Type keyword(s) to search

Quick Hits

Why X-Men: The Animated Series is Worth Revisiting Nearly 30 Years Later

We talked to the series' showrunner about his show's legacy.
  • An image from X-Men: The Animated Series. (Marvel)
    An image from X-Men: The Animated Series. (Marvel)

    There once was a young girl named Jubilee who wore bright pink sunglasses and a yellow trench coat. She loved chili-fries and the mall. One fateful day, she found out she was a mutant and ran away from her not-so-understanding parents. While on the lam, she was attacked by a giant killer robot, but saved by four brightly dressed folks named Storm, Rogue, Cyclops, and Gambit. They were the X-Men. The year was 1992. The rest is history.

    About 8 years before the first X-Men film, and 15 years before the MCU took over theaters, X-Men: The Animated Series would debut on Fox and become an almost immediate  success. "Within six weeks, it was the top show on Saturday morning, sometimes grabbing over half the American TV audience in its time slot," showrunner and story editor Eric Lewald told Primetimer via email. The show blew up. There were toys, there was a Pizza Hut tie-in, and there were quite a few video games. Oh, and there were the extremely successful X-Men comics of the 90s.

    But a few things helped X-Men stand out from its peers. The cartoon never dumbed down any of its stories, and it leaned heavily into its ensemble cast. The show wasn’t afraid to kill characters (Morph), make the women stronger than the men (cue Rogue punching a Sentinel’s head off), or create serialized storytelling (Hello, Dark Phoenix Saga Parts 1-4). As the series went on, the "Previously On X-Men" bits at the top of every episode got longer and longer — much to the show's benefit.

    The composition of the X-Men squad was crucial to the animated series' success. "Marvel Comics and Fox TV each had opinions about who, out of perhaps two dozen options, should be on the team," Lewald says. "They started with Wolverine, Cyclops, Jubilee, Rogue, Storm, and Gambit. The two writers who laid out the first season of stories (Mark Edens and myself) discovered that three other characters were crucial to our storytelling — Xavier, Jean, and Beast. Finally, Morph was added to have someone to kill in the first story (we had not intended to bring him back). That's how the 10 X-Men were chosen."

    The X-Men have always stood out from other superheroes — while Batman and Iron Man are quasi-psychotic billionaires with a crime fighting hobby and The Avengers and Justice League are true do-gooders, the X-Men have always been a chosen family. The X-Men came together due to their otherness. It’s why they have such a large queer following. (That and the sassy, powerful women.)

    "The women were chosen because they were great characters and had powers that worked beautifully in animation," says Lewald. "Almost all animated action series were male-heavy with perhaps a token female (and were in fact referred to as "boys action-adventure shows"). At no time did we discuss having more or fewer women — we just chose the most varied, balanced, interesting team we could find."

    The X-Men even had complicated relationships with their villains — Magneto and Xavier were former best friends. Mystique was Rogue’s adoptive mother. Sabretooth and Wolverine were… whatever the hell they were. And the cartoon never strayed from this. Magneto and Xavier would bicker like former lovers nearly every time the X-Men fought. The show even had a story arc where Magneto and Xavier were stuck in the Savage Land together that lasted nearly an entire season! Says Lewald: "There was great resistance to putting X-Men on. People worried that it was far too adult, too dark and challenging for young viewers."

    The show also let the characters have moments of humor. It had so many iconic lines — including "You look nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs," which you probably read in Lenore Zann’s Rogue voice. The show let overly serious characters like Cyclops and Jean stay serious, but also let characters like Rogue and Jubilee be their sassy selves. One wouldn’t be surprised if Joss Whedon and Jon Favreau watched a lot of this cartoon before making their Marvel movies. It also gave us a Gambit and Rogue romance so dynamic and charming that it sometimes overshadowed the show’s main love triangle of Wolverine, Jean, and Cyclops. Viewers cared about the entire team. It was soap opera meets superheroes in the best possible way. "There was great pressure to dumb it down, to make it ‘younger,’ to add goofy humor," Lewald says. "Luckily the creative team involved respected the comics and fiercely resisted these pressures, sometimes at the risk of their jobs."

    And while we’ve all read Harry Potter, X-Men taught a generation of kids not to trust authority a full 5 years before J.K. Rowling. Right from the start, the show showed how unfairly mutants were treated. The Sentinels were there in the very first episode — hunting mall babe Jubilation Lee. The show would continue this thread throughout its entire run. Showing how the government would legislate in favor of hate, in favor of fear. Hell, Beast himself would even end up jailed for the nearly the entire first season.

    X-Men: The Animated Series even achieved something that 2 whole X-films failed to do — it told a compelling Dark Phoenix Saga story. The cartoon used the comic book storyline as an outline, but changed the narrative to fit into their world, with their team of X-Men. And, let’s be honest, watching Rogue vs Gladiator was way cooler than Colossus vs Gladiator. The writers allowed us to understand that Jean and Cyclops’s past went beyond what we’d seen in the cartoon. It gave us the space opera the movies never quite achieved.

    While X-Men: The Animated Series debuted nearly 30 years ago, it still feels fresh today. "All of us who worked on the series are thrilled that it holds upy nearly 30 years later — that it hasn't 'dated’ the way many series, movies, and books do. It's a point of pride forus that we could have had a hand in creating a TV series that original fans can share with their children and grandchildren — like the original Star Trek," says Lewald. If Marvel and Disney take cues from this show when they begin producing new X-Men movies, it would make complete sense.

    The complete series of X-Men: The Animated Series is now streaming on Disney+. Individual episodes (and seasons) are also available for purchase on Amazon, Youtube, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

    Ian Carlos Crawford is a freelance writer, host of the podcast Slayerfest 98, and someone with way too many feelings. Follow him on Twitter at @ianxcarlos.

    TOPICS: X-Men, Disney+, FOX, Retro TV