The roaring and immediate success of the first season of X-Men: The Animated Series skyrocketed the Fox to the top of the Saturday morning television charts and made the nascent network a serious competitor of ABC, NBC, and CBS in the ratings game for the first time. This triumph naturally meant the pressure was on to maintain excitement for season two. The series writers had to balance the high-quality storytelling that made the first season a smash hit with increased scrutiny from the Fox higher-ups over their precious new property. As related in X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series, the series creators received a mandate from above “that the series could no longer be ‘serialized’: Each episode must stand alone.”
This presented a significant change from the structure of the show’s first season, which threaded connective tissue throughout its thirteen episodes to tell a story of the X-Men’s fight against humanity and the Sentinel program. With the directive against serialization, the writers had to work to find a middle ground that satisfied the bosses without completely sacrificing the comics-style long-form storytelling that set the series apart.
Where season one plots regularly planted seeds that informed the larger arc, season two’s focus is primarily on expanding the world of the X-Men and fleshing out the backstories of individual team members. Nearly every member of the team – with the notable exceptions of Professor X (off doing Savage Land things) and Jubilee (understandable, given how heavily she was featured in season one) – receives a spotlight episode exploring their life outside the Xavier School. Each of these installments then features a tag at the end progressing the story of Xavier and Magneto trapped in the Savage Land, all of which eventually connect to the two-part episodes that begin and end the season. These episodes are all about season two’s real “Big Bad,” revealed to be Mister Sinister, as was suggested at the end of the season one finale. While the intervening episodes challenge each member of the X-Men individually, it’s Sinister’s obsession with the potential within the genetics of the X-Men in general and Cyclops and Jean Grey in particular that most directly threatens the team as a whole at the front and back ends of the season.
The Key Episodes
The second part of the opening story, “Till Death Do Us Part, Part 2,” introduces a number of threads that have a substantial impact on the X-Men in their sophomore season. The X-Men are forced to face antagonists on two fronts, first taking on the anti-mutant Friends of Humanity, led by Graydon Creed, before having to rescue the newly-married Cyclops and Jean Grey from Mister Sinister and his Nasty Boys. The latter make their first proper appearance here and are immediately memorable, thanks to the unique powers on display and some very distinctive voice work, most notably by Chris Britton as Sinister. This episode also has some great Evil Morph action as he impersonates Professor X before luring him and Magneto to the Savage Land to kick off the B-plot that runs all season long.
After this two-parter, over half of the remaining episodes are standalone tales diving deeper into the histories of individual team members. The best of these for my money are “Repo Man” and “A Rogue’s Tale,” which focus on Wolverine and Rogue, respectively. There’s an argument that these were the two most fleshed out X-Men in season one, and they get the most engaging stories this time around as well. In Logan’s episode, he is lured back to Canada by Department H and we are treated to an appearance by Alpha Flight and a nicely distilled version of Wolverine’s Weapon X origins. Rogue, meanwhile, is forced to confront repressed memories of her time with Mystique and the Brotherhood of Mutants, which included a mission during which she permanently absorbed Ms. Marvel’s powers – and a portion of her psyche – and put the hero in a coma. Both episodes do a great job connecting this version of the X-Men to the Marvel Universe at large, and pretty accurately adapt key elements of both characters’ origins.
“Mojovision,” the season’s 11th episode, offers something completely different in tone from anything the series has done to this point. The bouncy score gives this episode a playfulness befitting of this lighter take on interdimensional content creator Mojo, and the animators are clearly having a great time paying homage to ‘80s TV as the X-Men are put through the paces to boost Mojo’s ratings.
It all comes to a head in the season two finale, “Reunion, Part 2,” which reveals the identity of the mastermind controlling the Savage Land (duh, it’s Mr. Sinister). With the combined might of the Nasty Boys and the Savage Land Mutates, Sinister is able to capture all of the X-Men and spends plenty of time vamping and pontificating about his plan to mix all of their genes to create an army of super-mutants. Classic Sinister stuff! Throw all of the wildest elements of the Savage Land into the pot – Ka-Zar, Zabu, and Sauron all make significant appearances – and this finale serves as a great payoff for expanding the X-Men’s world all season.
Wolverine copes in the Danger Room: X-Men: The Animated Series Wolverine loves nothing more than to pine after Jean Grey. He’s a lonely, pained man whose prized possessions include a framed photo of his love (and uh, her boyfriend), which he likes to caress when he’s feeling down. So it should come as no surprise that Logan does not take Scott and Jean’s wedding – which opens season two – very well at all. In fact, his response is to violently decapitate a robotic doppelganger of Cyclops in the Danger Room. My favorite part of this scene is that Wolverine took the time to get into his full wedding tux before deciding to go berserk on the Scott-bot.
Apocalypse looms large: Apocalypse is only featured in the two-part “Time Fugitives” story that serves as an only OK sequel to season one’s “Days of Future Past,” but he nonetheless has an (ahem) outsized presence. After the X-Men discover his plot to infect the Earth’s population with a mutated plague and destroy the virus – though unnamed, this is clearly the show’s version of the Legacy Virus of the comics – Apocalypse rages as he is wont to do. He grows to an enormous height and seemingly kills the mutant heroes (don’t worry, time-traveling Cable undoes it!). It’s a brief moment, but one that hammers home just how much of a threat he poses.
