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X-Men ’97 is Marvel’s best argument for an X-Men animated feature

A live-action X-Men movie could be good. An animated feature might be even better.



X-Men ’97 is Marvel’s best argument for an X-Men animated feature
X-Men ’97 is Marvel’s best argument for an X-Men animated feature

The best thing about the X-Men is the deep, almost hilariously intense lore of Marvel’s merry mutants.

In the comic books, Dark Phoenix (inhabiting the body of Jean Grey) ate an entire sun and doomed a race of aliens that look like broccoli. Magneto terraformed Mars, in large part to stunt on humans. Professor X can walk now and maybe isn’t as good a guy as we thought (he seems very into the idea of child soldiers). Storm is a goddess and a little bit of a witch. Iceman is gay. Jubilee detonates matter on a subatomic level. Cyclops’s eyes might not be lasers at all but rather portals into a place called the “punch dimension” that emit red blasts of concussive force.

Unfortunately, when it comes to live-action adaptations of X-Men, writers haven’t been able to tap into all these delightfully tangential tidbits. You can only fit so much into a two-hour film release every few years. Lead actors demand the spotlight, and superhero movies aren’t really structured for soapy ensembles. The best adaptations understand what makes the X-Men so fun. Surprisingly, the animated cartoons deliver — in particular, the original animated show from the ’90s is legendary.

Disney+’s X-Men 97, which debuted last month, is a delightful, dedicated continuation of the original. The new show has been a critical success and, according to Disney, one of its most-watched shows. Positive conversation surrounding the show has led to rumors that Marvel, in a rut of late, will be turning to a live-action X-Men adaptation sooner rather than later.

But Marvel might be taking all the wrong lessons from this bolt of success.

Equal parts soap, comedy, and save-the-day antics, ’97 works because it’s a charming rendition whose existence asserts a convincing argument: The X-Men don’t need a live-action movie if an animated series is this good.

What makes X-Men 97 so good?

X-Men 97’s most valuable quality is its elegant accessibility. The original animated series, which ran from 1992 to 1997, simplified decades of comic book storylines into digestible 30-minute episodes. Structurally, the cartoon borrowed elements of soap operas and sitcoms. That series was gateway viewing that converted many into casual fans. Even if viewers had never read the comic books, a generation of kids and teens still knew that Storm threw lightning bolts, Jean Grey moved things with her mind and fainted a lot, and that Rogue can punch people through trucks and sounds vaguely like Dolly Parton. Most of all: This mishmash of misfits were a family.

The first few episodes of the classic cartoon focused on introducing the characters, their quirks, friendships, and differences, and the conflict — rescuing one of their own from mutant extermination machines called Sentinels — and showed how the X-Men can put their differences aside and work together. The stuff in between the lightning bolts, telekinesis, and super strength is what matters.

’97 continues that tradition, grounding the action by focusing on the beloved characters as they face a new era. The X-Men are dealing with the death of Professor X (he died in the final episode of the ’90s series). Unfortunately, Professor X didn’t accomplish his dream of humanity and mutants living in peace. In fact, the political climate has gotten worse as more and more humans turn to bigotry and anti-mutant violence.

Two identical women with long wavy red hair are superimposed. A blue light glows from the forehead of one woman as she rubs her head in pain, and the other reaches out with her hand while wearing a look of concentration.
The X-Men are sometimes absurd. Case in point: Jean Grey has a clone that, for some reason, not only has some of Jean Grey’s powers but also wields eldritch magic and calls herself the Goblin Queen. Her clone has a lot of hobbies and that’s fun!
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Each mutant sees the world they’re living in with varying degrees of hope and mourning. Jean and Storm, best friends, have a heart-to-heart about the idea of raising children in this environment. Rogue, who has the power to absorb someone’s energy and life force if she’s not careful, has a wistful conversation with Gambit about being able to physically comfort one another. Jubilee, a mall rat with disco firework powers, just wants a few seconds to dance at a nightclub. What good is saving the world if you can’t find the time to enjoy it?

