X-Men ’97 Is X-cellent

Why X-Men ’97 is more than just kid’s cartoon.

Storm enters the scene

It’s been 26 years since we’ve seen the X-Men that most people in my generation grew up with. Although it has been such a long time, X-Men ’97 almost doesn’t skip a beat. It catches up to the old cartoon show like it’s just been yesterday. As a continuing narrative to what was built so long ago, X-Men ’97 not only captures our nostalgia, but continues the theme of prejudice with all the relevancy that it had during its initial airdates. Before the X-Men were brought to the silver screen, Fox Kids Saturday Morning serial outlined many of the comic’s stories that were hit and missed in their blockbuster adaptations. 

We’ve yet to see a Phoenix saga depicted as well as it was in X-Men: The Animated Series. That could be because X-Men works better as a cartoon. Whenever CGI is used to show a mutant using their power, it looks phony because it can’t go as far as the cartoon can. A movie can’t show the magnetic waves coming from Magneto’s hands or the telepathy circles coming from Professor X’s head. It would look too corny. But it works wonderfully in a cartoon. 

Xavier's Class
The gang is back

With so many characters stuffed together, a television show can take its time establishing each hero, where a movie can’t within a two-hour narrative. X-Men ’97 is a continuation of X-Men: The Animated Series, picking up right where the last show left off. Professor Charles Xavier is dead. What happens to mutants during such a turbulent time outlines the type of leader Cyclops (Ray Chase) is. In the first episode, “To Me, My X-Men,” it’s up to Cyclops to honor the professor’s legacy by being a promoter of peace by saving others who are in need—rallying the X-Men together by his side. But for how long does he want to bear the responsibility of being a team leader? 

As hard as the X-Mentry to help humanity, a huge chunk of the world is prejudiced against mutants. Professor Xavier died because Dr. Henry Peter Gyrich (Barry Flatman) used an energy disruptor that would detect any mutant by amplifying their powers. At the push of a button, Professor Xavier’s powers spiraled out of control, leading to his death. Now, without Professor Xavier, the X-Men have to fight their battles without his guidance. After a successful mission with a thrilling scene of the mutants squaring off against some Sentinels, everything looks like it’s going to be okay for the X-Men. That is, until Magneto (Matthew Waterson) enters the scene with Xavier’s last will belonging to him. 

I question if that’s really true. I think Magneto is manipulating everyone, but that’s a detail that hasn’t been revealed yet. After fighting him for years, why do the X-Men go along with him so willingly? In Episode 2, “Mutant Liberation Begins,” Rogue (Lenore Zann) particularly trusts Magneto with very little reason to, asking the team to put their faith in him.

Wolverine and Gambit storm the sentinels
Gambit supercharges Wolverine’s claws

What X-Men ’97 does so well is that it continues the themes of the original show. The Friends of Humanity are a racist group of classless bigots. Although established for the show in the 1990s, they’re strikingly similar to the people who stormed the capital on January 6. They’re violent, full of hatred, and will do close to anything to rid the world of those who are not like them. For a children’s show, X-Men: The Animated Series carried some heavy themes. Mutants were even put in internment camps at one point in the show. It made bigotry something children could understand. In X-Men ’97, the Friends of Humanity gathered registered Sentinel weaponry after all the Sentinels had been destroyed when the X-Men took down their factory. Where and how they got the Sentinels is what the X-Men are investigating. 

In their investigation of the Sentinels we’re introduced to a new character, Roberto (Gui Agustini), a young boy who’s harassed because of his mutant powers but finds a safe place in Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Through Roberto’s bullying, we see the oppressive fascist vein of America. It’s always throbbing and can never be cut. Yet the X-Men still try to achieve a better tomorrow. Roberto’s the closest thing to this show’s version of Jubilee (Holly Chou). They’re both teenagers who have special powers and a lot of energy. Except Roberto is rich. He has a mansion with parents to go back to. So Roberto rejects the X-Men’s offer for recruitment. Although Roberto has left, I have a feeling he’ll return soon. 

Storm enters the scene

The show can be a bit of a jumbling watch for a new audience member. It’s heavily reliant on knowledge from some of the episodes of the old show. Even after brushing myself up on some select episodes of X-Men: The Animated Series, I still had difficulty remembering some characters. X-Men ’97 desperately could have used Cyclops saying “previously on X-Men,” followed by a montage of the story elements that are going to be important before the first episode of the new show starts. When it does say “previously on X-Men” in its second episode, it’s not Cyclops saying it. How do you drop the ball on that? 

A lot of X-Men: TAS was a ton of action with little story in between. X-Men ’97 is the other way around, where there’s a lot of talking, with action not being as frequent. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Any kid’s cartoon show can have a lot of explosions with no substance. But X-Men has the story and foundation to back its narrative up. What the showrunners of X-Men ’97 have done is nothing short of extraordinary. You know the producers got it right when they keep the same opening with only tiny adjustments. Any major changes done to the show’s intro would be sacrilegious. Every classic drawing from the show’s opening is lovingly recreated for a modern 16:9 ratio television. 

The writing team trusts the audience to invest in the story more than it does in the action. A lot happens in these two episodes. Jean Gray (Jennifer Hale) is going through a change in her life that makes her question whether she and Scott can continue as X-Men. Beyond all the fighting, is there any chance for a peaceful life? In the finale of the second episode, Storm’s monologue produces one of the most meaningful moments of the show. The contents of that monologue, unfortunately, is a major spoiler, but it is particularly moving for a kid’s show. 

Jubilee finds Roberto
Jubilee sweetly stares into your soul

X-Men ’97 isn’t just nostalgia. It’s got heart to it. The showrunners aren’t afraid to take chances, putting a dose of faith in the audience. There’s a lot of material to swallow and a lot of character changes done within the first hour of a show that runs 30 minutes per episode. The animation is nothing less than a stellar upgrade from the original show. 

The panels from the drawings really pop out on the screen. The show is more colorful than it was in the ’90s. The backgrounds are beautifully drawn renderings that capture the grittiness of the streets the original show had. The models for each character look hand-drawn like they originally were so long ago before computers did all the animating. The show is above and beyond what was possible in the ’90s. It’s a visual dazzle. Equally dazzling is the cast, most of whom came back to reprise their roles. 

Sadly, not all cast members returned. After 26 years, some have passed on to other projects or passed away. David Hemblen, who played Magneto in the original series, is dead, replaced by Matthew Waterson, who does an excellent job playing the role. The same goes for Ray Chase, who voices Cyclops. After watching a select number of episodes from X-Men: The Animated Series and then going straight to X-Men ’97, I couldn’t tell the difference in the voice.

Some of the cast members clearly aged in voice. Cal Dodd, the voice of Wolverine, sounds like he’s doing an impression of his old voice work for the character. He doesn’t whisper as much, and his pitch is deeper, like he just had a few cigarettes before entering the recording booth. Lenore Zann, who plays Rogue, has a slightly weak pitch that sounds older than how she sounded in the 1990s. That’s not a criticism, but something to be expected. After so much time, the X-Men have returned home like no time has passed. 

X-Men ’97 is a fantastic sequel to X:Men: The Animated Series that speaks to the bigotry we face across the globe today. If the first two episodes are a sign of things to come in Disney’s ownership of the X-Men, then we have a lot of good things to expect. X-Men ’97 takes its time leading the plot to unexpected places, raising the stakes for the audience viewing the show. Where things go will be—in my best Hank McCoy voice—fascinating to see. 

Written by Mike Crowley

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