strived for a degree of realism in its human animation, the art of Wolverine and the X-Men is highly stylized, and in fact quite reminiscent of Star Wars: Clone Wars. It can take a little while to get used to the sharp angles and large eyes, but every character has an appropriately distinctive design that matches their characterization perfectly.
Although Quicksilver's design is very unappealing. He's meant to be a young guy, but he looks like an old man.
Seriously, how old is this guy?
The world-building is detailed and considerate, such as the inclusion of several billboards inviting mutants to travel to the sanctuary of Genosha: they're seen in the background of several scenes and go entirely unremarked upon until several episodes in. (Though don't ask me why Magneto created this island and didn't organize any safe means of traveling there, requiring mutants to board ships crewed by mutant-racists that are regularly attacked by space-pirates). 

There's also an array of familiar mutants who flit in and out of background shots: Forge, Berserker, Pyro, Dazzler, Blink, Boom Boom, Dust, Pixie – I couldn't even begin to name them all.
Domino's mutant ability is apparently being a perfect shot – yet because she's a cartoon character on a kid's show, she never actually manages to hit anything.
There are plenty of subtle touches, such as Magneto taking off his helmet whenever he speaks to his youngest daughter, or Professor X driving a car with one of those special gear sticks, but these little touches also have their darker side, as when a kindly nurse tending to an amnesiac Jean turns nasty the moment she realizes her patient is a mutant.
Though the show doesn't go so far as to Race Lift any of the main cast, there are some nice touches when it comes to diversity in the background characters. This police officer is black, that doctor wears a bindi, and the very first characters Wolverine interacts with properly are a mixed race family.

No Juggernaut! (Well, he appears very briefly, but that's still a cause for celebration).
There's a neat conceit in the way Wolverine's sensory abilities are portrayed: whenever he's sniffing something out, ghost-like images of what's previously occurred in that area appear on the screen. It's a little confusing at first (on a show with so many superpowers, I initially mistook them for psychic visions) but it works well once you realize what they're meant to be.
I've never realized this before, but the Sentinels look a lot like Magneto: the helmet and colour scheme are very similar. Coincidence?

And yes, that time-honoured tradition of "Jeeeeean!" is present and accounted for.
In conclusion:
So that was Wolverine and the X-Men, another multifaceted animated series that – like Young Justice and Samurai Jack – was cut short in its prime. Life ain't fair.
Its brevity means that it never quite carved out a place for itself within the ongoing X-Men franchise: it's certainly discussed a lot less than X-Men: TAS and X-Men Evolution, which both have the advantage of the nostalgia factor and the time it took to establish a fanbase.
Assuming audience familiarity with previous X-Men incarnations means the writers can dive immediately into their story, avoiding overt introductions to the setup, characters and relationships – and with the groundwork laid in other ventures, they take the opportunity to play with expectations. I've mentioned my ambivalence about how Scott is portrayed, but it's still interesting to see Cyclops as a loose cannon instead of a boy scout. It makes for a natural contrast to Wolverine, the loner who's forced to step up and become the responsible one in his stead.
It also allows for a deconstruction of one of the most established relationships of the franchise: the ever-present Scott/Jean romance. Here Scott's dependency on Jean is not necessarily a good or healthy thing, especially considering he's on the brink of mental collapse without her (very unlike the Scott of TAS or Evolution, who would have found a way to struggle on). And yet, this Scott's faith in – or obsession with – Jean's survival is vindicated with her safe return, muddying the waters of his depiction even further.
This sense of darkness and maturity spreads throughout the entire cast, for in broad strokes the mutants of Wolverine and the X-Men are older, less carefree, and more or less "outed" to the general public. This instils in them a vested interest in the wider political issues that shape their futures, and things like Senator Kelly's policies and Magneto's isolationist tactics make up the backbone of the overarching story.  
So what is Wolverine and the X-Men's legacy? It is a show that excelled in careful plotting; presenting a clear and sustained storyline over the course of a twenty-six episode season that found just the right balance between what its predecessors offered: paying homage to X-Men tradition in its characterization, whilst breaking new ground in the larger story it chose to tell (essentially putting a new spin on combined elements of Days of Future Past and The Phoenix Saga).
It stands as the most satisfying X-Men cartoon in terms of the story it tells, carefully interweaving disparate threads into a complete tapestry, with only a few threads left over for the proposed season two (Sinister/Archangel/Apocalypse). Along the way there are some great one-shot episodes and mini-arcs, such as Rogue's stint with the Brotherhood or the X-Men struggling with whether or not to return a highly dangerous mutant to the MRD, all the while linking Wolverine's activities in the present with Xavier's in the future, infusing the proceedings with suspense as the episodes countdown toward whatever cataclysmic event brings about the end of civilization.
The central mystery of what destroyed the Xavier Institute, Jean's disappearance, Magneto's machinations, and the chain of events that leads to the post-apocalyptic future Xavier is so desperate to prevent are all intertwined, and the finale revolves around the age-old "kill your beloved to save the world" conundrum, with a dash of "you must trust this untrustworthy person" for some added flavour. If you want to know how to make complexity look elegant, you'd do well to study Wolverine and the X-Men.
But perhaps most memorably – at least for me – Wolverine and the X-Men is the first in the franchise to contain not prejudice or fear as its central theme, but TRUST. Rogue doesn't trust Wolverine and Wolverine doesn't trust Emma and nobody trusts Magneto, but all of them have to trust Xavier's messages from the future if they're to avert catastrophe. And ultimately, the course of human/mutant history hinges not on a battle or a war, but in Wolverine's decision to simply trust Emma Frost.
Next Time:

2 comments:

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  2. Such a wonderful post! You actually took out time to write about the series. I don’t think there is anybody my age who hasn’t seen the X-men series. I used to watch it right after school. Now, I make sure my kids watch shows on Netflix that Andy Yeatman programmed because they are pretty much educating. It is also going to be difficult when all these shows are over because he doesn’t work with Netflix anymore which means no more shows by him on Netflix.

    ReplyDelete