Looking at the X-Men Cartoon Through Adult Eyes

xmen header 560x373
Since stumbling upon it in 5th grade channel surfing one Sunday morning, I was an avid regular watcher of the X-Men cartoon as a kid.

Just as ensemble shows optimize your attention span by dividing it among multiple storylines, I liked how the X-Men delved into relatively interesting characters and then featured different side and recurring characters as the universe seemingly expanded. Action scenes are one thing, but the X-Men had action scenes that tampered with the laws of physics and science. The way characters would neutralize each other utilizing their unique powers made the series more like an elaborate game of chess.

Then Hollywood came calling. I felt the gush of anticipation every fanboy feels when something they’ve embraced only in the often-lonely medium of comics becomes translated to the big screen. Sadly, I only felt that once with 2000’s X-Men, directed by Bryan Singer. The action scenes and production value were great, but most importantly the film had pitch-perfect casting. Halle Berry’s only memorable piece of work outside of her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball was playing Storm in X-Men, a role that got better and more weighty with each picture. Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine helped shape him into a star worthy of working with the industry’s best directors, and deservedly so.

The downside of seeing these cartoons fully realized in such a satisfying way is that in retrospect, the cartoon looks ridiculous. Of course, our standards of quality tend to change massively with age to the point where things we liked as kids don’t hold up as adults. And this is no exception.

Just watch the first minute and a half of this clip and cringe with me at its awfulness:

The action is accompanied by bad puns at a rate of something like 3.5 per minute. It’s as if there’s a rulebook in the X-Men training manual that says you must trash talk when using your powers.

Also, look at the differences between the cartoons and their on-screen counterparts:

1. Storm had a hint of sexiness to her and she was grounded in a mix of idealism (e.g. the scene in X3 where she discourages Rogue from thinking of being a mutant as a disease) and world-weariness (e.g. having to turn Angel away from protection of a life as a mutant for no reason other than she can’t handle the demands). In the cartoon, there’s none of these shades of gray as Storm sounds as authoritative as Charlton Heston from The Ten Commandments.

xmen storm

2. Wolverine is defined by his raspy voice, which shows his gruffness and tough-as-nails persona derived from a scrappy existence. However, in the films, Jackman is capable of convincingly portraying a whole range of emotions.

3. Maybe it was because the cartoon’s writing staff were comic book scribes for whom portraying the subtleties of romance wasn’t a forte, but Jean Grey was nothing more than arm candy for Cyclops. The writers have stated the love triangle between Cyclops, Jean and Wolverine was the thing they were most proud of. What love triangle?! When Jean was so lovey-dovey with Cyclops in the cartoon, who would have thought that Wolverine had a chance?

Famke Janssen’s wonderful portrayal of Jean Grey is more enigmatic with her affections, driving the love triangle along much better. She’s also a more empowered woman: The first time we see her on-screen she’s referred to as Dr. Jean Grey. In her second appearance on-screen, she’s actually shown doctoring.

On the other hand, the cartoon versions of Beast, Professor X, and Cyclops are all more or less adequate in comparison to their movie counterparts. James Marsden, for example, didn’t have much of a presence in the films and neither does the cartoon version, so it’s essentially a tie. It’s not entirely Marsden’s fault since the movies are Wolverine-centric, making Cyclops the douche who the hero’s love interest is currently attached to, and that makes it beneficial for Cyclops to be played by a professional schlub.

xmen cyclopsBeast can get annoying in the cartoon because the writers try too hard to make him sound intellectual, but he doesn’t change that much in the films. He still quotes famous intellectuals during fight scenes but in far reduced frequency, and he’s equally as snobby, but there’s more of a use for it as he’s made a cabinet official.

Bottom line: There are some children’s series that stand the test of time like Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs or Looney Tunes. X-Men, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.

— By Orrin Konheim