Why X-Men ’97 Is the Best Thing You’ll See on TV in 2024

Madelyne Pryor as the Goblin Queen
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Calling it here and now: X-Men ‘97 was, is, and will be the best thing on television we see in 2024. Whether on quote/unquote “traditional” television or one of the numerous streaming services that most people seem to watch TV shows on nowadays, nothing else from this year even comes close to what X-Men ‘97 delivers in terms of perfectly blending allegory, drama, exuberance, and tragedy.

For a show with nostalgic appeal at its core, X-Men ‘97’s first season has been all about looking ahead towards the future—while acknowledging the impact that the past has on it and the messy present that lies in between. Jean and Scott question their future after the birth of their son Nathan, Storm questions her future with the X-Men following the loss of her powers, even Magneto is forced to question what he wants his future to look like when Xavier leaves him in charge of both the X-Men and his school. And as if to hammer that point home, the big bad of the first season is the technopathic android Bastion, who at one point is explicitly referred to as “the future incarnate.”

Even “Motendo,” the closest thing the first season has to a filler episode, is all about this ever present tension between past and future. After finding herself trapped in a video game and reliving some of the X-Men’s greatest adventures, Jubilee winds up meeting a matured digital clone of herself (it’s less weird than it sounds) known as Abscissa, played by Jubilee’s original voice actress Alyson Court. Not only does this encounter serve as an important passing of the torch to a new voice actress (Court herself recognizes that a Canadian voicing an Asian-American character was an unfortunate product of the ‘90s), but it also gives Jubilee an important lesson that sets off her character arc for the rest of the season: yes, it’s fun to relive the glory days—and there’s a part of Jubilee that would be perfectly happy as the star of Mojo’s game and do just that for the rest of her life—but that real life is constantly moving forward, full of change, however messy and terrifying it might be at times. 

Throughout its first season, X-Men ‘97 is constantly working on multiple levels. While most of the original voice cast returns to their original roles, several members return in new roles for a specific purpose. Original Gambit voice actor Chris Potter is now Cable/Nathan Summers to help emphasize the weird father/son dynamic between him and Cyclops (Cable was displaced through time as a baby, so when he reunites with his parents in the present day he’s older than both of them), Court plays the aforementioned Abscissa, and Catherine Disher, original voice of Jean Grey, returns as Dr. Valerie Cooper, who ultimately gives what Beau DeMayo considers to be the show’s thesis statement in “Tolerance Is Extinction, Pt. 1.” 

Magneto's eyes glowing while electricity comes off of him
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Even the massacre on Genosha, the emotional epicenter of ‘97’s first season, serves not only to stand in for any number of real life tragedies (particularly the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub, where 49 people were killed at what was meant to be a safe place for LGBTQ+ individuals), but as a head-on collision between what are arguably the two defining eras of X-Men comics: the classic Claremont era, and Grant Morrison’s postmodern run on New X-Men. And the thesis statement in question that Valerie delivers? Magneto. Was. Right

Yes, X-Men ‘97 not only embraces the oft-memed slogan introduced in New X-Men, it turns that phrase into a startling condemnation of human nature. Charles Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence might be the ideal that we should all strive towards, but Magneto’s worldview that not only should mutants not have to beg for tolerance from people that seemingly never stop trying to find ways to wipe them out, but be allowed to defend themselves against said attempts at wiping them out, is unfortunately more in line with the reality of human nature. Even Beast—one of the most stalwart supporters of Xavier’s dream, who spent most of the original series’ first season in a prison cell he could have easily broken out of in order to make sure that he could present his case in a proper way—remarks that “Perhaps the professor’s vision for the future was too near-sighted, and begging for tolerance was our first mistake.”

A comment from a post on r/television lays it out brilliantly: 

The history of Marvel comics has fully borne out Magneto’s point. Every single time mutants gather together, at least one, if not multiple, human groups conspire to wipe them out. When Magneto tries to wipe out humans, it’s not because he hates them; it’s because he believes it’s genuinely the only way that humanity will stop trying to genocide mutants, and according to the multiverse, he’s basically right. Out of the many alternate realities/possible futures we’ve seen, the number where humans and mutants peacefully coexist is massively dwarfed by the number where they’re either fighting or one has already wiped out the other.

But Magneto still wants to believe that it’s possible. He tried setting up a new nation of mutants with Xavier that gave humans medicines to cure cancer, Alzheimer’s, and extend life spans by 10 years. And all humans had to do was agree to not genocide mutants, respect mutant sovereignty over their own people, and recognize the mutant nation as a nation. And rather than get the cure to cancer, humans decided to genocide the mutants. Again.

Humans refuse to ever stop insisting that the survival of humans and mutants is mutually exclusive and keep throwing down the gauntlet. I’m not going to be mad at Magneto for picking it up and responding in kind after the fourth time he’s had to watch his people be slaughtered.

