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Nostalgia Is a Double-Edged Sword in X-Men '97

Its superheroic soap opera is sincere and engaging, and more visually appealing than the majority of Marvel Studios' recent output.
  • X-Men '97 (Image: Disney+)
    X-Men '97 (Image: Disney+)

    Marvel Studios has made a habit of plundering old properties in rather cynical leverage of nostalgia, like the various Spider-Men and their villains in No Way Home and the various cameos in Multiverse of Madness. X-Men ’97 as a project is no less mercenary about that impulse, as Marvel Studios once again asserts its ownership over That Thing You Remember, but unlike those films, it feels far less cynical in execution.

    Even as a transparent nostalgia grab aimed at twenty- and thirtysomething audiences who grew up with X-Men: The Animated Series, that theme song rattling in their heads, it’s still rather irresistible. That’s thanks in part to the animation production by Studio Mir, snippets of which looked strange in early trailers but works a lot better here. And, rather than make snide quips about the original’s outdated qualities, the show plays them sincerely, delivering some rather groan-worthy one-liners without so much as a wink. That commitment to the vibe of the Fox cartoon speaks to something that was frustrating about WandaVision, a show overly concerned with its audience ‘getting’ it, eventually over-explaining its high-concept pastiche. Perhaps X-Men ’97 will reach such a didactic or instructive moment as its season runs on but, tonally, the three episodes made available to press carry on as though the ’90s never ended. This of course includes a loving recreation of the opening credits, with a few tweaks (like Magneto’s new costume) to go with its shiny new rearrangement of the classic ear-worm theme song (which is used as a motif on the soundtrack as often as possible).

    For the most part, there’s a good balance between how X-Men '97 rewinds the clock in reverence of a show that looks pretty rough around the edges now, and what it chooses to refine. The animation is more articulate than that of the old Fox show, while preserving classic design choices in a frequently odd-looking, but mostly fun combination of ’90s animation pastiche and more modern flourishes. The show’s grainy filter makes it look like a well-preserved relic, but sometimes the more streamlined elements brush up uncomfortably with that commitment to looking old. One of the more curious visual choices is that X-Men '97 is presented in 16:9 aspect ratio, as with Disney+’s other contemporary Marvel shows. On paper it doesn’t seem all that significant, but the more “cinematic” framing feels at odds with the very deliberate evocation of a Saturday morning cartoon.  

    It’s tempting to call it part of Marvel’s push towards brand unity, but in practice the wider framing also lends itself to some rather dynamic action sequences that make greater use of the increased lateral space, like Rogue putting a wrestling move on a Sentinel (giant robots created for the purposes of killing mutants). The fight against the Sentinels in the first episode is an entertaining spectacle, a playground for the animators to mix and match the X-Men’s powers and find exciting ways for them to play off of the environment, as embodied in the heat of Storm’s lightning bolts turning desert sand to glass. The color direction choices are a little strange, but make more sense when seen as emulating X-Men: The Animated Series, and it overall feels more natural than something like What If?, which opted for a rather unpleasant cel-shaded 3D look that itself felt like a throwback to the days of MTV’s CG Spider-Man. 

    The first episode, “To Me, My X-Men,” feels more functional than inspiring, essentially acting as a quick catch-up with the status quo before throwing the world of mutants off its axis. It’s in the second episode, “Mutant Liberation Begins,” directed by Chase Conley, that things get quite exciting, as it throws a wild combination of classic storylines at the wall.

    The first few episodes were co-written by head writer and showrunner Beau DeMayo, who was fired for a yet-undisclosed reason just weeks before the show’s release. Under DeMayo, the show emulates the original’s grab bag of comic book arcs, a thrilling if chaotic mix of characters and stories plucked from different points in X-Men chronology, all filtered through the animation’s visual style, an homage to Jim Lee (to drive the point home, there’s even a basketball game). ’97 begins with a remix of Chris Claremont and John Romita Jr.’s ‘Trial of Magneto’ (Uncanny X-Men #200) as well as a period of time in the New Mutants when Magneto ran Xavier’s School.

    The rapid-fire references and reintroduction of familiar characters (say, Callisto and the Morlocks) is both gratifying and a little overwhelming, something especially evident in an overburdened third episode, which feels like it takes one shortcut too many as it leaps straight to the end of a famous dramatic storyline. But it’s preferable to the bloat of the “eight-hour movies” and various cinematic sagas that have overtaken comic book adaptations, so the adaptation of ‘Inferno’ into a 30-minute haunted house episode is surprisingly welcome — especially when the imagery is so compellingly creepy, with writhing abominations crawling out of television sets, and characters seemingly melting together.

    Because of how much story is compressed into such a short amount of time, the character drama can feel a little overblown, though a few players stand out in these early episodes. Magneto in particular is a highlight — as the mutant leader, he’s interesting by default, but in ’97 the writers pick some exciting ways to grapple with his newfound position, as both enemy of the state and a man responsible for fostering peace between humans and mutants. Thankfully the show isn’t so dedicated to being pastiche that it only seeks to look backward — Magneto’s character arc so far being one example of this — and it’s willing to calibrate the dialogue around the mutant metaphor for contemporary audiences. The mutant metaphor may be imperfect but it’s nice to have that allegorical touch return to Marvel Studios’ particular brand of cape action, made clear when Jean voices her anxieties over whether or not her child will be a mutant, and her fear of the intolerant world it’ll be born into.

    A lot of the other characters, for good and ill, are just as you remember them (Rogue still uses convoluted similes and calls everyone “sugah”) and it’s here that the seams show the most in the attempt to combine the new and the old. Some of the returning voice actors slip back into their roles more easily than others. Cal Dodd sounds pretty stiff as Wolverine and not in a way that feels like a character choice. As Storm, Alison Sealy-Smith still sounds very regal but sometimes conspicuously so. But for the most part, any such rough edges suit the nature of the show.

    X-Men ’97 exists in a rather peculiar space. It’s a direct continuation of a cartoon from over 20 years ago ostensibly aimed at kids that is now appealing to them as adults (and maybe the kids in their lives too), both mimicking the original cartoon and refining its production quality. Its very existence feels cynical, a transparent play at warm memories. On one hand, it would be nice to simply get a new X-Men show, but on the other, what’s here is enjoyable enough. As far as nostalgia projects go, the superheroic soap opera of X-Men ’97 is sincere and engaging, and more visually appealing than the vast majority of Marvel Studios’ recent output, in cinemas and on streaming television alike.

    X-Men ’97 premieres March 20 with two episodes on Disney+. New episodes drop weekly. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Kambole Campbell is a freelance writer for Empire Magazine, Little White Lies, Sight and Sound, Hyperallergic, and CartoonBrew. And here!

    TOPICS: X-Men ’97, Disney+, X-Men: The Animated Series, Animation, Marvel