X-Men Volumes One – Five
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
A lot of the recent resurgence in the superhero genre can be attributed to rose-colored nostalgia. The people who grew up with these comics look back and only remember the good; the big ideas, the drama, the epic battles; while ignoring the problems.
The X-Men Animated Series lacks the rosy nostalgia and instead presents a faithful adaptation of the comic series it is based on, for good and bad.
X-Men presents an alternate Earth in which a small percentage of people are born with special powers due to genetic mutation. Mutations exist in real life, but are mostly irrelevant, or damaging and the few that are beneficial do not grant complex magical powers in one generation, but this is a comic book world, where believability doesn’t matter. Charles Xavier, a telepath, is the leader of a school which takes in young mutants and trains them to use their powers, all while fighting for a peaceful co-existence with the humans. The is made difficult by the large number of mutants that would use their powers for evil, and the base prejudice and bigotry found in the human populations.
The show draws on the civil rights movement, complete with ‘human supremacist’ groups, but like good science fiction, it’s not a lazy metaphor. Because of course, mutants are genuinely different. They’re carrying around a loaded weapon everyday, and some aren’t even capable of controlling it.
Wolverine plays a big part in the series, though his character is rather simple. He’s the gruff Canadian with a long past of fighting, who finds himself in a group that fights for peace. He’s definitely the ‘cool’ character, though his personality shields him from nuanced characterization.
Jubilee is the character introduced to the X-Men in episode one, and thus is the audience’s viewpoint. She’s young, and has a relatively useless power (basically fireworks come out of her hands), which makes for an interesting dynamic, as she is persecuted like any other mutant, but is truly not a threat to anyone.
Many of the famous story lines from the comic series are adapted in the show, most notably the dark phoenix saga. These are the aspects of the show that expose the nostalgia for me. The basic elements are quite good, A woman loses her mind, there’s betrayal, death, and pain. But in the actual execution, it’s melodramatic, and very surface-y. The stories are down right fantastical. We go into space, alternate Earths, time travel, magic worlds, etc. Add that to the silly costumes everyone walks around in, and you lose some of the human connection that is necessary for drama.
The show deals with deep issues, but in a rather shallow way. They show’s worst episode is ‘Nightcrawler,’ which introduces the character of the same name. In it, Wolverine is gives a cliched answer to Nightcrawler’s question about why he doesn’t go to church (to paraphrase: I’ve seen too many bad things). Then at the end, Wolverine changes his mind, for some reason. It could have been an interesting episode about religion, but just came of as a poorly-written sermon.
Conversely, the best episode of the series, ‘Decent,’ doesn’t feature any X-Man at all. It takes place in Victorian England, and stars an ancestor of Xavier; Charles Darwin; and one of the X-Men’s villians first discovering the existence of mutant powers. There aren’t any ‘big’ issues in the episode, but it’s well plotted and fleshes out the world and the series’ mythology.
It’s worth judging the series as a product of its time. Compared to other ’90s cartoons, X-Men was ahead of the rest. Its continuity, its drama, the way it considers the real-world ramifications super powered people, all make for a kids show that holds up very well for its grown up audience.
The 76 episode series was released across five, two-disc DVD sets. They contain no extras, but are otherwise a nice presentation of the series.