Tag Archives: x-men

X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series

A few years ago, I talked about my love of X-Men, the animated series, via a book review of Previously…on X-Men by Eric Lewald. That book chronicled the development of the 92 animated series that helped propel the Fox Kids Network to the top of the Saturday morning leaderboards through notes from the author and extensive interviews with the folks that helped bring that series to life. Now, Lewald is back with his wife Julia with a complementary piece all about the artists and artwork that went into creating that series, X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series.

There are probably a few individuals out there who first wrinkled their nose at the thought of an art book based on the animated series starring the X-Men. That’s because the show was somewhat famously underserved by Saban Entertainment who had little interest in sinking much money into the art and animation that went into the show. It’s not that the show was abysmal to look at, it’s more that it was always going to be compared with Batman: The Animated Series. Both shows launched in 92 on Fox, though X-Men only in a sneak preview with the proper launch coming in January of 1993. Batman was on weekday afternoons, while X-Men was allowed to reign over Saturday morning. The other big difference though was Batman had the might of Warner Bros behind it which produced the series and just licensed it out to Fox. X-Men had the backing of Marvel, which wasn’t what it is today. Marvel was a bit touch and go for many years even when it was starting to take over the news stand with a lot of help from the mutants who starred in this series. Rather than self-finance though, Marvel licensed it out to Saban who partnered with Graz Entertainment. The budget was never going to be the same, nor was the confidence. X-Men was unproven outside of the comic book world, and thus received just a one season order initially, followed by a second, before eventually the big order came in.

X-Men on the front, bad guys on the rear. What does it say about me that I think I prefer this to the cover?

Despite all of that, and a legend who had no idea how the property should be presented (::cough:: Stan ::cough::), the show was a smashing success. It’s interesting to look back on because I think many consider Batman to be the superior show. And yet, X-Men was the ratings champ and my favorite of the two. And when it came to my friends, most liked Batman, all loved X-Men. I don’t know why that is, though I have some theories. Batman was a known property and the show reflected the Tim Burton films. Whenever something goes from the big screen to the small one (especially in the 90s), there’s a feeling that the TV version is inferior. The X-Men may have lacked the recognition of Batman, but it also lacked any sort of baggage. Batman was also quite great at being a moody, superhero, show with a lot of style. It was also mostly rooted in that, where as X-Men was an ensemble with more characters to lean on. Batman was almost devoid of personality as a character by choice, while basically every member of the X-Men (well, maybe not Cyclops) was rather colorful able to display a wide range of emotion and even drop a one-liner or two. Or maybe it was just the prestige of being on Saturday morning? Either way, it was a good time to be alive.

It’s an art book, so expect a lot of artwork!

Both shows were part of a gradual maturation taking place in children’s cartoons. We basically had left the wacky and cheap 80s in favor of something that actually had respect for its audience. Shows like The Pirates of Dark Water and my beloved Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars were quite different in tone from the likes of Thundercats and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most of those shows still featured a character that could be turned to for comedic relief, and even Batman has the Joker. X-Men didn’t really feature that though. Morph could have been that character, but he was killed off rather quickly. It’s a drama starring people in bright spandex that captivated me as a kid. The serialized nature and some of the nuance of the show asked something of me, and I was willing to rise to the program as a mere 7 year-old. It’s no surprise to me that when I look back on my youth, X-Men is there and always will be as it was far and away my favorite program.

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the book is getting to read the descriptions that go along with each storyboard panel.

And despite what you may think, a lot of really talented and devoted artists contributed to this show. Knock the animation all you want, but I’ve always been rather insistent that the show looks pretty great in stills. Sure, pick through it and you’ll find some weird stuff or miss-colored limbs and costumes, that’s true of a lot of shows from that era. Where this book is able to shine is with the stuff not broadcast. All of the developmental art that went into the show; costume ideas, height charts, storyboards, are quite rewarding to look at. When Lewald and his team were handed this property, there were decades of material to cherry-pick for the show and a lot of ideas were cast aside. There’s also plenty of production art, like cels and such, that are quite interesting to look at. Especially some of the backgrounds, like the lair of Mr. Sinister, which featured several layers of artwork to make it right.

And it’s not just art! The books is broken out into six chapters, plus an intro and an afterword, with each containing a detailed breakdown of what went into each section. Some of this stuff is lifted from the prior book, so it will be a bit familiar for those who read it, and some of the details are new. Since this book is focused on the art of the series, you’ll hear additional nuggets about what went into a character’s look or a particular background. There’s a lot of ink spent on the various cameos that occurred throughout the series and some of the other details may surprise and amaze. One such nugget came from Director and Storyboard Artist/Supervisor Larry Houston who pointed out how difficult it was to animate a character like Mr. Sinister. His irregular cape basically forced Houston to storyboard the character with as little motion as possible. Basically, the camera was either directly in front or behind him and he was basically never allowed to rotate. It’s fun to go back and watch the series with such information in hand and it gives some newfound appreciation for all of the work Larry and his team had to do before sending an episode off to Korea for animation.

When the X-Men ruled the world!

There’s a lot to unpack in this book and I don’t want to reveal too much since a lot of the enjoyment I had was uncovering things I either didn’t know or really paid little attention to. There’s also some nice additions to this one like a collection of all of the episode logs and a picture to go along with it. Some time is spent on looking back at the X-Men craze, like the Pizza Hut promotion and the action figure line from ToyBiz, which might make you wish for a third book that covers all of that tie-in merch. The book itself is also quite lovely. It’s hardbound with new cover art from Houston, I think. There’s no explicit “Cover” credit, just a case credit to Houston with ink by Rick Hoberg and colors by Laura Martin. It’s a bit confusing as the inside of the front and back cover are storyboards which were definitely done by Houston, so the credit may be referring to that. Regardless, the cover, featuring the main team including Morph and Bishop, and the rear cover featuring the villains of the series look great. Pages are nice and thick and the whole thing totals 288 pages. Since it’s mostly artwork, it’s not a tremendously long read, but it’s hardly brief. I mostly read it while sipping a morning or afternoon coffee (first starting my read, appropriately enough, on a Saturday morning) over the course of a week. It was a wonderful, leisurely, trip back to the 90s and my youth that not only left me wanting more, but also with a desire to go back and revisit the show once again.

One of my favorite inclusions in the book is the visual episode guide with accompanying logs, a tremendous resource to have on-hand.

X-Men: The Art and Making of the Animated Series is a great companion to Previously…on X-Men. It’s a book intended to satiate fans of the show, but would also probably entertain casual fans as well. I had a great time engaging with the art from the property, and while I already had a pretty terrific appreciation of the art that went into the show, I think those who might not have that same level of appreciation will likely leave with a bit more. Eric and Julia Lewald do a great job of recounting their time with the show and the various artists and executives they speak with bring a lot to the table. It’s my assumption that anyone with a love for this old show will be delighted by this book and it’s something I plan to flip through again.


Take My Money, Hasbro, Give Me X-Men Animated Series Legends!

 

x-men animated group shot

Let’s talk some X-Men!

It’s been probably 13 or 14 years since I’ve purchased a Marvel-branded action figure. This is somewhat shocking to me because from the age of 7 to around 25 I spent who knows how much money on Marvel action figures. I was there for the inaugural Toy Biz line of Marvel Superheroes and X-Men action figures and I continued buying Toy Biz figures well past the age of when it was considered “appropriate” by my peers. And even after I stopped actually playing with my toys I still kept them on display in my room. Two pieces of old countertop on milk crates served as my makeshift shelves. Good guys on one side, bad guys on the other. As characters changed allegiance in the comics, so did their placement on my shelf. Aside from that, I didn’t like to mess with them and the dust would grow thicker and thicker and probably contributed to my constant sneezing. I didn’t care though, because I really loved my toys.

When action figures grew up with me I grew extremely excited. There were a few dedicated collector lines, most memorably one based on the Onslaught mini series, but things really changed with Marvel Legends. I was a bit tepid at first with them, mostly due to the absence of X-Men, but eventually I got into it. I started with just a figure here and there, and soon enough I found myself buying entire waves. I also added the occasional Diamond Select figure which at the time prioritized sculpt over articulation making some of the toys little more than glorified statues. I even got into Mini Mates for a period, since they initially focused on the Ultimate X-Men which was a comic I grew attached to pretty quickly.

Eventually, I stopped collecting. Part of that coincided with the dissolving of Toy Biz by Marvel which chose to instead license its properties to Hasbro. Those first few Hasbro waves weren’t very strong, and with the build-a-figure shrinking down to more normal proportions it failed to really motivate me. I think the last wave I bought to completion was whichever one featured The Blob. And even with that, I think I had to buy some figures based on X-Men: The Last Stand which did not sit well with me. That also happened to coincide with me moving out on my own trading the confines of my old bedroom for a small apartment. I didn’t want to have to lug a bunch of toys around with me every time I moved, and once I got settled into my own home that I purchased the itch had passed. I had moved onto other hobbies and comics just didn’t appeal to me like they once did. Sure, there have been a few figures over the years that tempted me, but the rising cost in standard toys makes it pretty easy to just focus on the things that really bring me joy.

That could change though, and if Hasbro wanted me back (and who wouldn’t?) there is one thing the company could do that would guarantee it many of my dollars and it has to do with my favorite show as a child:  X-Men.

xmen three pack

This recent action figure three-pack is what put my brain into this mode. These almost work as animated versions, but they’re different just enough to not be perfect. And I’m not just referring to Wolverine’s bone claws.

Nostalgia currently has me hooked via NECA’s line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toys based on the old cartoon series. That show may not be particularly good, but I loved it as a kid and it’s something I can’t let go of. Similarly, I have a huge amount of affection still for X-Men. That show was my life for a few years and unlike TMNT, the show is still watchable today even if it doesn’t hold up as well as Batman or possibly even Gargoyles. And I know I am not alone. There is a lot of love out there for that show and that has been preyed upon via action figures based on the costume designs of the Jim Lee era X-Men from the comics. There was a recently announced three-pack featuring Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Cyclops which is what really got my juices flowing. Those characters bare a strong resemblance to their animated counterparts, but the figures are also clearly aiming to capture the look of the comics and not a cartoon.

What gives me hope that such a line could work is because animated versions of these characters are not far off what is already out there. Take your standard Wolverine action figure, for instance. To make him better resemble the cartoon, Hasbro basically just needs to reduce detail. No stubble on his face, not much hair on the arms, and less muscle definition. DC has done a great job bringing Batman: The Animated Series to plastic form in terms of aesthetics, so why not do the same, Hasbro?