Everything about ’97 reflects an affection and thoughtfulness, not just for the Saturday morning cartoon but for the X-Men, too. That understanding also means knowing that the X-Men have delightfully implausible and completely absurd plot twists.

In its third episode, we find out that beloved telepath Jean Grey has a clone who, for some reason, refers to herself as a Goblin Queen and has magic demon powers. Similarly, in episode four, a television-obsessed villain named Mojo captures Jubilee and places her into a video game.

No one knows exactly why Jean Grey’s clone is invested in hell-themed sorcery or why Mojo would rather put his victims in an arcade world. Can’t a woman have hobbies? Can’t a clone dabble in the dark arts? Can’t a villain be obsessed with Nintendo?

Sometimes all you can do, and what ’97 does, is simply shrug and chalk it up to the X-Men being the X-Men.

What if an animated series is the X-Men’s best future?

While a live-action X-Men movie could be fantastic, astonishing even, Fox’s history and track record suggests that’s easier said than done. The issue of making ensemble superhero movies and fleshing out more than two characters at a time can be difficult (though Guardians has done it extremely well). There’s also the issue of fitting them into an already-packed MCU and getting all those heroes — Shang-Chi, Doctor Strange, Captain Marvel, Ms. Marvel, Monica Rambeau, Shuri, et al. — on the same page. And Marvel has to figure out which villains it’s going to use, now that it has dropped its plans for Jonathan Majors’s Kang; Majors was found guilty of assaulting and harassing his now ex-girlfriend in 2023.

What makes the X-Men so difficult for live-action adaptation is that the X-Men’s powers are so grandiose and astounding that it makes set pieces and design virtually impossible. Storm, for example, has the power to manipulate the weather in the form of tornadoes and lightning and can even create a cosmic wormhole. Having a live-action version of those feats would require not only tons of CGI, but also a battlefield that allows for powers of that scale, and a galactic villain who could go toe-to-toe with Storm. Now add in more X-Men, some of whom, like Magneto and Jean Grey, are as powerful as Storm, and basically every battle would have to be huge — for scale, imagine the Wakanda invasion in Infinity War or the final fight in Endgame.

Two men embrace and kiss while siting on a bed with a decorative headboard. The room glows and sparkles with starry yellow and purple light, and is cozily decorated with polaroids on the wall and a warm bedside lamp.
Look at how sparkly and fun this is! While some X-Men movies are great, they’ve never been fun and sparkly!
Courtesy of Marvel Animation

Though it’s been done — specifically the fight scene in Days of Future Past — that might not be feasible in every movie. Animation doesn’t limit the X-Men the way live-action might.

Many of the X-Men’s previous live-action movies have dialed back the X-Men’s powers, making them less flashy and easier to depict. While characters like the shape-shifting Mystique and Wolverine get more of the spotlight, it leaves out goofy moments like Storm fighting with a man with mutant hair or the all-powerful Jean Grey fighting for her entire life against Toad, a supervillain with mutant spit.


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In the opening episode of ’97, there’s a gorgeous sequence in which Storm is rightfully classified as an “omega level threat,” a.k.a. a mutant with cataclysmic powers. Seeing that her team needs help, she comes swooping down, using lightning to transform the sand beneath her feet into glass and whipping those giant shards into a Sentinel-shredding tornado. It’s a creative and ambitious depiction of her powers, unlikely to have been as massive or stylish in live action.

As far as the potential that animation offers, look no further than the Spider-Verse movies and their inventive depiction of the multiverse and different worlds like Mumbattan (the combination of Mumbai and Manhattan on a different Earth). Netflix’s sumptuous Castlevania series and its gorgeous fight scenes also come to mind, achieving mood and awe in ways that a realistic depiction couldn’t.

Conversely, both of Fox’s X-Men franchises attempted to depict the Dark Phoenix Saga, a story about how Jean Grey becomes a galactic threat. Now imagine how much more spectacular that could’ve been with the right animation team.

Live-action X-Men movies can be pretty good. We’ve seen them. But we haven’t yet seen how great an animated X-Men feature could be. Maybe it’s time.