Features and Columns · TV

‘X-Men: The Animated Series’ Succeeded Where the Films Often Fumbled

We look back at ‘X-Men: The Animated Series’ and celebrate its audacity.
X Men The Animated Series Dark Phoenix
20th Television
By  · Published on September 19th, 2020

Welcome to Saturday Morning Cartoons, our weekly column where we continue the animated boob tube ritual of yesteryear. Our lives may no longer be scheduled around small screen programming, but that doesn’t mean we should forget the necessary sanctuary of Saturday ‘toons. In this entry, we return to the era before the MCU, when pickings were slim, and the ’90s X-Men animated series destroyed our notions of what’s possible in the mainstream arena.

You kids don’t get it. You don’t remember what it was like before “I am Iron Man.” Growing up a comic book child was an isolating experience. Maybe you had one or two friends who devoured single issues, but I didn’t find those friends until high school.

My most formative years were spent reading comics under covers, away from the eyes of scoffers and disbelievers. Somehow He-Man and the Masters of the Universe was acceptable, but The New Mutants and Teen Titans were kiddie garbage? The cultural gulf between the two infuriated my young brain.

Whenever my favorite comic book characters found their way into the more popular mediums of entertainment, their adaptations were often flawed or downright despicable. I didn’t care. He may not have the skull on his chest or act in any way like the Frank Castle I read on the page, but Dolph Lundgren’s The Punisher sent shockwaves of acceptance through my system.

You ate and enjoyed whatever you were given. A starving person does not nitpick flavor.

X-Men: The Animated Series came along at the perfect moment. By the fall of 1992, the comic book direct market was on fire. Speculators entered shops with fantasies of building empires on the backs of number one issues and chromium covers. A year earlier, Chris Claremont and Jim Lee’s X-Men #1 sold more than eight million copies across five variant covers. Comics were finally cool, or at least desirable.

The box office success of Tim Burton’s Batman also brought out several dozen packs of ravenous studio executives hunting to replicate Dark Knight mania. Characters like Dick Tracy, The Phantom, and The Rocketeer made bold plays for the big screen, and while they all have their charms, their narratives barely resembled their comic book counterparts. Even the big hits like Batman and Superman: The Movie adhered very little to the source material, choosing to cherry-pick concepts rather than reference established storylines.

Along came X-Men: The Animated Series, and its arrival was revelatory.

A few years earlier, producer Margaret Loesch tried to bring the marvelous merry mutants to television with her Pryde of the X-Men pilot. Alas, it fell upon deaf ears and empty pockets. However, when she ascended to the head of Fox Children’s Network in 1990, her passion for these characters finally seemed financially feasible — or downright undeniable. The initial thirteen episodes were ordered. They contracted Saban Entertainment to produce the series, which in turn assigned Graz Entertainment production duties, and the South Korean house AKOM got the chore of animation.

The series did not launch on smooth waters. AKOM could not deliver on deadline, and as a result, the first episode premiered in pieces with whole chunks of action missing. Fox was furious and threatened to sever ties with AKOM. The animation studio kicked into overdrive, fixing the absent sequences.

The pilot, entitled “Night of the Sentinels,” re-aired in 1993, and the audience flipped out. Throughout its first season, X-Men: The Animated Series dominated the numbers, and while it never quite reached the critical success of the competing Batman: The Animated Series, the mutants ruled recess conversation. Each episode was validation for kids like myself. But even better, the animated series created a legion of new fans.

X-men: The Animated Series begins by clinging onto the Chris Claremont era (not surprising since that guy controlled the fates of these characters from 1975 through 1991). “The Night of the Sentinels” revolves around the Mutant Registration Act, a political action initiated to protect humanity from the mutant scourge. The ’90s sensation Jubilee is positioned as the gateway character for the audience, using the teenage newbie dynamic Claremont popularized with Kitty Pryde in the comic and the first theatrical experience would mimic with Rogue in 2000.

Throughout the first season, X-Men: The Animated Series lifted heavily from the page, offering its spin on the origins of Professor X, the slave island of Genosha, the coming of Apocalypse, and the dystopian hellscape of “Days of Future Past.” For those in the know, these early episodes were bold promises. The show delivered the goods, but could they pull out all the stops and successfully adapt the unadaptable “Dark Phoenix Saga”?

Hell yes, they could!

While the movies never mustered the patience to express such a complex and bizarre story, the animated series understood they would need the confidence of an established audience and a lot of space to give it a go. “The Dark Phoenix Saga” could not be delivered in season one or season two. The sci-fi doomsday plot demanded nine full episodes, as well as all the previous shows, to establish the characters and the stakes.

Detailing the excitement and terror of Jean Grey’s possession by the cosmic Phoenix Force, the third season drags its characters and viewers through the emotional wringer. The immense power is too much for Jean, and the god-being within eventually consumes her humanity, forcing her to feast on a planet in a neighboring solar system. The death of billions requires the alien Shi’ar Empire to intervene.

Jean Grey must die.

The X-Men understand the horrors committed by their teammate, but they cannot sit back and watch as an alien race places judgment on their loved one. They stand for Jean, and Jean must stand for the X-Men. A sacrifice is made, and a team is torn apart. The viewer is left shaken, and the third season has the good sense to take three more episodes to gently calm us down before suggesting another epic run of catastrophic tales.

The animated adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” achieves an impossible feat made all the more satisfying in retrospect, thanks to the embarrassing blundering of these concepts in X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men: Dark Phoenix. The makers of those films recognize the popularity of the title, but they can’t imagine the time and work needed to pull it off.

Shi’ar Empires, cosmic fire-birds, and mind-controlling Shadow Kings? These are ideas that don’t flow naturally from the mutant metaphor of otherness. The X-Men comics had already spent seventeen years growing apart from their initial idea when Claremont unloaded “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” No matter how revered a storyline, X2 or X3 could never sustain the sci-fi wackiness of that particular comic book epic.  The movies never had the luxury of several seasons of set-up.

By clinging to classic X-Men comic stories, the cartoon acted as an invitation for the curious. Hey, you dig this tiny angry Canadian with claws stretching out of his knuckles? Here are decades worth of adventures for you to devour. The X-Men universe is a wild and blissfully weird dominion stretching into a myriad of genres.

You want ninjas? You got ninjas. You want time travel? You got time travel. You want fiery space gods looking to make a snack out of your planet? You get fie — well, you get the idea. X-Men has it all and happily massages whatever fandom fits your kink.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)