X-Men: The Animated Series on the Fox Network was the first and some would say best animated portrayal of the Marvel Comics universe that has ever made it to the small or big screen. Instead of aping television series of the 1980s for meaningless toy money, the creators of the show adapted existing X-Men material for the series and managed to keep the comic book violence by pitting X-Men like Wolverine against robot Sentinels, whom the censors would allow to be essentially disemboweled. The series was also had an internal continuity and wasn’t afraid to do multiple-episode story arcs. By the end of the series, there was an entirely new animation team on the show, giving the last season a different feel from the previous four. That’s pretty confusing, so we’ve narrowed it down to ten storylines from X-Men that we deem essential.
And – look – of course the “Phoenix Saga,” parts 1-5, and the “Dark Phoenix Saga,” parts 1-4, were the best non-comic interpretation of that storyline, but that’s like saying “Watch the entire third season,” so we have spared you more platitudes about how the animated series managed to get right what two X-Men movies have gotten so wrong.
Night of the Sentinels
After trying and failing to boot up an X-Men animated series starring Kitty Pryde as the central role, the first story told by the new series was retooled to star Jubilee and most of the “Blue Team” from the Jim Lee run on X-Men comics. When Jubilation Lee’s parents put her name in the Mutant Registration Act, she’s attacked by Sentinels while at the mall and rescued by our core group of X-Men who let her know about the superhero team’s greater mission to protect mutants and encourage mutant and human understanding. Then, everyone has to stop the Mutant Registration Act files from being used to target Sentinels.
It’s a pretty great way to get thrown into the entire story from Jubilee’s perspective without having to take a deep dive into the lore of the X-Men, and because of that it ends up being one of the essential episodes of the series. When the X-Men fight Sentinels, they go way beyond the cartoon violence that was on television at the time, which made it more fun (come on , it’s robot and laser combat!). Also, the series establishes Morph as part of the team only to have him (seemingly) killed in the second episode of the series. That set some real stakes meaning that at any time some lesser mutant could be killed off. Granted Morph returned (see below!), but that doesn’t lessen the impact of a superhero animated TV show killing off a protagonist early on just to provide real stakes for the robot laser fighting.
The third episode of the first season of the show introduces both Magneto and Sabertooth, the super villain counterparts to Professor Xavier and Wolverine. The creators of the show wanted to include Beast as part of the X-Team, but met resistance with the network, leading to the writer’s coming up with the solution of jailing the character in the premiere episodes and using him as a counter-point to the beliefs of Magneto, who emerges into the series fully formed (Professor X explains Magneto’s abbreviated backstory to Jubilee). After rejecting Magneto’s offer to break him out of prison, Beast goes on trial and – as he would go on to do frequently – quotes Shakespeare to explain the mutant condition.
This episode also introduces Sabertooth as a possible ally for the mutant cause when he gets stunned after reacting to Beast’s mistreatment. Wolverine warns that Sabertooth cannot be trusted, but like everything with Wolverine, he doesn’t get into specifics about why. The answers have to wait until the next episode (“Deadly Reunions”), because the X-Men have to stop Magneto from starting a mutant/human war with some missiles. Storm manages to “short circuit” them with 1990s cartoon computer logic, and Magneto waxes poetic about how Charles chose the wrong side. A pretty solid introduction for Magneto, partially inspired by Uncanny X-Men #1, but distinctly animated series in fight/talk/fight/run structure.
A single episode right in the middle of the season one continuity, “Slave Island” is X-Men ‘s most successful attempt to tackle the idea of one race enslaving another race because they think they are superior. After having been kidnapped off Genosha in the previous episode, Gambit, Storm, and Jubilee are taken to Slave Island, where mutants have explosive bomb collars that mute their powers and are forced to build a dam that powers a Sentinel factory.
If you’re not into big mutant metaphors about slavery breaking everyone’s spirits, maybe fast-forward through the scenes where Jubilee manages to get out of her cell but is unable to rouse any of the other mutants to an escape attempt because they’re so hopeless. Maybe also skip the scene where claustrophobic Storm is placed in “the box” which is just a sweatbox, like, Bridge over the River Kwai style.
There’s also some stuff about how the Geonosian government is corrupt and in league with Bolivar Trask who is still Sentinel crazy and in league with “Leader.” Cable helps Gambit break out and goes after Leader, which allows the X-Men to escape after teaming up with the other freed mutants to take out the dam and the factory. The Leader escapes to fight another day, and the X-Men fly off in the X-Jet.
