X-Men ‘97 Shows Marvel’s Mutants Never Go Out Of Style

X-Men ‘97 Shows Marvel’s Mutants Never Go Out Of Style

While Marvel’s mutants have had their highs and lows throughout the many decades they’ve been around, one thing remains constant: the X-Men are timeless. That’s not because of the cool costumes and inventive powers the cast has. It’s because at their core, X-Men’s themes of prejudice and humanity’s capacity to hate just as much as — if not more than — its capacity to love are always relevant. Which is why X-Men ‘97, the continuation of X-Men: The Animated Series, delivers a stunning debut in its two-episode premiere now streaming on Disney+. It’s classic X-Men, and that’s always going to work.

Within a matter of seconds, X-Men ‘97 makes it feel like no time has passed since its predecessor went off the air nearly three decades ago. The iconic original theme song starts up and the intro scene plays out exactly as it always has. Well, not exactly. It plays out as you remember it. The crisp animation is more vivid and expressive, and there are a few new characters that get a spotlight in the intro. This is a running theme for X-Men ‘97: it’s the X-Men cartoon not as it was, but as you remember it.

That starts with the animation. While the original’s 2D animation is beloved, it doesn’t quite hold up on rewatches. Instead, X-Men ‘97 opts for 3D animation that is shaded and colored to resemble the original 2D style. It’s a method other projects have used before, and it never quite works for me. As someone who dislikes the animation of What If…? I was worried that the 2D styling would feel off. I was more than pleasantly surprised, then, by how good the animation looks in X-Men ‘97. Outside of a few awkward sequences in the first two episodes, the animation works splendidly. That goes for its near-perfect replication of the intro as well as its hectic action scenes. Episode one really goes hard on the visual splendor in its climactic fight scene, which includes Storm turning a desert into glass and then shattering it into pieces. It’s spectacular.

Image: Marvel

But enough about how good the show looks. What have our loveable cast of mutants been up to since we last saw them? A year after the death of mentor and leader Charles Xavier, Cyclops (now voiced admirably by Ray Chase) struggles to fill Professor X’s shoes. Cyclops and Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd, one of several returning voices from the original series) still butt heads. Jean and Scott are expecting a son. Jubilee is still cool as hell. Despite some advancement in mutant-human relations, a lot of people who hate mutants and want them to be exterminated still exist, like the Friends of Humanity. It’s a mix of familiar and new elements.

The first episode “To Me, My X-Men” doesn’t do anything narratively ambitious. It tells a simple X-Men story about rescuing a young mutant (Hey, that’s Sunspot!) and fighting off some evil humans, ending with that previously mentioned spectacle of a fight. It’s comfort food and it makes for an easy return to the series, one that’s perfect for everybody no matter your level of familiarity with The Animated Series. Of course everything gets upended in the final moments of the episode when none other than Magneto (you know, the X-Men’s archenemy) shows up to break the news that Xavier’s Last Will and Testament gives everything to him.

That sets up the true star of X-Men ‘97’s two-part premiere: the second episode, “Mutant Liberation Begins.” Xavier has left the school and the X-Men to Magneto as a final challenge to his closest friend (side note: these two are never beating the “ex-lovers who can’t get over each other” allegations and this show knows that) to try and imagine a more peaceful way forward for mutants and humans. This includes making amends for his past crimes against humanity, for which he willingly goes on trial at the UN. While he’s on trial, disgruntled humans protesting outside the UN break in and stage a violent assault, targeting Magento and the three judges. “What in the blazes did we do?” shouts one judge. “You gave a monster a trial, “ replies Magneto. “Now you are traitors to your kind.”

Image: Marvel

What shocked me most about the scenes at the UN is how much they feel like a clear allusion to the January 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol in 2021. But this story wasn’t invented whole cloth for X-Men ‘97, it’s heavily adapting The Trail of Magento from Uncanny X-Men #200 by Chris Claremont. That came out in 1985, though like so many of the X-Men’s best stories, they always seem to speak to the current cultural moment. X-Men ‘97 makes that story its own, but the parallels are already there, which is why—despite the current state of the X-Men in the comics being mostly dire (with one shining ray of hope)—X-Men ‘97 is able to showcase the characters at their best. Like The Animated Series, X-Men ‘97 is able to draw on decades of stories and choose the cream of the crop to repackage and tweak for a new audience.

While Magneto is on trial, Jean is dealing with her pregnancy. It’s a quieter storyline than the UN attack but equally important. Jean confesses to Storm that she is scared to give birth to a mutant for fear that her child will have to go through the pain she has. Storm confesses that she’d often struggled with thoughts of what life would have been like had she been born human, but that she’s happy as a mutant because of the family she has found. This conversation, and another between Sunspot and Jubilee about hating your own identity in the first episode, make the X-Men’s ability to stand in for marginalized groups as sharp as ever. The episode ends with a stunning monologue from Magneto which solidifies “Mutant Liberation Begins” as a story that delivers every single thing a good X-Men story should.

Like the first episode, “Mutant Liberation Begins” ends on a pretty dramatic cliffhanger. As a longtime fan of the X-Men, I’m intrigued by how the show is going to put its own mark on this iconic story. X-Men ‘97 has made it feel like I’m falling in love with the characters for the first time all over again. The show perfectly balances the superhero action and personal stories just as deftly as it balances nostalgia with fresh insight into the characters. It’s X-Men through and through. What else could you ask for?

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