When I was a kid it sometimes felt like my whole life was spent waiting for Saturday morning, because once 11 AM hit I was locked onto the television for that is when my beloved X-Men graced the set. From 1992-1997, 76 episodes were produced and aired. The creators of the show took a modern cast of X-Men and found a way to work them into both classic and current stories. It must have been a writer’s dream to have 20+ years of comic book plot-lines already written to pick and choose from. Sure some would necessitate re-working, but there were lots of interchangeable parts throughout the years and finding a replacement on the current X-Men for someone like Kitty Pryde proved relatively simple.
X-Men was my favorite cartoon and nostalgia demands that it still is. When the series ended its run in ’97 it all but vanished from television. At some point, Disney acquired the rights for the program and the show started popping up on their channels but in odd time slots. By then I was in my teens or early twenties and not willing to commit to watching much of anything on TV. For awhile it seemed like the show would never get a proper DVD release, even during the rise of retro television releases it seemed like the X-Men were forgotten. This lead me to eventually purchase a bootleg set off of eBay. The episodes were recorded off of television and probably transferred from a VHS. The quality was terrible and the DVD’s often crashed. Disney had a poor track record with their cartoon releases, most notably with the series Gargoyles in which they released only the first two seasons, so optimism for a true release was not very high.
Finally in 2009 things changed. Presumably to capitalize on the upcoming X-Men Origins: Wolverine film, Buena Vista Home Entertainment began releasing the series on DVD. By May of 2010, the entire run has seen release across 5 two disc volumes. The sets themselves are pretty bare bones. There’s no special features, commentary, or anything added. The only notable aspect of each release is the original cover art for each set. The studio also chose to release the episodes in air date order. For long time fans, this came as a disappointment because a few episodes from seasons 3 and 4 ended up getting passed over initially and bumped to later seasons (the most obvious being “No Mutant is an Island”). Beggars can’t be choosers, and I’m just happy to finally have the episodes in a watchable format.
Which brings me to the review portion of this post. I want to review the whole series, just for the fun of it and because I can. Some basic info before diving in must be explained first. The X-Men that exist in this show consist of Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Rogue, Gambit, Beast, Jean Grey, and Jubilee. Professor Charles Xavier oversees everything and the team remains stable through out the show’s run (much to my ire as a child). Season 1 kicks off with one additional member of the X-Men, Morph, who was made for TV but adapted from the old comic book villain/sometimes hero Changeling. The audience is lead to believe these X-Men are a little green when it comes to the covert mission they undertake in the season’s first 2 episodes. It’s later shown these X-Men are not familiar with Magneto and the other villains they end up facing, with the only exception being the Juggernaut. This ignoring of the history of the characters would be corrected in later seasons when flashbacks would depict the original X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, Iceman, Angel, and a human looking Beast) battling Magneto. Who knows why the change was made but it does make some scenes in the first season a bit off for longtime fans of the comic.
That said, season 1 is probably the show’s best. The writers took a continuous approach with each episode picking up where the previous one left off. Season 2 would follow a similar format but as the show went along more self-contained episodes would be featured with two-parters and mini series popping up. I enjoy the format of the first two seasons the most as it makes for a much more rewarding experience. In the end, it matters little so long as the quality is there.
The animation should be mentioned as well, before I delve into the plots of each episode. The X-Men are brightly colored and take their looks from the works of Jim Lee. The characters are obviously not as detailed and the sex appeal of the female members is toned down slightly but the influence is obvious. The backgrounds are a bit drab in comparison with the characters but there is at least some variety thrown in as the X-Men battle at night, during the day, in the sewers, caves, industrial parks, and so on. The animation is a bit stiff though, and the animators were limited in how they could depict violence. Wolverine’s claws are reserved for attacking machinery only, all weapons seem to always be set for stun, and getting hit by a bolt of lightning from Storm apparently isn’t all that bad. The characters were however able to freely use the word “death” which is actually kind of a big deal for a kid’s program. This, in part, allowed the writers to create a mature and dramatic atmosphere even with the PG level of violence.
