October 31, 1992 was a formative day in my childhood. More than just a Saturday, more even than Halloween on a Saturday, October 31, 1992, meant the premiere of FOX Kids’ new cartoon about the X-Men. Now, I can’t say that 7-year-old me had ever actually read an X-Men comic book, but thanks to the release of the X-Men arcade game earlier that year – which I had spent many an hour playing at my local movie theater – I had at least a passing familiarity with several of the characters and their powers. So, primed to see this world I’d spent so much time side-scrolling through in animated form, I plopped myself down in front of the TV that Halloween morning and as soon as I heard the opening bars of that indelible theme song, I was hooked.
From that moment on, I was an X-Men obsessive. I bought the action figures, I played as many of the video games as I could convince my parents to buy (shout out to X-Men on Sega Game Gear!), and of course, I continued to treat X-Men: The Animated Series as appointment viewing for the rest of its 5-season run. For me, like for many other ‘90s kids, these animated versions of the X-Men – their designs, their voices, the sounds their powers made – were the definitive versions of the characters, and they remained so even as, during high school and college, the Internet and a delightful antique contraption called a “CD-ROM” allowed me to explore the uncanny mutants in the comics themselves.
And now, many (many) years later, my nostalgia and love for X-Men: The Animated Series persists. It would seem I’m not alone, either, as Marvel Studios is set to release sequel series X-Men ‘97 later this year, 31 years after that pilot episode aired. In preparation for that highly anticipated revival, I thought 2023 would be a great time for a recurring feature looking back at the original series. Given the often serialized nature of the series, rather than deep-diving into any particular episode – fellow CBH writer Austin Gorton has already done that wonderfully – I want to discuss the show on a more holistic level, exploring one season each month with a few questions in mind.
- What is the overarching narrative of each season?
- What are each year’s standout moments and characters (both heroes and villains, series regulars and guest stars)?
- Where did the writers of each season look for inspiration from the comics, and how faithfully (or not) did they adapt those stories?
- How successful were the show’s completely original choices?
So without further ado, let’s dive into the inaugural season of X-Men: The Animated Series. Cue that theme song!
Season one’s focus is very much on the threat posed by homo sapiens to the survival of mutantkind. News footage of humans protesting and rioting against mutant’s rights pepper the events of these first thirteen episodes, while the Sentinels and their creators are the most frequently recurring antagonists. Epic battles with the Sentinels bookend the season, and the episodes in between hammer home the dangers facing the mutants at the hands of humanity. Critically, this season also makes clear that it’s not just humans stoking the climate of anti-mutant hysteria. There are also other mutants – namely, Magneto and Apocalypse – who won’t hesitate to exploit the chaos and instability to further their own agendas, giving the X-Men a war that has to be fought on multiple fronts. This tried and true refrain of the X-Men using their abilities against staggering odds to protect a world that hates and fears them is a smart framework for the first season of the show to lean into, a clean introduction to the philosophy that, by the time the show premiered, had been at the heart of the comics for close to 30 years.
The Key Episodes
There is a core set of episodes that tracks the ever escalating conflict between mutants and the anti-mutant elements of humanity, offering a nice throughline for the most important season one story arc. In the two-part pilot, “Night of the Sentinels,” the battle is against the Mutant Control Agency and its agents Henry Gyrich, Bolivar Trask, and the Sentinels. The events of these opening episodes do a great job showcasing the team dynamic and sparking the flames of the burgeoning human-mutant conflict, with tragic consequences for the X-Men (more on that later).
Once those seeds are planted, the show takes a bit of a hiatus from focusing on the human threat. They’re brought back to the forefront about halfway through the season in the episode “Slave Island,” where the show reveals that the Mutant Control Agency is by no means the only organized force working against the mutants of the world. It turns out that the island nation of Genosha, which advertises itself as a welcoming safe haven/tourist destination for mutants, captures any mutants that cross their borders and uses them as slave labor. The Sentinels and Bolivar Trask again rear their ugly robotic heads as the Genoshans’ enforcement mechanism, demonstrating the united front the forces of humanity are presenting against mutantkind. “Slave Island” also does a lot of work to expand the cast of mutants, introducing the audience to a number of significant characters both in and out of the Genoshan prison, including Cable, Sunfire, Blob, Mystique, Pyro, and Avalanche.
