‘X-Men ’97’ is retelling some of the greatest X-Men stories ever

The X-Men keep mutating back into the culture. The Marvel superheroes, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, debuted in 1963 and have spent the last 60 or so years appearing in thousands of comics, some leather-heavy blockbuster movies, 64-bit video games and the occasional animated show — the latest of which, “X-Men ’97,” premiered on Disney Plus on March 20 and is now four episodes into its season. Characters such as Wolverine, Cyclops, Storm, Gambit, Jean Grey, their leader Professor X and others — and villains like Magneto and Apocalypse — have become pop-cultural touchstones.

The show picks up from “X-Men: The Animated Series,” which ran from 1992 to 1997 on the Fox network’s Fox Kids programming block and dominated millennials’ Saturday mornings for years. The new series represents the first time the X-Men have had their own project under Disney and Marvel Studios, the parties behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Disney completed its purchase of 21st Century Fox in 2019, bringing the X-Men under its capacious superhero umbrella.

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Fans should expect Disney’s live-action Marvel productions to reinterpret the X-Men at some point — its TV and movie arms have already dropped a couple Easter eggs. Meanwhile, over in the comic books, the characters have been enjoying something of a fourth or fifth golden age following a soft reboot of the franchise in 2019 by writer Jonathan Hickman that has continued under other writers. (Marvel recently announced plans for yet another new direction for the X-Men at South by Southwest.)

True to its title, “X-Men ’97” is more of a throwback affair, one that seems to be working, with critics and NBA stars alike sharing their excitement for the show.

If you’re LeBron James’s age — or a little older or younger than the 39-year-old — the look and sound of “X-Men: The Animated Series” might still register as iconic. “There’s vital things as far as what makes it that X-Men show,” says Jake Castorena, the show’s supervising producer and head director. “The theme song … the main voices, the characters, and also the overall look, vibe and feel of it.” What it feels like are the 1990s — even though many of the X-Men comic-book stories it’s mining come from the period that many fans consider a creative peak for the franchise: the ’80s.

Many of the story decisions, according to Castorena, were made by Beau DeMayo, the show’s head writer and showrunner who parted ways with Marvel weeks before the show premiered; Marvel did not respond to a request for comment on DeMayo’s departure.

The original animated show covered a lot of ground, including ideas from what many fans consider the classic period of the X-Men comics, writer Chris Claremont’s run from 1975 to 1991. The first season, back in 1992, borrowed from the dystopian time-travel arc “Days of Future Past” (1981); later, it would use plots from two of the most famous Claremont stories, the “Phoenix” and “Dark Phoenix” sagas, in which a cosmic entity possesses and corrupts the hero Jean Grey.

If you know your X-Men, the ’80s nods are impossible to miss on “X-Men ’97.” Take Storm, the weather-controlling X-Man. She debuts in “X-Men ’97” with a new hairstyle — a mohawk of white hair that echoes the punk look that the character adapted in a 1983 arc. At the time, it represented the character taking on a grimmer, more complex outlook. But it also looked cool at a time when the X-Men franchise had a rapidly growing fan base and some countercultural cachet.

More connections: Storm loses her powers in the second episode of “X-Men ’97,” which left fans on social media wondering why the show nerfed the powerful hero. In fact, it’s straight out of another well-liked Claremont story from the early 1980s, which sends Storm off on a hero’s journey seeking the return of her powers. (That story kicks off with one of the more artistically singular issues of “Uncanny X-Men,” issue No. 186’s “Lifedeath,” drawn with painterly ambition by Barry Windsor-Smith.)

Then there’s the pregnant Jean Grey in the first episodes of “X-Men ’97,” revealed at the end of the second episode to be a double. It’s all a riff on one of Claremont’s longest-running plots, in which Cyclops marries a clone of Jean Grey, setting off a series of events that would shape the series for years, culminating with the advent of the mutant anti-hero Cable and the hellish comic-book event “Inferno.”

Finally, “X-Men ’97” is up to something with Magneto. Back in 1997, the animated series concluded with an ailing Professor Charles Xavier being ferried off to space with his galactic-empress paramour to recuperate. (Look, just go with it.) Here, in the new series, we learn that Professor X left his estate and his School for Gifted Youngsters to Magneto, up until this point the series’ chief villain. But first, Magneto answers for his crimes, allowing the U.S. government to put him on trial. There, Magneto recounts his childhood and explains that his people’s homes were burned because they dared to call “god by another name.”

Such was the case in an “Uncanny X-Men” storyline throughout much of the 1980s. While earlier others depicted Magneto as purely villainous, Claremont’s run explored Magneto’s emotional motivations as a Holocaust survivor and put Magneto on trial for his crimes against the world, leading to a turn to heroism.

“X-Men ’97” also packs in a reference to the current run of X-Men comics with a brief nod to the Hellfire Gala, which is kind of like the Met Gala except more than an ill-advised outfit goes wrong.

But it’s more of a throwback affair without resorting to pure fan service. (Critics are impressed.) The ’90s X-Men cartoons earned a lot of goodwill, something Disney’s Marvel efforts have been risking with several critically panned films and box office duds. The production studio has been seeking a next big hit, and finding new life in some classics may be one way to do it.

It’s not lost on Marvel that the X-Men represent a turning point for the company. The company has hyped the X-Men (and the soon-to-appear Fantastic Four) as leaders of a new era for the firm’s cinematic and animated future. The days of Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans may be long gone. One way or another, Marvel was always going to have to mutate.

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