The Mutant Apocalypse Begins

X-Men '97: Season 1

I’ve been sitting on this review for a while. X-Men ‘97 is a brilliantly conceived show, a show built around the idea of doing a legacy continuation to a beloved television series, and doing it right. The same animation style, the same characters, (mostly) the same voice actors, all with the same, challenging storytelling that proved you could make a “family friendly” series that didn’t talk down to its audience. There are moments in X-Men ‘97 that are absolutely brilliant, with the series getting going at a hard tilt from the series premiere.

And yet, as much as I enjoy the concept, and I love the work that was put in, and I think that certain episodes are absolutely artistic accomplishments, something about the season left me feeling flat. For all the highs of the season, there are also serious lows. Character moments sometimes feel off, plotlines are rushed or don’t come together like they should, certain plot points don’t align with what we saw before. The show is flawed, and despite how good it can be in places it also feels like it really could have done with another editing pass before it came out on 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..

As noted in the review of the premiere, X-Men ‘97 is a continuation of the 1992 X-Men cartoon that was a beloved hit for an entire generation of Millennial kids back in the day. When that cartoon was put on Disney+ (thanks to Disney buying up Fox and all its associated properties) those same people, now grown up, could share the show with their kids and it developed a huge following. Disney commissioned a sequel / continuation, and X-Men ‘97 was designed and set to pick up right where the previous show left off, as if 17 years hadn’t come in between. It works, it’s effective, it gets the series going at a good clip. But then, as the season goes on, it feels like the series doesn’t quite know what it’s doing at all times.

With the death of Charles Xavier (at the end of the old series), the team of X-Men is placed under the care of their one-time antagonist Magneto. He promises to turn over a new leaf, to continue the mission of his old friend, Charles, to use the X-Men as a force for good, and early on he even seems to prove this to the world. He’s here to help, the X-Men are heroes, mutants can be trusted. The country of Genosha, the new Mutant homeland, is even recognized by the United Nations. It seems like a turning point has been reached.

And then a new breed of Sentinel arrives on the scene. In mere moments Genosha, once a shining beacon for mutantkind, is turned into rubble. Millions of mutants are killed, the rest are left as refugees begging for assistance. Worse, during the attack both Magneto and Gambit are seemingly killed. The X-Men are left devastated while the country that could have been a new homeland is suddenly ignored (very pointedly) by all of the world. Who could be behind this attack, and who would want to cause the mutants such harm?

Well, the answer both works and doesn’t work. I don’t want to spoil the villain, but suffice it to say they’re a deep-cut X-Men villain with a long and complex backstory. They could work in the context of the series, but the show struggles to make the villain work due to the series’ truncated runtime. The first season of this show (or, if you want to think of it as a true new season of the old show, this sixth season) is only 10 episodes long. At twenty-odd minutes per episode, that’s not a lot of time to reintroduce the team, set the new status quo, build up Genosha, have it get attacked, and then set up the villain for the rest of the season and make them compelling.

And that right there is the biggest problem: the show just doesn’t have time to dedicate to its villain. Oh, it tries mightily in the last third, giving the villain a full three-episode arc to play through, but considering all the direction the season went to get there, how many other stories it worked in leading up to our villain reveal, the final chunk of episodes feels rushed. It’s a sprint through who they are, what they want, and how they can actually be defeated, all in just an hour of runtime. It doesn’t work as well as it should.

This really could be said for all the plotlines the series covers. Early on (within the first four episodes of the season, so I hardly feel like this a big spoiler) it’s revealed that Jean Grey isn’t actually Jean Grey but is a clone. This is the kind of plotline that should cause a massive storyline. We should explore the implications of this for five or six episodes as other storylines are happening, but no. Within two episodes it’s all resolved and suddenly there’s just one Jean again. That’s it. A massive comic book storyline that could have played out for years, covered in two episodes. And it’s the same way for Jean and Scott’s son, for Magneto as leader of the team, for Genosha, and more. The series burns through storylines at a sprint, barely letting us get used to a new status quo for any one character (or the team) before it suddenly reinvents itself.

It’s rare I have to say this, but damn, I wish this series would just slow down for a bit. Take some time. Relax. Let us enjoy the characters, the quiet moments, the fun they could have together before the next world-ending threat comes up within seconds. It reminds me of Neon Genesis Evangelion, where every episode focused on another evil mech showing up that the team had to fight. Very rarely did we get quiet moments with the characters or get to see their life outside the constant battles. There were lives being led, events happening that we didn’t see that were hinted at, but those character moments didn’t happen on screen because there was always some new fight to deal with. That’s this first season of X-Men ‘97.

Thing is, so much of the show does work. I love how they continued the art style of the old series, updating it enough to look great on modern TVs without losing that old school charm. The voice actors, new and old, are turning in fantastic performances revealing just how much they care about these characters. Some of the episodes, like that heart-breaking Genosha episode, are really strong stories on their own. There’s a lot to love about this series such that, when it misses the mark, you feel it. It never makes the show bad, per se, you just wish they could do better.

I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt that this first season is like the pilot for the show and that, as it continues (and it’s already clear it will be continuing) the show will work to improve and get even better. The older show took its time to get good, and then put out some stellar storylines (that show still has the best on-screen adaptation of The Phoenix Saga yet) so X-Men ‘97 could follow the same path. The show isn’t perfect, and it has some solid room to grow, but the potential is there. If it can do its next few storylines right then maybe, just maybe, this can be the series I wanted, the one that was promised from that two-episode premiere at the start of the season.