Because I’m such a generous guy, I’m even going to provide a road map for Hasbro. I envision six figures per wave with a build-a-figure bringing the total to seven. Adhering to modern times, the extra buildable figure is not some titanic character, but something closer to a standard sized figure. It would be a good fit for those figures that would need to be 7 or 8 inches as opposed to 5-6, which is what I imagine most figures would fall into. They could be done, and really should be, in scale with Marvel Legends and I would prioritize characters from the first two seasons. If the line’s a success, then sure go for more. If the series happened and worked out as outlined below, then I would definitely buy every figure and really annoy my wife as I hunted for more space to display them.

Series 1

  • Wolverine
  • Cyclops
  • Rogue
  • Morph
  • Mystique
  • Magneto
  • Build-a-Figure:  Sabretooth

This mix would get some fan-favorite good guys out early and also a few villains to pose them against. Wolverine is an obvious must for the first series as he was the most popular character. He should come in his standard uniform and additional hands, some with claws in and some with claws out. A second, unmasked, head would complete the look. Cyclops should also just have his normal look. If a removable flight jacket could be added without harming the sculpt, then all the better, but not necessary. Similar to modern Cyclops figures, he should have a second head with a blast effect and probably an extra set of hands including one with two fingers extended on his right hand to activate his “X” communicator. Morph, on the other hand, should have his flight jacket since he was most often depicted wearing it. He should also have black hair as he did in seasons one and two and an alternate “evil” head. Mystique would need few additional accessories, making her the likely landing spot for a larger piece of the build-a-figure. Magneto would need a helmeted and un-helmeted head to properly capture his long hair. A nice, heavy, fabric cape would also look great, but soft plastic wouldn’t be bad either. Sabretooth, being featured in episode one, makes for a good choice as the first build-a-figure given his size relative to the other characters.

X-Men (FOX) [1992-1997]Shown from left: Wolverine, Morph, Beast

That’s how I want my Wolverine to look, bub.

Series 2

  • Gambit
  • Bishop
  • Storm
  • Cable
  • Pyro
  • Avalanche
  • BAF:  The Blob

Wave Two would be anchored by the next most popular character after Wolverine, Gambit. He’d just need various hands and his bo staff to be authentic. Storm would be the other character from the team, and in the interest of “keeping them wanting,” would be the only other from the main team. Bishop and Cable both played large roles as guest characters and lend themselves well to action figure form. Cable should probably have his season two look which featured a metallic left arm, a more common look than the season one version. Bishop should also feature a removable time bracelet to go along with his really big gun. Pyro and Avalanche would serve as the villains with the BAF being their comrade Blob. A desire to assemble Mystique’s troop would hopefully help drive sales.

x-men_L48

Everyone can relax, Gambit is in series two.

Series 3

  • Beast
  • Jean Grey
  • Archangel
  • Civilian Wolverine
  • Graydon Creed
  • Mr. Sinister
  • BAF:  Apocalypse

Series 3 would be the one that nearly completes the main team. Beast, unlike most figures based on the character, should have a cheerful disposition as opposed to an angry one. Jean Grey would need her cartoon-accurate costume, something Toy Biz never delivered on when the show was popular, which was blue and orange as opposed to blue and yellow. She should also probably come with a Cerebro helmet. This would also be a good time for a second Wolverine figure. Since he was so often featured in plain clothes (yellow flannel with a brown jacket), a figure based on that look makes sense. He should have two pairs of clawless hands, ones that look like normal fists and ones that have the steel ports on his hands as he was incorrectly portrayed in season one. Diehard fans of the show, such as myself, really appreciate little details like that. Creed was a big player in season two, and he warrants a figure as a result. Of course, Sinister was the main big, bad, guy of that season and series three feels like a good spot for him. Lastly, Archangel should be included (with a masked head and unmasked head) to pair with the BAF Apocalypse who would be depicted in his animated purple and blue color scheme.

apocalypse cartoon

I don’t know why they made him purple, but the toy better follow in the same footsteps!

Series 4

  • Jubilee
  • Colossus
  • Omega Red
  • Forge
  • Civilian Cyclops
  • Professor X
  • BAF: Juggernaut

Series 4 would finish the main squad by including Jubilee and Professor X. Xavier would be the tough one to include as he would need his hover chair. Recently, Hasbro did a Professor X that I think retails for more than a standard Legend. The company could save money by retooling it and if it has to retail for more then so be it. Colossus guested a couple of times and is deserving of a figure himself. He should be clad in his blue pants and white tank top to match his appearance in the show. If a second, non-transformed, upper torso could be done then that would be really neat. Omega Red is a villain with a great, 90s, design, and even though he’s a bit bigger than other characters, I don’t think he’s so large that he would need to be a BAF. Cyclops had enough non-costumed appearances to be the second main cast member worthy of a civilian look. And Forge had multiple appearances as well. He should come with an alternate head so he could be depicted as main timeline Forge and future Forge. The Juggernaut is the last character that serves as an obvious choice for a BAF and would be a sought after one helping to make sure fans buy the entire wave. That only challenge with him is I think he would need two heads as well, one masked and one unmasked, because it’s hard to make a good-looking Juggernaut figure that features a removable helmet.

colossus 92

Colossus proved you didn’t need a real costume to be a hero.

Series 5 and 6

  • Phoenix
  • Gladiator
  • Nightcrawler
  • Dazzler
  • White Queen
  • Sebastian Shaw
  • Henry Gyrich
  • Bolivar Trask
  • Dark Phoenix
  • Banshee
  • Fabian Cortez
  • Empress Lilandra
  • BAF:  Sentinel

I’m grouping these two together because I have a radical idea for the BAF. It would be a sentinel and the pieces spread between both waves. The piece loadout would be like Giant Man from the Toy Biz days which did an oversized wave of Marvel Legends as a Wal-Mart exclusive. This would allow Hasbro to do a bigger figure to do the sentinel justice, because we need a sentinel for such a series since they were so important in that first season. The desire to have a cartoon sentinel would help move some of the less exciting, but still essential, characters contained in this wave. Trask and Gyrich, specifically, would be unsexy figures, but they had such a large presence over the first season that it feels wrong to exclude them. Much of these waves would also be devoted to the Phoenix and Dark Phoenix Sagas. Doing both regular Phoenix and Dark Phoenix would also save Hasbro money since they’d basically be the same figure, different head. For Lilandra, I’d also go with the Empress version of the character as that would just make for a more striking visual. Cortez is the only character from a later season, but I see more opportunity for villains and I just happen to like him more than someone like Erik the Red or D’Ken.

sentinel 92

I don’t see how you could have a toy-line dedicated to the X-Men cartoon and not feature a sentinel somehow.

If the line was a success, it wouldn’t have to end there. I completely ignored Sinister’s Nasty Boys and all of the mutates from the Savage Land. They would really help to bolster the ranks of the villains, but it might be hard to convince people they’re more deserving of plastic than some of the others. An entire Savage Land wave could even be done, though I don’t know if that would be a big seller. Another big bad guy I left out is Mojo who would probably work best as a BAF. If he was done, then he would need to be paired with a Longshot.

As for heroes, there are alternate versions of other characters that could pad things out. Civilian versions of Storm, Rogue, Jean and Jubilee (or her in a flight suit) could be added. Beast and Gambit had other looks as well, but nothing really drastic (though Beast with his Howard the Duck shirt is pretty tempting). Archangel also briefly appeared as Angel in season one and returned in season four sporting his white and blue Angel costume. Wolverine had other looks as well, though my personal favorite would probably be the alternate timeline Wolverine from “One Man’s Worth” which also featured a mohawked Storm. Other guest heroes included Iceman, Psylocke, Alpha Flight and X-Factor so there are certainly more characters to mine from, I’m just not sure any really need a dedicated figure based on their look in the cartoon.

Hasbro missed its chance to honor the cartoon with a line of figures to celebrate the show’s 25th anniversary. There’s still time though to recognize the 30th in 2022 and a toy-line near then would be an appropriate way to do so. If 2022 seems too far away right now it could be timed to end that year. The show is also about to gain new exposure via Disney+ where it and other X-Men cartoons will be available day one. And with Disney acquiring 20th Century Fox it stands to reason that the X-Men will soon join Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe bringing even more of a spotlight to the brand. The time is right, Hasbro, make it happen!

 

 


Sunshine Blogger Post

 

sunshineYou may have heard of or seen this Sunshine Blogger thing going around. It’s essentially a chain post, not unlike a chain letter or those chain posts that used to (still do?) circulate through social media. I was tagged by Jay Friz over at RJ Writing Ink for such a post in which most of the participants appear to be anime-centered blogs. While The Nostalgia Spot is not an anime blog, it has certainly touched upon the subject from time to time mostly via several posts on the Dragon Ball franchise. I am a lover of animation though, so naturally I do enjoy anime and this presents an opportunity to touch upon it, so thank you for such, Jay.

All chains have rules, and these are the rules for this particular chain:

1. Thank the blogger who nominated you in your post and link it back to them.

2. Answer the 11 questions the blogger asked you.

3. Nominate 11 new blogs to receive the award and write 11 new questions for them.

4. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your first post.

Once again, thanks go out to Jay for the acknowledgement. If you have not visited his blog, he does a lot of animation-related posts of old and new properties and is currently doing a daily Halloween post (and if you read this regularly you know about my affinity for that format) and it is certainly worth checking out.

What got you into blogging?

My journey into blogging began nearly 9 years ago. I had always wanted to write and pursued a writing degree while in college. It eventually struck me as something impractical, and rather than reach for a dream I went with a different major. It has financially worked out, but I missed writing. After being out of school for many years and finding myself with a lot of spare time, I decided to start a blog for my own benefit. The theme of nostalgia came naturally, and it’s something I’ve had fun writing about. I do it for the enjoyment of writing, not for publicity. If people read and enjoy it then that’s great, but if no one read it I’d still consider it a worthwhile endeavor.

scrooge triumphant

I love me some Christmas, and here’s a little teaser for a future Christmas Spot post. Recognize it?

What’s been your favorite thing to blog about?

Nostalgia seems like too broad a topic for the purpose of answering this question. I have greatly enjoyed revisiting Batman: The Animated Series. Not only does it provide me with something to write about, but I also re-watched every episode along the way. It spanned more than two years of my blogging life, and I’m actually a little sad it’s over (final post scheduled for the end of November). I have also enjoyed doing the same for the much smaller Bucky O’Hare and the Toad Wars. Bucky O’Hare being a smaller, often forgotten, subject makes it rewarding for different reasons, even though the quality of that series is not on par with the likes of Batman. Without question though, my favorite posts are the Christmas ones. After dabbling with Christmas for years, I finaly went all-in on doing an advent calendar of posts a few years ago. When you blog for sheer enjoyment it can be hard to find time to make posts. Plus my own tend to total 3000 words no matter what I do, so doing 25 days of posts is hard. That’s why I spread them out and make use of the scheduler function to make sure they post when I need them to. It gives me a reason to stay tapped into Christmas all year round.

