It’s hard to stress just what a fantastic time it was to be an X-Men fan after the release of the first movie. First, that had felt like an event and I—and so many other kids—had devoured every single tie-in that came out of it. But it also put the X-Men back on the map in a huge way. This was great, because I was a kid raised on X-Men: The Animated Series and that had gone off the air in 1997. Four years later, the movie was it, and I ate it up. The success of the film launched a whole new slate of X-Men comics, largely designed to look a little more like the movie. We had Grant Morrison’s New X-Men which shook up the status quo right out of the gate, the iconic Chris Claremont returned for X-Treme X-Men years after ending his decades-long run on the title. And we had Ultimate X-Men, a personal favorite at the time, as it was a ground-up reboot and I couldn’t wait to see how it reimagined every character.
Then came the announcement of a new animated series, which I was a little skeptical of at first because I was eleven and didn’t know any better, but mostly because I still had such nostalgic ties to the previous show. I think reading Ultimate X-Men at the time helped to open me up to new possibilities. And I’m so glad it did, because when X-Men: Evolution hit, I was the perfect target audience for it even though I almost certainly didn’t realize that at the time. I had already started to fall in love with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I was enamored with teen horror of the era like Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, The Faculty and Idle Hands. X-Men: Evolution was exactly what I was dreaming of and I didn’t even know it until it hit.
Because X-Men: Evolution is a distinctly teenage show. It’s a high school show first and foremost and it deals with high school problems. It was a series that was extremely aware of what else there was at the time. There was a huge influence from Buffy that the show runners acknowledged and leaned into as time went on, sometimes even referencing directly. If anything, X-Men: Evolution was a show that combined my two greatest loves at the time.
The basic plot of the series is that it reimagines the X-Men as teenagers, just like they were when the comic started in 1963 and they were students of the school. In the 1992 animated series, all of them were already adults save Jubilee, so this was a refreshing approach. This time, however, the students would only practice their mutant abilities at the Xavier School and would attend public high school in an effort to better attempt to blend in with the people around them. The principal of the school, however, was none other than Mystique. She’s recruiting for the Brotherhood, trying to pick up mutant students for Magneto’s agenda before Xavier can get his hands on them.
Mystique’s a lot of other characters on the show too, admittedly. As the series went on, just about any time a new character was introduced, if they weren’t someone recognizable from the comic books, they would actually turn out to be Mystique. Rogue meets a Scottish exchange student that she becomes best friends with who turns out to be Mystique. There’s literally a whole season where it’s revealed that Professor X has been Mystique the entire time.
In general, though, the approach to the Brotherhood is one of the best things about X-Men: Evolution. Nothing is cut-and-dry, no one is outright good and evil and the antagonistic relationship between the X-Men and the Brotherhood perfectly encapsulates that. There are times when the Brotherhood are almost more relatable than the actual X-Men, in fact. Cyclops, Jean and the others are in relatively good social standing. But the Brotherhood? They’re the actual burnouts, losers and outcasts of the school. Even the X-Men don’t really get along with them and expect the worst of them, and for most of these kids that’s before they become members of the Brotherhood. Cyclops is hesitant to bring Toad back to the school because he thinks he’s stinky and gross. Everyone expects Avalanche is a budding career criminal waiting to happen, and he feels like he doesn’t have any other choice but to prove them right.
Avalanche, in general, is one of the most well rounded characters of the entire series. He’s sort of a de facto leader of the Brotherhood (aside from Mystique and Magneto, of course) and he absolutely has a chip on his shoulder, but he never really wants to hurt anyone. He often questions what they’re doing, but there’s no one else in the group who does, and he has nobody to talk about his concerns with. He can never express any of feelings with his friends in the Brotherhood for fear of being labeled too sensitive. Despite their teams’ rivalries, the only person he can talk to about anything meaningful is Kitty Pryde, who also happens to be the only one who believes that he could be something better than he is, which at times allows him to believe that himself. Considering the fact that this character was given a one-note portrayal on the previous show and never even really got much attention in the comics, the depth they gave to this character—always one of my obscure favorites—was really great to see.
In general, one of the best things that X-Men: Evolution did was give a spotlight to characters that had been left out of the previous animated series. Nightcrawler, my favorite X-Man ever, only appeared in a small handful of episodes out of that series’ five year run. Including him here was great, especially as X-Men: The Animated Series offered an older, more somber Nightcrawler whose defining characteristic was his faith. Evolution gets to play with a younger Nightcrawler, who immediately brings to mind the classic Chris Claremont/John Byrne era of the character as a more playful practical joker.
More than that, though, as a kid who struggled with my appearance, Nightcrawler was such an important character to latch onto. He was not, by any stretch, normal looking. And sometimes he did struggle with that. But he also did his best to embrace the way he looked and be proud and comfortable with that. He didn’t always succeed and that was the key, that was what made me respond to this version of the character so much. But he still tried, and he put on a smile and embraced his role as the weird kid, supporting his friends and always trying to bring a smile to their faces whenever he could.
