For the past three months, Matt Wilson and I have been making our way through a series of in-depth reviews of the X-Men films, the franchise voted as our subject by you, the readers. Long before they were brought to the silver screen, however, there was another mass-media project that made the X-Men even more of a household name and lured thousands of kids into a lifetime of caring about whether Gambit and Rogue would finally get together.
That's why this week, with Matt off getting married, I'm going solo into another piece of the franchise: "Night of the Sentinels," the two-part pilot of the X-Men animated series!
For those of you who aren't familiar with it -- and by that, I mean those of you who are either under the age of 20 or enjoying this column as part of Rumspringa, because this thing was pretty inescapable -- the X-Men cartoon hit the airwaves shortly after Batman: The Animated Series in October of 1992. I was ten years old at the time, and while X-Men didn't have Batman's distinctive visuals, sophisticated storytelling, and blessed lack of awful Jim Lee costumes, it came at the perfect time to lure me into being a lifelong fan of mutant misadventure.
I loved this show, and have distinct memories of hitting up my local Pizza Hut for copies of these very episodes on VHS (including a roundtable discussion with Stan Lee that might've been the first time I ever saw him) and watching it over and over again. Later in life, I would grow to kind of hate it after it was made the designated Display Video at my comic shop job and I had to listen to it play on a TV ten feet away for about eight hours a day, but I still have a lot of affection for it -- especially the dialogue. Wolverine's growly "THIS ONE'S FER YOU, MORPH!" still cracks me up.
And I wasn't the only one, either. Even though its predecessor, the pretty unwatchable Pryde of the X-Men (which, fortunately for me, has yet to be released on DVD and so probably won't be showing up in this column), the show was a smash hit. It ended up running for five years and opening the door for Marvel to return to cartoons in force with Spider-Man, Hulk, Iron Man, and an Avengers cartoon that I believe got canceled about ten minutes into the first episode. That said, looking back on it, X-Men was not very good. So without further ado, let's jump right in and see how the pilot holds up after 20 years.
Before we actually get into the episode, can we talk for a minute about how great the opening sequence is? I know that there are a lot of people out there who prefer the Anime-style openings that were done in Japan, which feature a gun-totin' Cable, Julbilee's "fireworks" transformed into a Hadouken and Cyclops literally decapitating a bunch of Brood with his optic blasts...
...but I still think the original is a hoot. The very first shot is an airplane flying through space, and then a big letter X exploding for no particular reason, and then a bunch of mutants running headlong into each other while their bosses pose in mid-air. If that isn't the most efficient summary of '90s X-Men as a whole, then I don't know what is.
Plus, I've always liked that while Wolverine, Beast and Gambit have actual logos (and even Jubilee gets a Varsity-style font), Cyclops is introduced by just shooting optic blasts at nothing while his name hovers above in what might as well be Comic Sans:
"Yeah, we know this dude's boring," says this intro, "but there's a dude with knives on his hands in a second, so keep watching."
Once the episode actually starts, we're introduced to Jubilee, who in her role as Kitty Pryde Version 2.0, will be our viewpoint character for the evening.
After they see a news report about Sabretooth causing some trouble in downtown Generic City, her foster parents start worrying about whether young Jubilation's propensity for shooting bottle rockets out of her fingers might lead her into similar troubles. Incidentally, the news reporter covering Sabretooth's rampage describes footage of a seven foot tall dude with so much back hair that it has its own perm literally throwing cars over buildings is "suspected" to be a mutant. I'm all for journalistic integrity -- in other people's work, I mean, not my own -- but really, I think it's safe to just call that dude out on his X-Gene.
Anyway, Jubilee's parents have called up the government to get their daughter some help, but -- as you might expect -- they are instead visited by a giant purple robot that apparently wants to silently watch a teenage girl sleeping.
The show goes out of its way to paint Jubilee's folks as decent people who bought into the Mutant Control Agency's lies about being interested in helping young mutants rather than murdering them, but when you consider that the MCA's first tactic is to send out a Sentinel, that seems like the kind of trick that would only work once. People tend to be pretty vocal about it when 20-foot robots show up to smash their cars and bust up their houses, even if they don't end up vaporizing their children. Word tends to get around.
Fortunately for Jubilee, she overheard her parents discussing their plans to turn her in and decided to run away. Her destination: The mall, where she drowns her sorrows in Ikari Warriors alongside the most 90sest person of all time:
Girl is rocking a mullet, headband, bomber jacket, denim skirt, leggings, kneepads AND cowboy boots. It's pretty amazing. She looks like she just dropped in from Bartertown.
