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X-Men The Animated Series: Marvel's Most Important Production

As the 2020’s pass us by like a bullet train, with more new entertainment content than any one person keep up with, franchise reboots, sequels and re-releases are also a common occurrence. Streaming networks such as Netflix and Paramount Plus, complete with vast catalogues and guarantees of the latest and greatest, also include as much legacy entertainment as the current speed rail of recent productions. Retro is in, and hopefully here to stay.

Now into my forties, Netflix fulfils my penchant towards Rick and Morty, but as a child of 1980/90’s television tastes I’d sooner sample the delights of the Studio Ghibli catalogue on repeat. The appeal of Yellowstone is the advertising draw of the latter network, but I’m more of a Deadwood-for-the-umpteenth-time kind of guy. Since its launch into the pandemic-hit world in 2020, Disney Plus has quickly become the biggest streaming network hosting its own intellectual properties. The acquisitions of Marvel, Fox and Lucasfilm in the last twenty years has cemented its entertainment future as well as allowing us to celebrate its legacy. However it was not just the allure of The Mandalorian or WandaVision that would win over my wallet. Instead, it was the overdue return of Disney and Marvel’s cartoons of generations past, from the original Duck Tales and TaleSpin to the five-season run of Spider-Man, all deserving of audiences both old and new.

X-Men: The Animated Series is another such deserving gem. Originally running from 1992-1997 for five seasons across 76 episodes, X-Men: TAS would introduce the Marvel comic book mutant heroes such as Cyclops and Wolverine to the TV masses for the first time. The series would break the mould for Saturday morning cartoons, introducing concepts more associated with TV dramas, and adopting a similar serialised episodic structure. From tackling political and racial issues from the perspective of both those persecuted and providing the persecution, to its own version of the AIDS hysteria of the 1980’s, this on-screen X-Men iteration remains the most engrossing there has ever been. There has been little competition to this day, with subsequent follow ups either taking a different approach, with the high school driven X-Men: Evolution or the bold yet ultimately cancelled Wolverine & The X-Men.

Now that Disney have the X-Men license in their library, they are now rewarding viewers new and old with a sequel series entitled X-Men ’97. It will be the first X-Men production under the Disney umbrella, an announcement so surprising as it was equally pleasing, the only sane thing to do was to watch them all over again. Given the key involvement of many that made the original series happen, including voice talent, it proves that such a cartoon hit of the twentieth century remains a hit in the twenty first. Without it, there would have been no X-Men movie franchise, and moreover Marvel would not be the seismic entertainment force it is today.

Hot off the back of Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s 1991 relaunch of the X-Men with what would become the bestselling comic of all time, X-Men #1, Jim’s latest designs for the team were a major influence on the final designs of their on-screen counterparts. That very comic book drew me into world of the X-Men, and at just ten years old, to find out that a cartoon series was following just a few months later became a very exciting time to be a new X-Fan. Producer Margeret Loesch became the head of Fox Children’s Network in 1990, and after being unsuccessful in getting previous effort Pryde of the X-Men past its pilot, would become pivotal in getting X-Men TAS to TV screens. Enlisting the support of Marvel Comics editors and household TV writers including Mark Edens and Richard Mueller, both who contributed to the success of The Real Ghostbusters and TMNT among others, Margeret’s X-Men dream would become a reality. Years of misunderstanding the comic book demographic within Hollywood was finally put to bed, and what would follow for Marvel from then until today is cemented in the history books. But it was anything but a cakewalk behind the scenes. X-Men: The Animated Series was meant to fail; and yet it did anything but.

