‘X-Men ’97’ Is a Worthy Follow-Up to the Beloved Animated Series: TV Review

“X-Men: The Animated Series” may have an enduring impact as meme fodder, but to many millennials, the Fox show was a gateway into one of Marvel’s most venerable franchises. Before the live-action blockbusters of the early aughts, and certainly before the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “The Animated Series” offered a primer on mutants as a powerful allegory for marginalized groups, plus iconic characters like the saber-clawed Wolverine and telepathic Jean Grey.

Due to the intricacies of intellectual property rights, the X-Men have been a conspicuous absence from the MCU since its inception in 2008. Disney’s acquisition of Fox opened the door for an integration, but the Mouse House has been patient in deploying its new assets. The animated series “X-Men ‘97” marks the first X-Men title to originate from Marvel Studios, the unit captained by power producer Kevin Feige. Smartly, the show reintroduces the X-Men on their own terms, rather than grafting them onto a pre-existing ensemble. Under head writer Beau DeMayo, “X-Men ‘97” is also freed of any obligations to the MCU’s continuity. (DeMayo was recently fired from the show, but had completed work through an upcoming second season.) As a direct follow-up to “The Animated Series” set near the end of the last millennium, the show can dedicate its energies to doing right by a nostalgia object while introducing itself to a new audience. And as off-canon animation, “X-Men ‘97” can take bigger, wilder swings in its story, staying true to the fantastical nature of comics writing while remaining grounded in characters’ emotions.

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In the finale to “The Animated Series,” Professor Charles Xavier was fatally shot by an anti-mutant bureaucrat. Technically, he was near-fatally shot and spirited off to an alien world for long-term care, but the first three episodes of “X-Men ‘97” simplify that background knowledge into the simple fact of Xavier’s absence. An X-Men with no Professor X is jarring, but “X-Men ‘97” offers a bridge between past and present in a deep bench of returning voice actors, including Cal Dodd as Wolverine and Alison Sealy-Smith as the weather-controlling Storm. In Xavier’s absence, Cyclops (Ray Chase) has uneasily assumed the role of de facto leader, but his pregnant wife Jean (Jennifer Hale) thinks the couple should consider stepping back from saving humanity to focus on their family. Xavier, it turns out, may have agreed. The premiere’s final moments reveal the Professor’s chosen heir is his former friend and arch-rival Magneto (Matthew Waterson), who agrees to adopt a more peaceful vision of mutants’ coexistence with humanity.

This reversal instantly is enough to give “X-Men ‘97” its own identity, though it’s accompanied and followed by a slew of storylines that could each anchor their own feature film. Here, they’re squeezed into 30-minute increments, as the X-Men face obstacles that include Sentinel robots, a weapon that neutralizes their powers and a psychic attack engineered by longtime nemesis Mr. Sinister (Chris Britton). At one point, it’s casually revealed that a major protagonist is actually a clone of themselves; even Magneto’s conversion to the X-Men’s side of things is surprisingly swift and fuss-free. The pace can be dizzying, but when rendered in the pleasantly throwback, neon-colored, two-dimensional style of the original, it’s also engaging. There’s no time for things to drag when the plot is this packed.

“X-Men ‘97” toys with introducing a new mutant to serve as our introduction to the crew, but their presence quickly proves unnecessary. “X-Men” as a whole deals with the timeless question of what an oppressed minority owes its oppressor, and specific creations like the blue-furred scientist Beast (George Buza) and Cajun card-thrower Gambit (AJ LoCascio) have reputations that precede them. Shape-shifter Morph (JP Karliak) gets a slight makeover, but while DeMayo has described them as nonbinary, their gender neutrality comes off more as an extension of their longstanding superpower than a conspicuous nod to modern mores. The X-Men are coming to the MCU soon enough, many by way of the upcoming “Deadpool 3.” But before they’re used as a shot of adrenaline for a flagging mothership, it’s a joy to reacquaint ourselves with the X-Men on their home turf.

The first two episodes of “X-Men ‘97” are now streaming on Disney+, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Wednesdays.

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