A comic book purist would tell you the best version of comic book characters is found in comic books. And while there’s a certain amount of books-first logic to that belief, it doesn’t apply to the X-Men. The best version of the X-Men existed in the Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1992-1997. It was an imperfect cartoon that would never, ever exist now. It also thrived during an improbable time for Marvel and superheroes in general, which, makes its coolness all the more endearing.
If you were a ’90s kid, the reason why you loved this version of the X-Men is probably that the animation style looked like a comic-book come-to-life, but, not in a way that was annoying or confusing, or that took too many liberties. The Cyclops and Wolverine, Jean Grey, and Storm of the ’90s X-Men weren’t really trying to pay homage to the X-Men of the ’60s or the ’70s, they were, for the most part, the versions of those characters that made sense for ’90s kids. In this way, despite some of the characters having complicated backstories that stretched back decades into comic book history, the X-Men cartoon felt very contemporary.
Contrast this with your average child’s conception of Superman or Batman in the ’90s. By 1996, a kid had about a million different ideas what those two superheroes looked like on the screen. From Michael Keaton to Adam West as Batman to Christopher Reeve and Dean Cain as Superman (I’ll not even get into the Superboy shows, even though I want to) the identities of big legacy DC characters was decidedly schizophrenic; at least, aesthetically. But in the ’90s, the X-Men weren’t like that. Instead, our childhood conception of what the X-Men looked like wasn’t open to interpretation, because we had one single canon: the ’90s cartoon. That is what Magento looked like. Cyclops wore blue. Professor X’s chair should always be that gold-anti-gravity style one. Sure, if we dipped into the comics, things might start to get different. But the consistency of the visual style was why kids loved the X-Men. Other superheroes had a million identities, but because of their edgy uniformity in this cartoon, X-Men felt subversive but reliable at the same time.
Aesthetics matter a lot to little kids. Part of the reason why He-Man and the Masters of the Universe faltered in the late ’80s is that it changed He-Man’s “look.” (This fact is well-documented in the Netflix documentary about He-Man.) But, I’d argue that the reason why Wolverine endured in the imaginations of children well past the ’90s is that his aesthetic was firmly established in the ’90s cartoon, and then, wasn’t really screwed with for the live-action movies.
Sure, I had a friend in the year 2000 say that Hugh Jackman was too tall to play Wolverine, but the reason why that film, and the subsequent X-Men films, sparked so much loyalty and box office dollars was because, for the most part, we were all going to the movies to see a live action version of the cartoon, not an adaptation of a comic book. The various directors and writers of the X-Men films may have had different intentions, but it seems like the reason people ever cared about these movies was because of this excellent cartoon.
We can discuss at length all the reasons why this series was important, but it basically comes down to two things. First, Marvel declared bankruptcy in 1996, right toward the end of the run of this show. Second, like the comic books it came from, the X-Men cartoon dealt with social issues ranging from divorce to AIDS. It wasn’t exactly Daniel Tiger in the way the mutants dealt with these issues, but instead, took a slightly more adult tact in letting kids understand these issues.
Because the show was popular among ’90s kids, it primed the entire zeitgeist for the superhero movie boom that followed. Obviously, a lot the popularity of superheroes is connected to nostalgia, but when the X-Men movies starting taking off in 2000, it was because of recent nostalgia. The ’90s made the X-Men a product of that generation, and as we all pass into adulthood, it’s a nice time to look back and remember how good we had it.
Oh, and the theme song kicked ass.
Dark Phoenix, the final X-Men movie from Fox is out in theaters this weekend.