If you could date one fictional character, who’d it be?

Let’s go with Sara Valestein from the Trails of Cold Steel video games. She can kick ass and loves a good brew – what’s not to like?

The-Legend-of-Heroes-Trails-of-Cold-Steel-II_2016_03-11-16_006-555x328

Sara (left) was likely created with the whole “Hot for Teacher” vibe in mind.

What’s your all time favorite show? Or video game?

My favorite show is probably either Futurama or The Venture Bros. Those are the two I’ve revisited the most. From a more nostalgic perspective, my favorite as a kid was X-Men. As for video game, it’s a lot harder since I play a lot of RPGs, but rarely revisit them. I’ll just stick with the same answer I usually give and go with Xenogears. It has its problems, but I love the aesthetic of it and the battle system is unique enough to separate it form other JRPGs.

What’s your favorite show from the 2010s?

It’s hardly much fun to say this is my favorite show from the past decade, but it’s Game of Thrones. The showrunners may not have stuck the landing, but it was a fun ride while it lasted.

What are you looking forward to the most in 2020?

Whatever NECA releases in its line of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figures, and the same for Boss Fight Studio and its Bucky O’Hare line. Looking forward to new toys is supremely exciting for me, likely because it allows me to feel like a kid again. That and I rarely have time for video games so looking forward to them feels like a waste of energy.

bfs bruiser and bucky

Bruiser will hopefully arrive in 2019, but could slip to 2020. Either way, I look forward to whatever is next in this toyline.

If you could have any fictional power, what would you want?

Let’s keep it simple and just go with flight. I live in Boston and traffic is brutal, flying would solve so many problems.

What’s been your favorite anime recently? For non-anime fans, you can say cartoon

Recently it’s been Dragon Ball Super, which just wrapped up a week ago for the English dub. I never really wanted a proper sequel to Dragon Ball Z, so I’ve been surprised at how much I enjoyed the new series. I’ve also really enjoyed My Hero Academia and Devil Man Crybaby, as the Devil Man OVA was one of the first DVDs I ever purchased.

If you could travel to a fictional universe, which one would you want to go to?

Duckberg. I’d stand out, but it would be fun trying to break into Scrooge’s Money Bin.

What was your favorite cartoon/anime growing up?

My favorite cartoon was X-Men, my favorite anime was Dragon Ball Z.

X-Men (FOX) [1992-1997]Shown from left: Wolverine, Morph, Beast

I lived for Saturday morning as a kid.

Beef or chicken?

Chicken, always chicken.

 

Thanks again to Jay for the chance to do something different. He made his questions fairly broad and not applicable to anime, which probably worked better for me since most of my anime related responses would just refer to Dragon Ball or Cowboy Bebop, fine shows certainly, but also shows that have been talked about a lot. My insulated nature means I have no blogs to tag for future responses as the few I follow have already done this post. I don’t normally spread chains too, but I wanted to play along with this one especially since I’ve been buried in Batman and Christmas-related writings lately. If this is something you want to do, feel free to consider yourself “tagged” and answer the same set of questions I already have, and as always, thanks for reading.


Dec. 3 – X-Men: Evolution – “On Angel’s Wings”

x-men evolution intro

X-Men: Evolution “On Angel’s Wings” originally aired on December 15, 2001.

Long after the X-Men animated series that originated on Fox Kids had ended, along with basically every other Marvel cartoon at that network, X-Men:  Evolution showed up on Kids WB. It’s kind of odd considering WB owned DC and yet they went in on X-Men, but X-Men were still popular and were gearing up for a run on cinema. It also didn’t hurt that a lot of talented people were attached to the show, and today’s episode features the duo of Boyd Kirkland and Frank Paur, both former directors on Batman:  The Animated Series.

snowy nyc

A snowy New York, which may have possibly been edited considering the events of 9/11 two months prior to air date for this one.

X-Men:  Evolution was an attempt at making the X-Men appeal to a younger audience. It fit-in with WB’s programming which also included super heroes like Static Shock and Batman Beyond. Even The New Adventures of Batman had placed an emphasis on the allies of Batman, including the very young Robin and the not quite so young Nightwing and Batgirl. The setup for X-Men:  Evolution was not that radical from other depictions:  young mutants were gathered at the home of Professor Charles Xavier (David Kaye) to learn how to control their mutant powers. Only in this show, basically everyone is in the Kitty Pryde/Jubilee role of being a teen and they include:  Cyclops (Kirby Morrow), Jean  Grey (Venus Terzo), Nightcrawler (Brad Swaile), Spyke (Neil Denis), Rogue (Meghan Black), and Kitty (Maggie Blue O’Hara) herself. The twist comes in that the students do not receive their schooling at Xavier’s mansion and instead attend a normal high school where they are put into conflict with a teenaged version of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Also, Storm (Kirsten Williamson), Beast (Michael Kopsa), and Wolverine (Scott McNeil) are teachers at Xavier’s home. Yes, Wolverine is in kind of a grumpy uncle role in this show, which is definitely an odd place for his character, but probably better than having a teenaged Wolverine. Thankfully, he doesn’t lust after Jean in this one. Honestly, the setup of the show never appealed to me and sounds kind of dumb. I checked out a couple of the first season’s episodes when this show premiered and they were pretty lame. Surprisingly, the show started to find itself in season two. It established some strong conflicts and the young team assembled works well. I was wrong about the show, and it actually turned out quite well in the end.

lonely warren

A lonely, wealthy man, just watching some TV. Note the lack of Christmas decor.

In season two the show rolled the dice on a Christmas episode. “On Angel’s Wings” is predictably about the character Angel (Mark Hildreth), who previously had not appeared in the show. It starts off in New York, where the wealthy Warren Worthington is shown in an isolated state. He’s ignoring his phone calls and watching television. Elsewhere in the city, a fire is ripping through an apartment building and a disabled woman is trapped inside. Her daughter is pleading with firefighters to save her mom, and this mobilizes Worthington. He flies to the sight, enters the building, and removes the woman leaving her safely on a nearby bench. No one witnesses it, but her daughter soon spots her mom and runs over to her. They embrace, and when the daughter asks how she escaped she tells her a real, live, angel carried her to safety.

scotts present

Rogue sheepishly gives Cyclops his Christmas present early. They actually would have made a cute couple.

At Xavier’s mansion, everyone is getting ready for the holidays. The kids will be leaving to head home and they’re having a little party in celebration. Two students will not be leaving:  Cyclops and Rogue. Cyclops, being an orphan, has no home to go to while Rogue is a runaway with a poor home life. There’s nothing for her to return to. As the other kids give gifts and Nightcrawler tries to steal a kiss via mistletoe, Jean looks on with jealous eyes as Rogue gives Cyclops a gift. If I recall correctly (and it’s been many years), Cyclops was one of the few to be nice to Rogue when she first showed up early on so she took a liking to him. Plus, they’re both able to kind of bond over the fact that neither is able to fully control their mutant powers. Rogue’s crush was not reciprocated in a romantic way, and Cyclops may even be oblivious, but Jean notices. And like basically every other version of the X-Men, Jean and Cyclops are romantically linked. As everyone departs, leaving only Xavier, Beast, Cyclops, and Rogue behind, Jean looks on with some sadness and worry as her limo drives away (what a tough life).

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Angel in action.

In New York, the Angel makes another appearance in Central Park thwarting a mugging. An onlooker is shown and he looks rather menacing. Later, a car gets into an accident on a suspended bridge (maybe the George Washington?) and the Angel, now in a resplendent super hero costume, swoops in to make the save. The car is up against the cables and he first saves a child from the backseat then returns for the parents. As everyone celebrates his heroics, the shadowy man from the park emerges. Summoning powers of his own, he makes one of the broken, steel, cables grab onto Angel. Startled, he flutters his wings and accidentally knocks the little girl he just saved off of the bridge. He dives into the water after her and does return her safely to the bridge, though she’s unconscious. The man, obviously Magneto (Christopher Judge), then shouts that it was the angel who knocked her off. The crowd of onlookers then turns on the hero, declaring he’s not a real angel just some freak, and he’s forced to flee.

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I miss CD shopping.

At the mansion, the X-Men have heard the reports of the angel sighting in the city. Feeling kind of restless, Rogue wants to head out and see what they can uncover and she and Cyclops are permitted to go. They have a discussion and it’s revealed that Cyclops kind of wants to believe the person is indeed an angel, while Rogue is dismissive of the concept. She does apologize to Cyclops though, fearing she hurt his feelings, but he assures her he’s fine. They go to a music store and are browsing CDs when they hear about the latest sighting. It’s quite a trip seeing the pair thumbing through music and Cyclops listening to the free previews on a headset – my how the times have changed.

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The city of New York is alive with Angel Fever!

We’re then whisked away to a hospital room. The little girl Angel saved is in a coma and her parents are understandably worried. Angel drops in on her and seems depressed over what happened. He swipes a doctor’s jacket and heads off into the hallway. There, Rogue and Cyclops are at a nurse’s station asking about the young girl and they’re told they just missed her parents who left to head to church. Angel overhears this and starts heading off. Rogue notices a feather wafting out from underneath the coat and alerts Cyclops that it’s him, rather loudly. This startles Angel and he takes off running. The two X-Men in training give chase, but he escapes out a window.

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I will admit, that’s one bad ass looking Magneto.

At the church, the girl’s parents are shown praying in an otherwise empty building. Angel is looking on from a balcony in the back, shamefully.  The camera pans and a figure lurks in the shadows behind him. It’s Magneto, now in costume, and he confronts Angel. He knows who he is and that he lives an isolated, lonely, life. He points out how quickly the people turned on him at the bridge, despite his best efforts, and uses a lot of the same arguments you’ve probably heard from Magneto before about why humanity can’t be trusted. He offers him a place for people like Angel and he, but Angel turns him down rather angrily not wanting to associate with “freaks and weirdos.” He’s a self-hating mutant.

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Angel meets the X-Men. They discuss tailors.

