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Geek Review: X-Men ‘97 (Disney+)

This review is for the first three episodes of the series.

Comic book reboots and revivals are a dime a dozen, but when it comes to animated shows of the same genre, the X-Men ‘97 revival of the popular X-Men: The Animated Series (1992–1997) has shaped up into setting the gold standard on how to bring back a much-beloved series.

The original five-season series, featuring the now classic Gold Team line-up of Cyclops, Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, Beast, Gambit, Jubilee, and Jean Grey from the early 1990 X-Men comics, as well as then-new character Morph, basically retold comic book arcs in animated form, but also adding new elements. While the Saturday morning cartoon catered to young children, it also touched on religion, acceptance, divorce, the AIDS hysteria, and more. 

Disney dropped the first three episodes of the new 10-episode revival for review, and there’s no denying that the magic that drove the show over 15 years ago is back. Much of the credit should go to series creator Beau DeMayo, who ironically got fired a week before the series premiered. 

With Professor X aka Charles Xavier gone, the first episode serves as a recap that establishes who all the players are. Xavier seemingly passed on but left a psychic message to his X-Men after Empress Lilandra takes his body away to use Shi’ar technology to extend his life; Jean is pregnant and wants Scott to leave the team; the team is without a leader and needs time to recalibrate, while Remy wants to have some time with Rogue. It’s a good way to get things up and running and the first thing you noticed is how the team has updated the cell animation and costume design, while still retaining the essence of the original series. 

The updates in animation, which already can be seen in the updated series intro with the revised theme song, is much like seeing a different artist draw the X-Men. They were based on the designs of legendary artist Jim Lee, and the new work is still highly reminiscent of the 90’s Jim Lee school of cool, from Wolverine in his spandex yellow, Scott in blue and Ororo in her white garb. That said, the smoother animation is also more apparent, with tighter camera work so it movies with the action, weaving in and out of the characters as necessary.

The most obvious change is in the voice talent but here’s the thing – the new voices are close enough to the original such that it doesn’t matter that the voice of Scott is now by prolific voice actor Ray Chase, and not Norman Spencer, who passed in 2020 – Scott still has that white American frat boy tone to his persona. Incoming voice actress Jennifer Hale as Jean Grey is also comforting, maybe because she is one of the most, or the most prolific video game voice actor in the field, and she has been speaking to this core audience since 1994.

That said, it’s also glaringly obvious that the most distinct voices for two key characters are back. Barbadian-born, Canadian actress Alison Sealy-Smith has always provided Ororo Munroe with a distinct regal presence, something which might not have stood out before in the comics, and it’s great to hear her return in the revival. 

And then there is Cal Dodd. While his body of work is nowhere near as prolific as Mark Hamill as the Joker or Kevin Conroy as Bruce Wayne/Batman, Dodd was the definitive voice of Wolverine/James “Logan” Howlett for a generation of video gamers from the Capcom video games, the original X-Men animated series, and he even voiced Logan for two episodes in the 1994 Spider-Man animated series. Visually, audiences might picture Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, but the moment Wolverine speaks in animated or digital form, it’s Dodd you’re hearing and it’s great to have him back, riding on Scott.

The second episode is where things get interesting, and you would have seen it in the trailer. The twist at the end of the first episode is that Magneto returns and reveals that Xavier left the School for the Gifted to him, which means Erik Magnus Lehnsherr is in charge, which annoys the team. The episode goes on to deal with the ramifications of having a man deemed to be the enemy of mankind be the new leader of a team dedicated to protecting the human race. The episode draws into the lore of the animated series and comics, but it strikes a nice balance such that you can enjoy the series without rich knowledge of the animated show or of the classic comics, to know what’s happening. Well, you might wonder what Erik is doing with a new costume that sports a huge M on the chest. 

You don’t have to know the origin of the costume but for those who know that costume made its debut in Uncanny X-Men Vol 1 #200, where, believe it or not, Magento is on trial for his crimes and ends up saving Charles Xavier who then puts Erik in charge of the school, and to look after his X-Men, and Erik vows to, this episode has a deeper meaning. Oh, and watch out for that twist at the end of the episode.

The next episode is the craziest of the first three. Where the original series spent a few episodes adapting comic book arcs, including five episodes for The Phoenix Saga and four for The Dark Phoenix Saga in Season 3, this episode covers the storyline for Madelyne Pryor, Sinister X, Nathan Summers, and time travel, and seemingly wraps things up neatly in a one-and-done episode. 

For those who understand these references, you know you’re in for a good time and if you don’t, be pleasantly surprised. And also watch out for some great Easter Eggs in the process. Remember that the original covered over 20 years of comics, and we now have another 25 years worth to include, so when you see the Magik happen, it’s a blink or you’ll miss it event. Oh, there’s also a certain disturbing revelation that fans of the comics would know, but seeing it in a kid’s cartoon is just a little too much to accept.

But it makes for a great set-up for the remaining seven episodes, and the second season that is already in production. It’s just unfortunate that this series is not considered part of the massive Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) – it covers a lot of material that the MCU cannot possibly adapt.

X-Men ’97 premieres on Disney+ on 20 March with new episodes releasing every Wednesday.

GEEK REVIEW SCORE

Summary

It has been reported that the reason Fox canned the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons back then was because it didn’t like having their top-rated shows owned by someone else. Now that Disney owns them both, and X-Men ‘97 has shown that a revival, in the right hands, offers plenty of opportunities to revisit a string of shows that already have an established fan base, it’s time to develop the multiverse that audiences already know.

Overall
8/10
8/10
  • Story - 8/10
    8/10
  • Direction - 7/10
    7/10
  • Characterisation - 8/10
    8/10
  • Geek Satisfaction - 9/10
    9/10