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X-Men: The Animated Series - A Retrospective
By Stu

(Originally published at Marvel Animation Age)

“People think what propelled Fox Kids to number one is Power Rangers, but that is not true,” said Margaret Loesch, erstwhile President and CEO of Marvel Production and founding President of the Fox Kids Network. “Power Rangers put us in the stratosphere, but we went from number three to number one because of one event: the premiere of X-Men.”

For years, Marvel was told the same thing: An X-Men cartoon wouldn’t work. Comics are read by young, male adults—a wholly different demographic than a cartoon audience. Loesch and Stan Lee went from network to network and were consistently rejected, according to Margaret Loesch. It was not until Loesch became president of Fox Kids that the project was given the green light.

Stephanie Graziano was head of production and she courted all the X-aficionados in the industry including Will Meugniot and Larry Houston who had also worked on “Pryde of the X-Men.”

From the first, the crew strove to maintain the fidelity of the characters and the stories while translating them for a Saturday morning audience. “They did a great job of translating the stories and not making feel like it got watered down,” said Graziano.

The line-up reflected a slimmed down version of the comics rostor: Xavier, Cyclops, Storm and Wolverine (who was once again Canadian) were joined by Jean Grey—a career X-Woman given her first leading role—Rogue, Gambit, Beast, Jubilee—who essentially replaced Shadowcat from “Pryde” as the rookie—and Morph. Morph was an oddity—though not a new character, he was based upon a villain-turned-hero-turned-casualty, Changeling—he was redesigned, given a new personality, a new history and an X-Man membership.

“Night of the Sentinels” premiered in 1992. It made some bold decisions. Instead of focusing on archnemesis Magneto or even cult favorites like Apocalypse or Mr. Sinister, the first episodes focused on the tension between humans and the growing mutant population. A McCarthy-esque Senator Kelly, discriminating humans and their “sentinels” were the villains. Bigotry was the bad guy, not some man in a cape and helmet.

Furthermore, the X-Men were shown trespassing on government property, destroying files and defending themselves against soldiers. These “heroes” were iconoclasts, civil rights leaders… and criminals.

Perhaps the boldest decision of the premiere, not everyone made it out safe. When the X-Men were revamped in 1975, the idea was to test the members. Some members would fail—die or quit. (Thunderbird did the former, Sunfire the latter.) The cartoon took this notion to heart. After their first mission, Morph was presumed dead; and Beast was incarcerated for trespassing, destruction of property and resisting arrest. Consequently Beast was on the sideline for much of the first season and Morph was removed entirely. While adding a touch of realism to the surreal world of mutants, it also allowed the creative team to take their time developing the multiple members of the team.

In the third episode, Magneto was introduced; but he was no longer the cackling supervillain of “A Prison Plot.” He was a revolutionary, not unlike the Black Panthers or AIM. He was Malcolm X to Xavier’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He offered to break Beast free from prison. (Dr. McCoy benignly declined preferring to wait for his day in court.)

Throughout the season, Magneto and Xavier clashed ideologies. Meanwhile, bigots called for the registration and containment of mutants. In a combination of the comics’ "A Dream’s End" and "Days of Future Past" storylines, Mystique and her running posse (Blob, Avalanche and Pyro) attempted to assassinate Senator Kelly only to have Magneto snatch him first. (The DOFP comparison is a stretch because the X-Men are aided by Bishop—who still thinks Gambit is a traitor a la Onslaught—instead of Kitty Pryde, and hindered by Nimrod instead of Ahab and the hounds.) The conflict came to head, when the Sentinels began rejecting humans’ commands. The Sentinels correctly surmised that mutants were humans, but took the illogical next step of saying all humans must be contained or destroyed. Thus, the X-Men (and, in a surprising turn, Magneto) helped save Senator Kelly from the Sentinels. In return, a grateful President pardoned Beast.

Other heroes that made appearances in the first season include Angel (who quickly became Death, then Archangel), Colossus, Forge and (depending where you score them) the Morlocks, a group of underground runaways taken directly from H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”

The villains included the aforementioned Mystique, Apocalypse and his horsemen (who were true to their comics’ incarnations but nowhere near as cool as the Evo versions), Sabretooth (who was infinitely cooler than his Evo counterpart), Juggernaut and, in the closing moments of the season, Mr. Sinister.

