X-Men ’97 Proved Marvel Knows Exactly How To Handle The Mutants

X-Men '97

by Sam Summers |
Published on

WARNING: Contains spoilers for X-Men ’97 Season 1

Now that’s how you do it. X-Men ’97 – Marvel Studios’ long-awaited follow-up to the 1990s X-Men animated series – ended this week with a finale that cements it as perhaps the best screen adaptation of the merry mutants we’ve ever seen. It’s well-known that, since their acquisition of the franchise from Fox, Marvel has had designs on a live-action MCU-set take on the characters – and if this series is anything to go by, they’re on exactly the right track. Showrunner Beau DeMayo may no longer be with the company, but X-Men ’97 gives us a stack of reasons to hope that as much of its behind-the-scenes talent as possible has a hand in shepherding the mutants to the big screen.

X-Men '97

In many senses, the success of X-Men ’97 came from picking up where the original cartoon left off. One of the most acclaimed aspects of the that show was its willingness to commit to long-form, largely-faithful adaptations of classic plotlines (its epic, four-part ‘Dark Phoenix’ retelling being an oft-cited highlight). ’97’s creators took that reverence for the source material and combined it with a magpie-like penchant for picking and mixing narratives from across the X-Men’s entire storied run. The result felt endlessly fresh and inspired, demonstrating a deep and holistic knowledge of X-history.

X-Men ‘97’s creators were clearly on board with the weirder aspects of the universe.

That effortless interweaving was at its peak in the season’s breakneck final stretch, fusing three completely separate comic storylines into one emotional crescendo: the massacre on Genosha from ‘E Is For Extinction’, the rise of Bastion and his sentinel-human hybrids from ‘Operation: Zero Tolerance’, and Magneto’s brutal last stand from ‘Fatal Attractions’. On the page, each of these cataclysmic events pushed Marvel’s mutants to their limits, but here they were distilled and combined in ways that would surprise any die-hard reader. The show proved adept at tracing new lines of cause and effect between iconic X-moments, making perfect sense while still feeling like sneak attacks. No one would have guessed that Genosha’s destruction would kick off a chain of events leading to Magneto viciously stripping Logan of his adamantium, but when it all clicked into place – heralded by lines lifted directly from the comics – it provided a visceral thrill.

This approach to adaptation worked so spectacularly because ‘97’s creators were clearly on board with the weirder and wackier aspects of the X-Men’s universe. More than any other Marvel franchise, these characters are defined by the enormous breadth and complexity of their storylines – classic X-Men comic runs thrive on labyrinthine family trees, baffling time-travel plots, and endless encounters with clones, aliens, demons, and an other-dimensional yellow blob-man named Mojo, who runs an evil television network. While other adaptations – including the big-screen outings – barely scratched that surface, ’97 dove in headfirst, ticking each off the list and then some. It even felt like a breath of fresh air to see the mutants decked out in their classic technicolour costumes. The show knows it too: while the first X-Men movie famously took a jab at the comics’ wardrobes (“What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”), here Cyclops was quick to defend the team’s flamboyant garb with a, “What did you expect, black leather?”

X-Men '97

It's not the only aspect of the series which seemed designed to mark a clear break with the Fox adaptations. A common critique of those films is the particular emphasis they place on Wolverine, who in addition to three solo films appeared in six of the mainline X-Men movies, and completely dominated four of them. Logan remains one of the coolest mutants, and the most popular by far, and it’s great to see Hugh Jackman reprising the role in Deadpool & Wolverine, yellow spandex and all. But it’s still refreshing to see X-Men ’97 realise that, when it comes to clawed Canadian killing machines, less can be more. Wolverine here was firmly a supporting player: he’s the best there is at what he does, and what he does is offer gruff commentary in team meetings and occasionally show up to murder hundreds of robots in spectacular fashion. In ’97, he did both to great effect but never stole the limelight, leaving plenty of room for the X-universe’s incredibly deep bench of merry mutants.

