Back in the spring of 1996, the X-Men were at the height of their glory…or at least their commercial success. At the time, there were no less than eight ongoing monthly X-titles (X-Men, Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Force, Excalibur, Wolverine, Cable, and Generation X) in print, averaging a major crossover event once a year, and the beloved and critically acclaimed animated series was well into in its fourth season.
There were constant rumblings of a movie floating around Hollywood, much to the delight of fans who had been waiting for one since at least the mid-80s. Indeed, the house that Xavier built was where it was at. And then someone would mention the prospect of a live action TV series and the room would get really quiet. Because how? How could you even approach something with the kind of scale and content as the X-Men Universe and make it work for a mainstream audience?
Ever since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, advancements in CGI were making things possible in film that could never have been dreamed of just a few years prior. But where was a weekly network series to find the budget for something like that? Still…the idea of an X-Universe live action TV series held some appeal. They could air a backdoor pilot as a TV movie, and if it was a success, a series could follow. But which title? Which characters? Well, a few factors went into this decision.
If the network went with the X-Men themselves or one of their closely associated teams and the project was a failure, it could poison the well for any live action X-Men properties in the works. And there were a lot of ways a show like that could go wrong. Remain slavish to the comics, and you risk alienating a mainstream audience, which you need to keep the series afloat. Change too much, and you risk alienating longtime fans of those characters and stories, the only guaranteed fanbase you have.
And then there was Generation X, the redheaded (and red-suited) stepchild of the X-Men franchise. In a lot of ways, Generation X was the perfect property. It was the newest of the X-titles, not even two years old, so with the exception of Jubilee, Banshee, and Emma Frost, none of the characters had been around long enough to really capture the hearts of the readers. It was just X-Men enough that its success could pave the way for any future projects but removed enough that its failure wouldn’t spell their doom. And on top of all that, in a post-90210 TV landscape, teen drama was all the rage, and as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would prove the following year, a teen empowerment fantasy riddled with allegory and angst was something the masses were just waiting to fall in love with.
The premise they started with was brilliant. Veteran X-Man Sean Cassidy a.k.a. Banshee and reformed villain Emma Frost (formerly the White Queen) open a splinter school of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters in the Berkshires. Where the original school, now renamed The Xavier Institute of Higher Learning, remained the home and headquarters of the X-Men, the task of training wayward mutant teens would fall to the newly established Massachusetts Academy. With Sean, Emma, and the X-Men’s token teen member Jubilee bridging the gap to the parent series, it set the stage for a new generation of X-Men in training.
It was a pretty solid comic, and had the potential for a massively popular live action series. So, there you had it. It was perfect. Generation X marked the spot!
Only… not so much.
Early on in the development of the pilot, certain concessions were made to budgetary constraints. In order to rely heavily on characters whose powers could be easily demonstrated with comparatively inexpensive practical effects, some of the flashier and more interesting characters did not make the cut, and those that did were visually toned down.
The most obvious casualty was Chamber, a mutant whose psionic energy manifested so violently that it blew out his entire chest cavity and lower jaw. Now without several internal organs, his life is sustained by the energy cascading from his chest. Similarly, Penance, a silent, somewhat feral girl whose crimson skin and hair was diamond hard and razor sharp would have been immensely difficult to pull off. Same for Husk, the younger sister of New Mutants/X-Force fan favorite Cannonball, who had the power to shed her skin to reveal a temporary alternate form (animal or mineral) underneath. Keeping that conceit fresh 12 issues a year was challenging enough, to say nothing of 22 episodes a season. And then there was Synch, who theoretically had the easiest power to depict because all it meant was mimicking powers that already existed in that episode. Yet somehow, he got deep-sixed as well.
The characters who remained from the comic’s lineup were the firework shooting Jubilee, who was more or less guaranteed a spot due to her recognizability via the X-Men animated series. Her ethnicity, however, did not survive the transfer as the Chinese American character was unfortunately whitewashed by the casting of a white actress (who, in all fairness, was one of the better actors in the cast).
Skin, who, as his name suggests, had prehensile control of about six feet of extra skin on his body, also made the leap, although he was confused with the Fantastic Four’s Mr. Fantastic, whose entire body was malleable, not just his skin. Then there was M, an easy transfer as most of her powers (basically being hot, smart, super-strong, and invulnerable) were cheap and easy to depict onscreen. Only her power of flight was omitted, though that would have been easy enough to bring in down the line. Her seemingly random bouts of catatonia also got the axe, a pity since they and their root were probably the most interesting thing about her.
And then Mondo, whose power was to take on the appearance and properties of any organic substance he touches)… yeah… Mondo got kind of robbed in that not only was his power lamely reduced to merely taking on the hardness of the object he “absorbs” (a conveniently invisible effect), but both his ethnicity and personality were completely scooped out and replaced, transforming him from a fat, easy-going Samoan to a hot, douchey, macho jock stereotype played by a black actor. This was likely an attempt to 1) better appeal to the audience as there were likely to be more black than Samoan viewers just by sheer demographic numbers; and 2) honor Synch in some small way.