The relationships from the comics were maintained carefully. The love triangle of Jean, Scott and Logan (I will not call him James) was translated meticulously. Rogue and Gambit were flirtatious but could never touch. Logan became a surrogate father to Jubilee. And taking an interesting liberty, Wolverine was made an old friend of Morph’s. This made him take his loss the hardest.

As we proceed... season two of X-Men: TAS developed many plot lines established earlier. Xavier and Magneto spent the season sequestered in the Savage Land where they were accosted by mutates, originally created by Magneto (true to the comics.) They argued over ideologies and took turns saving the other's life. (They also couldn't use their powers because... because... if the two most powerful mutants in the world had their powers, they would beat the living fecal matter out of the mutates.)

The Savage Land setting allowed for Marvel Golden Age characters Ka-Zar, Shanna (the recent recipient of some gratuitious Frank Cho cheesecake) and Zabu to make appearances.

Morph came back with a psychosis akin to schizophrenia. He was now under the tutelage of Mr. Sinister who was fascinated by mutant genetics, specifically Summers' genetics. Sinister was accompanied by the Nasty Boys and not his usual lackeys, the Marauders. The Marauders were a violent bunch (Sabretooth was a member), and the creators might have wanted to avoid the possibility of the Mutant Massacre--a plot line where the Marauders slaughter the Morlocks wholesale.

Morph's return was not originally planned. The creators had intended to let him stay expired; but the shapeshifter had developed a cult following, so the decision was made to bring him back. Granted, being left for dead by your friends does things to a guy, and Morph was less happy-go-lucky. More angry-go-crazy.

Scott and Jean nearly got married. Unfortunately their priest wasn't ordained. It was Morph. Besides, Sinister kidnapped them on their quasi-honeymoon. (They would continue to have bad luck with honeymoons in later seasons.)

The season finale had the X-Men rescue Xavier and Magneto from the Savage Land, and it was revealed that Sinister was pulling the mutates' strings, as well.

Also, with the Sentinel program ended, vigilante humans calling themselves the Friends of Humanity (who were a great metaphor for hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan) took to committing hate crimes against mutants. Due to a limited animation budget (hate AKOM), it seemed like there were only three of them, though the audience understood they were an expansive cabal. Usually they got their butts handed to them in three minutes. Four, tops. They were led by Graydon Creed. (An Upstart in the comics, astonishingly the series kept all of Creed's extensive familial ties intact.)

Season two guest appearances showed a deep understanding of Marvel--not just X-Men--history. In addition to Ka-Zar, Darkstar, Alpha Flight and Ms. Marvel made appearances. (Punisher even showed up as a sight gag in Mojovision; and Captain America and Maverick had cameos in Red Dawn.)

The season included the return of Bishop, Cable and Forge in a story that proved you don't need Stryfe to do the legacy virus. Shadow King squared off against Storm and her "son" Mjnari. (Mjnari was a boring character created for the series. Oddly, he still received a wordless cameo in FF:TAS.) Gambit was spotlighted in an episode with the Assassin and Thieves Guilds. (For some reason, Sinister was kept out of his backstory even though they share an extensive history in the comics.) Longshot showed up with his mullet and reminded us why nobody bought the Australian era X-comics. Omega Red bumped heads with the Colossus. (Why not? They're both Russian.) Illyana even got some screen time.

The best episode of this season was Beauty and the Beast. In which, Beast falls for a blind, human patient. There are overtones of Ben/Alicia. But when her father and the FOH disapprove, the episode transcends a simple love story and becomes the embodiment of what the X-Men are about: acceptance, understanding... I blather on.

Season three of X-Men TAS is probably best known for its interpretation of the Phoenix Saga. Nine episodes were dedicated to a very faithful retelling of the saga. (Of course, this being TAS, it was filled with cameos the original lacked: Banshee, Black Tom Cassidy, Juggernaut and Dazzler come to mind.) It does an excellent job of introducing series' fans to the Shiar, Lilandra, the Starjammers and the other intergalactic aspects of the X-Men. (Unlike Evo, TAS never avoided the sci-fi parts of the X-Men mythos--time travel, space and the Savage Land.)

