Like a lot of kids growing up in the early 90s, I loved the X-Men. I traded X-Men cards with my classmates. I loved Colossus and Gambit, though I don’t remember why. Everybody knew the characters. We watched the cartoon on Fox Saturday mornings, and we had parents drop of off at the mall arcade to play the Konami Arcade game. Remember this?
(Please don’t spend five minutes watching the whole thing. It’s mostly just Wolverine punching robot after robot.)
But what about the actual comics? You know, the source material for this bonanza? It wasn’t until a decade later that I actually read a comic book. I was hardly alone in only knowing the X-Men by their side projects. According to Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America, in 1989, Marvel was making 88 percent of its revenue from comics. By 1995, that figure had dropped to 17 percent. The reason? Marvel had been purchased by Ronald Perelman, a Bob Villa of corporations, and Perelman had Walt-Disney level ambition: He bought two sports trading cards companies along with Marvel, and had plans to open themed parks and restaurants. Only the mid-90s collapse in the card and comic books industries stopped him.
But I digress. The question here is, now that the original X-Men: The Animated Series is streaming on Netlfix, what’s it like to watch it now?
First, let’s talk about who the show is for, among Netflix users: Nostalgia-chasers like myself and comic-book completists. Maybe people who are currently children, too, but I think most kids have a built-in ‘dar that makes them feel repulsed by any media created before their conception. I doubt these five full seasons, roughly 28 hours of prejudice-fighting-against animated goodness, has much appeal to anyone else.
It's easy to be initially taken aback when you watch The Animated Series now, because I think our collective notion of these characters comes mostly from the past few live-action movies. Animated Magneto isn’t quite the fully sympathy-engendering hero on the wrong side of the tracks; he’s usually a straight-up villain. (He’s also from a generic Eastern European country. Though he’s not explicitly a Holocaust survivor, there are plenty of references to make it clear to adult viewers that’s the parallel the show wants to draw.) Wolverine still heals, but extremely slowly, like when his character was first introduced in the 70s. Rogue and Storm are much stronger and more independent than Anna Paquin and Halle Berry’s respective versions, and Professor X seems bland without Sir Patrick Stewart’s authoritative voice.
What the show does most impressively is juggle. It’s an ensemble cast, and Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Professor X, Gambit, and Jubilee are all equal protagonists; plenty of time is spent on other characters, too. The show often tells story arcs that take several episodes to complete. Some characters, like Beast and the created-just-for-this-show Morph, are put in predicaments that take an entire season or more to resolve. The fundamental moral of the X-Men: The Animated Series world—that oppressed people must take the nonviolent, moral high ground if they wish to one day be treated as equals by their oppressors—is a tough message for a Saturday morning cartoon to take on, and the show pulls it off well.
Unfortunately for adults watching now, it’s still a Saturday morning cartoon. Which means there’s a lot of fighting. This is of course not inherently a bad thing, but for me, Saturday morning cartoon fighting is its own style of wearying—no blood, lots of repetition, and lots of energy blasts. The X-Men’s most common enemy by far is the Sentinals, and it’s often Sentinal lasers versus Cyclops’s or Jean Grey’s or Gambit’s or Jubilee’s beams and blasts. If some enterprising internet denizen wanted to make a supercut of all the X-Men: The Animated Series battles that consist only of a bunch of energy flying from and at characters, it would likely last hours.
(Not an actual screengrab, but not that far off.)
And since this is a children’s cartoon, one must put up with some children’s cartoon storytelling conventions, too. A lot of characters introduce themselves in in obvious ways. The first thing Storm ever says, for instance, is "Storm: Mistress of the Elements!" (That’s her name, then a title she seems to have given herself.) Jubilee encounters her first mutants, Storm and Rogue, where all women spend most of their time: the mall. Somewhat unrelated, but I have to mention this: In the episode where we first meet Colossus, the ladies go out driving in the most 90s way possible:
Those are hardly the only times that quickly remind you that you're watching something made for kids. When in the seventh episode a few X-Men are enslaved to help build a dam, they're fitted with collars that, as their captor states, keep them from using their powers. Apparently someone on the production team thought a verbal explanation wasn't enough, that viewers needed a visual illustration of that concept. So Storm immediately flies up, uses her lightning powers on her tormentor, and tries to fly away. But the dude grabs a remote control, hits a button, and Storm plummets. "My powers!" she gasps. Storm, wisest of the X-Men field team, totally didn't see that one coming.
As the seasons go on, episodes mine more and more of the comics for material. So if you’ve read them all, you might be thoroughly excited to see the Phalanx Covenant animated on the small screen. Otherwise, you’re likely to quickly lose interest in yet another alien soap opera that only sorta involves the X-Men. In the fifth season, as the series wraps up, it offers a few great, random one-offs: Wolverine and Captain America fight Nazis in occupied France. Mr. Sinister and a Charles Xavier-type square off in Victorian England. Jubilee tells fairy tales, but puts X-Men in starring roles. I could easily watch a whole series of those.
In the end, this show is awesome for a few episodes but might quickly exhaust your patience. All five seasons are on Netlix at the moment. I’d love to hear how much you can take before you break down.
The first time you watch it, before your patience wears thin: 4 out of 4 discs out at a time
After that, until the last few episodes of the fifth season: 2 out of 4 discs out at a time.
The final few episodes: 4 out of 4 discs out at a time.
The guitar-like synth riff in the show's theme song? Like, a million discs out at a time.