X-Men: Kickin' Ass, Old School Style
Having now acquired the rights to the vast majority of Marvel’s animation library here in region 2, Liberation have finally set about rectifying one of the great injustices by releasing X-Men: The Animated Series in chronological order. While a few different companies have released X-Men DVDs over the years, the show simply doesn’t have the same effect when watching random episodes: the series mastered serialised storytelling, foreshadowing and unlocking secrets of the past in a similar way to what modern audiences find so captivating about the recent The Spectacular Spider-Man animated series. Two volumes of the show, covering the first season, have since been released and Liberation have announced they intend to release all 76 episodes of Marvel’s longest-running cartoon.
Debuting in 1992 after a few failed pitches, X-Men aired on the up and coming FOX KIDS network and quickly helped the network establish itself as the place to spend your Saturday morning.
The series follows the adventures of a group of costumed peace keepers who fight for their place in a world that hates and fears them because of the genetic mutations that grant them gifts or curses, depending on how each individual looks at his or her “powers”. Hated by most “normal” people, they are lead by Professor Xavier, who believes that only by protecting Homo sapiens and showing that they can interact and even help society will they find their place in the world without being persecuted for being what they are. On the other end of the spectrum is Magneto, who believes that “normal” people are the past and the world should be looking towards Homo superior, or “mutants,” as the future.
But this isn’t simply a case of good guys vs. bad guys; far from it. The humans play a great part in the show as they help the audience see both sides of the story. After seeing the barbaric treatment Magneto’s family receives in the past, one can easily see what Magneto does what he does. He isn’t some cretin in a costume hoping to take over the world—he truly believes in what he stands for and is willing to oppose anyone who stands in his way—even his aforementioned best friend. Seeing the growing violence caused by mutants (or mutant paranoia) also gives them just cause for creating The Sentinel program. It’s a rich story that greatly reinforced my own enjoyment of the show both back when I originally watched it as a child, more or less clueless as to who the X-Men were, and still now, that this very show has turned me into a fan who has followed their various adventures through many different mediums over a course of several years. There’s an especially brilliant shot in the opening credits which shows the X-Men battling Magneto and various other ‘villains’ from the show, with the human’s in between them, frightend.
But what is a story without characters? Thankfully, the show managed to create a good number of captivating characters, both good and evil. Fan favourite Wolverine is given a great portrayal here as an aggressive broken warrior without a past desperately searching for peace. Far more than simply being the tough bad ass of the group, Wolverine is perhaps the best develop of all the characters throughout the series as they explore his lost past, and, unlike the current comic book writers, the show realises that his past is better kept as mystery. A riddle everyone knows the answer to is worthless, but the writers managed to keep the mystique (please pardon the pun) of the character’s origin throughout the series, without resorting to BS storytelling, by cleverly answering questions about his past with even more questions. Magneto, as mentioned above is fascinating as one of the show’s principal foils, despite not really being a villain outright. His portrayal here is every bit as captivating as Sir Ian McKellan’s stellar portrayal in the live action X-Men films. Beast only makes a few small appearances over the course of these disc but greatly highlights the world the characters live in, especially as he is arrested and denied bail, simply because is a mutant. Given the state of animation at the time, which was more or less juvenile fun, it was certainly different to see our heroes fighting something other than a supervillain—and losing.
There’s a strong selection spread over the two volumes, including “Night Of The Sentinels”, which sees a young mutant named Jubilee attacked by a gigantic robot in a shopping mall. The X-Men are already established at the show’s starting point, so Jubilee learns about them as the viewer does. This works surprisingly well, given how annoying Jubilee is. The two-part opener is full with all sorts of shocks and twists that no one could’ve seen coming. Other strong episodes on the discs include “Cold Vengeance” and the two-part Magneto introduction “Enter Magneto” and “Deadly Reunions”. The only downer to be found is “Captive Hearts”, which focuses on Cyclops and Jean, who are both unfortunately rather dull in the show.
While X-Men is strongly written, and was far more daring in its time than people give it credit for, one must admit that in some respects the show has aged badly, mainly because of the poor, mistake-laden animation. As anyone who has been forced to watch their efforts will know, AKOM is the cheapest, poorest excuse of an animation company in existence. It would also appear that they did X-Men as a rush job, and did it for considerably less cost than the handful of Batman episodes they animated before its producers wisely decided to cease working with them. Colouring mistakes are constant, there’s no fluidity to any of the characters, and it often makes the show come across as corny—the 1980’s cheap production standards weren’t cutting it back then, and they certainly don’t now. While Batman, with its lush backgrounds and beautiful models, is a good example of just how good old-school cartoons could look, X-Men makes one appreciate the styling of modern cartoons more than ever. The voice acting is extremely hit and miss: the casting for Wolverine, Magneto and Beast are especially good, if not outstanding, which makes one wonder how they came to pick the actors for Storm, Jubilee and Jean Grey who are all over bearing in thier roles. The acting often comes across as melodramatic, which doesn’t really serve the stories they set out to tell. It’s also clear that there’s no chemistry between the people who portray Scott and Jean, which only further serves just how lifeless thier relationship is. Whatever problems viewers may have with the actors chosen to portray Rogue and Gambit, one can’t deny they had chemistry between them, which makes thier relationship work so much better.
As previously mentioned, the currently released discs are merely the first in what promises to be many volumes. Liberation has announced that they plan to release a set featuring the first two seasons when the fourth volume is released, so for those of you as short of shelf space as I, you’ve been advised and might want to consider holding off on purchases until then. At 76 episodes however, I believe that volume releases aren’t the way forward. I think eleven separate volumes is a bit of an overkill. But give credit to Liberation: they have kept the cost of the discs down. I realise it’s too late to change their release schedule now, but I would hope they would consider releasing the show in season sets from season three onwards. It would also hopefully avoid situations like the first volume, as it ends on a cliffhanger with the X-Men left baffled as to who has destroyed the Institute. Luckily, the release schedule is quite quick. It’s clear they care about these properties after years of abuse and well… the utterly clueless treatment this and all the other Marvel shows Disney has spent the last couple of years misusing.
The only feature here is a short explanation of how they’ve attempted to improve the quality of the picture, which is one of the first disc but absent on the second (it’s not really needed again anyway though, is it?). There’s some definite improvement, but the transfer can only bring out the best in the original presentation, and X-Men was always messing up it’s colours. Apparently proper features are forthcoming on future releases but at £7.99, this isn’t a bad disc by any means. Especially when you consider that Warner Home Video released two episodes of Batman: The Animated Series per disc at £4.99 here in Region 2. I kid you not.
Overall, this is a fine first release but improvements could no doubt be made. Fans of the show shouldn’t hesitate to pick this up unless you plan on waiting for the set. As someone who loved the show in his youth and still greatly enjoys it now, I’m simply glad someone has seen fit to release it after years of loud campaigning. While X-Men certainly isn’t for everyone, it will go down as one of the shows that helped change and improve Saturday morning animation.