Magneto is not going to let Angel just walk away. He attacks, and Angel is forced to flee the balcony. The people below see him as Magneto uses a chandelier to wrap Angel in a chain. As he falls from the sky, a red laser beam cuts through the air and blasts Magneto out of the church through a stained-glass window. Cyclops and Rogue, now too in costume, come running in and free Angel. Magneto quickly returns as a confused Angel flees once more. With Magneto baring down on the young X-Men, Angel emerges from behind Magneto and wraps him in a bear hug. Cyclops calls for him to stand down, and pummels Magneto with more optic blasts knocking him from the sky. While on the ground, Rogue is able to get up close and personal with the Master of Magnetism and syphon away some of his energy. Now armed with the powers of magnetism herself, Rogue is able to chase Magneto through the skies of New York City. Magneto though is a pro with these powers and is able to knock her from the sky, but Angel is there once again to make the save causing Rogue to playfully remark, “I’m starting to think you are a real angel.”

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Of course, Rogue needs to be rescued by an angel since she was a non-believer earlier.

Apparently admitting defeat, Magneto is gone and the trio of heroes are back at the hospital. They’re in the waiting area probably hoping to hear how the young girl is doing. Cyclops explains who they are and gives the X-Men sales pitch to Warren, who questions how they’re any different from Magneto. As they talk, a doctor comes out to tell the parents of the girl that she’s awake and going to be all right. Warren is overjoyed and sneaks over to the girl’s room. As he does, Rogue asks Cyclops if he thinks Warren will join the X-Men and he curtly responds, “No.” They join Warren though as the little girl tells her parents she saw her angel again in her dreams. This puts a smile on Warren’s face while Rogue squirts a few tears. We’re then treated to a little montage of the other X-Men and how they’re enjoying their holiday. Jean with her family, Kitty doing Hanukkah stuff, and Wolverine kind of sadly just playing pool all by himself in a dimly lit dive. Xavier and Beast are shown last toasting a couple of hot beverages in front of a Christmas tree to close this one out.

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Looks like that little girl is going to have a Merry Christmas after all!

“On Angel’s Wings” is what I consider a quiet Christmas special. It takes place around the holiday, but Christmas just serves as a backdrop for the events in the episode. Tying Angel to the holiday is a smart move, since his obvious biblical appearance lends itself well to the theme. Though despite his presence, this doesn’t go full Hallmark Channel on the Jesus stuff. Beast quotes the Bible at one point, and other than the brief talk of Cyclops possibly believing in angels, the episode chooses not to dive into that subject. There’s also no Santa Claus or anything of that nature. The episode is also very stand-alone as it doesn’t aim to resolve anything like Jean’s jealousy or Wolverine’s loner tendencies or even what Warren Worthington will do next, but it’s still a satisfying little story. The ending is a bit sappy, but the montage was rather tasteful. Also, it should be noted, this show looks terrific and is miles ahead of the old animated series. New York City looks especially authentic and I always enjoy the cool tones of winter in a cartoon.

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We need to slide this one in for the Jewish fans.

The voice cast for the show does leave a little something to be desired. Our leads are pretty good, and I think Xavier and Beast sound about right (though Beast is basically a carbon copy of the same character from Fox’s X-Men), but there is also a woodenness to some of the performances. Not every line is crips. The tone of Megneto’s voice is rather intimidating, but the inflections aren’t there (especially when he can’t just be scary, like when he was shown among the mob on the bridge). The character designs are fairly simple and work well. Cyclops has a bit of an X-Factor vibe to his costume, but with the open Jim Lee cowl. Magneto looks rather imposing as his face is often entirely black when in costume, the shape of his helm also reminds me of Age of Apocalypse Magneto. Rogue’s costume is a bit on the bland side though and I never much cared for the design. It has an odd piece of green armor across the chest that’s rather boxy looking. And in general, the female X-Men are drawn rather maturely. It’s a tad creepy how sexy the animators made these children.

X-Men:  Evolution has seen an incomplete home video release. It’s also no longer on television, but good news, no one seems to care about it so it’s easy to find online for free. If you want to spend the holidays with Marvel’s most famous mutants then go for it. It’s better than the other X-Men Christmas episode and it should put you in the Christmas spirit.


Previously on X-Men: The Making of an Animated Series

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by Eric Lewald, published by Jacobs Brown Media Group LLC

A lot of cartoons made an impact on me as a child. My first love was The Real Ghostbusters. Its goofy cast of characters and excitement were plenty of fun and there were interesting toys to supplement the series with, which was pretty much the goal of all cartoons in the 80s. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would come along and supplant Ghostbusters for me. For several years I was all about the Turtles, with a flirtation with Bucky O’Hare mixed in, though sadly the funky fresh rabbit never made it past 13 episodes.

In 1992 things changed, in more ways than one. My family had just been uprooted moving from the cozy confines of New Hampshire to what felt like a different world down in Virginia. For the first time ever, I was a fish out of water. As I was gearing up to start 3rd grade in a new state, a new town, a new school, I would be tasked with forming all new friendships either at school or in my new neighborhood. It’s not a task I’ve ever been particularly good at. Shy and a tad awkward, I wasn’t outgoing, nor was I particularly talented in anything so I had few ways of attracting people. As a result, my television was sort of my best friend for a time and thankfully I had a new friend in Batman who had just debuted on week day afternoons on Fox Kids, a network I really only knew of thanks to The Simpsons. Batman was all fine and good, and I consumed every episode as it aired (and have since gone on to write about, if you hadn’t noticed), but it never hooked me like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even though that was a program I found myself outgrowing. What did resonate with me almost immediately though was the cartoon that premiered not long after Batman, I’m talking about X-Men.

The X-Men were known to me in basic terms before the animated series premiered on Fox. About a year prior to the show debuting Marvel had launched a toyline complete with TV spots, even though there was no companion television series to pair it with. I suppose the toys could have been developed in conjunction with the Pryde of the X-Men pilot that had premiered and failed in 1989. The roster was pretty similar, though then relative newcomer Archangel replaced Dazzler in that initial run of toys. Aside from that though, I don’t think I had ever picked up an X-Men comic book and I may or may not have played the side-scrolling beat-’em-up arcade game that was also based on Pryde of the X-Men. And I didn’t even actually catch the sneak peek preview, which aired on Halloween of 1992. I had seen all of the television spots leading up to it and was very interested in the show, but I had tricks or treats to get and wasn’t good at working a VCR.

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The first attempt at bringing the X-Men to television did not go very well.

At school, I would hear about it though. They had cool powers, but people hated them. Why? It seemed like such a foreign concept. One character got arrested and another died! Wow! Perhaps morbidly, I really wanted to see that character death, whom I’d come to know as Morph. Frustratingly, it would be awhile before I finally saw it. Somehow, whenever “Night of the Sentinels:  Part 2” was aired on television I would miss it. I wasn’t allowed to stay home alone, since I was only 8, so if my family had plans on Saturday morning I had little say. My mom even enrolled me in CCD, or church school, which convened at 11 on Saturdays, much to my horror. I think I only went to two of those classes before my mom got sick of the revolt each Saturday, finally freeing me to enjoy my new favorite program in relative peace.

In no time I was obsessed, and X-Men was my favorite show for basically as long as it aired. I still have the many toys I amassed during that period in my life, and though I no longer read the comics, I still enjoy revisiting this cartoon. It’s why when I heard that showrunner Eric Lewald was releasing a book all about his experience in making the show and bringing it to television that I had to get a copy. I received a copy last November, and I’m a bit disappointed in myself since it took me this long to finally finish it and get to writing this post, but life is hectic.

Previously on X-Men is an account of how this unlikely hit came to be. When Fox premiered X-Men and Batman it was still a fledgling network. The Tracey Ullman Show and Married… With Children got the network its initial audience, and The Simpsons would then establish it as a viable alternative to the big 3:  ABC, CBS, and NBC. It was still struggling during the other parts of the day with programming often ending before 11 PM. Recognizing that there was a place for children’s programming, Fox brought together a web of studios and producers in a mostly haphazard manner that somehow led to network dominance. Shows like Bobby’s World and Attack of the Killer Tomatoes were filling out the kids portion of the programming early on, and while it sounds like they did okay numbers, they weren’t going to raise the network’s profile much. It would fall to the superheroes to do that.

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Julia and Eric Lewald

Lewald’s book does a great job in capturing those early days while also contrasting X-Men with its daily counterpart Batman. Batman was a show with tremendous financial muscle behind it in the form of Warner Bros. and DC. It was coming off two successful Tim Burton movies and featured a character recognized around the globe. As a result, it was largely an internal production at Warner and Fox got to enjoy the benefits. And then there was X-Men, the troubled property that seemingly no one believed in. Thanks to so many television failures by Marvel in the past, there was almost zero enthusiasm for a show based on the property. Margaret Loesch, who formerly headed-up television at Marvel and was hired away to run Fox Kids, was one of the few who believed in it. Having failed to get the show going while at Marvel, she knew a producer who she had hired and fired on more than one occasion that could handle the task. That man was Sidney Iwanter, and he produced the show along with many others for Fox Kids. Citing a belief that kids were smarter than network executives gave them credit for, he demanded excellence from the writing staff of X-Men, who were overseen by Lewald. These three probably deserve the most credit in getting X-Men to television and for it being the number one kid’s show when it finally did get there.

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Haim Saban, who is both a hero and a villain in this story.

The first 200 pages of the 400 page book are devoted to the development process and it’s a fascinating read. Lewald, who had no experience with the X-Men before getting hired to run the show, was entrusted with those initial 13 episodes. He had people at Marvel he could go to with questions, but in a pre-internet world that meant a phone call, fax, or worse. It wasn’t like there was a Google equivalent in 1992. Artist Larry Houston is credited with the look of the series, as he was one of the few onboard who was a fan of the comic. Also the Edens brothers, Michael and Mark, were Lewald’s main contributors in the writing department. Lewald’s wife Julia was also a part in the initial season and contributed to the book as well. It’s very interesting to read as Lewald takes the reader through that initial writing process, and it’s easily the most captivating section of the book. Their approach to character showed in the episodes, so a lot of what is said here was previously assumed. Such as the belief that killing off poor Morph in the second episode would create stakes and pull the viewer in.

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The early days of Fox Kids.

If there is an MVP character for the book though it just might be Haim Saban. Saban was a newcomer to television when Fox Kids partnered with him to bring the X-Men to air. Saban collected a fee for those first 13 episodes, but then it was on him to pay the writers and editors. Graz handled the art, while AKOM was contracted to do the animation. Saban is a notoriously cheap man, and reading about all of the accounts of his cheapness is both hilarious and frustrating. It’s well known now, but bares repeating to emphasize how cheap he was that Saban docked the pay for all of the returning writers for season 2. His reasoning? The show was a success, so now more people would want to write for it and therefore he could pay them less. The man is now a billionaire, so obviously he’s pretty good at making money, though he’s also a reminder of a lot of what’s wrong with modern capitalism. The second half of the book is comprised of interviews with the cast, writers, producers, and other executives and almost all of them have a comment about how cheap Saban was, and likely still is.