Night of the Sentinels (Parts 1 and 2)
The show begins with a two part episode. The first episode focuses on introducing the audience to the X-Men and the conflict that exists between mutants and humans. The opening shot depicts Sabretooth wreaking havoc on a downtown locale through a news broadcast on the television of two concerned foster parents. They begin talking about a mutant, who needs help, and we soon learn they’re speaking of their foster child Jubilee. Jubilee is a young girl (who’s supposed to be Chinese, but looks American in the show) coping with being a mutant. She overhears her parents and, hurt, she decides to run off to the mall.
Here is where the X-Men are introduced. Not long after Jubilee’s arrival she is attacked by a giant, mutant-hunting robot. It just so happened that Rogue and Storm were both shopping that day and jump to assist. Gambit, shown flirting with a cashier as he buys stacks of playing cards, soon joins the fun. He’s wise-cracking and ends up being an instant hit for most young boys watching the show. Cyclops finishes the job as Jubilee runs into him and passes out. She wakes to find herself in the mansion of the X-Men. She sneaks out of bed and looks in on the remaining X-Men that have yet to be introduced. Wolverine is saved for last as Jubilee finds herself in the Danger Room where Gambit and Wolverine are sparring against each other. Thinking her hero Gambit is in real danger, she unleashes a blast of fireworks from her hands and subdues Wolverine, eliciting laughter from the other X-Men.
It is soon revealed the Jubilee was attacked because her name was obtained by the robot, soon revealed to be a Sentinel, via the Mutant Registration Center. Professor X deduces that this program, supposedly designed to help mutants, has ulterior motives and the X-Men are deployed to check our their headquarters. Before doing so we’re given a look at the inherit conflict that exists between Wolverine and his peers. Going by the motto of “I go where I wanna go,” Wolverine intends to set off by himself to find Jubilee, who has run away, where as Cyclops has him slated as part of the infiltration team. They argue, and eventually Wolverine does what he wants and the X-Men set off without him.
It ends up mattering little as Wolverine soon rejoins them after he was unable to pick up Jubilee’s trail (he got bit by a dog, too). The X-Men chat as they make their way in about their individual pasts in a casual tone, which helps give a little more back story. Beast, Morph, Wolverine, and Storm enter the compound and some of the show’s more memorable lines are featured (“So I’ll buy him a new door!”) and everything appears to be going smoothly.
Then the army shows up, and the X-Men find themselves with a fight on their hands. As they’re running for their jet, the Blackbird, Morph utters the fateful line of “Smooth sailing all the way,” which seems to only provoke the Sentinels into attacking. This memorable exchange then takes place:
Wolverine: “Hey tin woodsman, I’m sending you back to Oz! In pieces…”
Morph: “Wolverine! Fall back!”
This is actually shown later on in a flashback, and it is revealed that Morph bites the dust. This, to me, is a really effective way to get viewers attached to a new show. Up to this point, Morph was depicted as an extremely likable piece of comedic relief. It is assumed that most of the viewers liked him right away, so when he gets killed off it has weight even though we’re only in the show’s second episode. Wolverine is profoundly affected, and we get a shot of him punching Cyclops about as violently as one can right in the gut over his anger that the team left Morph and Beast behind. Beast was captured, and would spend the remainder of season 1 incarcerated. It’s interesting to see these characters cope with not only the loss of a teammate, but failure. Their first mission was a disaster, and Jubilee is still missing and probably in danger.
The X-Men are able to locate the Sentinels’ base and launch an attack. Jubilee was being held captive and is obviously delighted to be rescued. The X-Men have an easier time with the Sentinels this time out and are able to force their handlers, Bolivar Trask, and Henry Guyrich, to flee.
Jubilee ends up joining the team in the end, while Cyclops is left to wrestle with the fact that he ordered the team to retreat and leave behind some of their own. In just two episodes, the show proves it will have an emotional weight that will separate it from the usual kid’s programming. I still think these two episodes represent the best debut episodes for any show and it is easy to see why the show was a ratings behemoth early on.
