How ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’ Defined Superheroes For a Generation

X-Men animated series
Source: ScreenRant

In the X-Men universe, there are a tonne of superheroes and just as many villains that could top anyone’s favourite superhero list. So, it isn’t surprising that when X-Men TAS was released in the fall of 1992, it had the enviable opportunity to explore the huge wealth of characters that exist in the X-Men universe.

Unfortunately, one of the most influential and highly acclaimed superhero programmes to have ever have been released came out during the same period, Batman TAS – on the same network, no less! -, so it isn’t surprising that it has been subjected to an unjust amount of criticism.

The criticism against the show should be taken with a pinch of salt, though, as X-Men is truly an unappreciated gem that, like Batman TAS, challenged many established genre archetypes and moved the genre in a better direction, as well as being a huge ratings hit during its original run between 1992 and 1997. A show that was so popular that when it went off the air ratings went down by 31% and almost 20 years after its original release was revived in the form of the 2015 comic, X-Men 92.

The comic’s large roster of superheroes and villains make regular appearances throughout the series, but the show follows a consistent group of heroes that resembles the comic’s blue team. Charles Xavier ‘Professor X’ leads a team of powerful mutants consisting of Cyclops, Jean, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, Beast and Jubilee, as well as a handful of ex-X-Men who make sporadic appearances throughout the five seasons.

All of the main cast feels well developed and the voice casting is spot on – if you can ignore the odd, drawn out yelp from Professor X and Jean, the theatrical delivery of the self proclaimed ‘mistress of the elements’ who has the annoying tendency to ham-handedly deliver cringe-inducing lines such as “NATURE, I COMMAND YOU. BRING FORTH THUNDERRR AND LIGHTNING”, or the forgettable delivery of lines by the always dependable Cyclops.

Similarly, the comic book style artwork brought the world of X-Men to life and, even though backgrounded imagery often looked wishy washy and lacked sharpness, it encapsulated the spirit of the comics. This, however, wasn’t the main draw of X-Men TAS, it was its ability to tell stories that allowed viewers to become emotionally invested. All of the main cast and some of the villains had a at least a handful of interesting stories to tell and the way they communicated or argued with each other made it exciting to watch. Rather than allowing them to be one dimensional props that could be used for set piece action sequences, each character felt fully realized and had their own unique way of speaking and dealing with situations, as well as forming unique relationships with the other X-Men .

The programme dealt with a number of difficult to tackle issues that other programmes shied away from covering; one of the more pervasive themes, the intolerance of mutants, draws strong parallels to modern race relation issues. Other issues such as prejudice, the holocaust, aids, genocide and gentrification were all touched upon in the show in one way or another. One of X-Men’s strengths was that it could take these issues and create episodes that didn’t necessarily have to rely on action, but could be narrative or character driven, focusing on the emotional strain or damage that was caused by idiotic attempts at subjugating a minority group of people.

Beauty & the Beast, a particularly tender episode, effectively highlights how X-Men could sensitively tackle prejudice without pandering to its target younger demographic. In this episode, Beast is working on a procedure that would allow a blind women to regain her sight when an attack from an ironically named anti-mutant group ‘Friends of Humanity’ occurs. It is particularly touching because Beast and one of the patients, Carly, are shown to have fallen in love, but her bigot father wants ‘the mutant’ removed. Beast tries to ignore the violence and he is willing to leave the hospital at her fathers request, but becomes enraged when Carly is abducted by members of Friends of Humanity and risk his own life in order to save her.

Another example, Nightcrawler, season 3 episode 18, focuses on a kind-hearted blue mutant called Nightcrawler who is viewed as a Bavarian demon by the religious locals and hides in the nearby monastery as he fears that he would be attacked if the locals saw him. Yet, even though he is forced into hiding, he remains steadfast in his beliefs and near the end of the episode, Nightcrawler explains how he uses religion to keep faith to which Wolverine, someone who has suffered a torrent of atrocities over his lifetime, replies “We’re mutants! God gave up on us a long time ago!”.