Jubilee accidentally blows up the game with her mutant powers and, when the arcade manager freaks out and asks if she knows how much it costs, she responds with "Yeah: a quarter," lowers her shades like the love child of Horatio Caine and Bret "The Hitman" Hart, and runs out. Nobody bothers to chase her, presumably because a lemon-yellow trenchcoat and dishwashing gloves are the kind of outfit that blends right in with the crowd.
By sheer coincidence, the driving force of about 84% of all X-Men stories, Rogue, Storm and Gambit are also at the mall that night, with the ladies shopping at the non-trademark-infringing "Elizabeth's Secrets" and Gambit restocking at the local playing card store. As weird as it is that there's a whole store that sells playing cards, what really bothers me is that you'd think he'd be buying those things in bulk at this point. At the very least, wholesale rates would be cheaper in the long run, and it's not like he's not going to use them.
Then again, mail-order wouldn't give him the opportunity to flirt with the foxy playing card store cashier, whose breathy "You must like to play cards" is met with "I like solitaire okay, unless I got someone... to play with."
For those of you who may have missed that, this is how the X-Men cartoon chooses to introduce Gambit: With him announcing through the thinnest possible metaphor that he likes to masturbate unless there's someone around willing to have sex. Gambit, everybody!
It's also worth noting that while Rogue and Storm are in street clothes, Gambit is straight up walking around the mall in full costume, complete with knee-high metal boots, a bright pink spandex top, and that weird head thing with his hair popping out that no one in the real world has ever actually worn. Of course, after the girl with the kneepads and cowboy boots back in the arcade, I guess that could pass for civilian gear.
The Sentinel -- which, again, is a secret government project -- busts into the mall in full view of a hundred shoppers and goes after Jubilee. Once she's snagged, though, Storm steps up and shouts "Storm, Mistress of the Elements, commands you to release that child!" while cooking up a tiny little Ziggy-esque raincloud above her own head.
This, for the record, is one of the more subtle introductions an X-Men character has ever had.
Thus: Fight Scene! While Rogue is engaging in some miniskirted mid-air punching, Gambit and his half-assed cajun accent -- which mostly manifests in calling Jubilee "petite" and referring to himself in the third person -- completely fail to make any difference whatsoever in the battle. As Jubilee runs, the Sentinel crashes through a wall that was apparently just repaired from the first time it crashed through and doses her with some knockout gas. Apparently watching her sleep just wasn't creepy enough. Things look pretty grim, but for reasons that will remain unknown to us for the duration of the show, Cyclops is hanging out in the parking lot in full costume, waiting for the opportunity to announce that he's a "pro" at energy blasts and blow the Sentinel's head off. See what I mean about coincidence?
In a plot point that more or less mirrors Wolverine's experiences in the first X-Men movie, Jubilee wakes up in the X-Mansion's infirmary and starts wandering around so that we can meet a few more characters and, because it's 1992, get a cameo from Domino and Cannonball. Before long, she stumbles on Wolverine and Gambit, locked in a room together for a totally hetero training exercise:
Actual dialogue: "Had enough, Cajun? Just say... oncle."
As you might expect, Jubilee is a little overwhelmed by all this, but everyone shows up and has a laugh about how she thought Wolverine was about to murder someone. It's traumalarious!
Even though Storm tries to smooth things over by explaining what mutants are and what the deal is with the X-Men, Jubilee is still a little freaked out. If I had to guess, I might say that it was because Jubilee's question about why people hate them even though they're good guys is met with Storm shrugging and conjuring up a hailstorm while they're both standing on the roof. Conversation is not her mutant gift.
Rogue announces that she was unable to get in touch with Jubilee's parents, which freaks Jubilee out so much that she grabs the next bus back home to check on them. She's so consumed with fear that she runs right by a Sentinel without noticing it. Because it's hiding.
I may not have mentioned this yet, but Jubilee is really dumb. It's not much of a surprise when she is immediately captured.
In response, Professor X plans to send a strike force to go jack up the MCA's computer files, because that's how you solved problems back before the Internet. In order to get the job done, he selects only the toughest, most combat-ready X-Men: Storm, with the ability to call down lightning! Cyclops, whose optic blasts have already proven to be deadly to his enemies! Beast, whose strength and ability are only matched by his cunning mind! Wolverine, whose deadly battle fury and razor-sharp claws make him the most dangerous X-Man of all!
