“X-Men: Evolution” Was a Step Up for the X-Men

After FOX Studios revived comic book property the X-Men and paved the comic book movie as bonafide moneymaker, the canvas of pop culture was carved from the gateway “Blade” forged. After the 2000 cinematic adaptation “X-Men” and its sequel “X2,” both films and the franchised built shocking influence, not just on other genre properties, but comics in general. With X-Men once again being celebrated, the iconic series and comic book team was primed for an animated reboot, after the end of “X-Men: The Animated Series.” Marvel and Film Roman approached the series from a different angle by establishing a new continuity of the “merry mutants” in contemporary times. They changed the focus of the series, as well as the ages of the entire group to appeal to a wider young audience.

And it worked.

Rather than make the entire roster of characters younger, some of the X-Men were preteen, some teens entering adulthood, while other characters were approaching middle age. For example, in “X-Men: Evolution,” the primary characters Scott Summers and Jean Grey are high school juniors heading in to senior year, Kitty Pryde is a sophomore, while Storm and Wolverine are elders that help teach the students in the Xavier Academy. Former primary characters Wolverine and Storm took a less central role, this time playing mentors and becoming the faculty.

The switch up works, for the most part, as the series gradually establishes the importance of various characters and leads to the inevitable importance of many others. This is something the movie series wasn’t doing at the time, making Wolverine the central protagonist. In a change of pace from the 90s era animated series, “Evolution” sidesteps a lot of the comics’ storylines in favor of more timely social undertones including xenophobia, racism, homophobia, and the bullying epidemic. Admittedly the series suffers from a shaky ride during its first season, with simplistic storylines involving Scott and the other mutants attending a “normal” high school with humans, on the basis that they never use their powers in public.

Events are complicated, though, when a militant new principal (who happens to be Mystique) starts shaking things up. As it turns out, Mystique is being used by Magneto to infiltrate the school and weed out potential mutant recruits, all the while enlisting the evil Brotherhood as students. Similar to their comic counterparts, but not exactly as sophisticated or deadly, the Brotherhood’s purpose is to foil and antagonize the Xavier students, looking for reasons to expose their powers.

The early seasons of the series revolve around a limited group of teenage students including Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Rogue. The series made a point of including characters not featured in the nineties series including new student Kurt Wagner, and the bubbly Kitty Pryde. Also introduced is a new mutant named Spyke, a mutant capable of generating bone plated armor and shooting bone spikes from his body, who also happens to be Storm’s nephew. Also given bigger focus were the villains with Toad, Quicksilver, Blob, and Avalanche placed as the recurring villains.

The series later escalates into larger more complex story lines, involving Magneto’s Asteroid M and Mystique’s attempts to bond with Rogue. What I loved most about “Evolution” is that it bid its time, introducing many fan favorites with excellent twists that kept audiences guessing. The series continued introducing new mutants, while re-introducing old favorites in creative new ways, and yes, varying ages. Among them were the wild teen Boom Boom, Sunspot, the preteen Iceman (only featured in one episode in “The Animated Series”), Wolfsbane, Magma, the preteen Multiple, Jubilee (now only a supporting character), Berzerker, and Cannonball.

Colossus and (former “The Animated Series” regular) Gambit are originally introduced as Magneto’s henchmen in season one, while Scarlet Witch is transformed in to a mentally unbalanced teenager whose immense powers drive her insane. Former “The Animated Series” regular Beast is also eventually integrated in to the series first as a brilliant high school teacher and volleyball coach who gradually mutates in to a vicious blue monster over the course of a few episodes. After many struggles with his image, he accepts himself and his mutant abilities and becomes a moral center of the Xavier academy as a teacher and role model in the later episodes.

Like previous X-Men iterations, we also got to explore much of Wolverine’s past, with surprise guest spots by Captain America, the original Nick Fury, and Wolverine’s younger female counterpart (original creation) X-23. Programmed by Hydra, X-23 is introduced as Laura Kinney, a very powerful warrior with similar claws and mutant powers, who seeks Wolverine out to murder him when she pits the blame on her poor life on her predecessor. X-23 (much like Harley Quinn from “Batman,” and Livewire “Superman,”) was an original creation of the animated series and was eventually introduced in to the Marvel comic book universe due to her massive popularity.

She became official canon for the Marvel Universe, and is considered one of the most popular X-Men characters to date. By season three, the storylines became much more serious in tone while remaining focused on social issues when the mutants are eventually outed during a massive battle with the Sentinels. This confrontation prompts many of the young mutants to figure out if they want to continue their descent in to humanity, or if they want to stay in the public eye at all.

Like previous X-Men properties, much of Stan Lee’s original themes and undertones were injected, except now with a larger emphasis on coming out, and accepting who you are as a person inside and out. This becomes especially true for Kurt Wagner who is proud to be blue and furry, but experiences a reluctance to show off his true form. His own self loathing puts him at odds with his teammates who grow to resent him.

In the final season, the writers even pay tribute to older fans by teaming up the original five X-Men from the comics: Iceman, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Angel, and Beast, when they set out to stop the villain Mesmero from unleashing an ancient monster. In the end, they discover in a stunning turn of events that the monster is actually a guardian, hell bent on keeping an ancient mutant named Apocalypse imprisoned. With Apocalypse introduced as a major nemesis for the team, the X-Men are forced to defend a world that may or may not accept them, no matter what sacrifices are made.

Paired with excellent animation and top notch voice work, “X-Men: Evolution” is yet another of the great Saturday morning cartoons long overdue for a comeback. It’s easily my favorite of the animated “X-Men” iterations. While many nineties kids favor “The Animated Series” unconditionally, I think “Evolution” has aged so much more, and is filled with oodles of potential that sadly never blossomed. I hope if we do get some kind of X-Men property from the MCU in the next five years, that it borrows from “Evolution,” especially in focusing more on the kids, and giving Wolverine a back seat. In either case, it’s superb and I re-watch it whenever possible.