On Halloween in 1992, Fox Kids debuted the first episode of X-Men: The Animated Series, a cartoon adaptation of the best-selling comic book characters. The series would go on to run for five seasons and 76 episodes across six years. While never the critical darling that was the Batman animated series (which itself launched just a few weeks prior) and often plagued with animation and production issues, X-Men: The Animated Series was nevertheless beloved by a generation of fans, who appreciated its keen understanding of what makes the core cast and the concept of the X-Men so captivating and an ability to smartly adapt the often byzantine X-Men comic book stories in a way that both worked in the new medium but still stayed true to the heart of the stories.
I was eleven when the series debuted, and about six months into my burgeoning comic book/X-Men fandom. Seeing these characters I’d already grown to love depicted on my TV for the first time only further cemented my fandom. Between the comics, the trading cards, the action figures, and this series, the X-Men were deeply embedded in my life in a way that has never entirely gone away. The series is far from perfect — the animation never reaches the heights of the Caped Crusader’s contemporary show, Cyclops is entirely too square, Storm’s lengthy pronouncements every time she uses her powers gets old, fast — but there remains something charming in those rough edges, and there’s no denying the creators involved gave it their all and truly respected the source material, as well as the fans love of it.
To celebrate the series’ 30th anniversary, here is my ranking of its thirty best episodes. Note, I am ranking these based on episode, not story, so each chapter of a multi-part arc (which the series featured regularly) must be worthy of inclusion on its own to make the list!
30. “Graduation Day” (Season Five)
Season 5 is far from the show’s strongest season, representing a last minute order for some additional episodes made using a different animation studio (which results in a smoother but much less detailed style) than the rest of the series. Of the small batch of season 5 episodes. the series finale is one of the few standouts from that season. While not as accomplished as the rest of the episodes on this list, it does a respectable job of providing a capstone to the series, returning to the themes of anti-mutant prejudice, featuring a legitimately-touching examination of the Xavier/Magneto relationship (in which Magneto halts his planned war on mutantkind to help save the life of his old friend), and concluding with an injured Xavier leaving Earth and the X-Men to convalesce with the Shi’ar, thereby giving the episode its title.
29. “The Unstoppable Juggernaut” (Season One)
A textbook example of the series’ default format in its early years: introduce a one-off character plucked from the history of the X-Men (in this case, Colossus) as well as a classic or otherwise notable villain (the Juggernaut), and pepper in a few of the regular cast to team-up with the first star to fight the villain. While this is a fairly straightforward example of that approach, it does gain a little something for the way it ultimately draws in the entirety of the team (even Jean Grey!) for the climax, something that happens in the series all too rarely.
28. “Mojovision” (Season Two)
While lacking the media satire element that defines a lot of Mojo comic book stories (at least the better ones), this episode is still a lot of fun, thanks to some unique pairings of X-Men and some broad parodies of different styles of TV shows as Mojo “casts” the X-Men into his twisted productions.
27. “Cold Comfort” (Season Three)
X-Men: The Animated Series would often play fast and loose with its past history, sometimes presenting the X-Men as having only recently formed prior to the first episode and other times suggesting the TV team is a continuation of a storied tradition. This episode suggests the latter, introducing Iceman into the series as a former X-Man who left the team in a huff years before. While largely a vehicle for some fun cameos (including Polaris and the rest of the 90s era Peter David X-Factor), it gets some additional juice out of the conflicted responses to Iceman’s return from Cyclops and Beast. While Beast is simply happy to see his old friend again (in a nod to their frequent Silver Age pairings), Cyclops resents Iceman having walked away from the team (something Cyclops feels he’d never be allowed to do). That conflict lends some depth to the brawl with X-Factor that is the centerpiece of the episode.
26. “Reunion Part 2” (Season Two)
In an effort to appease the network, which was concerned about the relatively heavy serialization of the first season, the producers took a different approach in Season 2, telling mostly standalone stories book-ended by a serial narrative in which Professor X and Magneto fight their way across the Savage Land. The two part season finale “Reunion” moves that subplot onto center stage as the X-Men come together in the Savage Land via the machinations of Mister Sinister. The conclusion of the story is the more satisfying part, as we finally see the X-Men working collectively after a season which tended to highlight small groupings of characters, culminating in Cyclops seemingly blasting Sinister into oblivion in the cathartic climax.