Graydon Creed’s downfall: The mutant-hating Friends of Humanity feature heavily throughout season 2. They are frequently shown committing terrorist acts and working to manipulate events such that mutants take the blame and public opinion turns against homo superior. It’s the grandest form of comeuppance, then, when Wolverine puts two and two together and realizes that the group’s leader, Graydon Creed, is Sabretooth’s son – truly, how many unrelated snarling men named Creed could there be in this world? In front of Graydon’s followers, Wolverine projects a hologram of Victor in front of his son and, his mutant lineage exposed to his followers, Graydon breaks down into hysterics.
Wolverine & Ka-Zar ride a pterodactyl: Thanks to his new buddy, Ka-Zar, Wolverine learns pretty quickly that there is no better way to get around the Savage Land than on the back of a pterodactyl. The two wild men storming Magneto’s old citadel on a flying dinosaur is a sight to make any X-Men fan smile. It’s a testament to the show’s writers’ love for the comics that they dove head first into some of the strangest corners of the X-Men and Marvel universe in season two.
There are guest stars aplenty from the wider X-Men and Marvel worlds in season two, and a lot of them have quite memorable appearances. Mr. Sinister is an obvious pick here given his status as the season’s overarching villain, and he makes an outsized impression. He is quite the menacing figure, with the distorted quality of his voice, his design – which includes sharp teeth that are not seen in the comics – and the cadre of minions he has collected to torment the X-Men.
As I’ve mentioned, season two adds some truly out-there characters to the animated series’ world, so Sinister is by no means the only guest star that deserves a highlight here. Mojo appears in only one episode, but his corner of the multiverse is unique among the rest of the conflicts the X-Men deal with. What drives him – the never ending quest for higher ratings – makes him unpredictable and a standout among the mutants’ other more terrestrial foes.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t call out some of the characters who stand out mostly because of the, shall we say, insane choices made in their vocal performances. Let’s start with two of the Savage Land Mutates, Amphibius and Brainchild. Amphibius – who is exactly what you would expect him to be, a bipedal frog man – speaks with the dulcet tones of a coffee grinder at the bottom of the ocean. It is a truly horrible sound. Brainchild’s voice, meanwhile, hits a pitch fit to shatter glass, making him somehow more annoying than Nasty Boy Ruckus, whose power is to literally scream. Alpha Flight’s Puck takes the cake for silliest voice on the heroes’ side, as he manages to sound less intimidating than he looks by a factor of ten.
Comic Book Inspiration
While some classic elements of X-Men history make their way on screen – I’m thinking mostly of the pretty faithful telling of Rogue’s backstory from Avengers Annual #10 and Storm’s history with the Shadow King – season two pulls an impressive amount of inspiration from storylines and characters that had only recently debuted in X-Men comics at the time of production; so if you ask me, the best era to turn to if you’re looking for some context on this season is the X-Men comics from the early ‘90s. The big bad of the season, Mister Sinister, reemerged leading/babysitting the Nasty Boys in 1991’s X-Factor #75 by Peter David, less than two years before season two premiered, after a three-year Inferno-related absence. Omega Red, villain of the Wolverine and Colossus-centric episode, “Red Dawn,” similarly appeared for the first time in late 1991 in John Byrne and Jim Lee’s X-Men #4.
These aren’t even the most recent of the new incarnations that populate season two, and with the decades of comics history available, it’s a testament to the X-Men’s soaring popularity at the time that the writers drew so heavily from contemporary stories in their adaptation. Graydon Creed makes his first comics appearance in Uncanny X-Men #299, by writer Scott Lobdell with art by Brandon Peterson, which hit spinner racks in April 1993, a mere six months before the second season premiere. And the X-Ternal worshiped by the Assassins and Thieves – or as Gambit would say, Teeves – Guilds of Gambit’s past doesn’t debut until October 1993’s Gambit #1, by Howard Mackie and artist Lee Weeks. The character was so new in fact that the series’ artists had no design from Marvel for the character that would eventually become Candra the X-Ternal, so the ethereal being that appears in “X-Ternally Yours” is, per Eric and Julia Lewald, “the only completely original model…designed for the show.” Quite frankly, though, it might have been wise to look elsewhere for a Gambit-centric story, as the X-Ternal is ill-defined as a character, which helps to make “X-Ternally Yours” easily one of the weakest episodes of the season.
In “Time Fugitives,” a two-parter with no direct equivalent in the comics as far as I can tell, Bishop and Cable independently travel back to the ‘90s to fix their respective presents. This is an ambitious story – the first episode is told from Bishop’s perspective, while Cable is the point-of-view character of the second – and thus a lot of credit should be given to the writers for trying something bold. But “Time Fugitives” tries to do a lot, and I think it fails to excel at any single one of them. Not only does this serve as a sequel to the excellent “Days of Future Past” episodes from season one. Not only does it pull in the ongoing Graydon Creed/Friends of Humanity conflict and introduce the show’s version of the Legacy Virus – which had been recently introduced in X-Force. It also recontextualizes its adaptation of Cable – who was featured fairly prominently in the first season as a generic soldier with ties to Genosha – to align better with his characterization in Cable comics of 1993 as a freedom fighter from the future battling against the forces of Apocalypse. There is a lot of fun stuff in these two episodes, and again, the ambition is commendable, but the story told fails to equal the sum of its parts.
Overall, season two feels like a natural progression for X-Men: The Animated Series. With so many characters to juggle, it was important for the series to find time to spotlight each X-Man. The season effectively builds out the team members’ backstories and adds depth to what are already visually engaging and interesting characters. The fact that it does so using largely contemporary early-’90s source material means the show thoroughly captures the tone and aesthetic of the X-Men at the time. This focus on character combined with the show’s willingness to dive head first into some of the strangest, most out-there aspects of the X-Men’s universe makes for a truly enjoyable sophomore year.