Many battles took place to bring X-Men to Saturday morning. Some I knew about before reading this book, and others I did not. It’s probably common knowledge that the first episode from AKOM was utter garbage in terms of animation quality. It’s a big reason why the show had to premiere as a sneak preview because the studio couldn’t get the episodes ready to premiere in the normal Fall window due to all of the animation fixes that needed to take place. A lot of money was spent getting it right, and it almost blew everything up. The original voice cast also had to re-do the initial episodes because the first takes were so bad. Saban, in order to save money, hired Canadian actors to voice the show because they were famously non-union, so casting, supervising, and ultimately editing the audio for the show was cumbersome. Having to send individuals up to Canada in order to re-dub the initial episodes was obviously time consuming as well.

X-Men (FOX) [1992-1997]Shown from left: Wolverine, Morph, Beast

Oh Morph, I still mourn for thee.

And then there was Stan Lee. Stan Lee is a pretty famous guy. I’m not sure if he’s today more known for all of the comic characters he had a hand in creating or if he’s more famous for being that old guy who cameos in every Marvel film. Stan Lee created the X–Men alongside Jack Kirby in the 60s, but after that initial unsuccessful run, he turned it over to other writers and artists so he could focus on other things. As a result, come 1992 he basically knew nothing about the modern X-Men and yet he insisted he knew what was right for the show. Lewald and Iwanter had to fight with Stan on everything in those developmental days. He insisted on narrating the episodes, as he had done with previous Marvel television shows, and his approach was entirely wrong for the show they were trying to create. Supposedly, he even proposed the premise of the show should be a few members of the team driving around and solving mysteries. Imagine Wolverine in the role of Scooby Doo? Who would Shaggy be – Gambit?! They somehow managed to placate him, without really giving him a voice in the show, and eventually he went away as the show moved along through its first season and became a smash hit. The frustration in having to deal with Lee, and the many other challenges, is felt in reading this and I ached for Lewald even though he’s more than 25 years removed from this aggravation.

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The success of X-Men helped pave the way for more Marvel cartoons like Spider-Man.

That first season was only 13 episodes, a far cry from the 65 episode order Batman received. Fox was so unsure about the property that it wouldn’t commit beyond that, forcing basically everyone involved to move onto other shows. Lewald went on to helm Exosquad with the Edens, and thankfully that too only received a 13 episode order so he was available to return to X-Men when it finally received the full episode order. Others did not, because that’s how television works. If a show isn’t in production, you’re not getting paid. That first season’s decision to present itself in a serialized fashion also presented problems for the network, as production delays on one episode messed up the order of everything. As a result, the network demanded that season 2 be more episodic, but Lewald and his talented team of writers still managed to give it a serialized feel with The Savage Land segments and reoccurring villains like Mr. Sinister and The Friends of Humanity. A wise move, since the serialized nature of that first season is a big reason why it’s so special.

Nightcrawler (1)

“Nightcrawler” is frequently cited as a favorite episode of many of the creators involved with the show. The book also contains a deep dive into its creation.

Like the show itself, which I think produced its best work in those first two seasons, the book somewhat suffers from a strong first half that isn’t matched by the second. The many interviews that span roughly 200 pages are informative, but some more than others. The voice cast mostly repeats itself with remarks about how it was fun to work on something that felt different and how they came to understand their roles. The actual writers and producers offer the more interesting nuggets. There’s a lot of praise thrown around which might get tiresome for readers, though they all have reason to praise each other since it’s easy to forget how successful this show was. Especially when taken alongside the production and development hurdles. Of the interviews, I think I actually enjoyed the executive ones the most. Loesch and Iwanter were candid and did a great job of transporting me back to the early 90s and the hurdles they faced in backing this show. It’s fun to read about how close these people were with these characters that meant so much to me as a child. They cared about them, which is ultimately why the show ended up being as successful as it was.

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Marvel has resurrected the 92 X-Men for its comics line, but the results weren’t enjoyed by this blogger.

It should come as no surprise that, as a longtime fan of the show, I fully recommend Previously on X-Men to other fans of the show. Even if you were only a casual fan, but tuned into the animated scene at the time, you might enjoy reading this one. It’s fun to read the comparisons of how this show came to be with the experiences these people had with other shows. X-Men was a production mess, a wonderful, beautiful, mess. It was still garnering good numbers when it was cancelled, and one has to assume it was due to costs. By then, Saban had Power Rangers and was able to bring more stuff in house. X-Men had all kinds of hands on it so a lot of people had to get paid, and as we already covered, Saban wasn’t a fan of paying people. Even so, it’s hard to argue that the show was cut-down in its prime or anything, but reading this book and revisiting the show really made me realize how much I’d love to come back to this world. Marvel did launch an X-Men ’92 comic, but it did not satisfy me nor did it read like an episode of the beloved cartoon, rather it felt more like a parody. Marvel is now under the gigantic Disney umbrella and its films basically print money. With the Fox acquisition though, suddenly the X-Men are back in play. Marvel hasn’t bothered with animated films in awhile, though it’s sort of bringing that back with Into the Spider-Verse. Maybe a direct to video follow-up for the 92 X-Men could one day be in play. Pretty please? At the very least, how about a Blu Ray collection with episode commentaries, Disney? The people who created this wonderful show obviously wish to talk about it and they still have a lot to say.


Logan

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Logan (2017)

A popular “gotcha” question from when I was a kid concerning comic books and the X-Men was, “What’s Wolverine’s mutant power?” The desired response was a reference to his claws, at which point one could interject with a “Nuh-uh! It’s his mutant healing factor!” Of course, later in the 90’s it would be revealed that his claws actually were a part of his mutation, thus putting an end to that one, but it was always kind of a stupid piece of trivia anyway. Wolverine’s defining trait are his claws, the healing stuff was just a way to excuse the beating he took in the pages of Incredible Hulk and X-Men. If he didn’t have those unbreakable claws, he probably never would have become the most popular member of the X-Men.

And yet, Wolverine’s claws were always a bit of an obstacle for comic writers and artists, and eventually animators and film makers as well. You have this violent, bad ass character, equipped with blades that can cut through almost anything, but he really can’t use them because of the obvious gore factor that would involve. Instead, Wolverine would often use the claws for show, deflect some attacks, cling to walls, cut through a fence, and everyone’s favorite – hack up some robots. That’s why it’s particularly liberating to see Wolverine go all out in the opening moments of Logan.

To a newcomer, or even someone who has just fancied themselves a casual fan, the violence and gore present in Logan will seem over the top, perhaps juvenile. The R rating the movie garnered may be viewed in a cynical fashion to appease young males who want f-bombs and blood out of their movies. For those who have been with this character since their childhood though, it’s a stark reveal of just who Wolverine is. This is the Wolverine we hear about from other characters, spoken of in hushed tones and feared by his enemies. This is a superhero who’s primary offense, and defense, is to just start hacking. And since this is applied to an older, very cynical, Wolverine we get a character who doesn’t operate in half measures – if you get in his way and threaten him or those who cares about, Wolverine won’t hesitate to remove your face from your skull.

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If you’ve always wanted to see Wolverine do this, then Logan will make you very happy.

Logan is a film set some 15 years or so in the future. It’s not a dystopian world or a wasteland. There are no flying cars or laser rifles, the setting is just an excuse to take a look at an aging, dying, Wolverine. When the film opens we see Wolverine has taken on a very mundane job as a limo driver. He walks with a limp, is an apparent alcoholic, and his wounds don’t close as quickly as they used to. When he’s not working, he’s scoring drugs and hopping the Mexican border where his perhaps only friends are hiding out:  Caliban (Stephen Merchant) and Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). The drugs Wolverine purchases are for Xavier, who’s past the ninety-year mark and struggling to keep his wits about him. When the world’s most dangerous telepath can’t control his old brain bad stuff can happen. Wolverine is apparently saving up some cash to buy a houseboat where he and Xavier can live out the rest of their days without fear of harming anyone, or anyone bothering them (in the case of Wolverine).

Wolverine’s day to day life is disrupted when a borderline hysterical woman (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez) comes seeking his aid. Offering a substantial amount of money, she wishes for Wolverine to smuggle her and her daughter into Canada. Wolverine wants nothing to do with her, apparently not wanting any trouble. Soon a young man barges into his limo looking for info on the woman. He is Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), and we know from his demeanor and bad-ass cybernetic hand that he is certainly a bad dude and probably what the young woman is running from. Upon hearing this, Xavier naturally wants to help the woman as he senses a mutant presence, Caliban smells it as well (his mutant power). This is a big deal as there hasn’t been a mutant born in this world in over twenty years. Wolverine is sort of conned into helping the woman, and things get messy before they get any better.

Since she’s featured so heavily in the promotion, and the film makes little attempt to create any mystery about it, I might as well continue along and talk about Laura (Dafne Keen), the young mutant Wolverine and Co. end up taking in. Laura, known as X-23 in the comics, is a young girl with a very familiar set of powers and abilities, and also temperament. She is referred to by other characters as Wolverine’s daughter, but it might be more accurate to call her his clone. She’s on the run in search of a place called Eden and is running from Pierce and the people responsible for her existence. After the lengthy setup, the film turns into a road movie with Wolverine, Laura, and Xavier.

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Jackman and Stewart are just beautiful in their portrayals of Logan and Xavier.

Logan is not a feel good movie, and it doesn’t offer much mystery. I found myself anticipating almost every beat the film hits, but I also didn’t care. The world of Logan is harsh and unfriendly, but there are small moments to break up the grim that either provide humor or just a small slice of life. Xavier and Laura make for a fun pair and easily form a warm relationship, even if Laura is essentially mute. Perhaps to the surprise of some, Xavier is the character most often relied upon for comic relief. He and Wolverine clash well, but underneath the surface conflict it’s obvious the two love and respect each other. Wolverine is a surrogate son of sorts to this version of Xavier, and waits on him like a doting son, though he seems to take some enjoyment in complaining about it every step of the way. The relationship feels very authentic, which is a word that kept coming to me as I took in this picture. Patrick Stewart comes across as especially authentic as Xavier. There’s a scene where the trio sits down to dinner with some strangers and Stewart plays Xavier in a way that’s reminiscent of every dinner I’ve ever had with an elderly person I had only just met. He’s delighted to speak with someone other than his irritable traveling companion, but his performance never teeters on parody.

