Review of X-Men ’97: Marvel’s Nostalgic Omega-Level Success

Outside of a few recent cameos, the X-Men have been conspicuously absent from Marvel Studios’ projects thanks to a yearslong corporate beef with Fox, which used to own the characters’ rights. It has been fascinating but weird to watch Marvel build an entire cinematic multiverse with nary a mutant in sight considering how the popularity of X-Men: The Animated Series is part of what led to the X-Men films and the modern comic book movie boom. But after almost 30 years, Disney Plus’ X-Men ’97 series gives the cartoon mutants their due — with some caveats — by picking up their story and shining a nostalgic light on what made them ’90s icons.

There was nothing quite like X-Men: The Animated series before it debuted on Fox Kids in the fall of 1992 and introduced a generation of viewers to altruistic telepath Charles Xavier. After five seasons and 76 episodes inspired by comics storylines like “The Dark Phoenix Saga” and “Days of Future Past,” X-Men: The Animated Series finally came to an end by leaving Charles Xavier’s students to determine their own fates. As some of the world’s most powerful superheroes, Cyclops (Ray Chase), Jean Grey (Jennifer Hale), Storm (Alison Sealy-Smith), and Rogue (Lenore Zann) saved humanity countless times over fighting enemies like Magneto (Matthew Waterson). But X-Men ’97 opens at an interesting point in the X-Men’s lives when their heroism has shifted public opinion and moved the United Nations to dismantle the mutant-hunting Sentinel program.

Even though ’97 is a continuation of The Animated Series, it makes a point of giving newcomers to the franchise an easy way in through its introduction of Roberto da Costa (Gui Agustini), a young Brazilian mutant with solar powers who plays a role similar to Jubilee’s in the original cartoon. There, Jubilee was a teen on the run from killer robots who found family in the X-Men after being rejected by her adoptive parents. And here, Jubilee is one of the X-Men who saves Roberto from an anti-mutant militia group before spiriting him away to their headquarters — which is also a school — in upstate New York.

At the start, X-Men ’97 uses Roberto to remind you who older characters like time-traveler Bishop (Isaac Robinson-Smith) are, but the show becomes much smoother as it dives into the soapy drama playing out between the team’s veterans. With Xavier seemingly dead, there’s a different kind of intensity to the way Cyclops leads the X-Men on missions. With a baby on the way, Jean’s priorities have changed, and while she cares deeply for Wolverine and the others, part of her also feels like Xavier’s departure is one of many signs that it might be time for her to leave as well.

In the show’s first two episodes, written by recently fired showrunner Beau DeMayo, X-Men ’97 sets into motion a classic story about how short-lived moments of relative peace and acceptance tend to be for Marvel’s mutants. The way X-Men ’97 frames mutant persecution as a parallel to real-world racial discrimination is nothing you haven’t seen before if you’ve read a few X-Men books or seen some of the original show. But after Marvel Studios’ years of putting out projects that mostly steered clear of talking about things like racism, the mutant-as-minority metaphor feels significant how explicitly and repeatedly it’s spelled out here.

Though supervillains threaten mutants and humans alike, X-Men ’97 uses characters like Henry Gyrich (Todd Haberkorn) — an extremist who equates tolerance with extinction — to emphasize how racist acts of terror are byproducts of societies poisoned by small-minded thinking. Magneto, once a megalomaniac in his own right, helps the show deepen its exploration of this idea as he becomes a different, even thornier kind of presence in the X-Men’s lives. And by characterizing Magneto as a complicated man who has weighed his past actions against his hopes for the future, X-Men ’97 does an effective job of making him feel as if he’s grown with time.

Still, being familiar with X-Men: The Animated Series makes it much easier to appreciate the work ’97’s creative team put into making the show feel like a Saturday morning cartoon. For every poignant line delivered, there are three more dropped with a theatricality that reads almost as camp. At times, X-Men ’97 is just as cheesy as the original show, one made in the ’90s for kids. But The Animated Series also gave birth to one of the sickest theme songs to ever air on television, and X-Men ’97 composers The Newton Brothers work wonders with a score that fantastically amps up the new show’s flashy set pieces.

Action-focused scenes where Cyclops and his team unleash their powers are where X-Men ’97 — which was produced with Studio Mir — is at its best visually. But the strength of X-Men ’97s explosive fights is contrasted by a distracting stiffness in some of its slower moments. You can clearly see the new show taking visual design cues from its predecessor. But because X-Men ’97’s backgrounds are often highly detailed to convey depth and its lighting is more naturalistic, characters themselves sometimes feel comparatively underanimated.

X-Men ’97 also flows a bit differently than The Animated Series. That’s partially because the new show isn’t built with commercial breaks in mind but also because the creative team is working within the confines of a 10-episode order for its first season. X-Men: The Animated Series always moved at a brisk, comics-like pace, but the speed with which X-Men ’97 zooms through its first big arc does make it feel rather rushed by the time it comes to an end.

The breathless plotting doesn’t seem like something that’s going to be ironed out over the course of its first season. But at a time when the larger Marvel project has started to feel a bit stagnant and directionless, that might not be the worst thing. Marvel has been trying to recapture the energy that made its early films so successful, and X-Men ’97 is doing something very similar. But by having such a distinct vision for itself, and then sticking to it, X-Men ’97 makes it hard not to be nostalgic for the days when comic book adaptations could just do their own specific thing, unburdened from the pressures of a cinematic universe.

X-Men ’97 also stars Eric Bauza, Gil Birmingham, Christopher Britton, George Buza, Alyson Court, Cal Dodd, J.P. Karliak, Ross Marquand, and Chris Potter. The first two episodes are now streaming on Disney Plus, and new episodes debut on Wednesdays.

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