X-Men ’97: What That Jean Grey Cliffhanger Means for the Show

Confused by the cliffhanger at the end of X-Men '97's second episode? We've got all the answers, straight from the classic '80s comics.

X-Men 97 Characters
Photo: Marvel Studios

This X-Men ’97 article contains spoilers.

“I need the X-Men!” declares a frightened and bruised Jean Grey at the end of the X-Men ’97 two-episode premiere before passing out in front of the team. An injured Jean is distressing enough, but add to that the fact that this Jean Grey is not the Jean Grey we’ve been following for the first two episodes. It’s a second one, while the first is standing by Cyclops, watching this doppelganger in shock. For casual viewers, this cliffhanger may require an X-plainer.

When we catch up with the team at the start of the first episode of X-Men ’97, Marvel’s animated revival of the hit 90s cartoon series, a pregnant Jean contemplates leaving the team with Cyclops, where the couple can raise their son together. But that decision is delayed when Magneto shows up to honor Charles Xavier’s will and take over the mutant team. Amidst the other events in the jam-packed opening episodes, which also involve rescuing Sunspot from the Friends of Humanity and the trial of the X-Men’s reformed arch-enemy, Jean gives birth to Nathan Charles Summers, a happy and healthy little boy.

Things seem to be looking up for Jean and her husband by the end of the two-parter, until the second Jean Grey shows up. Confused? Worry not, for I have the answers. To me, my X-Men ’97 viewers!

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The Unhappy Tale of Madelyne Pryor

The ’90s X-Men cartoon series won fans by directly adapting storylines from the Marvel Comics, translating the strange and soapy tales written by Chris Claremont to a Saturday morning format. So it should be no surprise that the answer to the twin Jean question can be found in the comics.

Two redheads did vie for the love and attention of Scott Summers, but not necessarily at the same time. The second appeared in 1983’s Uncanny X-Men #168, written by Claremont, penciled by Paul Smith, inked by Bob Wiacek, colored by Glynis Wein, and lettered by Tom Orzechowski. After the death of Jean Grey during the Dark Phoenix Saga, Scott Summers left the team and moved back to his native Alaska. There, he met a pretty redheaded pilot named Madelyne Pryor.

Despite some initial misgivings about falling for someone who looked so much like his lost love, Scott and Maddie made it work. They got married, had a son (who went without a name in the comics for a really long time), and lived happily ever after. At least, that was Claremont’s plan. In a radical break from the standards of American superhero comics, Claremont intended for the X-Men characters to mature and change. If he had his way, Cyclops would retire from superheroing and Jean Grey would stay dead.

But Claremont did not have his way, so when Marvel’s notorious editor-in-chief Jim Shooter wanted a new X-book with the five original X-Men back, Cyke came out of retirement and Jean came back from the grave. And lest one think that X-Factor writer Bob Layton would take advantage of the soapy drama of Cyclops fighting alongside his ex-girlfriend, who happens to look a lot like his current wife, think again. As soon as Cyclops learned from Iceman that Jean was alive in 1986’s X-Factor #1, literally the very second he heard the news on the phone, he dumped his wife and son and went to join her.

To this day, X-Men fans agree with Claremont that Cyclops has not recovered from that act of character assassination, one as deadly as Ant-Man Hank Pym slapping the Wasp or Green Lantern dating a teenager. However, Claremont did the best he could with the editorial interference. First, he kept Maddie around as a side character in Uncanny X-Men, devoting page attention to the complexity of Maddie’s feelings.

Well, mostly, Claremont also reveals that Pryor looks so much like Jean Grey because she is Jean Grey, more or less. She’s a clone of the villain Mr. Sinister, an evil geneticist with an interest in controlling the Summers line. Moreover, the displaced Jean gets tempted by a demon called N’astirh, who promises to give her power to protect her son, finally named Nathan.

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As often happen with devil deals, things go badly for Maddie and she gets transformed into the Goblin Queen, a cackling supervillain in a gravity-defying costume, the center of the Inferno crossover that ran across Marvel Comics from 1988-1989 (in which Daredevil fights a demon-possessed vacuum cleaner, but that’s another story for another time). As big as the Goblin Queen gets during Inferno, Claremont finds ways to ground her Hell-turn in understandable emotions, those of an abandoned wife and mother.

Animated Inferno

With Magneto taking over as headmaster of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children and new leader of the X-Men, X-Men ’97 clearly plans to fill the villain gap with Mr. Sinister, who is even featured in the opening credits scaring Morph. So it’s not much of a surprise that his cloning shenanigans would make their way into the series this early. There’s no doubt after this cliffhanger that the arrival of Madelyne Pryor will kick off an adaptation of Inferno. First on the team’s list will probably be to figure out which Jean is the real Jean and which is the clone. Plenty of Claremont-esque drama should ensue at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters.

And as much as the show follows the beats of the original comics, the truncated approach offers new storytelling opportunities, as demonstrated in the first two episodes of X-Men ’97. By putting Jean Grey and Madelyne Pryor together in the same scene, the show can explore themes of identity and belonging that the comics missed. Moreover, the cartoon series offers a chance to complicate the life of Cyclops without making him a deadbeat dad.

By distilling Claremont’s soap opera style down to a 30-minute cartoon scripts, X-Men ’97 raises every plot point to a crescendo. Sometimes, the approach is overwhelming. But by condensing the Goblin Queen story to a handful of episodes X-Men ’97 could open storytelling possibilities that the comics missed the first time around.

New episodes of X-Men ’97 stream on Wednesdays on Disney+.