X-Men: What Lessons Can Previous Shows Teach the New One?

James looks back at seven previous X-Men TV shows to see what Fox's in-development series could do well to emulate and avoid...

We’re having another party and screening an assortment of lesser-known Marvel weirdness at Den of Geek Presents…Marvel Oddities on June 27th. Click here for details on how you can join us!

Fox is planning to bring the X-Men franchise to TV in some form or another, doubtlessly hoping to compete with Marvel and DC’s ever-growing stable of shows.

And why not? The X-Men are no strangers to television, with a surprising number of TV appearances under their belts. So what are they like, and what can Fox learn from them as it attempts to bring a new X-Men TV series to life?

X-Men: Pryde Of The X-Men (1989)

This 30-minute animated episode was produced as a pilot for an X-Men show and mostly used the 1970s Claremont/Byrne era team as its basis, though with one obvious exception. Had Marvel gone ahead, we’d have seen a team consisting of Professor X, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, Wolverine, Dazzler (yes, Dazzler), and a newly-recruited Kitty Pryde facing off against the “Brotherhood of Mutant Terrorists” – Magneto, Toad, the Blob, Pyro, Juggernaut, and the White Queen.

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If that cast looks familiar, it’s because this adaptation was also the basis for the excellent 1992 Konami arcade game.

As cartoons go, Pryde Of The X-Men was generally considered…alright. It showcases a team of fairly classic X-Men and has a strong line-up of villains, so that box was convincingly ticked. The animation was great, but the writing was clichéd. Most bafflingly, Wolverine – probably the most famous Canadian on the planet – spoke with an Australian accent, probably because Crocodile Dundee and Mad Max had made Australia briefly cool.

Still, for all that it got wrong, it did a few things right: beginning with an established team and having a new character join as the audience entry point, heavily featuring Wolverine, and starting far enough back in the X-Men’s history that there were some classic stories to come but without going all the way back to the beginning. We may never know how it would’ve fared as a series, but it’s safe to say it could’ve been worse.

Lessons to learn: There’s not a huge amount you can say about under 30 minutes of reasonable-quality adaptation, but if nothing else, at least try to give your characters the right accent.

X-Men: The Animated Series (1992)

If you were born in the late ’70s or early ’80s, it’s a safe bet that your first exposure to the X-Men was in the form of the 1992 animated show, which ran for 5 series of gradually decreasing quality. Based on the early-90s X-Men (which set records for superhero comic book sales that may never be broken) and featuring the iconic Jim Lee character designs, it’s quite easy to look back on the ’90s X-Men series with some disdain. It was riddled with animation errors, the writing tended towards angst-ridden melodrama and some of the voice acting only met the minimum standards of the description.

But at the same time, there’s a reason this series was completely huge and survived for 76 episodes: It treated its source material with respect.

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After all, this was a series in which the first season featured a 13-part serial subplot in which Beast got thrown in jail and insisted on going to trial to prove his innocence, and the impending mutant registration act was the political background to the X-Men’s ongoing struggles. Whatever crimes you can accuse this series of, talking down to its audience was not one of them. Season 2 was a lot less tightly plotted (to help with syndication, presumably) but by that point the show was busy adapting any and all areas of the X-Men mythos, unafraid to rework them to fit its own continuity above that of the comics. Its adaptation of the Phoenix Saga in Season 3 is about as good as ’90s cartoons got, even if animation delays did mean episodes kept airing out of sequence and the episodes which explained how Jean came back to life aired in Season 5.

Unfortunately, the show struggled to reach the highs of its cosmic epic again, and although multi-part episodes weren’t uncommon, the idea of an ongoing season-length storyline was basically abandoned from season 4 on. Quality was variable throughout and eventually plummeted in the final 6 episodes which had a new animation style and much simpler writing. It was not the dignified end a once-popular show deserved.

Lessons to learn: Don’t be afraid to remix the comics mythology (as long as you keep the heart of the story intact. X-Men: The Last Stand, we’re looking at you). and don’t ignore the social issues that made the X-Men popular in the first place.

Generation X TV Movie (1996)

The X-Men’s first live-action outing was produced by Fox TV and occupies the same critical space as the 1998 David Hasselhoff Nick Fury movie and the 2005 Lion’s Gate Man-Thing film that most people don’t even know exists. Which is to say, it’s not remembered very fondly due to terrible visuals, poor acting and special effects that wouldn’t put an Amiga 500 to shame.