25.”Slave Island” (Season One)
Series 1 continues its exploration of the mutant metaphor by introducing the mutant slave island of Genosha, in a episode packed with cameos from a wide variety of mutants (several of whom would step out from the chorus later in the series). It also introduces Cable, the self-described “wild man of Borneo,” in a form much closer to his initial comic book presentation of a mysterious badass than his vastly different role as an Apocalypse-focused time traveling warrior later in the series.
24. “Beyond Good and Evil Part 4” (Season Four)
Originally intended to serve as the series finale, “Beyond Good and Evil” is the last of the show’s various multi-part epics. It is also the only one of those multi-part epics that has an original plot, one not directly inspired by a specific comic book story. The final episode of the four parter effectively wraps up the overarching narrative, but suffers from a narrow focus that leaves out the majority of the regular cast from an episode that was intended to be the series’ last.
23. “The Dark Phoenix Saga Part 1: Dazzled” (Season Three)
The kickoff to the series’ adaptation of the legendary “Dark Phoenix Saga” is the least of the animated saga’s four largely strong episodes. In addition to introducing the titular (and bizarrely brunette) Dazzler, it also deals with the return of Jean Grey following the events of the earlier “Phoenix Saga” adaptation, a quirk of production issues that messed up the intended airdate order of the episodes (leading to Jean showing up here after dying with little explanation). As a result, the episode struggles a bit under the weight of how much narrative work it has to do to get the saga rolling.
22. “The Dark Phoenix Saga Part 3: Dark Phoenix” (Season Three)
The penultimate episode of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” showcases the X-Men breaking out of the Circle née Hellfire Club before Jean succumbs to her dark side, transforms into Dark Phoenix, destroys a planet, and returns to Earth for a psychic battle with Professor X. It’s strength comes from its remarkable fidelity to the events of X-Men #134-136 and the opportunity to see those classic moments in animated form.
21. “Nightcrawler” (Season Three)
The introductory showcase for guest-star Nightcrawler does a marvelous job of highlighting the religious aspect of Nightcrawler’s characters, but suffers from leaving out some of his other characteristics. But the effort is buoyed by also presenting a surprising examination of Wolverine’s faith in the face of the devout Nightcrawler. Plus, Gambit gets repeatedly knocked out throughout the episode, which is hilarious.
20. “Deadly Reunion” (Season One)
The fourth episode of the series, “Deadly Reunion” is the first serious effort to build out the show’s mythology. Using a pair of encounters with foes past (Magneto/Xavier and Sabretooth/Wolverine), it showcases the idea of a history between characters which predates the start of the series, bringing to the animated series one of the key elements of the comic book’s success. In the Xavier/Magneto relationship especially, it lays the groundwork for one of the more important connections of the entire series.
19. “Beyond Good and Evil Part 2” (Season Four)
The second part of “Beyond Good and Evil” is the strongest, as it expands the scope of the story from its initial “Mister Sinister attacks the X-Men for mysterious reasons” by revealing that Apocalypse is targeting psychics from all over the universe, leading to a bunch of diverse cameos, as well as an extended sequence introducing Psylocke to the series. “Beyond Good and Evil” will swell in scope after this episode, and largely leave the X-Men (save Wolverine) behind in the process, which is what makes this episode, expansive but still focused, the best of the bunch.
18. “The Phoenix Saga Part 5: Child of Light” (Season Three)
The conclusion to the “Phoenix Saga” is a fun mix of adaptation and new material, as the X-Men, Imperial Guard, and Starjammers get sucked into the world of the M’Kraan Crystal controlled by the mad Shi’ar Emperor D’Ken. Taking advantage of the medium, the resulting confrontation features some trippy and innovative animation as the universe is turned against the heroes. It also offers a surprise ending for comic book readers, concluding with the X-Men triumphant (as in the original) but at the cost of Phoenix, who sacrifices herself to take the M’Kraan Crystal into the sun to protect it.