Come the Apocalypse
In an episode that very obviously inspired X-Men: Apocalypse the film adaptation (to the point where this animated Apocalypse has some of the exact same lines and the Oscar Issac version), picks up after the previous episode “The Cure” left off. Warren Worthington III, AKA Angel, is about to get the mutant cure from Doctor Adler, but after he’ strapped down, Adler reveals himself to be Mystique. See, there wasn’t a mutant cure; it’s a trap set by Apocalypse to assemble his Horsemen. Or – according to Mystique later in the episode – just fills them with hate for non-mutants.
Unlike the Apocalypse in the movie, this version Apocalypse gives his Horsemen actual horses in the form of flying mechs. Angel becomes Archangel and gets his metal wings that shoot projectiles and the four of them tear up Paris to get the X-Men’s attention. Xavier sends Rogue after Doctor Adler after recognizing some of the new Horsemen as former patients. Rogue uncovers the truth as the X-Men battle the Horsemen, and the whole thing comes to a showdown at Stonehenge because…well, why not?
Days of Future Past
If we’re having comic book and animated series fan real-talk here, the X-Men: The Animated Series version of “Days of Future Past” is better than the movie X-Men: Days of Future Past. The entire first season of The Animated Series is based on the threat of Sentinels and the “Days of Future Past” two-parter shows the eventual end game of that plot while doing a solid job of adapting the comic books the story originated in. Granted, in the comics it was Kitty Pryde who was sent back through time to stop the assassination of Senator Kelly, not Bishop like it is in the animated series or Wolverine like it was in the movie, but at least the T.V. show kept Mystique the villain as she was meant to be instead of having her flip-flop between Magneto and Professor X!
The introduction of Bishop as a time travelling mutant but also as a strong character of color on a animated kids show about superhero fights justifies the swap for Kitty Pryde in the comics, and the addition that the Sentinels eventually turned on all humanity softened the whole mutant concentration camp stuff, but these episodes are still great outside the framing device. Bishop as a character who is constantly trying to do good but almost always ends up fighting the X-Men because he’s hot-headed gets paired off with Wolverine and Gambit for awhile, which is a perfect make-up for a mini-team filled with conflict. Also, Nimrod shows up in the 1990s for a fight to just give the first episode of the two-parter some extra kick. The second episode has a couple great late twists, the most consequential being the reveal that Mystique was Rogue’s adoptive mother (and the more fun consequence being that Bishop preventing the assassination did nothing to change his future).
Till Death Do Us Part
The first season of X-Men: The Animated Series did pretty well and, along with Batman: The Animated Series, began a few years with some really great animated superhero content on television. The first season of X-Men had been low-key serialized, leading to an ending for the Sentinel conflict and allowing Magneto and his Brotherhood to fade into the background as occasional foes or allies. It took one whole season to get Beast out of jail too! Season two kicks off with this two-parter that shows us the marriage between Cyclops and Jean Grey, then unexpectedly brings back Morph to torment the X-Men.
Morph was a character included to be killed off in the first two-part story, but I someone told the producers Morph was “popular” and he became the tortured antagonist of the first arc of season two. I’ve never met anyone that was really into Morph/Changeling, but if you were going to do a Morph episode, positioning him so he can perform the Jean Grey and Cyclops wedding ceremony is especially hilarious. Only on a cartoon in the 1990s would a character like Cyclops care that the minister that married him to the love of his life was a shape-shifter and therefore the whole wedding meant nothing. The episode doesn’t stop to ask if Cyclops and Jean filed all the correct paperwork with the State of New York, but I’m pretty sure those two are married by the episode’s end, even with Cyclops’ bemoaning that they’re not.
Anyway, Gambit also tries to kiss a sleeping Rogue – which, to be fair, is a trick Morph sets up – and in sexually assaulting his sleeping teammate gets put in a coma. Rogue is mad, but…damn, Gambit, wake your girl up for consent first, maybe you deserve to have to nap it off.
Having dispatched with the Sentinel threat in “Final Decision” from season one, we can now pick up the Bishop plot-line from where we left it in “Days of Future Past.” For X-Men: The Animated Series, the time travel episodes were some of the best ones (like flashback and alternate timeline episodes, if you ask me!), and this is probably the best of the time travel episodes. This two-parter continues Bishop’s streak of having good intentions but acting wrongly on them, adds in with a whole new take on the character of Cable, and throws in Apocalypse for good measure.
