It's hard to believe now, but there was a time before Marvel dominated the box office, when superheroes weren't yet economically feasible (mostly because of SFX technology, but also because the producers assumed the audience was small). The era before the release of Sam Raimi's Spider-Man in 2002 (or, arguably, X-Men in 2000), is often viewed, by comic book fans anyway, as a dark time for the company.
As it turns out, however, Marvel had been trying—rather constantly and for many years—to build their own film and TV empires. This, of course, meant a lot of really bad attempts and false starts on Marvel's part, even if all were instrumental in getting to the current landscape. One of the most earth shattering flops of the company's 1990s output: the not-widely-seen 1996 TV movie Generation X.
It was 1996. Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever was released the previous summer to audience enthusiasm and a good deal of financial success; it hadn't yet garnered the bad reputation it has now. Marvel Comics had been diversifying and starting new titles, fervently inventing dozens of new characters. In November of 1994, writer Scott Lobdell and artist Chris Bachalo had begun a new X-Men spinoff called Generation X, featuring a cast of mostly all-new characters. It featured a younger, hipper roster of mutant superheroes that were, ironically enough, not old enough to be members of Gen-X.
Generation X was led by Emma Frost and Banshee, and also starred Jubilee, all ported over from X-Men books. The team also featured Husk, a young woman who could shed her skin, Skin, a boy with, well, a lot of skin, Chamber, a kid whose face and chest had been replaced by a crackling plane of energy, Mondo, who could change the texture of his body depending on what he touched, M, whose powers were always a little generic (flight, telepathy, etc.), and Penance, who was made of razor sharp crystal. There were others who joined, but the various books to feature the team stopped running in 2001 (although a revival is in the works).
Fox, who owned the film and TV rights to X-Men, figured Generation X would be a back door into the X-Men for mainstream TV audiences, familiarizing them with mutants and the X-Men universe without wasting better known X-Men characters. Why use great characters in a low-budget TV setting; Wolverine is better than network broadcast. Hence, Fox, in conjunction with Roger Corman's New World Pictures (the folks behind that well-known unreleased 1994 Fantastic Four film) produced a TV pilot to feature some of the characters from Generation X, but altering others that were too expensive to film. The show, as we now know, was not picked up – perhaps too weird and too pricey – but Fox did air the pilot as a TV movie on February 20th, 1996. I taped it. I watched it a few times. It's rough.
Generation X has the reek of Batman Forever all over it. When Tim Burton made Batman in 1989, his creative statement of intent wasn't to make a Batman that could fit into the real world, but to create an expressionistic world where a Batman might exist. That ethos endured into the two immediate Batman theatrical sequels, and trickled down to Generation X.
The film takes place in a near-future world where there's a lot of green neon, weird fashion, stupid hair, and glowing, frosted lipstick. While there is a charm to that bold aesthetic artificiality, many modern audiences bristle at its utter lack of grounded realism; we now expect our superhero flicks to look a little more earthy (Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 2 notwithstanding).
What's more, the show relied on a goofy, over-acting, cartoonish villain, a man named Russel Tresh, played by the resplendent Matt Frewer. Frewer, all cartoon jitters and sideways line readings, easily walks away with the film, chewing, eating, swallowing, and regurgitating every piece of scenery placed in front of him. There is no doubt that director Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge) told Frewer to study Jim Carrey.
While many of the characters were transferred over from the comics, Chamber was transformed into a character with x-ray eyes called Refrax (Randall Slavin), and Skin was transformed into a muscular kid named Buff (Suzanne Davis). The film did take place at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, although none of the X-Men characters made cameos, and few were mentioned.
Like Bryan Singer's X-Men feature, Generation X also took place in the near future when mutantkind was just beginning to emerge in the public eye, although the political fight for equality is not addressed here. A new conceit introduced into Generation X is that all mutants are all at least mildly psychic, and that their dreams might hold the secret to unlocking the something or other. It's not really well explained, even though the (largely disposable) plot does center on Tresh invading peoples' dreams with a dream machine, all in an attempt to give himself superpowers, but also to sell products subliminally. It's like Freddy Krueger meets Josie and the Pussycats.
The film is limp, and the characters are even limper. Although they are meant to be from various walks of life to add dramatic conflicts, most of Generation X is made up of mean, petty, shallow teens who snipe at one another as a matter of course. Every team needs one “arrogant one,” but it seems that, here, they're all the arrogant one. With the exception of Buff, who is a bit of a shrinking violet and self-conscious about her muscles. This does not make for an interesting team dynamic.
The reason so few superheroes were attempted at this era in Marvel history was because of how hard it is to film superpowers in action. This required a lot of money and time to assemble, so when Generation X is required to provide a big SFX climax, it looks cheap, odd, and even kind of silly. The film's climax takes place in a parallel dream dimension where Tresh has more or less achieved omnipotence, and now wants to break into the real world (a similar motivation to Frewer's Jobe in the abysmal The Lawnmower Man 2: Beyond Cyberspace from the same year). The dream world is envisioned as a wide open black space with jagged stripes of flickering psychic energy stretching into the horizon. They do a lot with a little, but it's not enough to cover up the film's limited resources.
Generation X, rather than being sharp and dynamic, was alienating and distant. It functions best as an object lesson in Marvel's evolution: This is what superheroes were meant to look like in 1996. The worlds were supposed to be off-putting and near-futuristic. It's not that the culture “wasn't ready” for a comic book movie (to address a criticism I have heard before), but studios weren't yet ready to spend the money required to make them good.
The flick was never released on home video, although convention goers have likely seen bootlegs of it at the how-are-they-still-open DVD tables. It's a curio to be sure, and I'm glad I saw it back in the day (when I was young and didn't know any better). It may have been the blunder that steered Fox in the right direction for the 2000 feature film and onward. X-Men needed it. You, however, may not.
Images: Fox, Marvel