I’ve recently wrapped up a look at the first season of the X-Men animated series from the 1990s and I was impressed by how complex the storytelling still felt, how deep the characters are, and how it’s still easily the best action cartoon of the era, second only to Batman: The Animated Series. X-Men ran for five seasons between 1992 and 1997, at which time there was a three-year gap of X-cartoonery until 2000’s X-Men: Evolution, which changed the comparative ages of a lot of the characters to put them in public high school along with several equally teenage members of Magneto’s Brotherhood. I did not particularly care for this incarnation, though it lasted for four seasons. A few years ago, when looking for something to watch on Netflix, I happened upon a show that rivaled the ’90s series for my favorite version of the characters ever: Wolverine and the X-Men.
The opening credits sequence–while not a direct lift of anything in the show–perfectly sets up the show at hand.
This lasted only one season, in 2009, and is comprised of just 26 episodes, but, I dare say, it could and should have lasted so much longer. How did I miss this when it was on?! Why isn’t there more of it?! This series has everything I want in a sci-fi action show: great characters, a compelling story arc, explosive fight scenes, and fantastic visuals. It’s one of the most cinematic television cartoons I’ve seen and it has the kind of scope that typically only anime delivers. Oh, and did I mention it deals with time travel? Cuz that’s a huge selling point.
The series opens a year after a mysterious explosion at the Xavier School left the building in ruin and Professor X and Jean Grey missing. All the remaining X-Men have gone their separate ways and have attempted to return to “normal” life. However this isn’t destined to last, as the government-funded Mutant Response Division (or MRD) is hunting down mutants in order to detain and register them, as a way of appeasing public outcry and Senator Robert Kelly’s anti-mutant rhetoric. This action against mutantkind precipitates Wolverine and Beast to ally again and try to rebuild the X-Men. After finding and re-recruiting junior members Forge, Iceman, and Shadowcat, and getting generous financial help from Angel, the Xavier Institute begins operating again. The problem, however, is that without the Professor or Jean to operate Cerebro, finding the more far-flung members, like Storm and Nightcrawler, will be especially difficult. Enter Emma Frost, the powerful but mysterious telepath who wants help and to join the team. Wolverine is of course suspicious of Frost, but sees no better alternative. Her trustworthiness and Logan’s inability to let her (or anyone) get close is a major theme in the series.
Not all the X-Men want to come back right away. Cyclops has been in isolation since the explosion, in a bitter depression after the loss of Jean. His return to the team is contingent on their finding her. He’s a bit of a mess for most of the series and it’s quite interesting to see Cyclops–who in every other series is the with-it goody two-shoes–be reckless and unstable while Wolverine does his best to take on the role of leader. Nightcrawler is happy the X-Men are back, but finds it more prudent to help mutant refugees reach the island kingdom of Genosha, Magneto’s sanctuary for mutants that–wouldn’t ya know–isn’t as idyllic as he makes it seem at first.
It’s from Magneto that the X-Men retrieve the comatose body of Professor X, and this is where the bit about timelines gets going. When Charles’ body is returned to the X compound, a vision of him from 20 years in the future appears and speaks to Wolverine. It appears that Xavier woke up from his two-decade coma to a dystopian future world where mutants and humans alike are fugitives, all under the scourge of the huge robotic Sentinels, being controlled by the sentient Master Mold. He tells Wolverine that some time in his near future, some event will occur that leads to this horrible future, and it’s up to the X-Men to make sure it doesn’t come to that. This is what I really love about Wolverine and the X-Men. It seamlessly switches between the X-Men in the present and Professor X, Bishop, and a number of other mutants fighting the Sentinels in the future. Some episodes take place entirely within the apocalyptic future world and the two stories impact each other immeasurably.
The series also features cameos or guest appearances from numerous X characters, and just about all of them get their moment to shine. Gambit isn’t a main character, but he’s an important one; same with Mister Sinister, Sabretooth, Mojo, and literally dozens of others. It’s a show in which anyone could show up at any time, and it makes total sense. Much of the series deals with Magneto’s very different relationships with each of his three children–Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Polaris–and at no point does this seem like a digression or like you just want it to hurry up and get back to the main plot. And even if you did want that, you wouldn’t have long to wait until it went back there. The only complaint I have is that Storm and Angel’s relationship doesn’t get much attention until it becomes strained. However, it’s a minor complaint.
What truly impressed me about this series is that it always seemed like it was leading towards something. Series head writer Greg Johnson and company clearly had an overall plan, and it paid off amazingly well. The first three episodes formed the story “Hindsight” and the last three formed “Foresight,” and the twenty episodes in between all build the conflict, either giving characters richer growth, tying together plot threads in order to create new ones, or simply to offer missions that result in great action sequences. Is the episode where Wolverine helps Nick Fury re-capture the Hulk integral to the overall plot? No, but it shows us how the lead character has changed since his marauding Weapon-X days. This one series brings together so many different elements from the various X-Men comics–the Phoenix Saga, the Hellfire Club, Silver Samurai, and of course “Days of Future Past” are all referenced–that having it all fit and make sense within a single season is a miraculous feat.
Everyone involved with the show was hoping for a season two, and plans were in place were it allowed to continue, but unfortunately, it was not. The one thing I’m grateful for with Wolverine and the X-Men is that the storyline is resolved satisfactorily. There is a teaser for what surely would have been a great second season, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of the first season or make it any less a complete story. If you haven’t done so, do yourself the favor of watching Wolverine and the X-Men. It’s a journey well worth taking.
Images: Marvel Animation
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist and a lover of animation of all kinds. Follow him on Twitter!