Some of the series’ greatest villains were those who’ve had little or no play in the cinematic X franchise: Mr Sinister, the exquisitely evil geneticist who menaced the X-Men in the original animated series; Bastion, the apex of Sentinel technology; and, yes, an other-dimensional yellow blob-man named Mojo, who runs an evil television network. And while most of the core X-team here have shown up in some form in live-action, many fans would argue iconic characters like Storm, Cyclops, Rogue and Gambit have never really been given their due cinematically. Here, though, those characters took centre stage, each afforded genuinely heart-wrenching character arcs exploring the web of relationships and soap-opera shenanigans that have always been the beating heart of the best X-Men comics. They were also given extraordinary action beats that rinse every badass move you can imagine from their unique power sets. If you think you’ve seen the extent of what Cyclops or Storm can do with their abilities in the films, X-Men ‘97 blasted past that and then some.

X-Men '97

While all this shows that the folks at Marvel know exactly what makes the X-Men tick, it won’t necessarily be an easy transfer to the live-action MCU. In a way, X-Men ’97 is a perfect storm (no pun intended) of x-factors (ok, that one was intended) that allow for the ultimate adaptation. Firstly, it’s animated, which means flashy displays of powers, flashier costumes, and big yellow blob-men are an easier sell. Secondly, it’s a TV show, and its heavily-serialised narrative makes it easier to pack in a huge cast of heroes and an endless string of calamities drawn from classic comics. Thirdly, it has the whole history of the original X-Men animated series to draw on, with all of the requisite relationships and origin stories firmly established. On the other hand, these are all things which the MCU in its late-‘10s pomp was perfectly capable of handling. Those films are far more serialised in their storytelling than the average franchise, while movies like the Guardians Of The Galaxy trilogy featured freaks that would give even Mojo a run for his money.

If any studio is capable of translating what works about X-Men ’97 to live-action, it’s Marvel.

There’s clear potential here, then. And since the end of The Marvels teased that the MCU might introduce the X-Men through the multiverse, they could fare well by dispensing with the origin stories altogether (hey, it worked for Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War) and plonking audiences straight into a world filled with fully formed X-Teams. If any studio is capable of taking what works about X-Men ’97 and translating it to live-action, it’s Marvel: the infrastructure is already in place.

Perhaps the truest sign that Marvel has really cracked the core of the mutants’ lasting appeal is X-Men ’97’s nuanced exploration of the franchise’s central metaphor: reflecting the hatred and fear directed toward minority groups in the real world, with Professor X and Magneto representing polarised approaches to addressing it. The key decision ’97 makes is treating Magneto’s stance with as much respect and validity as Xavier’s. This has been increasingly common in modern comics, which often shed light of the flaws of both Xavier as a character and his dream of human and mutant coexistence. In a three-part finale provocatively titled ‘Tolerance Is Extinction’, the new series delved deep into this debate amid a rising tide of anti-mutant hatred. In the face of unfathomable bigotry and atrocity, characters like Beast, Rogue and Cyclops found themselves torn between the optimism of their mentor and the pragmatism and cynicism of a supposed villain who, Xavier concedes, has had his worst fears proved right time and time again.

X-Men '97

While the mutants saved humanity once again in the finale, the show stopped short of taking a definitive side in this debate – and yet its willingness to engage in it at all speaks volumes to its creators’ confidence in the continued relevance of the X-Men, in an age where the experience of minority groups remains extremely fraught. The mutants’ ongoing plight will always feel pointed and vital as long as creators are willing and able to write it as such – and, indeed, DeMayo has stated that his approach was informed by his own response as a queer Black man to collective traumas like 9/11, COVID-19, and the Pulse nightclub shooting. If the X-Men are to truly live up to their potential in the MCU, this understanding of their continued relevance to real-world struggles and debates is going to be crucial.

Beyond the mere nostalgia of that beloved opening theme tune, X-Men ’97 turned out to be some of Marvel’s punchiest and most powerful storytelling in recent memory. If they can channel that in the MCU proper – and keep up the quality for the two confirmed further seasons of ’97 – the mutants could be the genetic leap Marvel fans have been waiting for. Bring on the yellow spandex.

X-Men ’97 is streaming now on Disney+

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