That said, it isn’t a total wash-out. Yes, they cast Jubilee as white instead of Chinese. Yes, they replaced Husk and Chamber with two original characters who had cheaper powers and even more dubious names (“Buff” and “Refrax”, we barely knew ye). And yes, it featured more swearing than any other Marvel adaptation except the Blade films. However… wait, where was I going with this again?

Okay, yes. It does have its moments. Jubilee joining and bonding with the team is fun, as are the training exercises the team has, and it only gets really awful in the final act when the team has a low-budget fight with Matt Frewer in “the dreamscape” which they access through a magic chair. Despite her terrible name, Buff – a bookish teenage girl with body issues due to the overdeveloped muscles that give her super-strength – feels like a character well ahead of her time. If you squint, you can see that they were aiming for the Tomorrow People-meets-Dawson’s Creek formula that Smallville eventually nailed.

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And clearly Fox treated some parts of it like a dry run for future X-Men adaptations. The film opened with a dictionary definition of “mutant” in a move that the 2000 X-Men movie copied virtually to the word, and the Xavier Institute was filmed at Hatley Castle, which would serve as Xavier’s School in the first three X-Men movies.

Intended as the pilot for a potential TV series, this is as far as that endeavor made it – but it’s still worth watching once if you can track down a copy. As an X-Men spin-off, the basic fabric of teen X-Men in training with a pair of veteran teachers (in this case, Banshee and the reformed White Queen) would’ve worked. It was only the execution that doomed it.

Lessons to learn: Don’t whitewash ethnicities. Also if you’re going to make original characters, it helps to not give them terrible names and (in the case of Refrax) a personality so grating that you start rooting for the villains.

Mutant X (2001)

A previous attempt at bringing a live action X-Men series – or at least, something quite like it – to the small screen, Mutant X took the name of a little-regarded X-Men spin-off book (which starred a version of Havok who had been displaced into an alternate universe) and dumped virtually everything else, even down to the very concept of mutants, who in this show were created by an evil company rather than human evolution.

Part of the reason it looked so odd was because essentially, the courts had ordered that it be completely disconnected from the X-Men movies. When the show was announced, Fox sued Marvel (and the other two production companies involved, Tribune and Fireworks) claiming that it had the rights to develop the X-Men property for TV, and that Mutant X was infringing on them. Marvel counter-sued saying the two were dissimilar, and were eventually given the go ahead to continue production as long as they didn’t mention or use any X-Men material as part of the promotion – right down to changing the shape of the “X” logo so it didn’t look like the X-Men movie’s “X” (you can imagine the difficulties with this).

Indeed, pre-lawsuit interviews with the creators emphasised the connection to the X-Men property, and it’s not hard to see how that might’ve upset Fox. The original pitch featured a telepath called “Emma,” a villain with the surname Magnus, an antagonist named “Senator Kilmartin” and code-names for every character, all of which were dumped or altered before it aired.

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Eventually Marvel and Fox settled, Tribute and Fox settled, and Fireworks folded. Tribune then sued Marvel claiming that they’d been encouraged by Marvel to connect Mutant X to the X-Men. Marvel counter-sued claiming that it was all Tribune’s fault and that in any case, Tribune hadn’t even paid them. It was all settled in 2005. In any case, the show they ended up making ran for three seasons before being cancelled on a cliffhanger and no-one is clamouring for its return.

Lessons to learn: Don’t try and play hardball with character rights. This sort of thing is why Agents Of SHIELD can’t say the word “mutant,” or even words that might sound like mutant, like nutant, or pollutant. You can bet if Fox’s TV series goes anywhere near the word “Avengers” Marvel will hit Fox with a lawsuit so hard that their grandchildren will be born in front of a jury.

X-Men: Evolution (2003)

Just as the early ’90s X-Men series defined those characters for a generation, the 2003 X-Men: Evolution series defines the characters for those born in the ’90s who were maybe a little too young to enjoy the films. Although it came out as a companion piece to the movies, it’s not really based on them, instead featuring a bunch of de-aged teenage X-Men (in originally-designed costumes) being trained in the use of their powers by teachers like Beast, Storm, and Wolverine.

