X-Men: The Animated Series debuted on Halloween of 1992. I can’t remember if I actually watched it that night, and I have a hard time believing a seven-year-old would have skipped trick or treating, even for his favorite superhero team debuting on television. Regardless, I distinctly remember watching it with my older cousin, whose small collection of issues I had already poured through–much to his irritation.
This show defined a generation of comics fans and paved the way to the current zenith of super-powered character popularity. X-Men: The Animated Series paved the way for Spider-Man as well as a cacophony of animated Marvel shows, many of which are far less well-remembered. With its–for its time–astounding animations, stellar character work, surprising maturity, and a bevy of one-liners, X-Men: The Animated Series has gone down as one of the greatest animated adaptations of comics ever, rivaling even Batman: The Animated Series despite being a starkly different style of series.
For our summer TV binge series, I am elated to review this nostalgic and indelible piece of my childhood. So strap on your ruby quartz goggles and grab your favorite deck of cards, mon ami. This is five thoughts on the 2-part X-Men: The Animated Series debut, “Night of the Sentinels.” And I hope I shouldn’t need to warn you about a twenty-seven-year-old show, but beware of spoilers.
1. That Iconic Intro
Not to belabor the comparisons to Batman: The Animated Series but are there any more iconic opening sequences to a superhero cartoon ever than these two shows? Featuring individual character cards that flow into one another culminating in two rows of heroes and villains colliding and accompanied by a theme song that will never leave your mind unless it is forced out by an adamantium bullet, this blew me away as a kid and still does today. It is dynamic, sets each member of the team up–as well as the antagonists–and just rocks your socks.
Saturday morning cartoons were really in their heyday at this time, following breakout shows like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, The Real Ghostbusters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Fox Kids understood they needed to up the ante in their Saturday morning programming block. This introduction helped solidify X-Men: The Animated Series as the cornerstone on that. Were it not for this theme song and animation which we would watch time and again over the course of five years, the show might not have had the same punch–and thus, success.
2. It’s Sooooo 90s
For as well as this show actually has aged, it simultaneously feels incredibly dated in many ways. Much of this is due to Jubilee’s character. The bombastic mall-rat and window for the audience into the world of the series, Jubilee quips at a breakneck pace but “does a mall babe eat chili fries?” somehow manages to not be the corniest of lines. Rogue’s “you look as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs” and Wolverine’s “hey Tin Woodsman! I’m sending you back to Oz – in pieces!” both stand out as endlessly quotable but incredibly hokey moments in this show.
VCRs, arcades, comic spinner racks, and the mall itself seem like ancient artifacts watching this today. While it is beloved and a testament to just how good a children’s cartoon can be, it is unquestionably a product of its time, and will have you reaching for a glass of Crystal Pepsi as you enjoy this time-warp of a program.
3. “Git Yer Politics Outta Muh Comics!”
One common complaint that is often made of modern comics is how they are too political. This is not even strictly among the more extreme detractors of current books, most often Marvel’s fare. Many bemoan how they simply want escapism, and don’t wish to be beaten over the head with metaphors and commentary of current events and social issues. It’s an oft-seen, even if heavily flawed gripe to make. Comics have always been political, and none more so than the X-Men.
Created as a reflection of racial bigotry, the X-Men exist solely for the purpose of making a statement about prejudice and oppression even within the brightly colored pages that Marvel used to show “the world outside your window.” X-Men: The Animated Series, as an adaptation, never shied away from this. In fact, it doubles down on it. Despite being aimed at such a young audience it offered a nuanced view of these themes that resonate loudly and passionately. Stan Lee, Scott Lobdell, and Fabian Nicieza even have a roundtable discussion about this on the promotional VHS copies that Pizza Hut carried of these two episodes.Continued below
It’s not just political though, it is what those angry fans further articulate with their grievances, most especially among the group known as Comicsgate. The political and social subject matter of X-Men: The Animated Series is quite liberal. With its representation of authoritarianism through the Mutant Control Act and its presentation of a female president it feels more pointed in the world of 2019, a Trump presidency, and the electoral loss of Hillary Clinton. While the old guard of geekdom may pine for the days of when comics were so apolitical, this stands as a testament of how they were decidedly not.
“Night of the Sentinels” also features a quick cameo of some Friends of Humanity members, a parallel of white supremacist groups who are further explored later in the season. X-Men: The Animated Series, much like its comics counterpart, is very, very political; and it is all the better for it.
“Night of the Sentinels also saw the debut of Morph, a character loosely based on Changeling from the comics. Morph seems at first to exist as the comic relief of the show, seen often jovial and mimicking his teammates and others. The trope of Morph’s character was quickly flipped on its head in this two-part episode as he is seemingly killed in the raid on the Mutant Control Act’s records facility.
This death sets a trajectory for the show that carries on into the second season’s premiere, being referenced often throughout. It is a defining moment for the team, and despite little time with the character beforehand has an emotional impact on the audience.
5. Setting Up a Team Dynamic
Morph’s death sits at the center of much of how this team will interact throughout the show. Wolverine harbors regret for the loss of his friend and resentment of Cyclops, who in turn questions himself and his leadership capabilities. These characters will feud not only with supervillains but each other while always struggling to set their differences aside for the good of the mission. Jubilee will learn more about herself and how each member has a role to play as she is forced to sit on the sidelines when things are too dangerous. Rogue and Gambit will play out a “will they won’t they” scenario as star-crossed lovers separated by fate. Beast will have his loyalties tested as he navigates a justice system that discriminates against him.
There are so many moving parts to X-Men: The Animated Series that I am excited to talk about week to week as this series progresses. It is an exciting opportunity to dissect a childhood favorite and a pop-culture icon that has stayed in the public mind for a generation raised on Saturday Morning cartoons and spandex-clad titans. Stay tuned, true believers, and get ready next week when I say “previously on X-Men.”