X-Men kicked off the massive comic book movie boom in the summer of 2000 and we’ve been immersed in that climate ever since. Seventeen years later and the bubble has yet to burst. That feature changed everything, but it was far from a guaranteed success. The studio was not sure how to market it, they weren’t even sure what to do with it. Fox had no guarantee that it was going to be remotely successful. Yes, Blade had been a success only two years earlier, but that was a barely known character. That success was not attributed to the fact that it was based on a Marvel comic by any means.
But X-Men spent the bulk of the nineties as the number one comic book property in the world. Even then, there was no way of knowing if people would get it or even remotely understand it. On a story level, of course there was a hunger to get the mythology right, but the studio was worried that they were putting out something that had no audience and that would fall flat on its face. The feature had to earn its success, surviving budget cuts and a total lack of advanced critical screenings in the process.
Things could have gone very differently. In some ways, they already had. After all, X-Men was far from the first Marvel movie. In fact, it wasn’t even the first live-action interpretation of the X-Men world. That honor went to a television film that made its debut only four years earlier, based on the hot-selling spinoff comic Generation X.
Most fans today probably won’t remember it. But I do. This flawed telemovie was the only live-action X-Men film I had as a kid. For awhile, I didn’t think I’d ever get another. And I loved it. Sure, only a few of the characters I recognized were there, but I knew that world. I saw the school, I saw the Danger Room, Cerebro… these were all things I knew. I wanted to be like these kids, I wanted to have that kind of camaraderie—friends that serve as a family unit at the same time.
Generation X was supposed to launch a TV series and I desperately wished that it had. I related to the idea of those misfit teens, witty outcasts using their powers to help each other and the world around them. Luckily, it turned out that that void would be filled by another show that would come along only a year later: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But let’s back up. I’m completely aware that most people who find a YouTube link and watch the film now won’t be as impressed as I was. It’s not a perfect adaptation, it has huge budget problems, and because it was the nineties, there’s a minute and a half devoted to farts. I’m aware of all of these things. I’m in full admittance of my nostalgia goggles and I don’t ever want to misplace them because I’m completely serious when I say that Generation X means something to me. I can absolutely remember being excited for its premiere. I didn’t care that it was on TV and not on the big screen. I was a kid.
It’s unlikely anyone out there actually caught this TV presentation the night that it aired, so let me recap what a bizarre experience that was. FOX was hosting a Mardi Gras celebration and all through the night, shows would be cutting away to the live reporting from the House of Blues in New Orleans. In between interviews with drunk people and local drag performers, they would continually look at the camera to remind people to tune in for the world premiere of Generation X at 9pm. The build-up was genuinely insane, but it worked on me. The live Mardi Gras reports continued throughout every commercial break, too. It was weirdly reassuring to have a Jake Blues cosplayer pop in and out of the movie to make sure I was enjoying it. If anything, it’s a method that more films should adapt.
Generation X is helmed by Jack Sholder, who should be well known to horror fans as the director behind Alone in the Dark, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, The Hidden and Wishmaster 2, among many others. He’s really had a terrific career in cult film. This one might be one of his least talked about, but it’s still one of his most enjoyable.
It’s kind of ironic to the point of absurdity that Sholder, who was criticized for making such an untraditional Elm Street with Freddy’s Revenge, basically did his own version of Dream Warriors in Generation X. Think there aren’t enough nightmares in Nightmare 2? This movie’s got you covered, and then some. It’s literally about teens discovering their own individual powers who eventually go into the dream world to battle a villain who is so similar to Freddy that even he makes the comparison at one point.
That may sound like criticism, but it’s not. What this movie lacks in budget, it makes up for in heart. Even though the Danger Room is literally one of those fake climbing walls you find at amusement parks, even though major characters from the series are replaced with new ones due to budgetary limitations and fan-favorite Jubilee is whitewashed with a white actress—there’s a lot that works for me. I don’t care if I should or not, but at the end of the day I care about this ragtag group of teenagers.
From the comics, we’ve got the heads of the school, Emma Frost and Sean Cassidy AKA White Queen and Banshee. As much as I love X-Men: First Class, these are both much more comic-accurate interpretations of the two characters than that film gave us, Banshee’s tiger-print vest notwithstanding. Emma retains her wit, her hardass nature, ridiculous fashion style and telepathic abilities. She doesn’t have her diamond skin as she hadn’t developed that ability in the comics yet, but when she gets angry she blows a strong wind. That’s not a fart joke. Like I said, the movie saves all of those for one scene.
Also hailing from the comics are our two leads, Jubilee (who’s unfortunately whitewashed) and Skin (who’s refreshingly not). Most people won’t remember Skin, he was sort of specific to the Generation X title, but Jubilee was the Robin of the 1990s. She was the perpetual teenage sidekick and this title was sort of her Teen Titans, a way for Jubilee to branch off and find her own group of heroes her own age. We’ve also got Monet St. Croix, a character who would go on to become huge in the X-verse, but basically serves the time-old archetype of Alpha Bitch in this outing. Mondo is changed quite a bit from his comic origins, mostly for budgetary reasons.
Then we have Harley, who’s basically Husk but not, so she counts as a new character. Kurt—also called Refrax, apparently, though the movie never does that once—is a pseudo-punk bleached blond Spikelops who can shoot laser beams out of his eyes and is desperately trying to develop X-ray vision.
Like I said, there are major differences from the source material when it comes to the main cast of characters. But even though they really shouldn’t be, these teens are believable. They don’t much like each other, they all have their own reasons for not really getting along. All of these personalities clash at the beginning of the film. But the more they go out and experience the outside world, the bond between them begins to build organically. Kurt and Mondo give Angelo (AKA Skin) hell throughout the whole first act, but the moment they see someone else pick on him, they rush to his defense.
Hell, not only does Kurt bear a striking resemblance to Buffy’s Spike, he also manages to go through Spike’s entire character arc over the course of this one TV movie. He starts out arrogant, obnoxious, realizes he’s being a dick to someone he really likes, decides to stand up for her and become a better, more sensitive human being. He’s a decent guy by the end of the feature.
Above all else, it has Matt Frewer. In yet another ironic twist, this low budget comic book movie was inspired by Batman Forever and Frewer’s performance was influenced to a degree by Jim Carrey’s bizarre portrayal of the Riddler. The irony here is that—especially at that point in time—Frewer would have been the perfect person to just play the Riddler. He would have been a great choice.
While he doesn’t get to headline a major franchise, he does steal the spotlight in a TV production that nobody saw. Russell Tresh is funny, witty, charismatic, megalomaniacal and just fun to watch. He lures you in with spastic charm, but every now and then—usually with a blatantly racist or misogynist remark—he’ll remind you that he’s a genuinely horrible human being. You know, much like Freddy.
Generation X was supposed to launch a TV series. Even though the costumes revealed at the end were terrible, I’ll admit, I’ll always be sad that the show never came to pass. Still, while it might have been buried, it looks like it had a clear impact on the industry regardless. It paved the way for several similarly-themed shows to blossom and become major successes, from Buffy to Roswell to Charmed. That on its own is no small victory.
Wouldn’t hurt to have a DVD release, though.