Morph was, of course, an original character created for the show, although he eventually made it into the comics as a radically different character in the pages of Exiles. In that respect, he's kind of Marvel's Harley Quinn, just without all the cosplayers and sexy roleplay Tumblrs. Although, as Rachel Edidin pointed out, any sexy roleplay Tumblr could potentially turn out to be about Morph in disguise. It's a chilling thought.
As for why Professor X chose to send a guy with mildly amusing shape-shifting powers into a blow-stuff-up mission, I think it's pretty clear that he decided someone needed to die in order to get Jubilee hooked on the ongoing melodrama of the franchise. Uh, spoiler warning, I guess.
But there's one person who's definitely not happy about this choice. After Professor X hands out the assignments, he's confronted in the hallway by Cyclopsszzzzzzzzz
Sorry, got bored to sleep there for a second. Fortunately, Rogue's lilting expository monologue about her powers was there to ease me back into consciousness. Wolverine makes an attempt to play up his Grim Loner character trait in a bid for bonus XP, but eventually just joins the rest of the team as they head over to the MCA. There's an ambush waiting, but Wolverine smells them and Storm whips up a quick tornado to knock the MCA's soldiers out cold. This prompts Beast to say "And I used to wonder how she got her nom de guerre!" Because apparently the smartest person in the X-Men could not figure out how someone who can control the weather ended up being called "Storm."
Meanwhile, in Detroit, Henry Peter Gyrich and Bolivar Trask are arguing about whether they should kill all the mutants now, or wait until they've finished building more mutant-killing robots.
You know, just in case you missed that they were The Bad Guys. They also have Jubilee tied to a table, which may actually be the exact point where non-Star Trek fan-fiction was born.
Back at the MCA building, the X-Men finish destroying the Mutant Registry by literally building a giant bonfire in the records room and throwing a bunch of papers on it. Once that's done, they make their escape, but tragedy strikes when Morph runs in front of a Sentinel and dies, which is represented by the Broadcast Standards & Practices-approved method of cutting to Jean Grey wearing a helmet that makes her look like a marital aid and Professor X saying that he can't feel anything.
That one kinda backfired on the censors, I think.
Beast also manages to get captured, but the rest of the X-Men reconvene at the mansion, where Storm takes to weeping in the cockpit of the Blackbird. Cyclops tries to tell Wolverine that everyone is very sad about Morph, only to be met with Wolverine walking over and gut-punching him in what is probably the most genuinely hilarious moment in the entire five-year run.
And the abuse on poor, boring-ass Cyclops just keeps coming, as Wolverine decides to take his frustrations out on Cyclops's sensible four-door sedan, cutting off its roof and barking "Tell Cyclops... I MADE HIM A CONVERTIBLE!" to Jean. Truly, there is no better badass exit line. Then, driving away in his Jeep, he flashes back to the scenes that literally happened seven minutes ago -- in this same episode -- because the kids of '92 were all about non-linear storytelling. Kind of makes you wonder why Kids WB's Reservoir Dogs Adventures never really took off.
During the flashback, we get a little more of the battle with the sentinels, which involved Gambit yelling out "Five-card stud! Jacks or better to open!" I am 100% sure that was put there as a placeholder with the intent of thinking up an actual catchphrase rather than just a bunch of words related to playing cards, but the writers forgot and never went back to fix it. I also think this about literally everything else Gambit says in this show. But hey, at least he's there to pick up the helpless Rogue (who is super-strong and can fly) and carry her out of danger. Gender roles!
Even though the X-Men are forced to retreat and leave Morph and Beast behind, it's not long before they jump back into action, as Cyclops leads the team... to a television, where they watch the President explain what the Sentinels are.
Truly, it's a thrill a minute, although Trask's Detroit headquarters and the President referring to the sentinels as "robot policemen" make me think this episode actually started out as a rejected script for the 1988 RoboCop cartoon.
Wolverine -- in a plaid shirt/bomber jacket ensemble that was later immortalized in an action figure I begged my mom to buy me -- is taking his mind off his dead friends by shooting pool at a local road house. He starts getting hassled buy a guy whose voice actor thought it would be a great idea to just do a truly awful impression of Jack Nicholson to give the threats a little weight, and in the absence of a cooler like Dalton, the potential fight is only broken when Cyclops walks in and stands around until someone pulls his glasses off.
