REVIEW: ‘X-Men ’97’

(L-R): Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith), Beast (voiced by George Buza) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

It’s been said that nostalgia is a hell of a drug. The sentimental longing for an overidealized past can all but rewrite reality within our minds, amplifying our perception of the emotional impact of past experiences and manifesting something that never truly existed in the way we remember it. It’s a road we’ve all traveled and the longer we stay on it, the further we get from the true nature of the original experience. Unlike fortune, nostalgia’s no fickle wench: it provides exactly what we want it to every time.

Revisiting that imaginary hallowed ground simply reinforces whatever good feeling we’re searching for and is the source of every grumpy old man telling a young buck that “they don’t make them like they used to.” However, as it turns out, they do indeed make them like they used to and, every so often, even better. Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97 stands as an exemplar of how studios can revisit known and even beloved quantities while finding something that may not have been there originally. Whether you grew up with X-Men: The Animated Series or have never seen an episode of the ’90s classic, X-Men ’97 is about to become your favorite Saturday morning cartoon.

(L-R): Jubilee (voiced by Holly Chou), Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Jean Grey (voiced by Jennifer Hale), Gambit (voiced by AJ LaCascio), Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith), and Beast (voiced by George Buza) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

Give Marvel Studios mad props. They smartly leaned heavily into ’90s nostalgia in promoting X-Men ’97, adeptly using the dope theme song from X-Men: The Animated Series and some sweet old-school posters to provide O.G. fans with a phat dopamine rush that reminded them just how off the hook chillin’ on Saturday mornings used to be. Back in the day, X-Men: The Animated Series was the bomb…or was it? Nostalgia is a hell of a drug.

For a nearly unquantifiable portion of a generation, X-Men: The Animated Series was the gateway drug into the uncanny world of mutant heroes and villains created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Over 76 episodes, the series–heavily inspired by Chris Claremont’s work with the characters in the pages of Marvel Comics–became a frenetic highlight reel of the X-Men’s greatest hits. Without ever reading an X-Men comic, fans of the show could name a dozen X-Men, define an Omega mutant and summarize some of Marvel Comics’ greatest X-Men runs. Just as Claremont’s life-saving run on the Uncanny X-Men concluded, X-Men: The Animated Series cemented the characters in the era’s zeitgeist. The serendipitous multimedia symbiosis of page and animation no doubt led Fox to the inevitable conclusion that the X-Men would be a hit on the big screen and thus, the X-Men became embedded in pop culture, where they have firmly remained over 30 years later. But if the first three episodes of X-Men ’97 reveal anything, they reveal just how weak our minds can be when challenged by the nostalgia for better days.

(L-R): Beast (voiced by George Buza), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

If you believe yourself a fan of X-Men: The Animated Series, challenge yourself to a modern-day rewatch. Unlike the finest of wines, the series struggles to mature with its audience, limited not only by the technology of its time but also by the sensibilities of an era gone by. And that’s just fine and totally fair…however, as Marvel Animation rolls out a brand new series set in that bygone era, it absolutely needs to be fit enough to survive the onslaught of modern fans. Showrunner Beau DeMayo aggressively relieves the evolutionary force of selective pressure by slightly changing the DNA of the series to favorably adapt to the modern environment in which it will be judged. What emerges is a new generation more fit than its predecessor on nearly every measurable standard.

X-Men ’97 veraciously maintains the feverish pace of its progenitor. The first three episodes of the season cover more than 20 issues of Claremont’s run on Uncanny and resolve an eight-month line-wide comic run in 30 minutes. However, it’s here where a reflective member of the audience should stop, drop and roll back into common sense: regardless of your modern sensibilities, X-Men: The Animated Series was created to entertain children. In this sense, compared to offerings such as Teen Titans Go!, X-Men ’97 is much more Hawthorne than Hemingway.

(L-R): Beast (voiced by George Buza), Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), Cyclops (voiced by Ray Chase), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio), and Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith) in Marvel Animation’s X-MEN ’97. Photo courtesy of Marvel Animation. © 2024 MARVEL.

The first three episodes offer plenty of rawhide upon which to chew. Is Marvel Animation starting up its own connected universe? The Daily Bugle provides plenty of opportunities to believe so. Despite the statement that X-Men ’97 is doing its own thing, does the appearance of WHiH News portend some connection to the live-action MCU and the Multiverse Saga? When dealing with the timey-wimey concepts that are part and parcel of the X-Men, could the crazy sumbitches at Marvel Studios be planning to capitalize on nostalgia in a way ’90s kids could never have dreamt of by bringing the team that brought X-Men into pop culture back into pop culture in an all-new, all-different millennium?

As of March 2024, there are no answers to those questions; however, in an ever-expanding wilderness of superhero projects, the fitness of X-Men ’97 is not dependent on the audience’s familiarity with the MCU. Should you have watched all 76 episodes of X-Men: The Animated Series once, twice or nonce, you’ll find yourself fully engaged in the story of Cyclops, Jean and the team as they learn to move forward in the absence of Charles Xavier who, by the way, “died” in Season 5, Episode 10 of X-Men: The Animated Series which aired in 1996. Yet somehow, some way, DeMayo and his writers’ room have found common ground for those who saw Charles “die” with those who only know who Charles is from Logan or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. As Marvel Studios rightfully finds itself under fire, X-Men ’97 could ironically raise the roof of what fans consider as the shit while still being enjoyable for trifling busters.

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