Disney+ Returns to the Classic World of X-Men ’97


When Disney purchased Fox in 2019, one of the first questions was how soon the X-Men would be joining the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Imagine characters like Wolverine and Professor Xavier crossing over with Deadpool and Doctor Strange. Superhero fandom saw it as the most compelling reason to be excited about the merger. When Marvel began their animation division with the “What If” franchise, no one could have imagined resurrecting the fan-favorite animated series, “X-Men: The Animated Series.” Now this show is being revived to introduce audiences to the X-Men once again. 

Make no mistake, “X-Men ‘97” is not a complete restart. It’s a continuation of the storylines and characters that were developed through the children’s animated series. Many of the original voice actors have returned to reprise their roles. And don’t worry, that famous theme song is intact, ready to introduce new episodes in the X-Men saga. While the entryway for this new series is steep, with the many X-Men theatrical releases over the last twenty years redefining these characters, it’s not impossible to be able to fill in the blanks. For everyone else, this is like being thrown into the deep end of mutant history. It’s a problem that’s worth overcoming given the relative strengths of this animated series—it certainly reaches the bar set by the original. 

Disney had a “parting of ways” with “X-Men ‘97” showrunner Beau DeMayo a week before the premiere of the new series, but it’s hard to talk about the show without mentioning his contributions. He came to the project with his background as a gay Black man who grew up within an adopted family—it’s easy to imagine that he saw himself in the outsider characters created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. The mutants of the X-Men are seen as a metaphor for the struggle of LGBTQ+ people—mutants have “come out” to their parents, while afraid of being disowned. They also must face countless hate groups including the Friends of Humanity, that will do anything to eradicate the mutants. These themes are reflected in the core cast of “X-Men ‘97” including Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Gambit, Rogue, Jubilee, Morph, Beast, and Storm as they all have their backstories of feeling unwanted in a world uninterested in their plight and frightened by their existence. 

DeMayo uses the pilot of “X-Men ‘97” as a homage to the ‘92 premiere in many ways, most notably bringing another young mutant into the fold, Brazilian teenager Roberto de Costa. Through his eyes, Professor Xavier’s school and training facility are re-introduced, and he witnesses how the mutants are holding up one year after the death of Xavier. Cyclops and Jean Grey are expecting their first child together, holding on as the custodians of Xavier’s grand vision of coexistence, simultaneously wishing to leave and start their own life away from the X-Men. Elsewhere, Rogue and Gambit continue their romantic interludes and Wolverine pines away for a future with Jean Grey that will never be. The original animation played a lot with soap opera tropes and those continue here. While the motivations for these characters remain familiar, this animated series has evolved, catering primarily to audiences who grew up with these characters. 

When “X-Men: The Animated Series” premiered on Fox’s kids programming block in ‘92, the series was under a lot of restrictions as executives had content demands and merchandise ambitions. The first few episodes have a serialized storytelling approach to them, which was a problem for syndication and bringing new audiences to the program in that prime Saturday morning viewing spot. “X-Men ‘97” is free from those serialization woes as each of the three episodes viewed for review bleed into one another. Cyclops’ moral dilemma of staying with the X-Men for the good of the team or pursuing his happiness continues throughout the series. Without Professor Xavier, a new leader must lead and he believes that responsibility falls to him. 

Another aspect that this sequel has changed is any sense of hope. In the original series, Jubilee’s youth and exuberance added some relief to often heavy storylines. At least with these first three episodes, the existence of the X-Men is bleak. While this cast of mutants has faced deadly time travelers, rampant racism, and imminent extinction before, everything in “X-Men ‘97” has more weight to it. The problem of taking the source comic books too seriously has been a challenge for the MCU for the past few years and continues here, as Marvel has often leaned toward drama over the quirky comic book roots. For better or worse, “X-Men ‘97” has tossed aside any notions of being a children’s program and has leaned heavily into more mature topics. The second episode features a raging mob that brings back painful memories of January 6th, while another episode leans heavily into being a body horror creature feature. It’s especially hard to imagine that Jean Grey’s pregnancy would’ve made it into the Saturday morning cartoon block back in the ‘90s.     

While there have been some unavoidable voice changes due to departing members of the cast, these X-Men sound almost identical to those older episodes. The original voices go a long way in bringing back the nostalgia that emanates from the original series. One of the bigger changes is in the animation style. The creators have adhered to a lot of the same techniques and styles of the ‘90s, but thankfully this isn’t a show that’s plagued by the budget and preservation of the original. The stories of those old episodes hold up, but the show itself is difficult to watch on modern television. “X-Men ‘97” has none of those problems and it’s a joy seeing these characters animated in a new, crisp series. 

Despite “X-Men ‘97” leaning too hard into heavier drama, this is an excellent continuation of a fan-favorite series. The original animated series had such a heavy influence over the X-Men franchises’ relevance in pop culture and the superhero film industry in general. The creators of this new show have created a loving tribute while paving the way to explore another thirty years of X-Men lore. Marvel’s first attempt at an animated series with “What If” was a good tease. “X-Men ‘97” is the real deal. 

The first three episodes were screened for review. Now on Disney+.

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