Hugh Jackman is a captivating Wolverine in this film. I suppose that comes as no surprise since he’s been playing this character for almost twenty years now (the same can be said of Stewart). Jackman worked with director/writer James Mangold on the story, loosely adapted from the Old Man Logan story from the comics. It’s clear from interviews with Jackman that this was an important film for him and an important story for him to have a part in telling as Wolverine, for it’s to be his last turn as the character. The Wolverine of this film is best described as the exact assumption most would have of an old man Wolverine. All of his lesser traits -his irritability, cynicism, vices and so on have only been strengthened by father time. He’s still a good guy inside, but his pessimism makes him more of an introvert than he’s ever been. The film doesn’t dwell on the past, but it makes it obvious that all of the X-Men are dead. This is a Wolverine who has lost everything. He doesn’t want to start over, he’d rather just die. He’s pulled through this movie by other characters as well as his inner sense of duty, but it’s a struggle. The film tells this story through action and not so much dialogue. In doing so, Mangold is able to avoid a lot of the tropes that plague other films attempting to tell a similar story.

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I wonder where she gets it from…

Laura proves to be a compelling character in her own right. Portrayed by newcomer Dafne Keen, Laura is a wide-eyed girl experiencing the world for the first time. Everything is interesting and new to her, and Keen is forced to tell us what Laura is thinking through her actions alone while also being restricted from changing her usual stoic facial expression. She’s a fun character to watch when the film slows down, but also a sad character during the action sequences when we are forced to watch a young girl brutally eviscerate other people with cold precision. She’s in a way been denied humanity, while also being denied a childhood. Again, Mangold does a great job of just putting this out there in the film without editorializing it. We don’t need a character to tell us now depressing her upbringing was. The film slowly gives us more and more of the Laura character and it’s one of the few aspects that feels rewarding. I would guess most people will leave the theater wanting to see more of this character in the future.

All of this is to say the movie isn’t perfect. Like most superhero pictures, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. While there are no obvious scenes that could have been axed, the film does move slowly and if an editor had been ordered to keep the runtime under two hours they probably could have found a way without much compromise. The film is also so centered on Wolverine and Laura that the antagonists feel like after-thoughts at times. And as I mentioned, it is very predictable and there is a sequence in the middle of the movie that bothered me as a result because the characters should have been able to see the danger up ahead.

The flaws within Logan are minor and do little to bring down what some are calling the best superhero movie yet. I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, as Logan could function as any kind of movie if you took away the super powers. The film isn’t centered on a conflict of good vs evil with the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a character driven film, and for people who have considered themselves fans of the Wolverine character, this is probably the film you’ve been waiting for. It’s a film for those who appreciate the essence of what makes Wolverine special, and it’s able to present the character in an authentic way without devolving into a ton of fan service. More importantly, this is also clearly a worthy story for Jackman to go out on. This is his finest performance not just as Wolverine, but of any film I’ve seen him in, and I assume that was the personal goal of Jackman going into it. I was totally fine with this being Jackman’s last time playing Wolverine, but once the credits started rolling I must admit I was starting to wish for more, and as they say in show business, always leave them wanting more.


X-Men: Apocalypse

X-Men_-_Apocalypse

X-Men:  Apocalypse (2016)

No Marvel property has had a more up and down relationship with the silver screen than the X-Men. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, because at least it hasn’t been all down like the Fantastic Four, but it is frustrating for those who love the X-Men property. The first film was one of the early superhero films that launched this new found romance between Hollywood and Marvel, which also helped open the door to DC as well. That first film hit on a lot of what makes the X-Men unique, though it sacrificed action and plot in devoting so much of the film to setup. The second film seemed to better encapsulate what X-Men could be, but made some changes and decisions that felt rushed and short-sighted. Still, it was successful and the best X-Men film for a long time. Following X-Men 2, director Bryan Singer departed the franchise for Superman, and Brett Ratner came on to direct X-Men:  The Last Stand, a hot mess that at least had the decency to keep the run time down.

Following The Last Stand, Fox went away from their mutant franchise but did allow Wolverine to get his own terrible solo film. Seeing Marvel have success with other franchises without Fox likely helped bring the X-Men back with the Mathew Vaughn helmed X-Men: First Class. First Class was a new beginning for the franchise, though a confusing one as the continuity between it and the original trilogy seemed non-comittal at best. Was it a prequel? A reboot? Vaughn was one and done, and having not directed much worth discussing since X-Men 2, Singer took over for Days of Future Past, which further muddled the continuity between this new series and the original. Days of Future Past was a fun time travel piece. It also helped that it was adapting one of the most popular plots from the classic X-Men stories. It reunited the new cast with the old, and the conclusion seemed to reset the franchise as the heroes successfully changed the future leading the viewer to assume what happened in the original trilogy was basically undone, or at least severely altered, freeing this new franchise from further continuity scrutiny.

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Apocalypse with his two horsewomen Storm and Psylocke.

X-Men:  Apocalypse gives us a second completed trilogy, though one that clearly sets up for another X-Men film. It adapts the popular villain, Apocalypse, for the movie-going audience for the first time. Apocalypse is a tough sell in live-action. In the comics, his giant persona complete with big “A” belt buckle and blue lips somehow works, but viewed outside of that context looks ridiculous. His powers in the books began as being a kind of shape-shifter, with the emphasis placed on his ability to increase in size. Since his debut in the pages of X-Factor, Apocalypse has been retconned numerous times and his powers expanded to the point where it’s probably easier to just say that they’re undefined – he can do almost anything. As a plot device, he’s interesting in the sense that he’s a third alternative to the Xavier/Magneto world view. Xavier wants humans and mutants to co-exist, while Magneto wants to establish mutant supremacy. Apocalypse just wants to kill everybody and let the strong survive. He wants to rule over all as a god-like being. It makes sense for one who calls himself Apocalypse, though it’s not always interesting.

Despite that, I’ve mostly enjoyed Apocalypse as a foil as sometimes it’s nice to have one villain in a hero’s rogue’s gallery that’s just plain evil. I never really expected to see him in a film, but if he had been brought over, I expected him to be heavily altered to ground him a bit more. To my surprise, Singer and company did no such thing with Apocalypse.

The film opens with a flashback to a ritual involving Apocalypse in Cairo. He’s being placed in the base of a pyramid, surrounded by his disciples and attendants, as they prepare a second person on a separate slab within the tomb. We learn shortly after that this is a ritual to transfer Apocalypse’s essence to a new host to allow him to continue to live for years upon years.

Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) is explained later as the first mutant, who likely lived for centuries even before that flashback took place. He was worshipped as a god called En Sabah Nur, and the film actually never directly refers to him as Apocalypse. He’s yet another blue-skinned mutant with weird metal dreadlocks and vaguely Egyptian themed armor. Returning character Moira McTaggert (Rose Byrne) learned through research that he was the suspected first mutant, and each time he transferred to a new, mutant, host he would gain their powers. As a result, Apocalypse possesses numerous abilities that go very much undefined in the film. He’s portrayed similarly to Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan for much of the film, basically disintegrating people who get in his way without so much as a gesture. Other guys are melded into walls or the ground, and we also see him do some minor mind manipulation. He’s able to somehow sync with satellites to learn about the state of the world after awakening after thousands of years, and perhaps most importantly, is able to draw out the max potential of other mutants. He displays this by assembling his four horsemen:  Storm, Psylocke, Archangel, and eventually Magneto.

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Jean, Nightcrawler, and Cyclops are expected to shoulder some of the load in this film, but aren’t given adequate character development to really let them sine.

Now, I’m not one for spoilers when reviewing films. It strikes me as lazy, but I’m going to kind of spoil something in this paragraph as it relates to Magneto (Michael Fassbender). We see him with Apocalypse in all of the promotional imagery, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to point that out. When we first see Magneto in the film though, he’s married with a daughter and working in a steel mill in Poland. He has a conversation with his daughter before she goes to bed about how his parents were taken from him, and assures her the same won’t befall her. The film could not have telegraphed what’s to follow any more implicitly than that. Again, I don’t mean to spoil anything, but obviously something bad happens which leads Magneto to Apocalypse and I felt irritated by the whole setup. Did we really need Magneto to be, once again, re-motivated to take on humanity? When we left him in Days of Future Past, he really had no reason to change his ways and could have been left as a sulking, angry, and determined adversary for the X-Men without the need for additional motivation.

I suppose I should just cut to the chase and say I did not like this movie. Apocalypse doesn’t work as a villain. He has the personality of a natural disaster. His motivations are vague and uninteresting. They appear to be mostly in-line with his comic book motivations, but I don’t know how much of that is me filling in the blanks with what I know from that medium or the film actually earning that conclusion. His supporting cast is even less interesting as there’s really no character development devoted to his followers. He’s also absurdly over-powered, to the point where it’s not really believable when he (spoiler?) eventually fails to bring death and destruction to the world.

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Evan Peters returns as Quicksilver to basically do the same thing he did in Days of Future Past, only with an 80’s soundtrack this time.

None of that is the fault of actor Oscar Isaac, he does about as well as he can with what the script and screenplay give him. And as far as X-Men scripts go, X-Men: Apocalypse hits a new low. When it’s not having its characters spout tired cliches, it’s having them say nothing much at all or clumsily setting up whats to come, as if we need the film to help foreshadow anything. James McAvoy returns as Charles Xavier and he probably comes off the best, as Xavier is pretty easy to write. He’s paired often with Jennifer Lawrence’s Mystique, who’s pushed into a starring role, probably not because her character is suited for such, but most likely because of how her star has risen since First Class. Mystique is poorly suited to be so front and center in the story as she’s clumsily written. Her motivations change so quickly and effortlessly you would think Xavier is mentally controlling her. The same can be said for Magneto.

New additions to the cast include younger versions of mutants featured in the original trilogy:  Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), and Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Cyclops and his relationship with brother Alex/Havok (Lucas Till) is fit into the film by being the younger brother, instead of the older one as he was in the comics. His struggle to control his optic blast mutant power is kind of glossed over and not really dwelled on as Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) presents him with his special glasses pretty quickly. He’s a pretty terrible character who’s primary motivation is apparently skipping out on class to go to the mall – how 80’s! Jean is portrayed rather predictably as the girl scared of her own powers. She has a vision of the coming apocalypse which is what gets the X-Men involved in seeking out more information on En Sabah Nur. Smit-Mcphee’s Nightcrawler is easily my favorite addition to the cast. He’s depicted the same as he was in X-Men 2, visually speaking, and he’s kind of cautious and quirky and is an obvious gentle soul not suited for violence. His religious beliefs are not front and center, but he is shown praying at one point.