Like any good X-Men story, ‘97 fully leans into mutants as a stand-in for any real life minority group struggling to survive in the face of persecution. The parallels between the events of ‘97 and real life treatment of minority groups are almost too numerous to count, and the worst part is how it doesn’t even feel like a modernization of the series considering how little has actually improved in how minority groups are treated in the close to 30 year gap between then and now—and in many ways, how things have actually gotten worse

Storm using her powers in the desert
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Finally, ‘97 does what almost no other revivals are willing to do: It acknowledges that its source material isn’t perfect, and that sometimes parts of it should absolutely be changed for the better. This is most evident in “Fire Made Flesh.” That episode doesn’t just compress both the “Inferno” storyline and the story of Madelyn Pryor, it finally does justice to a character who had long been given the short end of the stick by Marvel editorial. A brief history lesson: Madelyne Pryor was initially introduced following the death of Jean Grey in the seminal Dark Phoenix Saga, conceived by Chris Claremont as a means for Cyclops to move forward following Jean’s death. Claremont himself lays it out best in a 2008 interview:

The original Madelyne storyline was that, at its simplest level, she was that one in a million shot that just happened to look like Jean Grey [a.k.a. the first Phoenix]! And the relationship was summed up by the moment when Scott says: “Are you Jean?” And she punches him! That was in Uncanny X-Men #174. Because her whole desire was to be deeply loved for herself not to be loved as the evocation of her boyfriend’s dead romantic lover and sweetheart.

I mean, it’s a classical theme. You can go back to a whole host of 1930s films, 1940s, Hitchcock films—but it all got invalidated by the resurrection of Jean Grey in X-Factor #1. The original plotline was that Scott marries Madelyne, they have their child, they go off to Alaska, he goes to work for his grandparents, he retires from the X-Men. He’s a reserve member. He’s available for emergencies. He comes back on special occasions, for special fights, but he has a life. He has grown up. He has grown out of the monastery; he is in the real world now. He has a child. He has maybe more than one child. It’s a metaphor for us all. We all grow up. We all move on.

Scott was going to move on. Jean was dead, get on with your life. And it was close to a happy ending. They lived happily ever after, and it was to create the impression that maybe if you came back in ten years, other X-Men would have grown up and out, too. Would Kitty stay with the team forever? Would Nightcrawler? Would any of them? Because that way we could evolve them into new directions, we could bring in new characters. There would be an ongoing sense of renewal, and growth and change in a positive sense.

Then, unfortunately, Jean was resurrected, Scott dumps his wife and kid and goes back to the old girlfriend. So it not only destroys Scott’s character as a hero and as a decent human being it creates an untenable structural situation: what do we do with Madelyne and the kid? … So ultimately the resolution was: turn her into the Goblin Queen and kill her off.

Not only did Madelyne have her backstory completely rewritten to have her be a clone of Jean Grey, created by Mister Sinister as a means of getting his hands on the product of Jean and Cyclops’ DNA, the Maddy/Jean mess also leads to one of the worst things Cyclops has ever done as a character. He abandons both Madelyne and his son Nathan to reunite with Jean as soon as he finds out she’s alive, with Marvel editorial deciding to not address either of these problems and instead leading to said “she’s actually a clone of Jean” retcon in the “Inferno” storyline.

With “Fire Made Flesh,” the X-Men ‘97 creative team recognizes that most of Madelyne’s storyline from the original comics is awful, throws out almost all but the essential bits and reworks it into something that finally does right by the character. Yes, she’s still a clone of Jean that Sinister created to get his hands on the pair’s child, yes she still has her turn as the villainous Goblin Queen, but this time around there’s the added twist that at some point in the past Sinister had kidnapped Jean and switched her out with Madelyne—and thanks to their shared telepathic abilities, neither one of them knows when the switch happens. This immediately throws into question which of them we were actually seeing at key moments in the original series, such as marrying Scott or their turn as the Phoenix. ‘97 wisely chooses to leave this question open ended, with nobody but Mister Sinister knowing when the switch took place, but Madelyne finally gets the agency she never got in the original comics and leaves the mansion to find her own way in life.

Left to right: Morph, Storm, Gambit, Cyclops, Rogue, Wolverine, Bishop, and Beast
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Additionally, “Fire Made Flesh” turns the whole “Scott abandoning Madelyne and Nathan” mess from a horrendous character flaw into tragedy. Instead, Scott is forced to willingly send Nathan into the future with Bishop in hopes that the future will have a cure for the techno-organic virus that Mr. Sinister had infected his son with, starting him down the path to becoming Cable while also…not completely destroying Cyclops’ character.

There’s a number of other smaller things as well: how the show is the first X-Men property in seemingly forever that gives actual screen time and development to X-Men not named Wolverine; how the animation style stays faithful to the original series’ aesthetic while elevating it beyond anything that the original series could have achieved; how the series finally admits that a big, blue, boy scout like Cyclops is also pretty damn cool; how smaller cameos from the likes of Spider-Man, Daredevil, Captain America and Doctor Doom make ’97 feel like part of the larger universe of all of Marvel’s shows from the ’90s. The season even ends with a continuation of the themes of past vs. future, sending most of the team into the past for an encounter with the mutant who would come to be known as Apocalypse while Scott and Jean get sent into some version of the future for a family reunion of sorts with Mother Askani and Nathan Grey, alternate universe versions of their children. 

While the as-yet-unexplained departure of showrunner Beau DeMayo leaves some very real questions about how future seasons of the show will play out, what we have so far from X-Men ‘97 is something truly special, and a remarkable start for mutantkind as they finally join the wider universe of Marvel’s film and television universe.

Written by Timothy Glaraton

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