Bishop in the future finds out that no one remembers he prevented an assassination, but a plague is wreaking havoc on mutant and humankind in 2055 that started back in the X-Men’s time. Bishop goes back to stop it and reveals the whole plague to be a plan by Apocalypse to stoke anti-mutant sentiment then kill the entire population of Earth. The X-Men manage to stop him and blow up his underground lab, but Apocalypse gets pissed off and kills them all.
Oh, right, I should have started with this whole thing is seen through a framing device of Cable, who is now a resistance fighter in 3999 (there was no mention of him being a time traveler in season one) and sees his future (where he is also fighting Apocalypse) start to change. A temporal storm that looks a lot like a hurricane starts ripping through 3999’s Terminator 2 battlefield because the human race didn’t get certain antibodies developed by the “plague” years. Millions of people in Bishop’s time needed to die for billions of people in Cable’s time to be born. It’s pretty nuts, and that’s just part one of the two-parter. Part-two develops Cable’s character even further, and it’s great.
Cold Comfort gets a little slow with it’s twenty minutes of plot but manages to convey just how big the X-Men universe is within the show. It opens with a mutant assault on a government-owned warehouse complex by Ice Man, Bobby Drake. Professor Xavier scrambles the team on the X-Jet to intercept Bobby and stop him from doing any damage to any humans or federal property. Cyclops is a real whiny jerk leader while Wolverine questions just why everyone is so concerned about this Ice Man character. Fans of the X-Men characters will know that Ice Man was part of the original “First Class” of X-Men, so it’s fun to see flashbacks to that team here – including a human Beast! – in their old costumes.
After the X-Men capture Ice Man, the story slows down a bit to explain that Bobby Drake is pissed because he and Lorna (Polaris) tried to quit the X-Men and have a normal life. Lorna kept guilting Bobby telling him they should use their powers for good, but Bobby didn’t want to re-expose himself. Finally, it looks like Lorna has gone missing and the only clue he has is the name of that compound he was attacking. After Rogue breaks Bobby out of the X-Men’s captivity, they get caught by some mysterious mutants. The A-Team of X-Men gets sent in after them only to discover the mysterious mutants are actually X-Factor: Havoc, Polaris, Multiple Man, and Strong Guy. Forge even shows up at the end to explain the misunderstanding.
Although there’s not a ton of substance in the plot, the X-Factor mutants fighting the X-Men and the various exploits of Ice Man actually show off some of the show’s best animation in a single episode.
One Man’s Worth
Think of this episode as It’s a Wonderful Life, but about Charles Xavier. Bishop is back to correct the timeline once again, this time, he needs to stop Master Mold (last seen on our timeline in season one) who sends a time traveling mutant and Nimrod back to the 1950s to kill a pre-Professor X Xavier. It turns out they succeed, which sends a ripple through time. In an alternate future 1990, Magneto leads all the mutants we’ve come to know and love against the robots controlled by the humans in an all out-race war. Wolverine and Storm are married (!!!) which becomes the centerpiece of the show when Bishop convinces the two alt-version mutants to go back in time to save the Professor.
The two-part episode doesn’t focus so much on Professor X, considering he’s the one man referenced in the title, but becomes a story about Storm and Wolverine who are in love but know that they have to erase that relationship to rely on the promise of Charles Xavier. This is all dealt with at the arch level of an animated superhero cartoon action show, but that doesn’t make it any less melancholy when the episode ends, and we see Storm and Wolverine had reverted to just being members of the X-Men as we remember them. Storm’s re-design also has her sporting her white mohawk look, which is so much cooler.
Beyond Good and Evil
“Beyond Good and Evil” is a four-part story that takes place in the fourth season, and even though there are a handful of episodes and a whole fifth season after it, the story was originally planned to be the series finale of the show…which is very odd. Apocalypse, Mr. Sinister and the Brotherhood of Mutants team up, which makes for an excellent line-up of villains, but the rest of the “story” gets pretty weird. With Apocalypse’s discovery of the “Axis of Time” (which exists outside of space-time), he devises a convoluted scheme to kidnap the greatest psychics in the X-Men universe to break all of creation.
This would have been a weird finale because there’s virtually nothing for the most popular characters of the series to do. Bishop tries to time travel back and help the X-Men, but gets bumped out of the time stream where he spends two episodes wandering around the Mario Kart Rainbow Road map before rejoining the narrative. Cable shows up to add another layer of time travel to try and stop Apocalypse, and eventually the professor and Jean Grey (married again!) join the plot for the climax. There isn’t a lot for the X-Men to do in this episode that was supposed to be the last, but that doesn’t devalue “Beyond Good and Evil” as a story arc that attempted to throw all the craziness of the series into four episodes.