by James Harvey
(Originally published at Marvel Animation Age)
X-Men: The Animated Series premiered on October 31st, 1992. Halloween. Where was I? Well, and as bad as this will sound, I was not watching X-Men: The Animated Series. I can't exactly recall what I was doing fifteen years ago to this day, I assume prepping for Trick-or-Treating, but I know I wasn't watching our favorite Merry Mutants. Not a good way to kick off a "Happy 15th" article, is it?
Anyways, I came into the series somewhere in the first season, somewhere in the middle. Much like Batman: The Animated Series, I still remember the first episode I watched. I can remember stumbling across it one Saturday morning. I knew the show existed but never really pursued it. We all know the commercials, right? One had Gambit spouting "Life don't get much better than this" in his thick Cajun accent, Storm shouting "Agreed" while holding some weird light saber type sword, and assorted gross mutants ripping open a gate. Those are the three moments of that commercial I remember, and I'm not sure why. As a kid, I was more of a DC Comics kids, but I read some Marvel. Among my vast collection of Batman comics were a few Marvel books, specifically Spider-Man and the X-Men.
Back on topic, I stumbled onto the series with the episode "Slave Island." It was at some point after the opening credits and I had no idea what was going on. Who was that guy with the big gun, who just popped out of nowhere and then just vanished? For one reason or another, it didn't grab me, so I just changed the channel. A few weeks later, I came across "Days of Futures Past, Part One" while channel surfing one Saturday morning and that episode just hooked me. I don't know if it was seeing a clearly aged Wolverine battling Sentinels in the future at the start of the episode, or the laughably awesome shout-out to Punisher, via a conveniently titled video game, or the great cliffhanger ending with Gambit and Bishop. Whatever it was, it just clicked. Absolutely clicked.
After catching that first season in summer reruns, I was hooked. I started watching that show every Saturday from there on in. I wasn't the only one hooked on the series, as X-Men: The Animated Series was one of Fox Kids' highest rated shows during it's tenure. I realized more and more, how this cartoon was just like the X-Men comics I just started reading. While Batman: The Animated Series brought us the best interpretation of that character ever, X-Men: The Animated Series successfully brought the X-Men comics at that time to life. Wolverine has the same costume here as he did on the show, the whole team was there, and the cameos gave us glimpses into the expanded X-Men universe. At this time I was still somewhat a newbie to the whole X-Men universe, but I learned quickly, picking up every issue I could so I could start picking up on in-jokes and comic book references in the comics, too. This series taught me so much about the Marvel Universe at that time.
Plus, this series also propelled me to read classic X-Men and Marvel comics. When "The Phoenix Saga" five-part episode aired, I learned all I could about the comic version. I started to appreciate the heavy ties the cartoon had to the comics. I understood that changes had to made from comic to screen, that, Saturday morning ran by rules different to the comic books. And, personally, I had no problem. I understand that not everything can translate from one medium to the next and, sometimes, broadcast standards have to enforce a few changes. This series, even though it had more than it's fair share of clunkers and choppy animation, had me riveted and stunned in its' best moments.
And, as much as I hate to admit this, the cliffhanger for "Days of Future Past, Part Two" was originally lost on me. Remember, I wasn't that big into Marvel as a kid, so I had no idea who Magneto was. I mean, I had an idea, but not a very good one. So, when the cliffhanger to that episode came up, with Professor Charles Xavier's watch being magnetized, I just . . . shrugged my shoulders. "He should likely get that looked into," I thought. Thankfully, when revisiting the first season through reruns, the impact of that watch sticking to Xavier's chair never lost its impact. And it led to such a great first season final, "The Final Decision," which is still easily one of the top five episodes of the entire series (in my opinion).
I have to say that, in that first season, some crummy animation aside (I feel bad knocking the animation, as it was clearly out of the hands of the show's stellar creative team), they had more than a few powerful moments on par with "Batman: The Animated Series." Who could forget Magneto's stirring and heart wrenching speech to Xavier in "Deadly Reunions." One of my favorite bits of dialogue from that show still is . . . well . . . that whole scene. When Magneto is pouring his heart out, I was glued to that TV screen. The dialogue was (roughly) as follows:
"When I was a child, my people talked while others prepared for war. They used reason while others used tanks, and they were destroyed for their trouble! I won't stand by and watch it happen again, I won't!"