Towards the end of the season, we’re shown that the enslavement of mutants by the Genoshans is just a precursor. The two-part epic “Days of Future Past” gives a vision of a future where the Sentinel program was escalated after an influential human was assassinated by a mutant during the X-Men’s time. Eventually the Sentinels become a global threat, imprisoning mutants and non-mutants alike and ruling over a dystopia. These episodes follow most of the same beats as the comic book story that inspired them, offering some of the season’s best action as the X-Men battle Nimrod and the newly-formed Brotherhood on their way to stopping the assassination of their primary detractor in the U.S. government, Senator Robert Kelly. But the disastrous future hasn’t been averted yet.
In the season finale, “The Final Decision,” we see the inevitability of the Sentinels turning on all of mankind and bringing about Bishop’s dark future. Master Mold declares that since mutants are the future of humanity, humanity needs to be eradicated, and begins abducting world leaders to replace their brains with computers (said by the giant robot in an intonation that made me laugh out loud). The X-Men are forced to team up with Magneto to put an end to the Sentinel program once and for all, and the writers do a great job showing that the odds are stacked against the mutants on what is likely a suicide mission. Thanks to the inspired choice of environment – the secret Sentinel factory is located underground in an abandoned mine – another exciting action sequence ensues. When the dust has settled, the threat of the Sentinels has been neutralized and Scott Summers proposes to Jean Grey. Happy days are ahead! Except, there is a mysterious figure watching Scott Summers and Jean Grey from a distance…
Morph’s Death: As Eric Lewald (the series’ showrunner) and Julia Lewald (a writer on the show) write in their fascinating coffee table-style book, X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series:
“During the first story (“Night of the Sentinels”), one of the X-Men would need to die. We were determined to show the audience that there were consequences to being an X-Man. No heroism without heroic sacrifice.”
That’s exactly what happens during the events of “Night of the Sentinels, Part 2,” in one of the first season’s most impactful events. Morph – who, while based on a relatively minor X-Men villain called Changeling from the ‘60s comics, was effectively an original character as he was depicted in the animated series – is killed by Sentinels as the X-Men are ambushed trying to escape after breaking into the Mutant Control Agency. The event has a devastating impact on the team, straining the already fraught relationship between Cyclops and Wolverine and emphasizing the high stakes of the X-Men’s mission to keep mutants safe.
The whole world has spent thirty years wondering why Wolverine has a framed photo of Scott and Jean.
Apocalypse’s Emergence: By the time En Sabah Nur makes his presence known in episodes 9 and 10, “The Cure” and “Come the Apocalypse,” the only nefarious mutants we’ve seen have been lone actors. Apocalypse, on the other hand, is quickly shown to be a master manipulator. He has been working behind the scenes to orchestrate events, enlisting Mystique in the creation of his Horsemen and in the attempted assassination of Senator Kelly. Adding to Apocalypse’s (ahem) mystique is his nebulous power set and penchant for pontification. His impact is immediate and far-reaching, and it’s clear he’s a dangerous enemy.
Xavier & Magneto Destroy Master Mold: The season finale is an appropriately action-packed showdown with the Sentinels and Master Mold. Half the X-Men take on dozens and dozens of Sentinels above ground while Cyclops leads a team into the abandoned mines below to destroy the factory and Master Mold, leading to a fantastic climax where Professor X – protected by Magneto’s forcefield – gets in on the action, flying the Blackbird into an enormous Master Mold. Great, great stuff.
