TV Rewind: Why the Colorful, Campy X-Men Was a Revolutionary Superhero Cartoon

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TV Rewind: Why the Colorful, Campy <i>X-Men</i> Was a Revolutionary Superhero Cartoon

Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:

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The ’00s signaled the beginning of superhero movies’ conquest of the box office, but for television, the golden age of superhero stories was really the ’90s. For DC aficionados, it’s when Batman: The Animated Series and all its spin-offs and sequel shows first hit the airwaves. But as celebrated as those shows are, Marvel was also making big moves: Iron Man, Hulk, and Spider-Man all got their own series. One of the most popular and most fondly-remembered, though, was X-Men. As the show approaches its 30th anniversary, Marvel is plotting a true sequel series to the brash, colorful, gloriously campy show that introduced a new generation to these characters, and enthusiastically told interweaving, serialized narratives.

The show went with the Jim Lee-era X-Men look, meaning bright primary- and neon-colored costumes and big hair. Wolverine wears bright yellow spandex, and Jubilee goes to the mall to hang out in her wrap-around pink shades and banana-yellow coat (that is probably pleather) before she ever even joins the X-Men. Gambit wears the same face mask (the one that covers every part of his head except his face and hair) while he’s traveling incognito as he does when he’s assaulting a government facility or tangling with Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants.

It’s an aesthetic that was left behind immediately afterward with the Ultimate line of comics and the 2000 film that, along with Blade and the Sam Raimi-directed Spider-Man films, really defined the superhero style for the next decade. (James Marsden’s Cyclops in the 2000 film even hangs a big lampshade on this when, in response to Wolverine’s grousing about his costume, he makes a crack about “yellow spandex.”)

The show’s title sequence was designed to showcase all of these colorful designs at the same time its insanely memorable theme pumped you up:

One of the most important things the show did, though, was present kids with an engrossing, serialized narrative at a time when most shows (including Batman: The Animated Series) were just doing one-offs. And as campy as the show was, the narratives managed to be high-stakes. In just the first few episodes, the X-Men—having sheltered Jubilee (Alyson Court) after an attack by giant, genocidal robots called sentinels—realize they are being hunted by rogue elements of the government. They storm a facility to prevent, I say it again, the systematic genocide of people like them and in the process one of their teammates is actually killed. (He gets better, but much later in the show; for several seasons Morph is just gone.) It was shocking for a kid’s show at the time.

The series, which ran for five seasons, took a “greatest hits” sort of approach to X-Men history, adapting major storylines from the comics. With the freedom to stretch storylines to multi-part episodes, it was able to give these arcs the breathing room they deserved, like “Days of Future Past,” “The Phoenix Saga” series baddies (like the immortal mutant Apocalypse), and the absurdly complicated family tree of Cyclops. If you wanted to see the X-Men tangle with Mr. Sinister, witness Jean Grey’s rebirth in cosmic fire, and munch on popcorn as Cyclops and Wolverine butt heads, the show was all too ready to accommodate you.

The series was also a campy entry into superhero canon that now feels like a corrective to so much of the super-serious super-fare that has arisen since. The prototype of the sentinels—the hunter-killer robots that target mutants for extermination—is Master Mold, a recurring villain in the show’s first season. Master Mold’s whole vibe, and what he represents, really illustrates the tone of the show perfectly in its first season. In once scene, Master Mold looks down to realize he can’t move and says (in the exact same robotic tone of voice with which he declares everything) “I AM STILL PLUGGED IN,” before getting wiped out by a tidal wave like a complete jabroni. In the season finale, he declares that he will “REMOVE SENATOR KELLY’S BRAIN AND REPLACE IT WITH A COMPUTER.” Of all the things Senator Kelly could say in response to this (such as “It is 1992 and the best PCs on the market have 4MB of RAM,” for starters), he chooses to say “You can’t do that! I’m a U.S. Senator!” Master Mold plans to replace all the brains of world leaders with computers, because, he says: “IT WILL BE A VAST IMPROVEMENT.” These lines are representative of everything Master Mold says or does.

Like the best camp, though, there’s earnestness underneath all of this. In this same episode, Master Mold is defeated by Professor Xavier and Magneto teaming up to fly the X-Men’s jet, loaded with boxes of TNT (which are labeled “TNT” on the side) right into the giant killer robot’s face.

“You are the embodiment of all that is evil and unjust in humankind! You must be destroyed!” says Professor X, right before ejecting as Master Mold explodes. The thing is, this is not an exaggeration. Master Mold is a robot programmed to systematically wipe out people because of the circumstances of their birth. He is the worst of humanity’s cruelty incarnate, and the show’s archetypal peacenik is saying he’s got to go. X-Men elucidates that evil, and then crams an exploding jet down its throat.

That energy was shared by the entire voice cast, who all burst with life (even the stick-in-the-mud Cyclops). Those voice actors gave every line the hard sell, with results that are dramatic as often as they are totally hilarious. Storm (Alison Sealy-Smith) in particular always cranks her dialogue up to 11 before smiting fools with lightning or knocking over buildings with tornados, which she does two or three times an episode. Beast (George Buza), while deactivating a security system, ponders aloud “Are we ever truly secure?” Gambit (Chris Potter), for no reason whatsoever, strolls into a tense scene in progress with no knowledge of what is transpiring and announces that “Everyone can relax! Gambit is here.”

The show also aired during a pivotal moment in Marvel’s history. Jim Lee, whose design work heavily informed the show, was among artists who jumped ship from Marvel in 1992 to form Image Comics (the house responsible for Invincible, Spawn, and the explosion in popularity of characters created by other big-name defectors like Todd MacFarlane and Rob Liefeld). Soon after, Marvel would go bankrupt, a turn of events directly linked to its sale of movie rights to big characters like the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Fantastic Four to other studios. This rift in ownership of Marvel’s stories also animated the logic behind so many tentpole films over the past 20 years.

Marvel’s bankruptcy ultimately disrupted the show, leading to production company Saban funding the last episodes in the very different-looking final stretch. For those who want a satisfying ending to the show, though, it’s perfectly reasonable to just stop mid-way through Season 4 with the end of the four-part “Beyond Good and Evil,” in which the X-Men finally defeat Apocalypse in a battle that spans millennia.

Now, the show has caught a second wind with its availability on Disney+, and the fact they’re now looking to revive it with a direct sequel series in 2023 (dubbed X-Men: ’97) seems almost inevitable. Whether the showrunners of 2023 can capture the absolutely beautiful scenery-chewing madness of the original show is a question many fans are no doubt looking forward to having answered. For now, X-Men is still very much plugged in.

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Kenneth Lowe goes where he wants to go. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.

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