X-Men ’97 Further Proves That Animation Is the Perfect Home for Superhero Stories

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X-Men ’97 Further Proves That Animation Is the Perfect Home for Superhero Stories

I’ll be frank, after more than a decade and a half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe experiment, not only am I tired of how much these movies dominate the film industry, but I’m also tired of being tired of it. These kinds of complaints are well documented: superhero stories can be a lot of fun, but the MCU has so thoroughly sucked the air out of the room by establishing a Ford-esque assembly line approach where, at best, it feels like new installments have cleverly swapped out a few parts. Every film ends with a barrage of post-credit scenes as they tediously tie every stray detail into the next plotline because they have long ceased being standalone narratives (you know, like how movies are supposed to work?), each instead acting as a pivot point to the next event.

There’s more nuance here, and some entries still do cool stuff (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 was a delight thanks to mixing body horror and sincerity), but these issues have become increasingly difficult to ignore given how rudderless the MCU has felt with the hype of the Infinity War saga in the rear-view mirror. On top of this, these movies, which have always had problems with aesthetic identity, have often come to look even worse in many of the newer installments, a symptom of an overworked and underpaid VFX industry that’s been buried in a content machine as Marvel Studios abuses their influence over the space to squeeze these creators dry.

This backdrop draws attention to something that’s never made much sense to me: why is there such a big hub-up around contorting superhero stories to fit into the shape of live-action films in the first place? Okay, the answer is obvious, it’s money. Some percentage of the audience sees the alternative—animation—as being for kids or whatever. People enjoy seeing big-name actors, such as Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, embody these roles. For some, things only feel “legit” or “real” if it’s in live action.

While there have been a few animated Marvel offerings in recent years, like What If…? or Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur, the lineup has been more sparse than one would expect given the general superhero craze. It’s doubly strange considering that the space used to almost entirely rely on animated adaptations before the MCU hit it big. Thankfully, over these last few weeks, one show has stepped in to yet again demonstrate why animation is such a natural fit for tales about spandexed crusaders: X-Men ’97.

Picking up right where the 1992-1997 X-Men: The Animated Series left off, we follow everyone’s favorite band of mutants as they reckon with the absence of a pivotal character. And it’s not just the plot that hasn’t skipped a beat from its ‘90s incarnation, as the cast certainly looks the part as well, with designs that almost 1:1 match those from the original cartoon and comics from that era. While the MCU has to deal with the tricky task of taking getups made for the page and ensuring they don’t look entirely ridiculous on real humans, this series can frictionlessly pull from its source material. However, more than being “accurate” in a way that pleases long-time fans, one of the biggest benefits of the show being animated is that its fight scenes don’t need to pull any punches.

In one of ’97’s first sequences, Cyclops throws down against a group of Friends of Humanity goons, smoothly navigating the battlefield with his laser vision’s concussive blasts as he zaps and punches through the crowd in an immensely satisfying beatdown. At the end of the same episode, we get a big set-piece battle as the X-Men go toe to toe with the mutant-murdering Sentinel robots. Here, Storm unleashes everything she has in a dazzling cut of animation, impact frames accentuating lighting strikes as a vortex sweeps up the bots, destroys them in a firework-like explosion, and then drops the debris back to Earth as green clouds part. To defeat the final Sentinel, Wolverine, Gambit, and Morph cleverly combine their powers, the visuals keying in on the crushing kinetic force of their strikes as they land a killing blow.

Honestly, it’s a collection of melees with more visual identity than almost any action scene from the MCU in recent memory, and this is all just in the first episode, with plenty of additional set pieces to come. The storyboarding is sharp throughout, and these sequences have a visual clarity that puts Hollywood’s shaky cam scrums to shame. We also get to see more of these moments than we likely would in live action, where it would have cost an alarming amount of money and many VFX animators’ tears to bring this to life, all to almost certainly look less convincing than what’s achieved here. These scenes can be more grandiose because it’s generally less expensive to draw a building exploding than to do it practically or to render it with hyper-realistic 3D graphics, although the cost for both traditional animation and VFX comes down to paying people, and unfortunately, animators are frequently screwed over in terms of pay regardless of their medium.

Another part of the problem is that we all have an intimate understanding of how human beings move and what they’re capable of, making it very difficult to render superpowers wielded by real people in a way that’s both believable and interesting, or at least, without things seeming “unrealistic” in a way that many modern moviegoers dislike (I’ll defend the goofy acrobatics of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man flicks until the day I die). By contrast, animation is a space where it’s much easier to suspend your disbelief, making it a natural place to depict otherworldly abilities. And, of course, it helps that Studio Mir (The Legend of Korra, My Adventures with Superman) and Tiger Animation so deeply understood the assignment. They use a color palette that emulates the pre-digital aesthetic of its predecessor, and as previously stated, they nail the big fight scenes thanks to strong compositions and animation.

But X-Men ’97 doesn’t only look like an old-school Saturday morning cartoon (or really, how you remember them, because honestly, this show is often much better animated), it also isn’t afraid to embrace their structure and delightful cheesiness. Characters quip away, but less in the sarcastic “that just happened” Whedon-y tone that defines the MCU-faire and more in the old-school style of cringe-inducing one-liners. Some of the early episodes fully embody these sensibilities, crescendoing in the soapy shenanigans of Episode 3, where we learn that Jean Grey is actually a clone created by Mr. Sinister. In light of the news that she’s not the “real” Jean, the clone version almost immediately heel turns and transforms into a witchy dominatrix who throws green fireballs until the original Jean telepathically convinces her that isn’t very cool, and then she reverts, all in a whiplash-inducing 30 minutes. It’s ridiculous, breakneck, and a lot of fun. Overall, the series isn’t afraid to lean into the goofiness of the source material, and it utilizes an episodic structure in a way that lines up nicely with storytelling from superhero comics.

However, where things fully come together is in the devastating fifth episode. While I’ll avoid getting into the specifics, “Remember It” and the episodes that come after fully utilize all the previously mentioned strengths: its animation sells the horrible impact of widespread, apocalyptic devastation, and its earnest tone and ability to make us care about these characters ensures that its bonkers twists hit us just as hard emotionally (Charles exclaiming, “My children of the atom, destroyed!” genuinely unraveled me). It’s so refreshing to watch a superhero adaptation where transformative twists can happen in the blink of an eye without needing to be hyped up for five films in advance.

All of this isn’t to say that live-action superhero adaptations have no appeal or that they should be entirely replaced by tales that are more “comic accurate.” Logan made excellent use of flesh and blood people to convey its gory, visceral world. The first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies remain among the best superhero flicks ever thanks to their combination of slapstick absurdity and affecting imagery (the train scene still hits). However, X-Men ’97, alongside other animated bangers like the Spider-Verse films, Invincible, and more, continue to show that animation is a natural fit for both the larger-than-life powers and tone of these kinds of stories. While I’m not sure this retro throwback will singlehandedly break the MCU’s thrall, maybe its success can convince at least a few cartoon-haters to see the medium’s charms. Because as these last few episodes can attest, it would be nice if more superhero adaptations used animation to fully embrace the weirdness and wild swings of their source material.

Elijah Gonzalez is an assistant Games and TV Editor for Paste Magazine. In addition to playing and watching the latest on the small screen, he also loves film, creating large lists of media he’ll probably never actually get to, and dreaming of the day he finally gets through all the Like a Dragon games. You can follow him on Twitter @eli_gonzalez11.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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