The third episode gives longtime fans exactly what they want and newcomers are introduced to what they suspect will be the main villain of the series. Magneto has long been at odds with Xavier. Xavier wishes for peace between mutants and humans while Magneto views that as an impossibility and believes a war is brewing. As I mentioned in my lead-in, the X-Men will exhibit little to no knowledge of who Magneto is. Xavier explains their past but not in great detail.
This episode also introduces the conflict that is Wolverine and Sabretooth. An early scene shows Beast at a hearing for his involvement in the raid of the Mutant Registration head quarters (now defunct, thanks to the X-Men’s efforts) where he is denied bail. Sabretooth bursts through the wall, apparently outraged by the judge’s decision. Sabretooth finds himself getting blasted by cops, and when Cyclops calls on Wolverine to assist he refuses. It isn’t revealed why Wolverine hates him, and he doesn’t enjoy the fact that Cyclops brings him to the mansion for care. Comatose, Sabretooth lies in the infirmary when Wolverine shows up. A stand-off ensues where Xavier tells Wolverine if he removes Sabretooth from the premises he’s no longer welcome. The confrontation is broken up when Magneto attacks a military base, prompting Wolverine to ask of Xavier, “How come we’re supposed to trash your old enemy, but we gotta go easy on mine?”
Magneto was earlier introduced trying to free Beast from prison as the episode opened. Beast, stating he and Xavier believe it is better for their cause if he goes through the courts, declined. Now at the military base, Cyclops, Storm, and Wolverine are tasked with bringing him down. Magneto initiates a launch sequence of nuclear missiles and leaves the X-Men nearly incapacitated. Storm, initially planning to sacrifice herself by detonating the warheads overseas, is telepathically given insight from Xavier on how to use her powers to disarm them. She does so, and all is well as the X-Men save the day.
Episode 4 picks up right where 3 left-off, with the conflict of Wolverine and Sabretooth left very much unresolved. Wolverine gives some insight in regards to their past when he mentions that Sabretooth wasted (take that to mean whatever you want, I suppose) some friends of his for no reason. He takes off, and Magneto soon attacks a chemical plant prompting Cyclops, Storm, and Rogue into action (Jean and Gambit are apparently occupied elsewhere) leaving Jubilee behind with Sabretooth. Predictably, Sabretooth is able to dupe Jubilee into releasing his restraints and proving Wolverine right.
The conflict at the chemical plant is resolved somewhat quickly and in an unsatisfactory manner. As Magneto takes out the X-Men, Xavier shows up and uses his telepathy to traumatize Magneto into fleeing after making him relieve some violent moments of his childhood. Fans of the comic know that Magneto was imprisoned for being a Jew during World War 2, though the cartoon does not make that entirely clear. We just see images of Magneto as a child in a war-torn environment.
Cyclops ends up getting poisoned by some sort of radioactive smoke, forcing Rogue to give him mouth to mouth. This ends up being kind of a fun way to show the audience Rogue’s mutant power stealing abilities as she’s soon uncontrollably firing blasts from her eyes. Storm’s claustrophobia is also shown as she’s paralyzed with fear when a wall comes down on her. The wall is made of brick but her injuries are strangely superficial.
Back at the mansion, Wolverine shows up just in time to save Jubilee from Sabretooth. It is revealed that Sabretooth was working for Magneto and was tasked with sneaking into the mansion to get a look at the place. Wolverine and Sabretooth duke it out in a very kid’s show kind of way as the two just trade-off pinning each other down with Sabretooth grasping Wolverine’s wrists to prevent his claws from doing any damage. Wolverine gets the upper hand before the X-Men storm in. Xavier, assuming Wolverine initiated the conflict, begins to scold him granting Sabretooth an opening to take a swipe at Wolverine’s abdomen. Jubilee blasts him through a wall and Sabretooth chooses to flee once outside the mansion while the X-Men get Wolverine to the infirmary. In the closing moments, Xavier is shown realizing his willingness to trust any and all mutants is not always the wise course of action. He apologizes to an unconscious Wolverine as the show closes with Magneto vowing revenge to no one. The episode ends up being emotionally captivating, but with little pay-off. Magneto’s seemingly easy defeat by Xavier undermines the character and, strangely, he is not shown again until the season’s final episode.