Cartoon Graveyard: Again With The Superheroes

December 10, 2009

Some unfortunate soul out there must remember my write-up of The Spectacular Spider-Man , in which I discoursed upon the cyclical nature of TV cartoons, and superhero shows in particular. In the course of that now-legendary post, I presented the history of animated Spider-Men as an introduction to the most recent, actually pretty kickass incarnation. Today I propose to repeat the format using the X-Men, with special attention to how repeated shows about the same people are under continuous pressure to, if not top, at least distinguish themselves from the previous series. So bring on the merry mutants!

Title: Wolverine and the X-Men
Network: Nicktoons Network
Premise: C’mon, it’s the X-Men, you should know what to expect.

Unlike their arachnoid colleague, the X-Men’s history in animation is comparatively short. The group was only popular starting in the mid-seventies, when they brought in Wolverine and all the other non-American characters (for the last time, yes, he’s Canadian). So the earliest attempt at an animated version was a failed pilot narrated by Stan Lee, bearing the episode title “Pryde of the X-Men.”It’s notable mostly for the bizarre decision to give Wolverine an exaggerated Australian accent for no apparent reason other than that it was the eighties, and people were into Crocodile Dundee I guess.

Animated X-Men finally saw the light of day with, appropriately, X-Men on FOX, paired with Spider-Man. Solid storytelling combined with good-for-the-nineties animation made the show a big hit, although its willingness to take the contemporary comics continuity for granted made for some confusing storylines (hey look, it’s a character we’ve never seen but every other character already knows! Yaaay!).  You’ve probably seen it in some form, so I include the unrepresentative opening made for Japanese syndication just because it’s so absolutely hilarious. Cry to the moon!

The downside to the popularity of this show is that it became most people’s default conception of the X-Men. So when the cycle rolls around for a new X-Men show, the question becomes how to avoid simply repeating the old one. X-Men: Evolution decided to make most of the characters teenagers, leaving Professor X, Storm, and Wolverine as adults teaching them how to use their powers and go to high school at the same time. It sounds gimmicky, but it worked pretty well, using mutation as a metaphor for adolescence as well as the usual prejudice theme. And they managed to keep Cyclops and Jean Grey a non-couple for two seasons, which is quite a feat for these kinds of things. People interested in such things should be happy to learn that apparently the whole series is actually on YouTube and Hulu with Marvel’s blessing, so go ahead and check it out.

So now it’s the time for a new series, and something must be done to keep the franchise, um, evolving. You could try following the comics continuity, but it’s kind of grim what with all of Marvel’s Civil Wars and Dark Reigns and whatnot. You could try to lighten the tone, a la Batman: The Brave And The Bold. You could try to draw in fans of the movies, but those have gotten… I don’t want to say “bugnuts,” but not exactly models of storytelling. Instead, Wolverine and the X-Men jumps into high-conceptville (not that a team of superhero mutants serving as metaphors for racism and homophobia is low-concept, but you get what I mean). The setup: it’s a typical day at the X-mansion, when suddenly EVERYTHING BLOWS UP. No one dies, but Professor X and Jean Grey are missing, and everyone is so shaken up that they scatter. A year later, Wolverine and Beast decide to reform the team, at the prompting of a telepathic message from Professor X… FROM THE FUTURE! What’s going on? Hell if I know, and after a full season it doesn’t seem as if the actual characters know either. The point is, now we’ve got a dramatic hook on which to hang good old-fashioned X-Men craziness. The new team (including for the first time Emma Frost, showing more boob than I’ve come to expect from TV cartoons ostensibly aimed at kids) sets about investigating the disaster and preventing the dystopian future predicted by ol’ baldy.

Although considering her look in the comics, this is pretty tame.

This show is made by many of the same people as X-Men: Evolution, so it looks pretty similar. That unfortunately entails a fair amount of returning to well-worn plotlines. Wolverine searches for clues to his past, some idiot makes a bunch of Sentinels, and so on and so forth. For the most part, though, there’s plenty of freshness to the stories, as well as a lot of “hey look, it’s that character I recognize from the comics” fun for nerds like myself. The only real trouble to my mind is that they haven’t really nailed writing for an ensemble cast yet. Wolverine gets top billing and accordingly gets the most screen time, but some of his teammates seem to be getting the shaft. Iceman and Shadowcat, for instance, are usually relegated to some mild comic relief, and Storm often barely gets a speaking role. But presumably the show will find its feet and figure out how to balance all their characters. And I can’t really find fault with an X-Men cartoon that’s found time in its first season for two Nightcrawler epidsodes, including one in which he swordfights with honest-to-god pirates. Pirates! That’s just pure joy right there, not gonna lie.

Final Judgment: A fine new iteration, but it unfortunately continues the tradition of making it hard for me to convince people Professor X isn’t British. He’s from upstate New York, dammit, quit making him sound like Patrick Stewart all the time!


One comment

  1. I totally owned Pryde of the X-Men on VHS when I was kid. Changed my life, and I never knew it. Random.

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