17. “Night of the Sentinels Part 2” (Season One)
The conclusion to the series’ inaugural two-parter, “Night of the Sentinels Part 2” establishes the stakes of the show by confirming that Morph, seemingly slain in the climax to the previous episode, is indeed dead (he’ll get better, but that comes later). The concluding battle against the Sentinels is plenty exciting, but it’s Morph’s death, and the way it impacts the team, which looms large.
16. “A Rogue’s Tale” (Season Two)
Part of season two’s spotlight episodes, Rogue’s history with Mystique is recreated with surprising accuracy to the comic book source material, right down to an appearance by a comics-accurate Ms. Marvel. The episode smartly reconciles the fact that Rogue & Mystique have interacted previously in the series but didn’t mentioned their past together by never showing Mystique in her classic blue form (the form she wore when previously interacting with Rogue) in any of the flashbacks. It’s a continuity detail the show didn’t need to make, but the episode is better for it. The end result is a satisfying examination of Rogue’s tragic past, something other season 2 spotlight episodes failed to accomplish.
15. “‘Til Death Do Us Part Part 1” (Season Two)
The series’ second season begins with the wedding of Cyclops and Jean Grey (while Wolverine – wearing the tuxedo he was meant to wear to the wedding – fights a Cyclops robot in the Danger Room), an event which would inspire the characters’ later comic book wedding. It also gives Mister Sinister a full introduction and reveals a resurrected Morph. The X-Men’s former teammate-turned-foe proceeds to use his shapeshifting abilities to tear the team apart (and set Xavier off on his season-long Savage Land adventure), making it a far more entertaining outing than its concluding half (which dedicates entirely too much screen time to 90s also-ran henchmen the Nasty Boys).
14. “Come the Apocalypse” (Season One)
While not the title character’s first animated appearance, this episode does represent Apocalypse’s big coming out party, in an action-oriented episode in which he and his delightfully-comics accurate Horsemen terrorize the world. The episode hinges on Archangel coming to his senses, a feat he accomplishes with the help of Rogue, but which relegates a lot of the rest of the team to background characters. Despite that, and the fact that this isn’t the most thematically deep of episodes, it is one of the most fun in terms of pure action.
13. “Captive Hearts” (Season One)
The episode which defined the Cyclops/Jean/Wolverine love triangle for an entire generation of fans, “Captive Hearts” also introduces the Morlocks in a loose adaptation of Uncanny X-Men #169-170 in which it is Cyclops, not Angel, whom Callisto kidnaps to be her boy toy (the episode also features the semi-famous sequence in which Wolverine freaks out about being “covered in scorpions”). Of course, in this version, Callisto and Storm battle with pseudo-lightsabers and not knives, but the spirit of their conflict (and Storm’s shoddy leadership of the Morlocks whose allegiance she wins) remains the same.
12. “Time Fugitives Part 1” (Season Two)
Arguably no character is better served by their animated adaptation than Bishop, whose somewhat redundant ”time traveler with big guns and a tough attitude” schtick from the comics is tweaked to position him as, essentially, the series’ time cop and go-to character to anchor chronal shenanigans. “Time Fugitives” builds on his introduction in “Days of Future Past” to tell an original story involving Bishop and Cable working at cross purposes to save their respective futures from the ripple effect of a mutant plague. Part 2 is where the story really sings, but this first part does a lot of the necessary setup work while still being entertaining in its own right by depicting the “original” version of the story.
11. “Dark Phoenix Saga Part 4: Fate of the Phoenix” (Season Three)
The conclusion to the series’ adaptation of what is largely regarded as the best X-Men comic book story of all time is another exercise in astonishing source material fidelity. It’s stunning to see some of the most famous and memorable moments in X-Men history rendered in animation, and a pleasant surprise to see how the series changes up the comic book ending, inverting the endings of the two comic book Phoenix sagas to great effect. No single adaptation, no matter how long, can live up to the comic book payoff to multiple years of stories, but the insistence of the episode to showcase moments like Jean emerging in her classic costume or Wolverine being unable to kill Jean to Jean’s sacrifice make it the best adaptation of the material to date.