As per usual, the series' storytelling was hampered by poor animation. "No Mutant is an Island," the story explaining Jean's resurrection, and "Longshot" had to be delayed until season five because of shoddy animating overseas. Consequently, the audience wasn't certain how Jean returned after flaming out at the end of the Phoenix Saga. (Like most children, I assume I missed an episode.)

And now a montage of other noteworthy moments from season three: The Reavers are introduced, the cybernetic enemies of the Australian X-Men. (Out of respect to Spyke, I will take no more cheap swipes at the Australian X-Men... for now.) Archangel returned in "Obsession," a rewrite of an X-Factor story where Beast forms a bond with Apocalypse's ship, only to watch it sacrifice itself to hinder her maker. Iceman made his TAS debut in "Cold Comfort." No longer a child prankster, Bobby is now an embittered ex-X-student. (Heh, I hyphenate too much.) His perspective as the erstwhile youngest student lets him bond with Jubilee, much to Cyclops' chagrin. The episode also features X-Factor (the first Peter David era) including Forge (not to be confused with Future Forge who keeps giving Bishop time machines and decoder rings.) (I also use parentheses too much.)

Speeding up the montage: Morph returns and leaves again; X-Men return the the Savage Land and leave again; Corsair returns, tells Cyclops he's his father and leaves again; Magneto is betrayed by his acolyte Fabian Cortez; the X-Men do a Power Ranger parody in "Juggernaut Returns," and Sabretooth, Logan, Silver Fox and Maverick get together for a Weapon X Class Reunion. (Unfortunately, former class clown Deadpool was not invited.)

Best episode of the season: Nightcrawler. TAS was also able to deal with religious orientation, which EVO was not. TAS Nightcrawler was not a swashbuckler in this cartoon. He was a pacifist and an ordained monk. In 22 minutes, you came to know a hero in an action cartoon who wouldn't fight. His "villain" is a misguided monk and some angry villagers. The episode draws from Frankenstein and, yes, the crucifixion. It was like nothing else on Saturday morning. I still can get goosebumps from it.

For some reason I remember Proteus as the season four premiere, so consequently I'll discuss it here as such. In the comics, Proteus was an all-powerful mutant with kryptonite-like weakness to metal. So the X-folk had Colossus lay a heaping pile of hurt on him after some soul searching. TAS took that option off the table by removing Colossus. (Good call, it was a lame conclusion.) Instead, they have to successfully talk an angry kid down who wants to see his father. The coolest moment: when Proteus melts and reconstructs resident badass Wolverine with a thought. Wolverine is scared for once in his life. Proteus doesn't even notice.

One Man's Worth was the TAS Age of Apocalypse; but instead of focusing on a nihilistic Post-Xavier world, it featured an Exiles- or Quantum Leap-style storyline where Bishop (of course) and his sister Shard enlist lovers Wolverine and Storm to ensure Fitzroy doesn't kill Xavier in college... again. Time travel/alternate universe are sometimes difficult to explain. The story succeeds with the same concept as AOA, but with a wildly different approach. One Man's Worth is essentially a well-told love story between two characters (alternate Storm and Wolverine) who we will never see again. For some reason, we end up caring.

Beyond Good and Evil is easily the most audacious, original story line attempted by the TAS creative team; and because it is original, for once, comic buffs had no clue how it was going to end. Apocalypse enlisted a veritable legion of ne'er-do-wells to help him: Magneto, Sabretooth, Mr. Sinister, Mystique... pretty much any and all A-listers. All of which were promised some largesse. They kidnapped telepaths including a recently married Jean, Psylocke, Xavier, Emma Frost, Rachel Summers, Stryfe... pretty much any cameo they could fit in. A ton of satellite characters are drawn into the fray. It all ends with Magneto (who switched sides again), Mystique, Bishop, Wolverine and the the telepaths fighting Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister and the Nasty Boys in the middle of time. It's as exciting as the series ever got, but the conclusion is a tad rushed. This is the closest TAS Apocalypse ever came to being the villain he deserves to be.

"Lotus and the Steel" and "Family Ties" were good one-shots focusing on Wolverine and Jubilee's relationship in the former and Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch in the latter. The rest of the season's one shots ranged from spotty ("Xavier Remembers") to saccharine (that Morlock Christmas schlock.) On the whole, season four confirmed that TAS was at its best with "decompressed" stories that were allowed to range a little before coming to a conclusion. Tight, 22-minute free-for-alls were not its forte. Character moments and longterm stories were.