In an ensemble like the X-Men, it’s inevitable that some core characters receive a larger share of the spotlight than others. It’s also no surprise that the standout member of the main X-Men: TAS cast in the first season is Wolverine. By the time the show premiered, Logan had steadily become one of the most popular characters in Marvel Comics over nearly 20 years, and this season gives him plenty of chances to shine. Jubilee and Rogue get a fair amount of narrative focus over these episodes, but Wolverine is everywhere. He gets half an episode showcasing a solo adventure, which none of the other X-Men get, and he’s a focal point in nearly every big action set-piece. He also has more than his share of one-liners – including personal favorites, “Tell Cyclops I made him a convertible” and “I’ll penetrate his recesses” – all made that much more memorable thanks to the unique performance of voice actor Cal Dodd.
There are a handful of guest stars that make an outsized impression as well. Bishop in particular leaves a mark, with his pivotal role in “Days of Future Past” and his…indelible? bizarre?… future-cowboy-ish musical theme. As for the villains – while the Sentinels are the most notable antagonists of this season, other diabolical personalities make a bigger impression. For me, it’s a toss-up between Mystique, who is introduced relatively late in the season but comes with incredible pathos and a connection to Rogue, and Apocalypse, with his booming voice and immediately established status as a puppet master.
Comic Book Inspiration
I’ll get into some of the specific comic book stories the first season drew inspiration from in a minute, but it’s important to first acknowledge what inspired the foundations of the series – X-Men #1, the soft relaunch/reset that took place in the comics in 1991 and quickly became the best selling comic book of all time. This marked the beginning of the end of Chris Claremont’s tenure as writer and is perhaps best known and loved for Jim Lee’s iconic work redesigning the mutant team for a new decade. X-Men #1 establishes a new status quo for the mutants – Professor Xavier back leading the team (in his now-iconic yellow hoverchair) after several publication years off-planet and a large roster based once more out of the mansion in Westchester. The show takes its setup, along with the composition of the team, straight from the comics relaunch, though some notable characters from the comic book lineup are omitted or relegated to guest star status – namely, Colossus, Psylocke, Iceman, Archangel, and Forge.
While the makeup of the team is pure ‘90s, whenever the first season adapts specific plots from the comics, they almost exclusively look to the 1980s. And in what will become a hallmark of the series, the show does not shy away from some of the biggest moments in X-Men history, even in its early days. Landmark storylines like “Days of Future Past” (told by Chris Claremont and John Byrne in 1980’s Uncanny X-Men #141-142) and the introduction of the Morlocks (1983’s Uncanny X-Men #169-170, by Claremont and artist Paul Smith) are translated into animation very successfully. Naturally, these adaptations take a few liberties with the source material – Cyclops is the apple of Morlock leader Callisto’s eye instead of Angel, while the absence of Kitty Pryde and Rachel Summers from the show’s cast means the recently-created Bishop is the time-traveler sent back from the “Days of Future Past” timeline. But these changes are pretty seamlessly integrated without losing what makes those stories memorable.
Not every adaptation is a success, though. Apocalypse’s corruption of Warren Worthington III into Archangel, his Horseman of Death, is a rather poignant emotional arc for Angel in the pages of X-Factor thanks to the decades of history we’ve had with the character. But in the animated series, Angel receives barely five minutes of screentime before he is transformed. Further, when we’re introduced to Warren, he believes he is funding research toward a cure for mutations. This is in stark contrast to comics Angel, who is devastated when his wings are amputated after the Mutant Massacre, and is “rescued” and turned into Archangel by Apocalypse after a suicide attempt. This is all missing from the version of the story in the animated series, so while the aesthetics of Archangel and his master are adapted well, the rest of it falls a bit flat.
The thing that impressed me most about the first season during this rewatch was its ambition. The writers really dove head first into X-Men lore (infamously some of the most complex in superhero comics) and committed to the serialized story-telling format. The season tells a complete overarching story – the X-Men fighting back against the Sentinel program, in the process protecting both mutant kind and humanity at large – and offers a satisfying conclusion, while also steadily building out the mutant world as the season progresses. The show also demonstrates an admirable confidence by leaving some stories unresolved and ripe for revisiting in the future.
So how well did the second season capitalize on the momentum of these strong initial episodes? Which plot threads did the show come back to, and which comic book storylines did it bring to the small screen? You’ll have to wait for the next installment of this series to find out!