I’ve always been a superhero kid. Even now, on the cusp of thirty, it runs deep in my blood. I’ve never outgrown any of it. If anything, I’ve grown into it. Because so much of even the first stuff I ever ingested went way over my head as a child. Superhero stories are best when the punching is complicated, when the rage between the characters is understandable, even justified—and best when that rage stems from a place of love. That’s true in almost all of the comics and related cartoons and movies I ever loved. It’s always been most true of the X-Men.
I fell in love with X-Men at a very, very young age and obviously didn’t understand the nuances of it when I was five. I remember being so excited to get my hands on the Pizza Hut collector’s videos of the first two two-part episodes—“Night of the Sentinels” and “Enter Magneto”/”Deadly Reunions”—and watched those tapes so much that I practically wore them out. Right from the beginning, I was introduced to complicated characters, people who’s issues were clearly defined and laid out the moment they were introduced without drawing attention to them.
These weren’t just action figures waiting to happen, even though I collected those religiously. These were well-defined human beings with problems and struggles, who were overcoming those struggles every time they so much as interacted with the people around them.
The X-Men had backstories, things that weren’t laid out right away, but that carried a sense of mystery benefiting long-term storytelling. That was a key point of the show, for that matter. You could pop in on a random Saturday morning and be treated to an exciting half-hour’s worth of adventure, but longterm viewers were rewarded. This was probably the first series I ever watched with a full season arc. The very fact that a Saturday morning cartoon like this was able to have that kind of fully developed season is nothing short of amazing.
There was one thing that resonated with me from the earliest age, though, and it’s probably the most important thing, the very thing that defines the X-Men: the people in the show didn’t think the X-Men were remotely as cool as I did. They saved the world and had awesome powers, but everywhere they went, they were shouted at. They were hated. I didn’t pick up on most things when I was five, but I knew that was wrong, even if I couldn’t remotely explain why. X-Men is and has always been a story about tolerance and the animated series embraced that to its core. It’s a show about tolerance and the fact that it got away with being such is a testament to not only the strength of the series and its writing, but the sheer will on the part of its creators to do something that would not just appease kids but honor the material in a genuinely profound way.
It’s hokey and super ‘90s, full of all the extreme Rob Liefeld imagery that defined the decade, the voice actors just go for it at every single turn. And it is also revolutionary storytelling, especially for a kids cartoon.
But let’s start with the cast of characters chosen for the show and why they’re important. First and foremost, there’s the “guy in the chair,”—in this case more literal than most—Professor X. He’s never a part of the action, but it’s his vision that drives the show. The MLK to Magneto’s Malcolm X, the Professor promotes a message of peace. He sees a world in chaos and disarray and also sees an alternative. A world where human and mutant relations stem from a place of tolerance and love, not hatred. It’s a hell of a long way off, and he knows this. But it’s worth fighting for.
Cyclops is the stalwart leader who’s sense of control keeps him from blasting a hole in everyone he sees (literally), while Jean is the soul of the team, Storm is by all accounts the actual leader, Wolverine’s the rough-and-tumble guy who thinks he’s the muscle, Rogue is the actual muscle, and Beast is the brains of the operation. It’s a large ensemble but even in a half-hour format, each character gets something to do. The only two characters that people could look at and wonder exactly what their role is are Jubilee and Gambit.
Jubilee sees the most complaints, as the younger teenage characters always do. She’s sort of the kid sister of the X-Men. She’s rarely involved in missions, her powers aren’t nearly as useful as most of the others’. But as kids being introduced to this series, Jubilee is our entry point. She’s just like us, a kid just stepping into this world for the first time. That’s made most apparent in the pilot, when Jubilee learns she’s a mutant, becomes a target for the Sentinels and is taken in by the X-Men. She’s the fresh eye we use to view this strange but incredibly relevant world.
Gambit, meanwhile, looks at first glance like he serves exactly the same purpose as Wolverine. He’s brash, he has issues with authority, he does his own thing. The key difference between the two is that Gambit thinks he’s the bad boy of the group while Wolverine actually is and that makes for a great dynamic. Gambit’s also much more of a ladies’ man whereas Wolverine tends to get a bit too attached for that. At the start of the show, Gambit will flirt with just about any girl he sees, falling legitimately in love with Rogue over time. Character development is key.
The other thing that makes Gambit stand out as a character is that for all of Wolverine’s unpleasant nature, he always has the team’s trust in a way that Gambit never does. There are a couple of great episodes that deal with the fact that they always at least half-expect Gambit to betray them.
The balance of characters the show achieves cannot be understated, because there are so many of them to choose from. By the 1990s, dozens upon dozens of X-Men had made their debut in the comics. Picking the right ensemble had to have been a monumental task and the creators deserve so much credit for picking just the right ones to allow for an always-engaging dynamic across the show’s five season run.
Ultimately, it’s the storytelling that makes X-Men: The Animated Series so seminal. Everything started on the page, with classic, iconic storylines being faithfully adapted. When those stories didn’t actually involve the cast of the cartoon, they were written to include those characters seamlessly. The stories were relevant, weren’t afraid to take their time to arrive at a conclusion—particularly the entire season which Beast spends in jail—and were, most importantly, risky.
This is a show that kills an X-Man in the pilot. Morph may have been designed for the show and designed to be a little annoying, but he’s still a member of the group from the start. He wasn’t even initially planned to return, but his loss was handled so well that viewers wound up mourning him even when they weren’t necessarily supposed to.
Stories would take their time, characters would grow, change, die, even tragically turn to the dark side. It took me years to realize that almost everything I loved about Buffy the Vampire Slayer were things I had already been seeing on the screen since I had been old enough to read.
The series explored every corner of the X-Men universe as well. Even when not every member could be included on the team at once, iconic characters would make guest appearances in ways that would never feel forced. Wolverine’s having a crisis of faith? Bring in the X-Men’s resident Catholic, Nightcrawler. Time travelers like Bishop and Cable were even used to kick start Professor X’s own crisis of faith, both hailing from tangible futures in which his dream of mutant/human prosperity just never comes to pass.
It’s a soap opera, and it’s ultimately aimed for children, but given that, it’s amazing that it’s able to get away with as much as it does. On the same network, Spider-Man wasn’t even allowed to throw a punch. Yet the first episode of X-Men flat-out tells viewers that “Morph is dead.” It’s stylized storytelling, but a perfect introduction to storytelling nonetheless. It may not have the same Emmy clout or prestige as Batman, but X-Men was a revolutionary cartoon and a seminal period in the franchise’s history. Even recent shows like The Gifted still make callbacks to it. This was the series that reintroduced and, ultimately, saved a major titan of Marvel comics.
Every superhero story teaches us to do the right thing in the face of adversity. But for the X-Men, the odds are always twice as overwhelming. X-Men is about doing the right thing when everyone tells you that you’re wrong for doing it. It’s not about finding what others tell you is the right thing to do, but doing what you know is right in your heart, even when others disagree. That is a lesson that’s both timeless and timely. It will never not be relevant.