Thoughts on “X-Men Animated Series”

Yes, this is the 90s series that Disney is trying to reboot.  I actually did watch this series off and on when it came out, which left me in an interesting place wrt it.  See, I watched it on broadcast channels when it was on, which meant that the episodes that I got to watch were the ones that a) the channel decided to run and b) that ran when I happened to be around to watch.  The times it was on — late morning or early afternoon on Saturdays, if I recall correctly — were times that I was sometimes available for and sometimes wasn’t.  Add in that this series ran a number of multi-part episodes and my watching of its various arcs was really hit and miss.  So I expected that I’d remember the episodes very haphazardly, remembering an episode or two and then coming across an episode that I was sure that I had never seen before.  As it turns out, I think I remember more episodes than I expected, but it ended up being the case that I missed a lot of the multi-part episodes, including the ones where Apocalypse is kidnapping telepaths.

While people like Chuck Sonnenberg have talked about how shows like Gargoyles had taken on more serious topics and so didn’t talk down to their audience, this series definitely did that first.  Because the comics themselves focused on a lot of serious issues and a lot of serious plots, to do anything at all with the comic plots was going to involve addressing them, and the show didn’t shy away from that at all, covering the bigotry and oppression angle with the Sentinels right out of the gate and taking little time to get into “Days of Future Past”, with the horrible future of mutant oppression under the armoured boots of the Sentinels.  They also dove into Wolverine’s past quite early, and then also covered Phoenix and Dark Phoenix, as well as Apocalypse and Sinister.  And, of course, Magneto and all the issues around him.

What is interesting about the series is that while it covered the comic plotlines, it wasn’t afraid to change them.  As it started out with Jubilee’s plot and so included her instead of Kitty Pryde — who doesn’t appear in the series as far as I can recall — that was going to have an impact on the “Days of Future Past” storyline, since she was the major character there and in the later movies her powers were deemed critical for that to work.  So what the series did was sub in another time traveler in Bishop, which introduces us to him and sets up for his later storylines.  Even from the beginning, they combined Jubilee’s introduction with the introduction of the Sentinels, when her introduction in the comics was around a more humourous event with a group of incompetent mutant hunters.  So especially early on in the series they massage and combine storylines to suit themselves.

I actually really like this move.  A half hour cartoon is going to have a hard time fitting in the elements from the comics, and so this move let them compress storylines into things that would fit into their runtime and their tone.  In fact, one of the reasons the Phoenix storylines don’t really work for me is that instead of collapsing the storylines they instead build the storyline into multi-part episodes and follow the comics more closely, but even with the multi-parts they don’t have the room to develop the plots or characters or emotional beats enough for them to really work.  We don’t get the sense of tragedy of either plots because we don’t know Jean well enough to connect in that way, and we don’t see her struggling with Phoenix or her lengthy corruption by Mastermind to have all of that really hit home.  So when they collapsed and combined storylines they could make it all fit nicely into their format, and when they tried to follow the comics more closely it really seemed to me like they ran into the restrictions of their format and things didn’t work out so well.

That actually ends up with the interesting result that I think if you are more familiar with the comics you will enjoy the show better, even though it deviates from the comics quite a bit.  The reason is that the problem with changes being made when a work is converted from one medium to another is that it often seems like the changes are being made to suit the creators and what they want or to modernize it or whatever, which annoys the fans who liked it, often even if it works.  Here, it seems clear that they are making the changes to fit their format instead of to simply do the story the way they wanted to do it (especially the combining of plots and characters).  Thus, fans of the original comics can forgive those sorts of moves.  However, the stories are indeed the famous ones, and so fans of the original can watch it and enjoy comparing what they did to what the comics did, but also have in their back pocket the backstories that led up to those stories and so can get the emotional connection and why these things are important, even if the episodes themselves can’t really show that.  For example, we know a lot of Cable’s story before it is revealed in the episodes and so understand why he’d hate Apocalypse even though he’s first introduced in Genosha.  Fans of the series have his backstory and can look forward to later plots based on what we know about the character.  I can’t help but feel that someone unfamiliar with the series would be a bit lost at being dropped into the middle of these characters with their own backstories and relationships and that the quick explanations the episodes give won’t be sufficient to really convey all of that.

I also have to note that the series continues the tradition of getting Wolverine mostly right but getting Cyclops mostly wrong, like we saw in the Fox movies.  It really seems like the writers really liked Wolverine.  Sure, he’s a popular character and so they’d definitely get some pressure to feature him, but he gets way too many of the funny and snarky lines to be explained by anything other than the writers singling him out for them … especially given that Gambit is also on the roster and is definitely better known for those sorts of comments.  They also manage to get him right by having him play a role in the fights.  Wolverine is a tough character to write into the fight scenes because his main mutant ability is simply healing and his main combat abilities are his claws and his bones.  Against any supervillain that wouldn’t be taken out by one hit by Rogue, the only real impact he could have is with his claws, which would involve killing them in a gruesome manner that you aren’t going to see in a children’s cartoon (and which would also violate at least Storm’s morality and cause huge issues on the team).  The show uses his agility more and sets up a number of robots for him to slash, which keeps him in the game and a useful combatant.  I really wish they’d have used his senses more and his bones more — in one comic, Sabertooth punches him and breaks his hand, which could have been used here as well — but for the most part they keep him relevant without seeming to contrive it as often, which is also a benefit for Gambit who is a similar type of fighter.

But the show gets Cyclops wrong.  For whatever reason, adaptations of the character tend to make him an utter jerk, especially when he fights with Wolverine.  As someone who likes both characters, I really wish they’d make Cyclops less confrontational and more serious and only let his frustration out at times when Wolverine is clearly over the line.  But he seems to be frustrated with him from the start.  Yes, that is probably supposed to reflect their long clash over things like Jean and Cyclops’ leadership style, but the show never really establishes that the main clash — and why Jean is drawn to both of them — is over Cyclops’ serious, meticulous and reserved nature and Wolverine’s more instinctive, impetuous and wilder nature.  That the two of them are so completely different, clash so often, and yet ultimately do respect each others’ abilities is what makes the relationship work.  Too many of the modern adaptations never establish Cyclops’ character properly and so he comes across as a jerk instead of as someone simply frustrated by the risks the others are taking in not following orders and not thinking things through.

Towards the end, the show seemed to be having budget issues that only deepened as it went along.  Characters that were featured in the opening disappeared for long periods of time — Gambit and Jean being the worst offenders, but Jubilee notably disappeared for a long string of episodes — and most episodes only had a couple of characters in it at a time.  Towards the end, the art style changed to one that I didn’t find all that great.  By the time the series ended, it seemed like it was starting to run on empty, and not just with the animation and voice acting, but also with the stories as well.

Still, the series was quite good.  While the quality was better at the beginning than at the end, it remained entertaining throughout and covered deeper issues than a cartoon might have been expected to cover.  The voice performances were fairly good, especially for Wolverine, Cyclops and Professor X (Storm tended to be a bit of a ham and the others sometimes struggled with the accents).  They definitely picked the best storylines from the comics and jumped straight into the action with some of the most famous ones (which might explain why they seemed to start to run out of them towards the end).  While all my cartoons go to the same spot in my closet, this is definitely a series that I will watch again at some point.

One Response to “Thoughts on “X-Men Animated Series””

  1. Accomplishments Update | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] “Pretty Little Liars:  Original Sin” and “Doom Patrol” and finish off the “X-Men Animated Series”.  As part of going through “Original Sin”, I also rewatched “Scream […]

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