With six episodes left in season five, the creative team redesigned the characters and the backgrounds. The reason was Saban Entertainment took over full production control from Graz Entertainment when it shut down. In general, the new designs were preferable--sleeker and easier to animate. (Though Storm's hair still looked stupid. I don't know why her hair gives everyone so much trouble. Halle Berry's gone through seven wigs in three movies.) On the whole, the designs were less Jim Lee and more Joe Madureira.

Season Five featured the oft-delayed "No Mutant is an Island" and "Longshot" episodes. The first (sort of) explained Jean's reappearance, the second took shots at network television. (Apparently this one still doesn't air on Disney. I guess TV execs don't like TV episodes about how bad TV is.)

"Storm Front" befuddles me to this day. This story, transliterated from the comics, features Arkon. Who wants one, let alone two, episodes of Arkon? Arkon is a slave-owning, planet-running doofus who wants to marry Storm. The moral, Storm has awful taste in men.

"Phalanx," on the other hand, is riveting. Beast pulls together a mismatched crew (Forge, Magneto, Sinister, Warlock and himself) to stop an assimilating, planetary threat. Magneto and Beast get the choicest screen time. The grief Magneto has after the loss of his son is palpable. (I'm honestly surprised that there are those who prefer Evo Magneto.)

Nightcrawler, Graydon Creed, Mystique and Sabretooth all return in "Bloodlines," an episode that tries to explain the most convoluted non-Summers family possible. The ep itself is relatively good. Pairing Mystique and Nightcrawler (or anyone and this Nightcrawler) is brilliant. But the episode isn't as compelling as Kurt Wagner's debut.

After the redesign, we saw "Old Soldiers." Captain America (the most popular cameo since Nick Fury, who was also supposed to appear in this episode) and a pre-Weapon X Logan team up to beat up Red Skull. It's good stuff, but I get nostalgic for any Golden Age Marvel. (Just bring up Whizzer and I get misty-eyed.)

"Jubilee's Fairy Tale Adventure" inserts Jubes into what was a classic Shadowcat story from the comics. The replacement isn't surprising. For the length of TAS, Jubilee was played as Shadowcat. She's Wolverine's spunky, young sidekick. She's the rookie clamoring to get in the action. Classic Kitty stuff. I think that's why Shadowcat was never used in TAS. They don't need her. They have Jubilee. The episode itself is marred by Gambit's awful voice recasting. This guy could ruin whole scenes with a butchered "cherie."

"Descent" was an odd choice. it featured no X-Men (though there were nods to Xavier and Jean Grey.) It is a creepy, gripping tale of Sinister's origin. The episode does well by not tipping its hand too early. We don't know until the closing moments that Dr. Essex will become Mr. Sinister. (Every villain wants to throw "doctor" in front of his moniker. We get an actual m.d., and he settles for "mister." Weird.)

Graduation Day is a splendid series finale, a personal favorite. Once again, the story is adapted from the comics. Magneto must choose between helping his closest friend or becoming the figurehead of a massive mutant uprising. Touchingly Magneto chooses to save Xavier's life. (Seriously, who could prefer Evo Magneto? This conflicted hero/villain stuff is gold.) More touching are Xavier's bedside farewells. Morph makes an appearance. Trish Tilby gets a cameo. It gets no better, I mean it.

A few notes on TAS-era crossovers. The X-Men appeared for two episodes in Spider-Man:TAS. The story was actually taken from Stan Lee-penned comic strips. (How's that for knowing your roots?) The episodes are a requisite for completists if for no other reason than that Beast received too few spotlight episodes.

The X-Men were supposed to make an appearance in the Secret Wars. An episode was planned with Magneto, but since TAS Magneto wasn't much of a villain, he was replaced with Sinister. The episode was scripted. It involved Spidey getting the symbiote back temporarily (another nod to the comics.) This script is still floating around somewhere. (I think a certain board member has a copy.) Of course, the Spidey crew couldn't afford to ship everybody from Canada to the States, so we got just Storm instead.

Logan, Jean and Scott make a brief cameo in their civvies in FF:TAS "A Nightmare in Green." They don't say anything, but it's a nice nod. Juggernaut gets a hand in there, too.

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