Wolverine and Cyclops have a tense discussion about Wolverine being unwilling to follow orders, and we finally get to see some of Cyclops's character shine through as he deals with the guilt and tension over leaving a teammate to die. Nah, I'm just kidding. He deadpans his way through "I don't apologize for command decisions" and then he and Wolverine go off to fight some Sentinels.
As the X-Men plan their third-act fight scene, we rejoin the President, who is rocking some sweet Bruce Lee-inspired workout gear:
Clearly, she's getting ready to go kill the rest of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, but before that, President Black Mamba orders Gyrich to stop all Sentinel-based operations under the threat of being Jeet Kune Do'd right out of the White House. Gyrich does not take the news well, but his mood is lifted when he gets a call from Jubilee's still-unnamed foster father, reporting that Cyclops is hanging out in his living room asking nosy questions.
If you've been paying attention -- and I don't blame you if you haven't, it's been hard enough for me over the past 40 minutes -- you might realize that this makes no sense. Mr. Jubilee's Dad, after all, isn't down on mutants, and the very first scene shows him to be actually concerned about, at the every least, helping Jubilee stay out of trouble. And yet, even after a giant purple robot which has been widely reported to be in the employ of the MCA punches a hole in his house, he's still calling up to sell out the X-Men.
It might seem like I'm overthinking this, but let's be honest here: If you make something without knowing X-Men fans are going to overthink it, that's on you.
Either way, Jubilee's father suddenly realizes how out of character he was in that last scene and tells Cyclops that he needs to get out literally ten seconds after he snitches on him. But it was all part of Cyclops's master plan to lure the Sentinels out for a fight.
In the middle of a suburban neighborhood.
Cyclops is kind of an awful super-hero.
Cyclops blows off the Sentinel's arm in one hit, which you'd think he would've tried back in that big fight where a bunch of them were trying to murder him and his best friends, but whatever. What matters now is that the Sentinel, having been thoroughly Geoff Johnsed, is forced to fly back to headquarters for repairs, and the X-Men are waiting to follow in the Blackbird. Once it gets home, the Sentinel promptly falls through the open skylight for no reason and lands directly on the generator that was keeping Jubilee tied to that table.
At this point, I'm starting to think that Coincidence might actually be an X-Man.
Jubilee makes her escape, and by the quiet strains of the theme song swelling in the background, we now know that it's time for a fight scene. I may have missed a scene where the X-Men discovered the power of friendship or believing in themselves or something, but they suddenly have the ability to just beat the living hell out of the Sentinels that they were completely lacking fifteen minutes before this. Everybody takes a turn blowing them up or punching them out, but my favorite is definitely Wolverine, who leaps out of a pile of tires that's in this Sentinel factory for absolutely no reason and just starts clawing his way down a giant robot like a kitty cat on a set of drapes.
Thus, evil is defeated, and because 15 year-olds can just do whatever the hell they want in this universe, Jubilee breaks the sad news to her foster parents that she's going to go live at Professor Xavier's school now. And that brings our first adventure to a close!
So, how does it hold up? Well, as much as I love hate to say it, it is not very good.
Even though they debuted a month apart, it's tough to compare X-Men to Batman: The Animated Series, because Batman was exceptional, especially for the time. X-Men, though, barely feels average. The animation feels like a step down even from G.I. Joe, which made its debut 7 years earlier, and a lot of the voices -- lookin' at you here, Gambit -- are pretty rough, even for a pilot episode. The writing is muddled and confused even by the standards of a continuity-heavy comic that's been compressed down for kids, the sentinels are completely inconsistent as a threat, and it's hard to care about anyone for any reason other than knives coming out of one's hands. Even at the start, the cast is already so bloated that Jean and Professor X are non-entities. They don't even really get an introduction before being swept aside to give Storm time to call on the powers of air and darkness like she's Mumm-Ra the Ever-Living.
But when you get right down to it, does any of that really matter? Like I said, I loved this show when I was right in the middle of its target demographic, and even though it wasn't great, it ended up hooking me as a fan and leading me to some pretty great comics. Admittedly, it led me to some bad ones too, but it had a better track record than WildC.A.T.s, that's for sure. It certainly could've been a better show, but it definitely did its job.
And besides: You can't go wrong if your theme song has an ominous church bell. That's just a fact.
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