10. “Night of the Sentinels Part 1” (Season One)
The series’ premiere episode manages to both effortlessly introduce the core cast and deliver a stunning cliffhanger. From Jubilee’s outsized personality to Gambit hitting on a sales clerk while buying bulk playing cards at the mall, from Storm’s (in)famous baroque descriptions of her weather-altering powers to the cool menace of Wolverine’s Danger Room introduction, over the course of its 22 minutes “Night of the Sentinels” tells new fans everything they need to know about the characters and the world they inhabit, and assures long-time comic book fans that the creators have a good sense of what makes those characters work.
9. “Repo Man” (Season Two)
Written by Wolverine co-creator Len Wein, “Repo Man” is the best of a handful of episodes from across the series spotlighting the fan-favorite character. It is also the best of season 2’s “character spotlight” episodes. While it is fun to see the animated Alpha Flight, debuting here, what makes this episode sing is the way it drills down to the core story at the heart of the X-Men character with the most complicated backstory, and present that story to an audience in a straightforward and entertaining way. That ability to adapt a complicated story in a straightforward way is one of the series’ strengths, and it rarely is displayed as well as it is here.
8. “Dark Phoenix Saga Part 2: The Inner Circle” (Season Three)
While it’s still unclear why Emma Frost gets to have bare legs while Jean-as-the-Black Queen has to wear tights, this episode is nevertheless a remarkably faithful adaptation of the middle act of the “Dark Phoenix Saga.” The Hellfire Club may be renamed the “Circle Club” to appease the censors, but the vast majority of the plot beats remain in place (including even a “Wolverine: Alone” recreation) despite the presence of more modern characters like Rogue and Gambit who hadn’t been created when the original story was published. Sometimes, the series is at its best when it tweaks the source material, but it also knows when to get out of the way of beloved and well-crafted comics. That Jean Grey’s descent into darkness was adapted at all is surprising; that it was done so well is downright uncanny.
7. “The Phoenix Saga Part 3: Cry of the Banshee” (Season Three)
The highlight of the original “Phoenix Saga,” this middle chapter is built around an action set piece involving the X-Men, a comics-accurate Banshee, Black Tom, and the Juggernaut (yes, this is the episode which inspired that meme) which features some of the series’ best action animation. It then concludes with a Gladiator/Phoenix showcase that illustrates just how strong the cosmically-powered Jean has become. From this point forward, the story shifts to an outer space setting, and loses a little something in the process. The balance here between the cosmic and the more mundane (Black Tom and Juggernaut just want money) is what sets it above the other chapters.
6. “The Cure” (Season One)
At its core, “The Cure” is a searing examination of the loneliness that defines Rogue’s character and and the lengths she’ll go in order to lift the burden of her power and feel a bit of normalcy, as mutants from all over the world (including a returning Cable and the newly-introduced Angel) are drawn to Muir Island and the news of a mutant “cure.” But it’s also a darkly comic farce built around a series of mistaken identities (perpetuated by several players who can assume alternate forms) and characters with the same goals nevertheless working at cross purposes, a juxtaposition that makes both the absurdity and the heartache hit all the harder.
5. “One Man’s Worth Part 1” (Season Four)
On the surface an adaptation of “Age of Apocalypse,” this original story was actually conceived before the comic book story and may have inspired the later comic book event. Once again calling on Bishop to serve as the audience’s guide to time travel shenanigans, ”One Man’s Worth” presents a familiar world twisted into a dark alternate reality, complete with a grizzled Magneto leading the X-Men, a Beast with Wolverine claws fighting the Avengers, and versions of Storm and Wolverine who are married and very much in love. Drafted into Bishop’s efforts to save reality, the pair risk their very existence to rescue a young Professor X from the machinations of a future Master Mold. While the concluding second part suffers from a lackluster, repetitive resolution, it can’t take away from the thrills of part 1.