The film mostly suffers by just being uninteresting, and it runs over two hours in length. Even at such a length, the plot moves relatively fast as it relates to Apocalypse who just teleports wherever he wants. There’s a pointless detour taken when the X-Men collide with the military and an old foe from the past film, which seems to exist only to setup a soulless cameo. The film builds towards a confrontation with Apocalypse in which we’re supposed to care about the new recruits taking center stage, but we have so little invested in them that it just feels hollow, not to mention expected. The film also wastes the 80’s setting, really not using it for anything other than a few jokes that were probably too obvious for That 80’s Show. Worse, it feels rather forced since none of the characters look like they’ve aged the twenty or so years that have past since First Class.

The resolution is a foregone conclusion from the start, and we’re left with a big, empty, action film that didn’t really need to be an X-Men film. So little of what makes the X-Men special as a property is encapsulated here, and what is feels like retread. I was checking the time an hour into this one, and I couldn’t wait to be done with it and had to struggle through the credits to see the epilogue, which did little to excite me for another film. It feels like Singer is just setting up to tell a story he missed out on with his first go-around with the series, though I have no idea if a next film is a guarantee. Most of the contracts with the heavy hitters likely need to be renegotiated, and what incentive is there for some of them to return? I suppose they could get by without Magneto, since he felt shoe-horned into this film to begin with, but Mystique was positioned as the leader of the X-Men so I don’t know how they get out of that if Lawrence has no interest in reprising her role.

In the end, I’m left to say “who cares?” where a next film is concerned. We already have the reported excellence of Logan to indulge with, and another X-Men film will need to be tackled by people who have the motivation to craft a worthwhile story that begs to be told. Apocalypse did not do that, I don’t think it killed the franchise, but it did bring it back to where it was following The Last Stand. If X-Men Origins: Wolverine is excluded, this is the worst X-Men film yet. I’d rather watch The Last Stand because it at least has an interesting plot, if poorly executed, and it’s a hell of a lot shorter. Like The Last Stand, I find myself not really caring where the franchise goes from here, or if it continues at all, and that’s a pretty poor lasting impression for X-Men:  Apocalypse.


X-Men ’92

X-Men '92 (2015)

X-Men ’92 (2015)

Nineties nostalgia is running wild over pop culture like never before. Apparently enough time has passed for the 90’s to truly be considered retro. There’s a new Power Rangers movie in development, Jaleel White is appearing in Scion commercials, Nickelodeon has resurrected its 90’s programming via The Splat, and now Marvel Comics has turned to the X-Men for a new series of comics based on the early 90’s team featured in the popular cartoon. X-Men ’92 is a tie-in to Marvel’s ongoing Secret Wars, it too a resurrected plot from the past (only this time, the 80’s) that appears set to bring about more 90’s relics. Written by Chris Sims and Chad Bowers, X-Men ’92 is not exactly a continuation of that team from the cartoon series, but seeks to emulate it’s tone and characters in telling a new story in a new setting.

Being a tie-in with Secret Wars, X-Men ’92 has its origins rooted in the story that preceded it. Not being a regular comic book reader myself, I found it to be somewhat confusing but also not really important how we reached this point. Magneto has apparently been defeated and the X-Men are celebrities of sorts residing in Westchester, New York. Baron Robert Kelly, complete with cape and warwolves, rules over Westchester as an ally to the X-Men and Dr. Doom is some kind of god entity. The story begins much like the animated series did with the X-Men getting into a tussle with some sentinels at a mall. The camp is strong in this scene, particularly with Storm, and the first chapter of the story (which consists of four books split into two chapters apiece) reads more like a parody than an homage to the X-Men cartoon.

The plot moves fast and consists of the X-Men traveling to Clear Mountain, a sort of Betty Ford clinic for evil mutants. The director of the facility is Cassandra Nova, who longtime X-Men fans know as the clone of Charles Xavier from the New X-Men comics. The mission is one of peace and the X-Men are Nova’s invited guests. Of course, it’s a trap and Nova, allied with the Shadow King, imprisons the X-Men and back at the mansion psionically attacks Charles Xavier, rendering him unconscious. Nova’s plan is then to psychically infiltrate each member of the X-Men to determine which ones she can take advantage of through their personality flaws and ultimately brainwash. The ones she cannot are tossed into a cell. Her ultimate goal is to create her own X-Men and assassinate Kelly with a monstrous sentinel referred to as Ten-Sentinel (because it’s ten sentinels in one, naturally) while making his death appear to be the fault of the X-Men.

Cassandra Nova is the chosen villain here, which is odd considering she's a villain from the 2000's.

Cassandra Nova is the chosen villain here, which is odd considering she’s a villain from the 2000’s.

As the situation grows dire for our heroes, some familiar allies resurface in the form of X-Force. Consisting of Cable, Domino, Bishop, Archangel, Psylocke, and Deadpool, X-Force attempts a rescue mission at the mansion and Clear Mountain. As they too seem to have been left behind in the 90’s, it makes sense to resurrect the alternate X-Men for this story (though Cable is severely lacking in the pouch department) and they seem mostly true to their old personas (save for Deadpool, who’s more in-line with his current one). X-Force is able to free the X-Men, who are then left to do battle with the Ten-Sentinel, Nova, and their brainwashed former teammates. Everything ends with multiple epilogues and cliff-hangers, so apparently X-Men ’92 won’t be limited to these four issues.

X-Men ’92 exists seemingly purely for its nostalgic value. As I mentioned earlier, the personalities of the various X-Men are very much inline with their personas from the first season of the show. Wolverine is stubbornly independent, Beast is bookish, Gambit flirtatious, and Storm takes herself way too seriously. If anything, certain characters are magnified in their portrayals with the Gambit/Rogue dynamic being a point of emphasis. It’s sometimes hard to tell if the writers are poking fun at the old nineties team or just having fun with it. In the backgrounds lurk many cameos from the era and the final issue even features a few surprise cameos that I was not expecting. Easily the greatest joy in flipping through X-Men ’92 is scouring the pages for all of these callbacks, some of which are also worked into the dialogue.

Issue #3 is my pick for best cover. Note Deadpool's 90's era "selfie stick."

Issue #3 is my pick for best cover. Note Deadpool’s 90’s era “selfie stick.”

Unfortunately, the plot for X-Men ’92 is severely lacking. While the characters feel like parodies of the old cartoon, the story feels more like a rejected plot from the cartoon. It’s messy and Nova is such a typical children’s cartoon villain that it renders her as dull as a butter knife. The confrontation with the massive Ten-Sentinel is actually pretty boring, and the art is too busy to really appreciate what it’s trying to depict. The art, in general, is basically good enough, though the style of artist Scott Koblish doesn’t really fit the whole 90’s theme. Cyclops in particular is rather lean and appears a little short compared to how he would have been drawn 1992. Given how Sims and Bowers seem to enjoy poking fun at the era, it’s surprising they didn’t take a few shots at how over-muscled and glamorous the characters often appeared in that era.

If you are like me and expected X-Men ’92 to be a tie-in with the old cartoon then you’ll probably be disappointed by it. It has some nostalgic value, but the plot and pacing is so poor you would be better off just grabbing one issue out of the four (and it doesn’t really matter which, but I suppose the first issue was the overall best) if you really want a dose of X-Men nostalgia. The ending of the final chapter is slightly interesting in terms of what it foreshadows, but I suspect the featured villain will not be handled well by this writing team. The series must be selling well for Marvel to be continuing it beyond issue #4, but I bet those who have latched on would not mind it at all if Marvel hit the abort button and started over with X-Men ’92 where the animated series left off. That’s a comic I’d consider buying.


#10 The Best in TV Animation: X-Men

SF.Graz.1.0317––HANDOUT ART OF THE X–MEN CARTOON SERIES.

When I settled on doing a top ten for animation on television there were eight entrants I felt rather strongly about, and a ninth I was pretty content with. The tenth spot was the wildcard and a number of programs were considered, but since this is my list (and it’s not exactly an original topic) I decided I should use this spot to highlight a personal favorite of mine, so I went with X-Men. That’s a pretty flimsy lead-in but it’s not as if X-Men is undeserving of praise. I’ve wrote about the series quite a bit, even going so far as to do a mini review for each of the show’s 76 episodes during this blog’s first year of existence. At the time, I was using the show as a device to keep me posting but I was also reliving what was probably my favorite show as a kid.

X-Men launched on the Fox network in October of 1992, and at the time, was another attempt to re-ignite Marvel’s television properties. Prior to its debut, a pilot had been produced in the late 80’s called “Pryde of the X-Men” which focused on a much different cast of mutants. It was never picked up, and Marvel’s television properties were fading from memory. The same could be said for superhero cartoons in general, as only recently did Batman return to animation shortly before X-Men debuted. X-Men was the best-selling comic at the time, so it made sense for a cartoon to finally break through. Before X-Men (and Batman), cartoons based on comic book heroes tended to be pretty generic and bland. They usually took the form of the hero, or heroes, taking on the villain of the week and toppling whatever hair-brained scheme had been concocted by said villain to take-over the world or just cause general mayhem. Other shows, like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, were just severely watered-down aspects of the source material intended to move action figures, which in the 80’s became frequently attached to various cartoon properties (He-Man being the best example of a cartoon existing solely to sell toys).

Wolverine and Gambit were likely to two most popular characters on the show, but that didn't stop the writers from developing many others.

Wolverine and Gambit were likely to two most popular characters on the show, but that didn’t stop the writers from developing many others.

X-Men was different. This was a show that, while aimed at children, wanted to bring legitimacy to the medium. The show placed its brightly colored heroes against the backdrop of an easy to grasp civil rights movement. Enemies were no longer defined as simply bad guys but were colored with shades of gray and given real motivations for their actions. Magneto was the prime example. Had “Pryde of the X-Men” been picked up, Magneto would have just been another super villain with a motley crew of evil mutants willing to do his bidding and match up against the heroic X-Men. In the Fox show, he was a Holocaust survivor which had convinced him that humanity could not accept the differences within its own kind, and therefore, could never accept anyone outside humanity. In this case, that was mutant-kind, often referred to as homo-superior by Magneto. Mutants often took the form of normal looking people but with special gifts. We the audience took those gifts to be super powers, and in the case of the X-Men, most could be described as such. They did often come with costs that were more obvious for certain individuals. Cyclops could not open his eyes without a special visor or else risk destroying anything in his line of sight. Rogue could not even touch another person skin-to-skin without putting them in a coma. And Beast was simply covered in blue fur. This take, later admitted by creator Stan Lee as a lazy way to explain how the X-Men got their powers, freed the writers from having to come up with yet another experiment gone wrong origin story for every mutant under the sun.

