‘X-Men ‘97’ embraces and elevates the original series

By Janie Walenda

Before the times of live-action cinematic universes, superhero stories were ruled by the worlds of animated cartoons.  In the 90s, Batman, Spider-Man and the X-Men all received iconic cartoon series that are still beloved today. While cartoon superhero shows are still being made, they’ve certainly taken the backseat to live-action blockbusters. “X-Men ’97,” a continuation of the animated series that started in 1992 and ended 27 years ago, makes a compelling case for a return to the art form of Saturday morning cartoons.

The transition from the original isn’t entirely seamless; some of the original voice actors who returned sound noticeably older, and as much as the animation imitates the art style of the original, the shift from 2d animation to 3d is noticeable. However, these are small bumps in a mostly smooth road. I was surprised by just how many of the original actors did return and sounded exactly the same, and all of the new actors blended right in seamlessly against the standard they were held up to. This is most clear in episode four, where both of Jubilee’s voice actresses share a scene and I can barely believe that it’s two different people.

The show gets the balance exactly right of where to embrace the old and where to bring in the new. “X-Men ‘97” doesn’t try to make the show cooler by removing Storm’s overdramatic battle cries or by using the referential humor so common in comic book projects today. There aren’t a lot of winks at the audience; instead, the show embraces the 90’s corniness and culture in a way that translates into earnestness.

The show also does a good job at sticking to the characterizations from that era. When the show was coming up, it was pulling stories and characters from comic arcs in the 80s and 90s. In the almost thirty years of comics since then, characters have changed and grown and evolved at times into unrecognizable forms, and the world of the X-Men looks much different. It would be tempting for “X-Men ‘97” to jump to more recent eras and stories, but instead it remains rooted in the stories and culture that it was founded in.

“X-Men ‘97’s” commitment to the original show can both be for better and for worse, as the new show also embraces the absolutely insane pacing of the original. “X-Men: The Animated Series” was infamous for speeding through iconic storylines like “Apocalypse” and “Days of Future Past.” The first two episodes featured a dizzying amount of setup for character and plot arcs for the rest of the season, as well as an arc of Magneto becoming the leader of the X-Men. The third episode followed up by speed-running a multi-year, massive cross-over event from the comics within a tidy 32-minute episode.

“X-Men are like roaches. You see one, more are coming”

Don’t get me wrong, this break-neck pace makes for incredibly fun television, as well as serving as a nice Spark Notes version for non-comic book readers.  As long as you can accept that a character is going to go from “Of course I’m not evil” to “I’m super evil” and back to “Wait, evil is bad” in a half-hour span, you’ll have a great time.

If there’s one area where “X-Men ‘97” clearly exceeds the original show, it’s in the action scenes. Each episode features some of the coolest superhero action put to screen, not just animated screens, with creative power uses and team-ups. You know a show is special when it makes you think, “Hey, Cyclops actually is kind of cool!”

The visuals are also fun, with the third episode taking a quick dip into horror with a nightmare sequence as well as utilizing a stained-glass window to great effect in an action scene. Episode four features arcade-style pixelated animation that’s an insanely cool cherry on top of a relatively short sequence. Initially, I was upset at the loss of the 2d animation, and I still think it’s a sad statement about the animation industry that Disney of all companies couldn’t pull it off. However, not only did the 3d animation stay true to the stylization and art styling of the original show, but did so while jumping leagues ahead in terms of expression, style and action.

Finally, for as breakneck as its pacing is, the show’s character-building is incredibly solid and interesting. Magneto’s transition from villain to tentative hero is not only a fascinating arc for him but also sets in motion the arcs of several other characters. Magneto’s leadership of the X-Men sends Cyclops into an identity crisis, which is only compounded by the astonishingly strange 48 hours he and Jean go through. The question of Magneto’s redemption causes Gambit to doubt his own redemption, as well as his burgeoning relationship with Rogue. And that’s not even mentioning Storm’s plotline, which I can’t say much about without spoiling, or any of the other X-Men’s stories that will be explored throughout the series.

If there’s one thing “X-Men ‘97” understands, it’s what makes the X-Men distinct from other corners of the Marvel universe. Its character dynamics are messy, its metaphors aren’t subtle, and the X-Men are pure, unadulterated comic-book cool. The show balances its well-written if blatant social commentary with enough superhero awesomeness to fuel a geek like me for a solid three days. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s one of the most creative and fun MCU projects since “Wandavision,” and is well worth watching on a Saturday morning with a bowl of cereal.

“X-Men ‘97” is airing new episodes every Wednesday on Disney+

Janie Walenda is a junior Global Business major and an A&E editor for Cedars. She is overly passionate about animation, caffeine and weirdly enough Dracula. 

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios Animation

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