That may not be exact, but that's the best to my recollection. But how awesome is that speech? Now, remember the powerful voice behind that dialogue, Magneto voice actor David Hemblen, I believe, and just how stirring that could be. This was followed with another hallmark Magneto moment in the season finale, "The Final Decision," as he faces off against a Sentinel all on his own and the outcome is . . . not good.
And who could forget the inspired casting for the series? We had the awesome Cedric Smith as Charles Xavier, Norm Spencer as Cyclops, to name a few, but there was one that stood out. I think it goes without saying that Cal J. Dodd will always be Wolverine to me. After all these years, he is still the voice I hear when I read an X-Men comics. He was, without a doubt, perfectly cast. Yes, other characters had memorable voice actors behind their roles, but none topped Dodd as Wolverine. Maybe that's why I remember Wolverine more than any other character, from this animated series. Plus, thanks to Wolverine's backstory, we got treated to some truly brilliant episodes.
He has quite the history to delve into, and I thought X-Men: The Animated Series took advantage of that, whether it was simple cameos, quick flashbacks, or episodes focused solely on our favorite hairy Canadian. Episodes like "Weapon X, Lies, and Videotape," "Repo Man," and "Old Soldiers" are a couple of my favorite. The winner, is, without a doubt, "Nightcrawler." Such a brilliant episode, which, while focused on Wolverine, also fully introduced us to Nightcrawler. It's such a brilliant episode, one that tackles some really heavy themes head on without a stagger or blink. In fact, I remember doing a couple of interviews with the X-Men: The Animated Series creative team on this episode alone.
And while there's a fair amount of great episodes from this series, and some really bad ones ("Have Yourself A Morlock X-Mas" was dreadful) I think what really set this show apart from other cartoons as the time was how it ended. It gave us, much like the X-Men movie franchise, a finite ending to their story. While the comics drag on and on, this one gave us the aptly titled "Graduation Day," the last episode of the series. Xavier is dying, the mutant/human relations are in turmoil, and Magneto is ready to strike. Even as this goes on, we manage to get an intimate story of the X-Men trying to save their mentor's life. All of which comes to head in the final moments in a touching scene as, with Xavier on his deathbed, he talks to each of his students, one at a time. It's a scene that still makes me tear up abit. Yes, the ending with Xavier being transported away to live with the Sh'iar, a vague allegory for death, is a little weak, but the episode still packs one powerful punch.
This episode was part of the famed "revamping" the show did for the final six episodes, after X-Men: The Animated Series got picked up for a few more episodes, much to the surprise of nearly everyone involved. Character designs, backgrounds, everything was revamped from the top down for the final six episodes. And while the animation seemed smoother and less clunky, the designs streamlined, the animation still didn't seem up to par as it should've been. Don't get me wrong, there were very beautifully animated episodes during this series, there were, but the streamlined look didn't seem to fit the serious, straight tone of the series.
While this show may not be as highly regarded or remembered as, say, Batman: The Animated Series, it did leave a mark. Of course, the problematic animation gave the series a good beating from time to time, but we all powered through as fans, soaking in the great aspects of the series and forgiving the bad. It showed us that comic-based cartoons can be accessible and give credit to their roots. Along with Spider-Man: The Animated Series (just the first season), this series was not ashamed of its comic book roots, paying homage and staying close to the four-colored page. Whether it was story inspiration or character design, this show was, essentially, an animated X-Men comic. It was convoluted at times, dialogue sometimes clunky, and designs sometimes over-detailed - just like the X-Men comics! It was pure 1990's story-telling, start to finish. And, as we all tuned in to watch the show, that's what we got becuase that's what we wanted. An X-Men cartoon that comic fans could thoroughly enjoy, and an X-Men cartoon newbies could find both accessible and entertaining enough to make them want to pick up the comic this show was based off (like me, basically).
And besides, if you disliked everything about this show, whether it was the story or animation or whatever, how could you hate that theme song? I'm sure if I heard that theme song when I caught my first episode of the series, I may have given "Slave Island" my full attention. I'm glad I came back around a few weeks later for "Days of Future Past, Part One," and was introduced to not only a fantastic, if imperfect, cartoon, but a great cavalcade of brilliant characters being spearheaded by a talented cast and crew. In fact, now seems like a good time to crack open one of those X-Men: The Animated Series DVDs...
Happy 15th Anniversary, X-Men: The Animated Series.