This intolerance has caused mutants to become fragmented due to their differing views; some wish for nothing more than to live peacefully among humans whilst others believe they belong to a superior race that deserves to rule over humans. Charles and Magneto, function as antitheticals who best represent these views, as well as being two of the most important mutants within the show. Charles, leader of the X-Men, allows mutants to live in his mansion, helps people in need, spends a portion of his time opposing anti-mutant legislation and tries to solve problems without resorting to violence. Magneto, on the other hand, has very few restraints and he is willing to cause large scale damage if it will help him achieve equality or superiority for mutants.

Later on in the series, it is revealed that Magneto’s hatred of humans stems from the way mutants were treated during his early life. In the episode Deadly Reunions he said “When I was a child my people talked while others prepare for war” that highlights why he will never forgive humans and why he wishes to create a world where mutants can not be hurt. Some episodes focus on this and will show him trying to create a world or environment where mutants can live among themselves free from the fear of persecution.

The programme is far from perfect, however, and even some of the more likeable characters have moments where they pointlessly spew childish phrases or become unbearably irritating; Professor X and Jean’s screams of agony occur a few too many times in the series, Rogue calls everyone ‘Sugar’ and Gambit refers to Jubilee as petit. Personally, though, I have always found Gambit’s comedic antics to be hilarious, even in the terrible Have Yourself a Morlock Little X-mas Gambit’s comedic timing hits a perfect note. “Dis needs a little Gaaambit magic.” as he so excellently phrases it.

Though, the two characters who are the biggest irritants are Jubilee and Morph. My god, Morph. Both are as exciting as a wet salad, but Morph grates in every single scene in which he is present. Thankfully, his only function was to to be killed off in the first episode in order to highlight the tension between mutants and non-mutants and to create a story that could run through the series.

The crux of a lot of the issues that I have with the show stem from Jubilee, a firework throwing, self-proclaimed ‘mall-rat’ who represents everything that was wrong with the nineties whilst throwing cringe-worthy phrases left and right. She added little but seemed to take up a lot of screen time which is frustrating when her presence can diminish the impact some of the more sentimental or action-packed scenes.

Jubilee’s power, the ability to generate and manipulate plasmoids, isn’t inherently dull, but her power wasn’t utilized well and she was more or less helpless in any battle. Worse than that, though, was that her power was unsatisfyingly handled throughout the series and it never really felt that her power level was consistent or, as you would expect from someone who is studying at a school for mutants to learn how to control their powers, progressing. Early on in the series, for example, she was able to knock over a huge, metal robot called a sentinel with little effort, but in another episode her attacks couldn’t inflict any damage to a sentinel.

Fortunately, Jubilee does have a saving grace and it comes in the form of her character design. The world of X-men is brought to life through an art style that is faithful to the comics. Environments and characters have thick black outlines, sharp and detailed designs, heavy shadows and use a lot of dark colours that perfectly conveys the downbeat tone of the series, separating it from many of the brighter coloured programmes of the 90’s.

However, even though the art style was charming, the quality of animation could differ drastically between episodes, depending on the studio who provided the animation. In the first season, for example, human characters often lacked natural fluidity in their movement causing body parts to look robotic, but this contrasted with the animation during other episodes where movement and action felt fluid. The animation during the brilliant Dark Phoenix saga is effortlessly fluid and it is jarring to compare these episodes to other ones within the series.

These problems – for the most part – can be forgiven. The biggest issue that ran through the show was something that could have easily have been solved and it is a great shame that the time wasn’t taken to ensure that the narrative followed a logical structure. Episodes were originally shown out of order as a handful of studios were hired to animate the episodes at the same time and those episodes were then aired as soon as they were finished.

If you can ignore these problems, individual episodes or sagas often followed their own continuity and can be enjoyed separately. Otherwise, these incontinuities could drive the viewer mad by asking questions such as why is Jean is suddenly back, who is Darkstar, or why are we following a mutant in Scotland.

The numerous faults can be forgiven as X-Men makes up for its weaknesses by having strong storylines, characters, an art style based off the unique work of the incomparable Jim Lee, and the unforgettable, adrenaline inducing theme song. Yes, there are more than a handful of forgettable episodes and the fifth season isn’t worth watching. Yes, it does drop viewers into episodes without explaining who some of the characters are on the screen and there are a number of inconsistency in the narrative continuity,but X-Men at its best provided some of the best superhero entertainment to have ever have graced the small screen.

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