Television cartoons are a funny business. Most people still think of them as children’s fare. When the topic of such cartoons is a team of superheroes, the threat of juvenility rises considerably. Somehow, Marvel’s X-Men has always managed to sustain a high level of both adult characterization and storytelling in all three of its TV incarnations.
Other superhero teams have not fared so well. The Avengers were juvenile crap. The Superfriends and their various sequels were beloved in the 1970s and early 80s, but frankly were warmed over pablum directed at idiot pre-teens. The era of the cartoon based on toys and video games, which began in the late 1980s and saw such classic shows as Transformers and G.I. Joe ended up birthing interesting mythologies which were explored in other media, like manga, mostly in Japan. But their original TV versions were just extended commercials for the toys.
In recent years, DC stepped up their game with a series of excellent adult superhero offerings. They began with Batman: The Animated Series, a game-changing show that proved that an angsty, adult motion picture feel could be translated into animated half hour episodes on Saturday morning TV. That show spawned Batman Begins, a less cerebral, but no less adult version of the iconic Batman, set in Bruce Wayne’s golden years.
DC followed up their Batman successes with a new Superman cartoon which mimicked the Dark Knight’s serious reflections. And then the two heroes made the inevitable evolution into Justice League and Justice League Unlimited, two outstanding adult superhero cartoons that are still re-watchable many years later.
But Marvel’s X-Men stands alone as the sole classic superhero source that has never been reduced to kiddish pablum. Beginning with their 1980s version, X-Men: The Animated Series, the team of mutants experienced adventures that were grim and serious, exploring their metaphors for actual social marginalizing forms, such as homosexuality and ethnic isolation.
In the late 90s, X-Men: Evolution re-wrote the characters into high school, and threatened to dumb it down a shade. Thankfully, the innate depth of the X-Men motif prevented that from happening, and a fascinating story arc managed to keep viewers enthralled as the youthful mutants grew through their adolescent angsts.
With the success of the three live action X-Men movies, and the imminent launch of the first stand-alone Wolverine movie, there was a desire to re-launch an animated X-Men, this time placing Wolverine at its centre. Thus, Wolvering & The X-Men was born.
Many purists were afraid that elevating Wolverine, the grisly and gruff loner, to the position of team leader would ruin the motif. In the movies, he’s been redrawn as an attractive and romantic leading man, and it seems the new show would take a similar route.
However, I’m pleased to report that the new show gives nothing up with this development. With season #1 now broadcast, it is clear that this is a well thought out show, respectful of its source material. Like all the best superhero and science fiction literature and media, the show bases everything on characterization first. Everyone acts from a motivation, and the story arc is pushed ahead through believable character responses.
Wolverine himself is gruff and grisly again, but now tall and charming like in the movies. Nightcrawler is gallant and brave, not awkward and pathetic. Cyclops is tortured and guilty, not a cookie cutter boyscout. Magneto, perhaps the finest villain in all of comicbookdom, maintains his complexity as passionate leader, doting father, dear friend and psychopathic terrorist.
Most interesting of all, though, has been the show’s treatment of lesser known mutant Emma Frost. She’s a character known to the fans of the comic books, but not to those who only know the X-Men through the movies and TV shows. Her mystery is used to great effect as her agenda is revealed slowly and with a wonderful climax.
The brilliance of this show is in the seriousness with which it treats its stories, the love with which it handles its iconic characters, and the respect it shows its fans. No origins are shown; the action starts from the first moment. The show assumes that the viewer already knows who the characters are and why they do what they do. There is no pandering to the naive, as is expected in a movie.
And the way in which the season’s story arc unfolds is quite clever. For the season’s duration, Charles Xavier in a coma, to awaken 20 years later in a post-Apocalyptic hell. He manages to communicate psychically with Wolverine in the past. Together, the two try to prevent the carnage that Xavier experiences firsthand in the future. To tell a season-long story on two fronts, one in the present and one in the future, with an underlying mystery to be solved (how did Xavier end up in the coma in the first place?) is sheer storytelling inspiration.
I highly recommend season #1 of Wolverine & The X-Men, and can’t wait till season #2 starts in a few months.