The Mutants Rise Again

X-Men '97: Series Premiere

For fans of a certain era, there was no show better than X-Men, the cartoon that aired on Fox for 76 episodes from 1992 to 1997. For many of us it was the gateway into the Marvel universe, the first stop before learning about their characters and reading their comics and creating a lifelong bond with the publisher. It was for Marvel what Batman: The Animated Series was for DC Comics, a mature, well told series that never talked down to its audience. It has action and adventure, yes, but characters you could care about. It was the whole package

When the series ended (it was originally planned to only run for 65 episodes but got an extra season of content due to its success), fans were distraught. This was the X-MenLaunched in 1963 and written by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men featured heroes distinctly different from those featured in the pages of DC Comics. Mutants who didn't ask for their powers (and very often didn't want them), these heroes, who constantly fought against humans who didn't want "muties" around, served as metaphors for oppression and racism. Their powerful stories would form this group into one of the most recognizable superhero teams in comics (and a successful series of movies as well). we’d come to care about and, alongside the animated Spider-man series, provided all the entertainment kids needed on Fox. Other X-Men cartoons would come along after (X-Men Evolution, Wolverine and the X-Men) but none of them have that feel, that love, that pulpy storytelling that defined the 1992 cartoon series. At least, not until now.

Created by Beau DeMayo (who also wrote, or co-wrote, most of the episodes for the first two seasons), X-Men ‘97 is a revival of the original series, picking up right where the previous show left off. In style, animation, writing, and even voice acting, the series tries its very best to be a continuation of that series, a loving tribute to all it was and all it could be. And it was all thanks to the original series coming to Disney+Disney's answer in the streaming service game, Disney+ features the studio's (nearly) full back catalog, plus new movies and shows from the likes of the MCU and Star Wars. back in 2019 and receiving much acclaim (and great ratings), leading Disney to realize there was a desire for more of this show going forward. Sometimes, occasionally, studios do listen.

The series picked up right where the old show left off, with an attack of Charles Xavier leaving his “dead” and his team of X-Men – Cyclops (Ray Chase), Jean Grey (Jennifer Hale), Ororo Munroe (Alison Sealy-Smith), Wolverine (Cal Dodd), Morph (J. P. Karliak), Rogue (Lenore Zann), Beast (George Buza), Gambit (A. J. LoCascio), Jubilee (Holly Chou), Lucas Bishop (Isaac Robinson-Smith) – remain to pick up the pieces. With their leader gone, Cyclops steps into the role (not without some bitching from Wolverine, of course). Due to Charle’s sacrifice the world now trusts the X-Men, and all mutant-kind, slightly more than it used to, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still threats out there to deal with.

Most specifically there are the Friends of Humans (FOH), a radical group looking to exterminate all mutants, no matter if they’re a threat to humans or not. As far as the FOH is concerned, all mutants are threats and must be exterminated. They have powerful allies, and are aligned with sinister forces, working to rid the world of mutants. But the X-Men have their own ally… if he can be called that. As his last act, in his will, Charles left everything to Magneto (Matthew Waterson) the one time foe of the X-Men. Now reformed, supposedly, Magneto wants to do what he can to continue Charles’s work and save all mutants through the more peaceful and humane solutions Charles wanted. Presuming, of course, that is even possible.

The brilliance of X-Men ‘97 is that it doesn’t change anything that was working. In fact, it works as hard as it can to maintain that high standard set by the original series. It treats the show with reverence, yes, but it is willing to push forward, to assume what could have happened and define what will happen next for the familiar versions of these characters. It doesn’t feel like a bland homage but something willing to continue the strong, powerful, risky storytelling of the original series. It’s what the fans wanted, more of the original X-Men.

What’s excellent is that, even in these first two episodes, the show is laying out a bold plan for what the future of the series will look like. With Charles dead, there is presumably a power vacuum that would be fought over by Magneto, Storm, and Cyclops. Yet the show starts off by trying to settle that matter, even as it starts different storylines for each of these lead characters. Magneto, of course, has to prove himself to the team, to show that he has changed (or at least wants to) in order to honor his friend. But it’s the other two that have far more interesting story threads to follow.

The first episode of this two-part premiere establishes that Scott and Jean are going to have a baby and that, in turn, might just change Cyclops’s plans for the team. How can he lead, putting himself in danger and possibly leading to threats coming for his wife and family? He has to decide if he wants to retire with Jean (who is ready to give up the life of an X-Man) or stay on as leader. This is, of course, complicated by the arrival of Magneto, who seems to mean well but, naturally, Scott has doubts. This isn’t a simple story and the show doesn’t shy away from it, treating Scott’s decision, and his agony over it, with weight and drama.

Without Scott at the head the next natural choice would have been Storm. In fact, it’s clear from the second episode, after Magneto arrives and declares himself the head of the team, that he respects Storm above all others. She is, in his eyes, a literal goddess of the weather, and she commands the respect of everyone on the team. She’s a natural leader, and a powerful mutant, and without Cyclops or Magneto she would be the next choice to lead the team (and in the comics, in various storylines, she has been the leader of at least one half of the X-Men teams). Except then, near the end of the second episode, she gets hit with a power-nullifying blast from a sniper and, suddenly, her powers are gone. Maybe forever.

For a character like Storm this would feel like a death. To lose a core aspect of herself, the powers that have come to define her, is worse than just about any other fate she could have thought about. It changes who she is, makes her less than herself. We see by episode’s end that she’s left the team, no longer feeling like she belongs with the family she’s had for years, and her fate is unknown. Presumably, since she’s in the opening credits for the series, we’ll see her go on her journey, trying to find who she is. Maybe she’ll get her powers back, maybe she won’t, but the way the series sets up her next chapter leaves a lot of storytelling potential ready for us to explore. It’s dramatic and, sad as it is now for Storm in the moment, exhilarating.

The series is willing to take chances, to push the characters, to see what could possibly happen next without playing it safe. These are bold moves that treat the X-Men like real characters (and we haven’t even touched upon many of the side stories, like the growing friendship between Logan and Morph, and romance between Rogue and Gambit which might become complicated by the bond between Rogue and Magneto, and more). It’s heady stuff for what could be considered a “kids show” but, then, the audience for this series are the people who grew up with this series and their kids as well.

What X-Men ‘97 proves, more than anything, is that the original animated series is timeless, that it holds up and is worth watching, and continuing, even today. Some shows feel like a product of their time, locked in amber and sealed away to age and become something enjoyed only with fondness of what was. X-Men ‘97 illustrates clearly, though, that at least one show was really good, and more than just something “for kids.” To have the series back, with new episodes and new stories, is glorious and I can’t wait for the full run of this season (and the two additional seasons already approved for production).