In about 10 weeks, X-Men: Apocalypse, the ninth big-screen entry in the X-Men Cinematic Universe, will be released. The X films were among the first to usher in this present era of unstoppable comic book and superhero movie supremacy, which has lasted over 15 years. But to most people of my generation, the introduction to the X-Men had nothing to do with the movies, or even the comic books. Many of us owe our entire love of that Marvel property to the 1992 animated series that ran on Fox Kids for five seasons.
It was in this cartoon, produced in Canada, that we learned about characters like Wolverine, Gambit, Storm, Rogue, Cyclops, and Jean Grey. Other than Batman: The Animated Series, which began around the same time, I would contend that X-Men: The Animated Series was and remains the best and most important superhero show of the modern age.
From now until the opening of X-Men: Apocalypse, I’m going to be taking weekly looks at the first season of this landmark television series and discussing what each episode has to offer to people who’ve never seen it… as well as to people like myself, who know almost every frame of it by heart. And we start, fittingly, with one of the most iconic opening titles sequences in cartoon history.
That theme song STILL rocks. Written by series co-producer Shuky Levy, it’s simple, but it mixes the intensity of the storylines with a seemingly new- and cutting-edge-sounding instrumentation. On top of the song, the opening titles themselves are a beautiful introduction to the show’s central mutants. We get a sense of who they all are—what their powers are or what their big thing is—and then we get to see a fake run-at-each-other battle between the X-Men and several evil mutants. It’s amazingly effective at setting up things to come from the first episode on.
The premiere of the first season was the two-episode-long “Night of the Sentinels,” which aired on October 31 and November 7, 1992. My brother and I owned a copy of these episodes on VHS tape (yes, I’m a million years old) given away as part of a Pizza Hut tie-in, so we watched these a LOT. In fact, the first thing that stood out to me after watching them again for this column is that I somehow remembered 90% of the dialogue. Every inflection, every one of the fledgling show’s weird little ticks… it was all still seared into my skull.
The second thing that stood out to me was just how mature the storytelling process was. Unlike Batman: TAS, which rarely had a defined continuity beyond stories featuring the same villains and possibly referencing their last meeting, X-Men was setting up a whole season’s worth of story arcs and relationships in these two episodes, even in tiny ways. The first shot we see is news footage of Sabretooth, without any context for it at all. He’s just a random mutant committing a random attack, and yet he becomes a major player in the season, and in Wolverine’s backstory. The Sentinels themselves are also not just one-off baddies and in fact become the cornerstone of the whole season, which ultimately deals with Mutant Registration and the heroes trying to find their place in the world.
And it’s this kind of mature storytelling that set X-Men apart from Batman and what made it the blueprint for a ton of other super-team series based on comics to come in the following years. While Batman had amazing episodes and superior art and animation, its episodes were more or less standalone adventures. Any one of them could be watched and enjoyed with no context for what happened before or what would happen after. There’s even debate as to what the correct chronology of the episodes actually is. X-Men, conversely, depended entirely on developing the character relationships and deepening and continuing plot and theme. Yes, X-Men‘s animation is pretty rough by today’s standards, but its storylines are practically timeless.
“Night of the Sentinels” had a lot of ground to cover to get audiences (mainly composed of kids) up to speed as quickly as possible. The opening titles with characters’ names written over their pictures helped for branding, but the show had to quickly set up the world and what these characters meant. For that, they chose to focus on a fish-out-of-water lead character, one who would become a member of the team but still needed everything explained. It’s a genius move. In this case, we follow Jubilee, a teenage “mall babe” who also happens to be a foster child and a mutant. When we meet her, her powers of emitting explosive blasts from her hands have caused more than a little damage to electronic devices all around her. Her foster parents, while good people, are scared of what might happen, so they sign her up with the Mutant Control Agency, run by Henry Gyrich and using giant robot enforcers named Sentinels, designed by Dr. Bolivar Trask.
So, they set up the stakes, and then just needed to offer Jubilee some help. Luckily, the mall was a perfect setting. One by one, Jubilee could meet the different X-Men while they were out shopping, on a group outing as it were, and we could see what each of them could do and what they were like: Rogue and Storm were buying clothes when they each decided to help fend off one of the mentioned giant robots. Storm’s verbosity is immediately shown as she summons a lightning strike, which causes Rogue to tell her to “lighten up.” Rogue flies up and starts punching the crap out of the Sentinel which leads to Storm telling Jubilee that “Rogue has a way with men.” Right there, two huge characters, two simple ways of explaining them.
Similarly, Gambit is introduced flirting with a shop girl while stocking up on playing cards, and Cyclops comes in just as Jubilee is succumbing to knockout gas. This first big sequence also establishes the importance of the X-Women to the X-Men universe. Storm, Rogue, and Jubilee aren’t side characters, as was common for the time with female heroes. They’re the main focus of several episodes and shown to be incredibly powerful. Jean Grey, who is introduced much later, is also a major figure in the series. In fact, Professor X aside, there are exactly as many main female characters as male characters—Cyclops, Wolverine, Gambit, and Beast; Storm, Rogue, Jean, and Jubilee. This is integral to the show’s success. It never treats the women as lesser, and it never assumes that the young boy audience will ever not think Rogue and Storm are the coolest characters. Storm was even the mentor character to Jubilee in the first ep, explaining who the X-Men are in a straightforward way.
“Night of the Sentinels” also introduced the concept of the team being fractured and not getting along. It’s a family drama at its heart, and families fight. Most of this begins after a raid on the Mutant Control Agency’s base of operations, where they aim to find where Jubilee had been taken and destroy the files of the other mutants. It seems to be going okay until they are surrounded, and Beast is caught and arrested, while a shape-shifting mutant jokester named Morph is killed. Morph was not a known character, invented for the show, and was only introduced, at first, to be the sacrificial lamb. Morph’s death create huge ripples in the team, and Beast’s incarceration and trial are big parts in the coming episodes.
And because of Morph’s death, the characters’ disdain for each other comes to the fore. Wolverine blames Cyclops for leaving Beast and Morph behind, threatening to claw him the next time he gets in his way. Equally, Gambit is shown to have a bit of a fraternal rivalry with Wolverine; they’re both cocky, but in different ways. We also get the slightest hint of the love triangle between Cyclops, Jean, and Wolverine, which would go on to play a major factor in the storyline going forward.
It’s amazing how complex X-Men was even in its first two episodes. We got to see the characters face their lowest moments, but also stand victorious after they found and destroyed the existing Sentinels. Wolverine even got to bellow “This one’s for you, Morph!” as he blew up the last of the robots.
And like all good X-Men stories, this first arc established that mutants are just people, and that their powers don’t make them inherently bad or dangerous. “People fear what they do not understand,” Storm tells Jubilee. Throughout, characters react to the mutants in different ways, from the arcade manager who kicks Jubilee out, to the Jack Nicholson-sounding biker who tries to pick a fight with Wolverine and Cyclops. Mutants being outcast from society is part and parcel to the series’ longevity and the characters’ appeal.
Next week, we get the introduction of the series’ most important villain, Magneto, while also setting up Wolverine’s hatred of Sabretooth. Beast’s impending trial and the political circus around it also play a major part, as does a nuclear missile attack. And this is just one episode! “Enter Magneto” is next time, but meanwhile, tell your memories of the ’90s X-Men cartoon in the comments below!
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!