4. “Obsession” (Season Three)
Warren Worthington’s obsession with killing Apocalypse is at the core of this episode, which probes the lengths he’ll go to have vengeance on the villain for transforming him into Archangel and grapples with the difference between getting justice and getting revenge. Along the way, Beast strikes up a surprisingly-heartwarming friendship with Apocalypse’s sentient Ship and the villain makes a buffet of the scenery as he battles the X-Men. While the series told bigger stories and/or adapted more beloved ones, this examination of one man’s obsession makes for one of its best episodes.
3. “Time Fugitives Part 2” (Season Two)
After establishing the stakes of the narrative in Part 1, “Time Fugitives Part 2” pulls a Back to the Future II by having Cable go back in time and revisit the events of the previous episode in an effort to undo what Bishop had done in Part 1. As in that film, the fun is seeing the way previously-shown events take on a new context as the time traveler interacts with and alters the past. While other episodes do more to explore the themes of anti-mutant bigotry or showcase a specific character, this episode is the best representation of the sci-fi elements that are also a key part of the X-Men narrative. The focus on the time travelers does largely relegate the X-Men to supporting characters in their own series, but the episode is still so wildly entertaining it’s hard to care.
2. “Days of Future Past Part 2” (Season One)
“Days of Future Past” is a wonderful example of the series’ adaptation abilities, as it blends both the then-current “X-Traitor” mystery and the beats of the classic “Days of Future Past” story together along with introducing Bishop. The first episode suffers a bit from its focus on Bishop (who is his most insufferable in his first appearance), but the second episode is a delightfully tense affair as the X-Men try to prevent an apocalyptic assassination of Senator Kelly amidst concerns over Gambit’s true allegiances, with Bishop in the mix as a wild card stirring shit up. Fun for newbies and comic book readers alike, it ends on one of the series’ best cliffhangers, as Professor X realizes the identity of the person who absconded with the just-rescued Kelly.
1. “The Final Decision” (Season One)
That cliffhanger sets up the series’ best episode, its first season finale. Filled with gravitas that walks right up to the line of “maudlin” without crossing it, it is packed with memorable moments as the X-Men team-up with Magneto to stop the Sentinels and their human masters’ renewed assault on mutants: Jubilee’s impassioned plea to let her fight with the team (which, along with the presence of the Sentinels, makes for a fun bookend to the series premiere), Magneto’s sorrowful belief that the X-Men are doomed as they fly off to battle, Cyclops reusing to leave anyone behind (another callback to the premiere), the sequence in which Wolverine battles a group of Sentinels in a dark cavern illuminated only by the Sentinels’ steady stream of laser blasts, Professor X flying the TNT-laden Blackbird into Master Mold as it blasts its way out of a mountain, only to be saved by Magneto’s force field.
It all ends with Scott and Jean getting engaged, and the tease of classic X-baddie Mister Sinister, a reminder that even with victory, the fight always continues. Had the series ended then, “Final Decision” would have made for a satisfying finale. Fortunately, the series lived on to tell more tales, but it would never again reach as high in a single episode as it did here.
It is, admittedly, difficult to appreciate X-Men: The Animated Series without the sheen of nostalgia. Its contemporary partner, Batman: The Animated Series, holds more objective appeal. Its descendant, X-Men Evolution, offers more to a younger generation of fans. Yet for all its flaws, X:TAS is still worthy of some acclaim. It showcases an uncanny knack for adaptation, transforming comic book stories both beloved and ridiculously complex into satisfying animated adventures. Its presentation of its core characters, if not nuanced, is at least archetypal, representing approximations of the comic book cast in a way that makes them familiar to new viewers and seasoned comic book readers alike. And it offers a proof-of-concept for comic book adaptations, that a series with a rich narrative history and multiple characters can be satisfactorily shifted into another medium and find a new audience. It is far from a flawless series, but it’s also hard to understate what an impact it had at least on this fan, to see these stories and characters I’d come to love transformed into another medium with care and respect. That, more than anything, is the legacy of X-Men: The Animated Series.