Saban Entertainment, who would become most well-known for its powerhouse Power Rangers franchise, were but little-known when brought on board to produce the show, but already had a reputation to deliver projects on tight budgets. X-Men: TAS was a show that across its five years was always fighting to survive amidst persistent creative meddling and budget cuts. Animation quality issues pushed back the launch of the show from the September schedule to the following January, with other selected episodes delayed during its run by more than a year, creating some baffling continuity during its broadcast run, only corrected by re-runs and the running order on Disney Plus. X-Men creator Stan Lee, directly involved with the pitching of the show, would suggest the show’s direction be more like his iteration of the team in the 1960’s, and to include episode introductions by him, which although wasn’t an uncommon trend of television of the time, would have been an ill fit here. Excelsior indeed. In the end, despite many cooks threatening to spoil this superhero broth, the results were Michelin star, and not a Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmare.

X-Men: TAS lifted the sourced material from page to screen with a measured approach, endearing to both new and existing fans. The two-part opener, Night of the Sentinels, pulled little punches, killing off one of the team in the very first episode. The first “big bad” would be mutant-hunting robots that not only allowed the X-Men to show off their fantastic powers in action, but also cemented the xenophobic and political undertones that ensured X-Men TAS was more than just a kids show. Story Editor Eric Lewald wanted to ensure the show would be unlike any other network cartoon, and its pilot is the proof of that. Competition across the television networks was fierce, with Batman: The Animated Series already a hit across at Warner Bros, an easier-on-the-eye project. Whatever criticisms there may be for some of X-Men TAS’s animation was more than made up for by the show’s storytelling and structure. Lives would be legitimately threatened in every episode, with rare uses of blood, words such as ‘kill’ and even implication of murder from time to time. Bloodlines from season four has a family reunion ending like no other. 

For the first two seasons X-Men TAS ran for thirteen episodes a piece. Although some were two-parter storylines nearly all episodes are intertwined, many with a ‘To Be Continued’ hook being the final shot, a hook that guaranteed return viewing. Given the show was greenlit by the network but never really meant to succeed, it succeeded against its competition too; X-Men TAS quickly became not just the highest viewed show on the Fox Kids Network, but one of the highest rated shows across all US television networks for its timeslot. Each episode begins with a recap prefaced with a serious, deep-voiced “Previously on X-Men”, which became as iconic as the show itself. Lewald touches on this in his same-titled authoritative account of the show’s production: “Previously on X-Men were the first words, every week, then every day, that led us into this world of adventure”.

My own journey began with Captive Hearts from season one, and within two minutes I realised I’d already missed a hero’s death, the imprisonment of another, and the near death of yet another member of the team. Twenty minutes later I was fully invested in its plot threads and pacing; relentless action, kidnapping, xenophobia, even a Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle. This was just episode five; by the end of the season the X-Men would find themselves on a suicide mission to save a senator. The second season would run parallel storylines throughout, expanding and exploring the team, culminating and connecting by the end. There was never a reason not to tune into the next episode.

By the end of the show its writers would even pave the way for the comics to follow suit, using the 'What if there was no Charles Xavier?' season four story One Man's Worth to create the landmark Age of Apocalypse saga. It remains one of the show's greatest stories, a perfect example of how the writers were not afraid to take risks with such beloved characters. My personal favourite is another time travel two-parter Time Fugitives, centred around far-future-based X-Men allies Cable and Bishop, as the former must undo the latter's work in the X-Men's present to preserve the future from an anti-mutant propaganda-led fatal fast-spreading virus. Although somewhat standalone in nature, Time Fugitives blends frenetic, fantastic action amidst plague hysteria and the ongoing public persecution of mutants narrative, perfectly slotted into season two.               

The show was originally broadcast in the United Kingdom via Sky TV’s children’s programme block, and each week I would provide a recordable VHS tape to a friend who had access at the time, who would immediately run it round for me to watch. X-Men TAS quickly became immediate and essential Saturday morning television. Sure, there are a few less than obvious animation errors, and enough recycling of character sound bytes and sequences to create a drinking game out of, but these have become part of the show's endearing qualities. Any hint of snow conditions triggers my favourite quote from Henry Gyrich: "Snow? What do you mean, Snow?" Now, over thirty years on, released in the modern television box set mentality and ‘Play All’ possibilities, X-Men TAS is as relevant today as it was then. Just ask the producers at Marvel Studios Animation.