Evolution also prominently includes Kitty Pryde, who was one of the only regular team members to be completely left out of X-Men: The Animated Series. While she had been the protagonist of the failed Pryde of the X-Men TV pilot, she never so much as made a cameo in the animated series when pretty much every other mutant under the sun did. And Pryde of the X-Men was completely to blame for that decision, as Marvel told the producers of the ‘90s cartoon that they weren’t allowed to touch Kitty Pryde as if they believe she singlehandedly had killed the previous pilot. Many of Kitty’s classic moments and story lines were instead given to the group’s new junior member, Jubilee.
By 2001, however, everyone had pretty much forgotten about Pryde of the X-Men, at least on the corporate level. Here, Kitty’s a main character from the beginning, a few years younger than characters like Scott and Jean, but still in high school and still grappling with everything that comes along with that. She’s faithful to the comic book series while also highly resembling the better qualities of Buffy’s younger sister, Dawn Summers. Which is ironic, as Joss Whedon was a longtime X-Men fan (he wound up writing a celebrated run on the comic in 2005) and Kitty had served as one of the major inspirations for Dawn in the first place. Kitty’s the first to point out when something is weird, she doesn’t always react well to situations she’s not used to, but she’s also a character bursting with heart. She’ll notice things the other characters don’t always see, she’ll often reach out to people when they’re upset or struggling when no one else will.
One of the best interpretations of any classic character for X-Men: Evolution is easily Rogue, who takes a few cues from the more somber depiction of the X-Men movie while also doubling down on what that moody, closed off teen afraid to get close to anyone would actually look like as an honest early 2000s teenager: a goth. From black nail polish and eyeliner to a spiked choker, Rogue is as goth as you could expect anything to get on a Saturday morning superhero cartoon and I have nothing but the upmost respect for that decision. Like the comics, Rogue is recruited for the Brotherhood first before actually aligning with the X-Men and for awhile, she wants nothing to do with either. There’s a stretch of time where it’s really unclear exactly where her allegiances might lie.
Part of the fun of X-Men: Evolution as a series was the same of the similarly themed Ultimate X-Men on the comics page. It was the notion of getting to see a new spin on classic characters and how those heroes, villains and concepts would be updated or reimagined for the then-modern era. Some characters stayed relatively the same, some (like Havok) saw major changes, but everything at least had a purpose behind it. Characters like Gambit, Colossus, Pyro, Archangel and even Boom-Boom all got to put in appearances as the show went on. The roster even expanded to include the New Mutants, and like Batman: The Animated Series before it, X-Men: Evolution debuted a new character that would go on to be introduced into the comics in a huge way with X-23.
The introduction of Scarlet Witch was a particular highlight, as the series did not shy away from her stormy and manipulative relationship with her father. To balance the darkness of her character, Evolution introduced a somewhat lighter Quicksilver, boasting more of a sense of snark and dry with than previous versions. This Quicksilver is by and large the one you have to thank for the character’s celebrated portrayal in the X-Men movies.
More than anything, though, X-Men: Evolution is a show about high school. Taking into account that mutant powers manifest at puberty, that the inherent themes of sexuality and persecution are all things that teenagers struggle with on a deep, deep level, the decision to cement the series in that setting makes perfect sense. There are bullies, characters are constantly afraid of how they’ll be seen differently if the truth comes out about them. If being a mutant is so often a metaphor for being gay, then X-Men: Evolution is basically a show about that found family and first sense of community you find before you might even have come out to your close friends, family or the world as a whole. But there are also themes of body image issues, social acceptance and so many other teenage issues that are perfect for this kind of storytelling.
At the same time, there’s tremendous respect paid to the shows and movies dealing with the same concepts around the same time. One of the best episodes of the series brings together some of the show’s female characters to form a crime fighting girl gang of their own without any input from the boys, and the episode drives its point home with a frame-by-frame recreation of the iconic slo-mo walking shot from The Craft. In another episode, Rogue and Kitty are dancing and their dance is a meticulous recreation of a shot of Buffy and Faith dancing in the Buffy episode “Bad Girls.” This isn’t just a teenage X-Men show, it’s one made by people who clearly loved both the X-Men and teen shows in general, and that’s abundantly clear when you watch the series itself.
The themes in X-Men: Evolution may not have been as universal as X-Men: The Animated Series, but they were great at what they set out to be, which was a show that was just as thematic, just as relevant, but with a singular focus on a specific time in a person’s life, and a time that happens to perfectly embody all of the overall themes of the X-Men in general. Unfortunately, while X-Men: The Animated Series got a great finale (even if the final season got a serious downgrade in the animation department) X-Men: Evolution got cut short, canceled just after handling its Apocalypse arc and before it could deliver on a gestating promise of a fresh take on the Dark Phoenix. Even still, the four seasons we’re left with contain some great, reimagined X-Men storytelling and the show as a whole deserves more attention as this was a strong corner of the X-Universe that carried the torch for several years and deserves to be remembered as such.