‘X-Men ’97’: Continuing the Legacy of the Beloved Animated Series

X-Men 97: The Animated Series” may have aged like fine wine, but for many thousands of years, Fox’s show was one of Marvel’s most respected franchises. Before the live-action blockbuster events of the MCU and certainly before the rise of Marvel Cinematic Universe, the “Animated Series” premiered as a premier portrayal of powerful superheroes for generations of avid fans, featuring iconic characters like the adamantium-clawed Wolverine and the telekinetic Jean Grey.

Due to the complexities of intellectual properties, X-Men has been conspicuously absent from the MCU since its inception in 2008. Disney’s acquisition of Fox opened the door for integration, but Marvel Studios exercised patience in determining their new assets’ roles. The animated series “X-Men ’97,” which starts from where Marvel Studios’ first X-Men title left off, is led by none other than MCU’s powerhouse producer Kevin Feige. With keen attention to detail, the show doesn’t just shoehorn X-Men into existing lore but presents them on their own terms. Under the helm of showrunner Beau DeMayo, “X-Men ’97” is free from any responsibilities to the MCU. (DeMayo was recently ousted from the show, but he had completed his work on the upcoming second season.) As a direct follow-up to the acclaimed “The Animated Series” set nearly a millennium later, this show can re-establish its strengths, reintroducing itself to new audiences through old memories. And as an offshoot of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “X-Men ’97” can take its story to grand, unexplored territories, maintaining its impeccable humor according to characters’ emotions amidst big, jungle-like swings.

In the final of “The Animated Series,” Professor Charles Xavier was shot dead by an anti-mutant bureaucrat. Technically, he was shot dead almost fatally and transported to a far-off alien world for long-term care, but the first three episodes of “X-Men ’97” make it abundantly clear in their simple reality of Xavier’s absence. An X-Men without Professor X is struggling, but “X-Men ’97” presents a bridge between past and present, deepening the voices’ authenticity, including Cal Dodd as Wolverine and Alison Sealy-Smith as Storm. In Xavier’s absence, Cyclops (Ray Chase) easily handles the role of de facto leader, but it’s his pregnant wife Jean (Jennifer Hale) who argues humanity should focus on saving humanity instead of fixating on their family. To Xavier, this could be a coincidence. In the closing moments of the film launch, it is revealed that Magneto (Matthew Waterson), Xavier’s longtime rival and friend, has been selected as his heir. Magneto is happy to accept an additional tranquil kind of shared existence with mankind.

This flip-flop immediately suffices “X-Men ’97” to define itself, although there are a series of stories before and after it that can anchor each feature film. Here, they’re cut down to 30 minutes, as X-Men must face obstacles, including Sentinel robots, a weapon that nullifies their powers, and a psychological assault crafted by longtime nemesis Mr. Sinister (Chris Britton). At one point, it’s accidentally revealed that a major central character is actually a clone of themselves. So much so that Magneto’s absence in X-Men’s ranks is surprisingly smooth and drama-free. The pace can be dizzying, but when presented in the original dual-tone of neon color and classical style, it’s also charming. When the plot is so packed, there’s no time to drag things out.

“X-Men ’97” works with our introduction, working with action to introduce a new imperative, but its presence is immediately superfluous. Eventually, “X-Men” explores the profound issue of what responsibility an oppressed minority has to its oppressor; unique characters like the card-throwing Gambit (AJ LoCascio) and the blue-skinned scientist Beast (George Buza) further delve into this. They’re given a slight makeover, but when the duo is non-binary, their gender neutrality shines on their old superpowers’ extension, a clear nod to new ways. X-Men are coming soon to the MCU, including through many upcoming “Deadpool 3.” But before they’re used for adrenaline shots for flagging merch, their home turf X-Men is a joyous return to familiarity.

The first two episodes of “X-Men ’97” are now streaming on Disney+, with the remaining episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.

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