This civil rights narrative is what framed the first two seasons of the show. The opening plot revolved around an organization funded by the government who would pose as friends to mutants but was really secretly creating a database of mutants from which it could target them and, though only hinted at during the show since it was for kids, cull them from society. The X-Men could not simply fight this opponent and beat them into submission, but had to convince the United States government that this was the wrong course of action. As a child, some of this went over my head. When Beast was put on trial in episode three I did not understand why the X-Men did not simply break him out of jail. Such would have likely been the course of action in many of the show’s contemporaries with the plot either being resolved at the episode’s conclusion or just dropped entirely. Instead, Beast spent the bulk of the first season in jail awaiting a formal trial before finally being pardoned after the X-Men were able to win-over at least one prominent political figure.

Magneto was easily the show's most successful attempt at blurring the lines between hero and villain.

Magneto was easily the show’s most successful attempt at blurring the lines between hero and villain.

After the first season, it seemed like all was right with the world but the show once more took a more sophisticated approach. With mutants gaining more legal freedoms, bigoted members of society sprung up to do what they felt the government failed to do. Once more, the show mirrored society in that the X-Men couldn’t hope to ever win over everybody to their side. The show would lose touch with this narrative after season two, instead opting to take the show in a more sci-fi direction while focusing on more condensed plots, but in those two seasons X-Men did a lot to legitimize the superhero genre outside of the comic book world. It’s the strength of those two first seasons, merely 26 episodes, that vaults the X-Men into this position, but the show also got a lot else right.

For starters, the voice cast (comprised of Canadian voice actors mostly unknown to American audiences) did an excellent job with the often weighty material. The show could, at times, be joyless and very melodramatic and the scripts would often contain superhero jargon that probably read poorly, but the actors were able to step up and deliver. Some characters, like the perennially wooden Storm, were always lacking but others shined very bright. For me, I will always hear Cal Dodd’s voice in my head whenever I read a line from Wolverine. His raspy, quiet, delivery perfectly suited the sometimes explosive Wolverine. When the show needed him to get loud and angry, Dodd was able to come through time and time again. David Hemblen’s Magneto was another highlight. This show is one of the few that actually depict the Austrian Magneto with an accent, something even the films chose to ignore. George Buza’s Beast was so good that it obviously formed the template for the Kelsey Grammer version of the character that appeared in X-Men 3. The soundtrack was also a standout, mixing orchestral instruments with electronic aspects that suited the show’s somewhat futuristic-like setting. The theme song should be considered a cartoon classic at this point.

The show never added to its core cast of X-Men, but that didn't stop other fan-favorites from appearing in the show, like Nightcrawler.

The show never added to its core cast of X-Men, but that didn’t stop other fan-favorites from appearing in the show, like Nightcrawler.

Visually, the show adopted the look of Jim Lee’s X-Men quite well with some minor alterations. Most of what makes up the Jim Lee style was still retained though, with the men having bulging physiques and the woman looking like super models. Even the extras in society tend to look idealized. It’s a legitimate criticism of Lee’s work but I’m sure the animators were happy that the vast majority of characters were basically the same shape. There is enough detail in the work that the show looks quite nice in still-shots. The animation, especially in the first season when the budget presumably was at its smallest, could be stiff at times. The animators were obviously under some constraints as well as to what kind of violence could be depicted. After the first season though, the animation improved noticeably. X-Men was not the best looking of its kind, but it certainly was not among the worst. I enjoyed it far more than I would Spider-Man, which came in 1994 and featured some primitive, and mostly ugly, computer-enhanced imagery as well as a softer color palette.

X-Men was able to leave a mark on the world of cartoons. It’s solid production values combined with its mature approach to story-telling is what makes it standout amongst other Saturday morning fare. X-Men is still the gold standard for the super hero ensemble show, and still stands as the best thing Marvel has ever done on television. X-Men took risks in a world where risk-taking is often frowned upon. Most people think kids want a mindless program where the hero always wins and everything is wrapped up in 22 minutes. Children are capable of so much more and the success of X-Men is proof of that.

If you want to read more about the X-Men animated series, there’s plenty to be found on this blog. In addition to numerous posts that summarize and review every episode, I also made an entry on what I considered to be the best episodes the show ever produced.


Gargoyles: Season 2 Volume 1

Gargoyles_DVD_2The cover of the DVD release of Gargoyles Season 2 dubs it as Volume 1 of the second season.  At first glance, that may seem like a greedy way to release a show to DVD, but that is not the case.  A common practice of children’s animated television was to order 65 episodes as early in the life of the series as possible to make the programming eligible for syndication where more money could be made off of it.  I say “was” because I’m not sure if that is still the case with numerous cable outlets now providing a lot of the entertainment these days.  Gargoyles was not originally broadcast on cable though, which is why season 2 is 52 episodes long, which following the 13 episode first season, gets the series to 65 total episodes.  Sometimes networks are so confident the show will be a hit they go right from the pilot to a 65 episode order.  This was the case for the still popular Batman:  The Animated Series which featured a pretty bankable star in Batman, but Gargoyles was an all new intellectual property so Disney opted to go for a trial run with the first 13 episodes before going all in.

The process of large season orders seems like a win for fans of the show.  After all, a 52 episode season would theoretically allow for a new episode every week for an entire year, though this wasn’t the case for Gargoyles since it was an afternoon program.  It does usually mean shorter wait times between new episodes, but things can get a little erratic since the season will usually begin airing while a lot of episodes are still in production.  There’s also the other downside to a large season such as this which is these episodes need to get produced quickly, and more people are needed for production and story-writing.  The first season of Gargoyles was a tight, neat collection of episodes with high-quality animation for television.  Season 2 sometimes has the feel of “too many cooks in the kitchen” and episodes become more stand-alone in nature.  The animation is still among the best when Gargoyles is compared with its contemporaries, but there are some drop-offs and it’s apparent that the show had multiple teams for animation.  Some episodes feature sharp lines and tight animation while others are more rounded and toon-like with characters often making over-exaggerated gestures (those familiar with X-Men likely have an idea of what I’m talking about).  Which one looks best is a matter of taste though (I prefer the harder look for this program) at least, with the overall animation quality usually pretty strong from episode to episode.

There are some pretty interesting plot twists to find in season two.

There are some pretty interesting plot twists to find in season two.

Inconsistent animation is expected when a show requires a large amount of episodes be produced, but my main concern for Gargoyles was how the writers would respond when tasked with filling so many hours.  The first season largely operated in a serial format with each episode tied to one overall plot.  Some felt more stand-alone than others, but all plots were referenced at one point or another and the overall quality of the story-telling was quite good.  I knew season 2 would have to feature more stand-alone episodes, but thankfully very few feel like throw-away or filler episodes.  Many of these one-shots still contain plot devices that have repercussions on the episodes to follow, such is the case with the conclusion of the episode “The Mirror” when Demona gains a new power.  Many others choose to introduce new villains or allies that will pop up in later episodes, as is the case with the characters Doctor Sevarius and Jeffrey Robbins.  In short, the structure of the show remains rewarding for longtime fans.  This does come at the cost of making the show a little harder to jump into at any point for newcomers, but since it’s no longer on television, this is really no longer a concern.

There are many stand-alone episodes, but there’s also no shortage of multi-part arcs.  The first half of season two contains the four part “City of Stone” and the three part “Avalon.”  Both are heavily reliant on flashbacks as it seems one goal for season 2 was to flesh out the villains even further, specifically Demona and MacBeth.  We learn about their history together and how Demona has survived the centuries and remained largely the same in appearance.  In season one, we the viewers were basically left to assume that gargoyles are extremely long-lived given that Demona was not affected by the Masgus’ spell like the others, but we learn in season 2 that is not the case.  There are lots of other recurring characters in season 2 such as The Pack, Tony Dracon, Derek Maza, Coldstone, and of course Xanatos.  Xanatos is still primarily an adversary of the Manhattan Clan, but he’s also an unlikely ally in several episodes.  One could even suggest that the writers go to this well a bit too often, but such is the case when 52 episodes have to be written in a short amount of time.  Still, I like the role Xanatos plays on this show of the equal opportunist who has his own agenda that isn’t always clear.  By the end of the first half of the season viewers, and even Goliath to some degree, have mostly caught on to Xanatos and the game he plays making me wonder what role he’ll play going forward (as I honestly can’t recall from my days of watching this as a kid).  Xanatos is also paired this time around with Fox, of The Pack, as his love interest which is a rather interesting dynamic.

Now where have I seen that dress before?

Now where have I seen that dress before?

Another part of the plot the writers seemed eager to explore in season 2 was the relationship between Elisa and Goliath.  Elisa was Goliath’s main confident, along with Hudson, by season one’s end and he (as well as the other gargoyles) clearly feel a strong sense of protection with her.  In season 2 it’s becoming more obvious that they have a stronger bond than just friends.  Sometimes the show is pretty obvious about it, but for the most part they let it go unstated and attempt to keep things subtle.  It has a nice progression throughout.  Disney fans will also particularly enjoy a scene from the episode “Eye of the Beholder.”

Gargoyles was never a series afraid to introduce characters, and many new villains are brought into the fold in season 2.  New allies, as well.  A pet peeve of mine with X-Men was always how the writers would tease a new character joining the X-Men but would never go through with it.  Towards the end of season 2, the writers chose to add a new member to the clan.  To better introduce this character, the writers shrink the cast down to just Goliath, Elisa, Bronx, and the new-comer for the unofficially titles World Tour episodes.  These episodes spill over into the second part, and series creator Greg Weisman actually bumps up one episode from the second half, “Kingdom,” to serve as the final episode in this collection.  This final episode takes place in New York and we get to see what the rest of the clan is up to with Goliath missing.  This is probably something Weisman regretted not doing originally, as when these aired we went 10 episodes without seeing the other characters which seems much too long.  The World Tour will continue well into the second half though I do not suspect any other episodes were re-arranged as no one affiliated with the show had any say in the release of volume 2, that I know of.

The relationship between Demona and MacBeth is fully revealed in season two.

The relationship between Demona and MacBeth is fully revealed in season two.

Gargoyles:  Season 2 Volume One largely carries over the quality of the first season and only enhances the show’s reputation as one of the better animated programs from the 1990’s.  Season One is probably superior when judged on quality, but the second DVD release for the series obviously boasts more content.  The release itself is also much nicer and includes some bonus features in comparison with the bare-bones season one release.  Unfortunately, season two did not meet the sales expectations of Disney and volume two was never commercially released until just recently.  Volume two is even more sparse than the first season release, and is currently only available to members of Disney’s Movie Club.  I’m not a member of that club, but did find out Buena Vista has an ebay account that basically specializes in selling these exclusives and was able to get one from there.  I don’t know if they restock or not, but that is definitely the best bet for those who want a copy as the secondary market is a little inflated right now.


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