While Penance got the shaft completely, Husk was somewhat represented with original character Buff, who was also a southern blonde. Buff possessed enhanced strength and musculature, basically giving her the same powers as M, just with twice the body issues. Her insecurity over her body led to her wearing sweats in almost every scene (of course), thus rendering her mutancy essentially invisible and thus cheap to pass off. It’s been suggested that Refrax, another character made for the TV movie, was he replacement for Chamber, but with his optic radiation beams, he’s more of a punk rock (or so the writer thought) knock-off of X-Men’s Cyclops than anything.
So, there were some tweaks to the cast. The characters and their abilities were modified a bit, but it wasn’t a total loss. Time and success could bring in more money, which meant better special effects, which could open the door to more characters and stories from the comics. Hell, as long as it was a good script with decent production values, it had a shot.
Only Eric Blakeney’s script was not very good. At all. To say that it sucked would be inordinately kind.
Rather than focus on an actual villain from the comics, the villain was a cheesy mad scientist stock character, Russell Tresh. Now, the criticisms of Matt Frewer’s performance as Tresh of being derivative of Jim Carrey are patently unfair, seeing as Frewer was doing Carrey’s whole manic weirdo schtick years before anyone even knew who Jim Carrey was. However, it is almost certain that Carrey’s popularity at the time played a part in the writing of the character.
And what a horrible character he was. I mean, on top of being just plain annoying and boringly cliché, his goals and plan made very little sense and he was a saddled with an almost obligatory laundry list of “evil” characteristics. He was psychopathic AND racist AND sexist AND it’s even suggested that he’s a pedophile. It’s amazing the character could dance around the set, chewing scenery with such flamboyance, given the enormity of the black hat the writer slapped on his head.
Rather than give us a pilot about Emplate, the villainous older brother of M who featured as the antagonist of the first issue of the Generation X comic book and proved to be a major recurring villain in the series, we got a bloated, nonsensical script about the “dream dimension,” featuring Frewer as the most irritating possible hybrid of Freddy Krueger and Jim Carrey’s Riddler from Batman Forever. Emplate’s connection with M that would have added some depth and purpose to an otherwise flat and seemingly extraneous character who came off in the movie as little more than the standard stock “high school bitch” archetype. There was potential for real character-specific moments, and instead all the “bonding” that transpires is drawn from a fondue pot of the most tired, clichéd teen drama tropes in the book.
In nearly every scene, you can see the hand of the network and the studio coming in to make “crowd-pleasing” adjustments, and the stank of focus grouping is all over Generation X. I can practically hear the gears grinding in the creative team’s heads as they asked themselves, “What are the kids into these days? Kids still like skateboards, right? They’re radical. And sex! Oh, kids are always talking and thinking about the sex!”
The Generation X movie was… not the greatest script ever written. It wasn’t even the best pilot. It wasn’t even the best hokey ’90s action/adventure pilot. It was a preposterous story that had absolutely nothing to do with the comics, featuring a watered down team pitted against an irritating villain nobody liked. Its failure can’t even be laid at the foot of its campy writing, low production values, and shitty special effects, seeing as they’re pretty much what Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess were built on, and those franchises thrived for the better part of a decade.
It was ultimately a desire to serve too many masters that took what could have been a fun, exciting TV movie and potential series and turned it into a gnarly homunculus of teen stereotypes and pandering content and style choices. In trying to please too many people, the film ends up pleasing no one. It’s neither loyal enough to the source material to please hardcore fans nor bold enough to establish its own identity. It neither takes it self seriously enough to earn its sincere moments nor does is devolve into legitimate parody or so-bad-it’s-good territory.
And in the end, the fact that Generation X was chosen as the guinea pig for this little experiment is probably what saved the X-Men Cinematic Universe from being aborted in utero. Its removal from the mothership indemnified the franchise against the consequences of its failure. A mere three years later, the first X-Men movie went into production, and we’re all the better for it.
The Generation X comic would only survive for another few years, becoming little more than a footnote in the X-Men franchise’s history. Whether that was a result of the movie’s failure or a mere coincidence remains open to conjecture, but there you have it. The movie was universally panned, and it’s likely all parties involved knew that it would never go to series before it even aired, but it was an experimental procedure worth pioneering. So, maybe if someone had to die on this operating table, Generation X was the best possible volunteer. An experiment is only a failure if it doesn’t teach you anything, and this one gave us a comprehensive list of mistakes that were never repeated with the franchise again.
Maybe that’s why we were so willing to let it fade from memory, becoming little more than a punchline and slightly less than a cautionary tale: because we learned from it. We learned those lessons all too well. It’s easy to discount this as a tangential entry in the franchise, barely even an X-Men property. We like to. It takes some of the sting out of how enormously bad it is.
Honestly, Finola Hughes’ portrayal of Emma Frost aside (eat your heavily sedated Bond girl heart out, January Jones), who really mourns for Generation X? No one.
And I’d say that’s for all for the best.