What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Learn From the Success of X-Men ’97

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What the Marvel Cinematic Universe Can Learn From the Success of X-Men ’97

Long before Tony Stark escaped that cave and Steve Rogers quadrupled the size of his pecs, the X-Men were fighting the good fight onscreen in a cinematic universe that predated the MCU by a number of years. But now that Disney and Fox have merged, Marvel’s merry band of mutants will soon join the MCU in live-action and have a chance to redeem the X-Men brand following 2019’s Dark Phoenix, a movie so bad that it may or may not have been responsible for COVID starting the following year.

Except, the X-Men have already been redeemed to anyone with eyes and a Disney+ subscription. The long-awaited sequel to X-Men: The Animated Series (aka The Best Cartoon Of All Time™), finally arrived this year with a mighty bid to take the crown and become the new Best Cartoon Of All Time™. Whether you agree that X-Men ’97 is an omega-level threat in that vein might come down to personal taste, but it’s safe to say that the show has been an uncanny, even astonishing, success regardless, with newbies and diehard fans alike. 

That means there’s even more pressure on the X-Men’s return to live-action. But the good news is that Marvel now has a new X-Men Bible to draw upon with proven success on screen. Because let’s face it, X-Men ’97 and the show that preceded it are already better than any other take on the X-Men to date (outside of the comics, of course). And before you start, yes, that does include the 1996 TV movie Generation X.

What became immediately apparent from the very first episode of X-Men ’97, and even in the trailer beforehand, was how the creators understood mutant powers, and more importantly, they understood how to use them creatively in jaw-dropping, meme-friendly ways that the MCU could only dream of.

Watching Gambit ride Wolverine and kinetically charge up his claws with the Gumbo Special—or Sparkle Claws, as I like to call it—got fans more excited than Morph in a shower with Logan. And the show didn’t stop there. From Storm’s glass tornado and Bishop’s super-charge to Cyclops’s one-two optic punch and Jubilee’s nuclear plasma wheels (watch out, Bastion), it’s clear the writers and animators alike know these characters inside-out. Don’t get us started on Morph’s fan-pleasing cameo picks or our first glimpse of Nightcrawler’s big old Bamf from a first-person perspective.  

That alone doesn’t make a great show though, no matter how impressive each of these individual watercooler moments might be. All too often, the MCU inevitably descends into a mindless, FX-fueled battle that forgets the characters and the grounding of its story. But that’s never the case with X-Men ’97. Although balancing an ensemble is never easy, the X-Men’s animated return makes canny use of its tight runtime each week to flesh out multiple characters at once, giving them each their time to shine brighter than Dazzler at Coachella. 

Crucially, there is no “lead” character this time around, even though we all have our favorites, and even more crucially, the show finally lets go of Marvel’s Wolverine fixation that’s plagued every adaptation since Hugh Jackman first took to the screen in 2000’s X-Men. Marvel would do well to remember this after the actor’s final, “final” return as Logan in Deadpool & Wolverine. No shade to the ol’ Canucklehead. That final confrontation with Magneto was a real doozy, after all. But when you’ve got the likes of Gambit’s unforgettable exit (“Remember it.”) and Storm’s Sailor Moon-esque transformation, you realize just how much potential has been wasted by previously sidelining everyone else in favor of him. 

That’s not to say Logan hasn’t stood out in the show. Aside from that claw-nado in Episode 8, hearing him call Cyclops “Dad” did scratch a certain itch, and watching Morph shapeshift into Jean for him—even saying “I love you” at the end—was giving Challengers, quite honestly. But that’s not the only thing that has stood out for fans who grew up lusting after multiple members of the Logan/Jean/Cyclops throuple. Just look at how Mister Sinister stripped Magneto down to his (un)necessarily tight black briefs after Genosha. For science, of course.

Previous X-Men adaptations have by and large forgotten that this kind of rabid horniness is intrinsic to the team’s appeal—X-Men Origins: Wolverine would have received infinitely stronger reviews if Taylor Kitsch had worn a crop top—not to mention how much drama said horniness brings. Cyclops alone is the kind of messy bitch we live for, abandoning his kid the first chance he gets while cheating on his wife in a telepathic tryst with the clone who briefly replaced her and gave birth to said kid. The X-Men are overly dramatic and horny and queer in ways that not even your nan’s favorite soap opera could ever hope to keep up with, and the quicker Disney’s Marvel (a franchise responsible for making beautiful, distinctly not-horny characters the new norm) remembers that, the quicker they’ll prove superhero fatigue really is a made up thing. Like Rogue’s fidelity or Nightcrawler’s vow of chastity.   

By being more faithful to the source material in this way, X-Men ’97 moves beyond the tired Xavier/Magneto dichotomy that’s defined so much of the movie era to better reflect more recent changes in the comics, where the mutant ideology has evolved to prove that Magneto is indeed right. He’s right to wear that sleeveless outfit that shows off his guns, and he’s also right to punish humanity, because quite honestly, it’s been a long time coming and we deserve it. 

It’s this reverence for the comics that’s key. That’s why those Bastion Easter Eggs connect to the ‘90s show so organically in a way that many crammed-in MCU references just don’t. It’s also why changes to the source material work so well in X-Men ’97, because they’re born of a desire to evolve the X-Men mythos rather than force changes that cater to the masses. Gambit’s death, for example, never felt like it was included for shock value (even if my therapist says otherwise). And that remains true even though it looks like he’ll be back in a deadly Season 2 twist because, you know. Comics.

No matter what improbable twists and surprises are thrown our way, there’s always a thoughtfulness and care for these misfits that make these moments matter. And that’s why X-Men ’97 matters so much, not just for fans of the show but also to the future of the MCU as a whole. Because if Kevin Feige and co still mess this up after we’ve just been reminded how good the X-Men can be, then no amount of Iron Man-wannabes or legacy hand-downs can save the MCU moving forward.

David Opie is a freelance entertainment journalist. To hear his ramblings on queer film and TV, you can follow him @DavidOpie.

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

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