Although it looked a lot slicker than the ’90s cartoon, it was also a lot simpler – though that didn’t stop it becoming the third most long-running Marvel cartoon after the ’90s X-Men and Spider-Man series. Some of its ideas were pretty good. The goth version of Rogue briefly threatened to supplant the “Southern Belle” version in the comics and most notably it introduced X-23, the teenage girl clone of Wolverine, long before she made it into the comics where she continues to be popular.

Unfortunately, the writing in the early season wasn’t really up to scratch and it improved a little too slowly to convince purists put off by the seeming disregard for the source material, which was only adapted in the loosest terms. Those who grew up with it can undoubtedly see past these flaws, and that’s not to diminish anyone’s experiences of enjoying it – but a decade after it ended it’s hard to see this version of the team as anything more than a footnote in the introduction of X-23, whose popularly vastly eclipses that of the series itself.

Lessons to learn: Before you reimagine the X-Men completely, take a moment to ask what it is about your imagination that’s better than the likes of Lee/Kirby and Claremont/Byrne, and don’t carry on until you have a convincing answer.

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Wolverine and the X-Men (2009)

Considering the affection I have for the ’90s cartoon, it’s almost hard for me to admit that of all the X-Men’s TV (and for that matter, movie) adaptations, the one that comes closest to embodying the comics is probably this one.

Starting with the X-Men team being ripped apart by the apparent death of Jean Grey and the Professor, the story follows Wolverine as he tries to reassemble the X-Men and discover the whereabouts of their lost allies, who might actually still be alive. Rather than get stuck in the post-movie rut of making Wolverine the focus of every X-Men story, this one uses the conceit to its advantage, allowing characters like Rogue and Cyclops to branch out, personality wise, using their relationship to Wolverine as a counterpoint.

Where the series really succeeds is in its wide use of characters major and minor, all pulled from the comics. From classic Claremontian characters, Grant Morrison’s creations, right up to characters who were barely established on the page (Hellion, for example), this was a series that considered no-one off limits, and if anything it adapted the stories better than the ’90s cartoon did.

The only bad thing about it? It ends on a cliffhanger and its second season – promising a season-arc focusing on the fight against X-Men ubervillain Apocalypse – was abruptly cancelled due to what appear to have been internal licensing politics.

Lessons to learn: It helps to put familiar characters in unexpected roles. Wolverine as the team’s central figure gave Cyclops a chance to be a disaffected loner and Rogue to be the wayward maverick. It was an interesting approach that gave old characters a new spin.

Marvel Anime X-Men (2011)

The last of the X-Men’s TV appearances, the X-Men anime was produced in Japan by Madhouse, and used an outline by celebrated sci-fi comics writer Warren Ellis as its basis. It largely used the line-up from Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run, which is to say Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Beast, White Queen, and neophyte Armor. Bizarrely, the only real foes in the series were the U-Men – humans who augment themselves with mutant transplanted body organs to acquire powers.

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Like many anime series it was essentially a single 12-part story, and it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t succeed on its own terms – although it wasn’t really nerdy enough for my liking, tending to create new characters rather than return to the source material. It also doesn’t help that about 90% of the series seems to take place in snowy mountains.

But hey, if the story’s a bit slow it’s hard to fault the animation, which is about as amazing as you’d expect from a veteran anime studio. It looks better than any other animation on this list by some distance. As usual the dubbing is terrible (so watch it with the original voice acting and subtitles if you can) but otherwise it’s far from awful. Though it would’ve benefited considerably from being about half as long. Still, you can’t fault those action scenes.

Lessons to learn: Take advantage of the various characters and settings offered to you by the X-Men’s expansive canon. Finding excuses for the same 5 characters to repeatedly visit one hillside in Japan gets old really fast.

And that, more or less, brings us to today. So for reference, the quality order of the X-Men’s various TV outings is as follows:

1. Wolverine & the X-Men 2. X-Men: The Animated Series 3. Marvel Anime X-Men 4. X-Men Evolution 5. X-Men: Pryde of the X-Men 6. Mutant X 7. Generation X TV Movie

Of course, it’s possible that any future Fox series won’t adapt the core team, so if you’re interested in what storylines and spin-offs they might mine for a premise, well, watch this space…

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We’re having another party and screening an assortment of lesser-known Marvel weirdness at Den of Geek Presents…Marvel Oddities on June 27th. Click here for details on how you can join us!

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