‘X-Men ‘97’ Review: Disney+ Revival Exceeds Sky-High Expectations

“X-Men: The Animated Series” holds a strong place in culture. For a whole generation — read: millennials — the Fox Kids show, which aired for five seasons across the middle of the 90s, served not only as a gateway into the world of comics but remains the de facto take on the Children of the Atom. The hit series arrived at a critical inflection point, notably right before Marvel figured out how to properly produce theatrical films that would go on to sustain future generations, “TAS” became embraced by new and old fans alike for how it remixed and introduced classic storylines while conveying the core ethos of Marvel’s flagship property in a digestible form for a young audience. Oh, and it has an absolutely banger theme song.

Thus, “X-Men ‘97” arrives to Disney+ on Wednesday with a generational burden of expectation. Picking up in the aftermath of the series finale of the 90s show, “X-Men ‘97” is a direct continuation of the beloved cartoon and is the first dedicated X-Men-related project under the Marvel Studios regime since the company regained rights to the franchise in the wake of the Fox/Disney merger. It features many of the originating cast, including Cal Dodd as Wolverine, Lenore Zann as Rogue, George Buza as Beast, and Alison Sealy-Smith as Storm, alongside new talent Jennifer Hale as Jean Grey, Holly Chou as Jubilee, A.J. LoCascio as Gambit, Ray Chase as Cyclops, J. P. Karliak as Morph and Matthew Waterson as Magneto.

Initially unveiled in 2021, the long-gestating series has to please all sorts of masters, from fans of the beloved classic to new viewers who stumble upon the show while scrolling through Disney+. And it was worth the wait: “X-Men ‘97” marks an excellent start for the MCU mutant era.

Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith) in Marvel Animation’s “X-Men ’97.” (Marvel Animation)

Across the first three episodes screened for review, “X-Men ‘97” proves to be as well-oiled as the X-Men themselves. The premiere takes place about a year after the death of the team’s leader, Professor Charles Xavier, in a pivotal moment for human/mutant relations. The X-Men, now led by Cyclops, face a world that’s largely embraced mutantdom in the wake of this colossal death. The sunnier disposition leaves many of the team, notably Cyclops and Jean, who have a child on the way, looking towards the future and wondering what they could be outside the walls of Xavier’s School for the Gifted Youngsters. However, as government operative (and Xavier’s killer) Henry Peter Gyrich points out, for some factions of humanity, “Tolerance is extinction” when it comes to mutants. This means that it’s only a matter of time before the X-Men are under attack again. Adding to the tension is the revelation, as teased in the series trailer, that Xavier’s Last Will and Testament left “everything he built” to the team’s primary antagonist, Magneto. This means that their biggest enemy is now their leader. This new status quo is established quickly, allowing head series writer Beau DeMayo to delve into a rich narrative hook in subsequent episodes.

If DeMayo’s abrupt departure from the show had something to do with the overall quality of “X-Men ‘97,” that’s not readily apparent across these initial episodes, which do a tremendous job of making the series relatively friendly for viewers of all shades. Those who remember every single detail of “X-Men: TAS” will appreciate little flourishes, like the prominence of Henry Peter Gyrich’s inclusion in the premiere (given his role in the series finale), the ways in which the first episode mirrors the debut of the original, or deeply understand the emotional resonance of Morph talking about his past with Mister Sinister. Yet new watchers coming into “X-Men ‘97” blind will find the writing often provides the right amount of context around past events without falling into extensive exposition. Critically, DeMayo and crew haven’t lost the spirit of what made the characters memorable throughout “X-Men: TAS.” Those iconic portrayals are still present — and don’t feel like they’ve missed a beat in the intervening years. It’s a delicate balancing act but one that appears relatively effortless, all things considered.

However, it’s still slightly difficult to recommend the series to those who don’t have at least a general understanding of character dynamics, as the show expects viewers to know Wolverine and Cyclops often butt heads, or that Rogue and Gambit have a storied love affair. Most of these relationships are established outside of the animated series in various other media, but “X-Men ‘97” doesn’t offer much hand-holding in this regard. The show feels more adult than memory serves, especially for what was marketed in the ‘90s as a Saturday morning kids’ cartoon; a fight sequence in the third episode is a little bloody, and the series overall plays up the sex appeal of the characters, sometimes to comedic effect, like an absolutely shredded Gambit hanging out in the mansion kitchen wearing a crop top.

Visually, the overall aesthetic of “X-Men ‘97” is a notable upgrade from the original’s look but still manages to keep an overall 90s patina — if you will — to the animation style. The look and feel are similar to playing a vinyl album through a modern setup: you can hear the cracks and warmth with the benefits of a digital speaker. Everything feels more fluid and vivid thanks to the seamless blend of 2D and 3D, which is subtle in its execution. The action sequences, like the recently released clip of the team fighting the mutant-hunting Sentinels, are easily the standouts. Little embellishments help to elevate quiet moments, too; notably, bits of Cyclops’ optic beam flirt and glean across his visor to add grace notes to character beats since we can’t see his eyes.

The returning cast members haven’t lost a beat either, particularly Sealy-Smith and Dodd, who are up there with Kevin Conroy’s take on Batman as defining performers for their respective characters. Out of the new additions, Jennifer Hale stands out the most. The stalwart voice performer’s characterization of Jean Grey comes with all the warmth, lovability and determination that’s made the character so beloved, continuing to prove that she’s one of the best vocal actors in the industry.

Gambit (voiced by AJ LoCascio)[left], Rogue (voiced by Lenore Zann), Jubilee (voiced by Holly Chou), Storm (voiced by Alison Sealy-Smith), Wolverine (voiced by Cal Dodd), Beast (voiced by George Buza), Morph (voiced by JP Karliak), and Bishop (voiced by Isaac Robinson-Smith) in Marvel Animation’s “X-Mwn ’97.” (Marvel Animation)

Much of “X-Men ‘97” is about the team grappling with their respective futures. It’s a fitting theme, considering this is the start of the franchise’s tenure under Marvel Studios, and getting it wrong could spell danger for what’s to come when the characters inevitably make their live-action debut. Marvel’s Disney+ series often start strong and fade away, but it’s hard to imagine a reality in which “X-Men ‘97” falls off the tracks after these first three episodes. The love, craft, and care visibly apparent throughout this stunningly realized reimagining will satisfy skeptical millennials, and introduce a whole new generation to these iconic X-Men, leaving them just as obsessed as those who watched the series in the ‘90s.

Queue the theme, it’s time to rock out.

“X-Men ‘97” premieres Wednesday, March 20, on Disney+.

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