DVD Review: X-Men Animated Series

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.

Movie Review: X-Men First Class

‘There’s a war coming,’ a nameless CIA agent sayd in X-Men First Class. ‘But with who?’ asks another.  It’s the 60’s, and tensions are high as the US and USSR each try to position missiles as close to the other as possible.

Little does either side know, a group of mutants, the Hellfire Club (led by Kevin Bacon), seeks to exploit this conflict to bring about a mutant revolution.

Bacon, playing Sabastian Shaw, was once a scientist working for the Nazis.  In that capacity, he met a young Eric Lehnsherr (Magneto), and brought out his mutant abilities in a very unkind way.  Later, while hunting for Shaw in Argentina, Eric says that he (Eric) is Frankenstein’s monster, looking for the man (Sabastian) that made him.

In many ways, Sabastian continues to influence Eric as they both share the same dream of a mutant revolution. Eric’s character arc in the film is becoming that which he hates the most.  As a holocaust survivor, he hated the Nazis and their ideology of genetic superiority; and yet as a mutant, he believes his own genes to be superior to the humans, and seeks to wipe them out (though to be fair to Eric, mutants are superior to humans, unlike Germans).

On the opposite side is Charles Xavier, a telepathic mutant who recently received his doctorate in Genetics.  He, too, wants freedom for mutants, but thinks this can be accomplished by making peace with the humans.  The relationship between Eric and Charles is complicated.  I think it exists mostly in Charles’ head.  Certainly, Eric likes Charles and appreciates his help, but Eric’s involvement in the X-Men was always singly focused on the cause of killing Sebastian.  He had his own agenda, and was using them to achieve it.  Charles’ belief that Eric was a true ally, or that he could change were very naive for someone that can read minds.  While they both want mutants to be free, there’s really never anything approaching a consensus, so Magneto and Professor X’s eventual falling out feels less like a betrayal and more like an inevitability.

As Sabastian plots the Cuban missile crisis to instigate a war between the east and west, Charles thinks it’s an opportunity to win acceptance for the mutants;  that if they stop a war, they will win favor from the public.  Ironically, Charles does stop the war, but only by turning both sides against mutants, giving them a common enemy.

This was easily the best of the X-Men movies.  Being a prequel, a number of the resolutions are know ahead of time, but they’re presented well, and the character arcs leading to them have depth.  The 60’s setting gives it style and makes it feel fresh; while the Cuban missile crisis was a brilliant plot conceit.  It gives the movie high stakes, but still keeps it grounded in reality, avoiding the cartoonish super villainy that dragged down the first X-Men film.