"Wolverine and the X-Men" Rewards the Faithful
Wolverine and the X-Men is a show that is determined to eat its cake and have it, too. It cherry-picks from the best elements of the two previous cartoon series, the live-action movies, and decades of comic books to ensure that the show feels familiar, but it also wants to strike out in different directions from all those earlier X-Men stories. It is much darker and more mature than the previous two X-Men cartoons, but not so much as to make the show unacceptable for the pre-teen to teen demographic. Right from the title, it wants to make sure you know that Wolverine is square in the spotlight, but that it’s also an X-Men show with an ensemble cast. Wolverine himself is presented as both a violent, tormented soul and a cuddly friend to children-who-can-recognize-his-inherent-goodness. It manages a far better job of being all things to all people than it should, but it seems to do so at the cost of accessibility. If you’re already familiar and emotionally invested in the X-Men, then the two-part pilot episode “Hindsight” is almost sure to give you a lot of reasons to keep watching. If you’re unfamiliar with Marvel’s mutant superheroes, then Wolverine and the X-Men may not have much to offer you.
In the world of the X-Men, genetic mutations can bring super powers. The more benevolent mutants seek to live in peace and harmony with humanity. This faction is led by Professor Charles Xavier, who trains them at his Academy for Gifted Students to use their powers for the greater benefit of human- and mutant-kind alike, with his top students teaming together to become the X-Men. Less benevolent mutant factions, such as the shadowy Brotherhood, seek to use their powers for their own selfish gain, if not conquer and rule the unpowered masses of humanity. On the flip side, many humans live in fear of mutant-kind, with the more extreme elements advocating the registration, imprisonment, or outright extermination of all mutants.
Wolverine and the X-Men begins with an attack that decimates Professor Xavier’s Academy and scatters the X-Men to the four winds. One year later, mutants are on the run from the jack-booted thugs of the MRD, who imprison mutants permanently simply for existing. When the former X-Men member Wolverine reveals himself to save a human girl, he inadvertently exposes himself and the girl’s entire family to the MRD, leading to the family’s arrest and incarceration even though they have no mutant powers. Reluctantly, Wolverine finds himself trying to pull the X-Men back together, first to rescue the family he has inadvertently imperiled and then to begin battling back against both anti-mutant forces embodied in the MRD and Senator Robert Kelly and the pro-mutant Brotherhood that seems intent on sparking a human/mutant war.
The good news about Wolverine and the X-Men is that it certainly hits the ground running, with a minimum of set-up or exposition and a maximum of action. The opening credits alone are better than a lot of other action shows, and the premiere has a few quite impressive set pieces that often use mutant superpowers more creatively than before, especially with Kitty Pryde’s phasing powers. They are also more than happy to dive straight into the middle of a tangled tale that splits its time between human/mutant conflict and intra-team soap opera, dodging the usual introductory plot of “new mutant discovers and joins the X-Men” that was used in the first movie, both animated series, and countless comic books. Recently, Steve Blum became the official voice of Wolverine, and he turns in a wonderful, slightly underplayed performance here. One can sense in Blum’s performance the berserker rage that Wolverine is barely keeping in check as well as the push-and-pull between his inherently anti-social nature and his sense that he needs to take on a more active leadership role. This is only one of several places where the show is not afraid to step away from the usual X-Men story elements, and as a result it manages to carve out its own niche.
There are elements cribbed more or less straight from other X-Men stories as well. Unfortunately, one of them seems to be the uptight, stick-in-the-mud version of Cyclops, even though this also leaves him perfectly positioned for a hero’s journey story arc of his own. On a larger level, the central metaphor of the X-Men has always been cooperation and understanding vs. fear and hatred, and this metaphor reappears in this new show. While most earlier X-Men stories use anti-mutant hysteria as a parable for racism, sexism, or homophobia, this new series adds in themes cribbed from the war on terrorism, including the indiscriminate punishment of an entire group of people for the sins of a few, indefinite incarceration on secret or non-existent grounds, and torture (and more on that later). These new elements make Wolverine and the X-Men far darker and more mature than any earlier X-Men cartoon, even if the parable doesn’t really have much more depth than the fundamental good guy/bad guy dynamic of most superhero stories.
The downside to Wolverine and the X-Men is that if you don’t already know who these characters are and their relationships to each other, I’m not at all sure that the show will give you enough to build up much an emotional connection to them. It doesn’t help that the show fields dozens of characters within its first hour and is unable to even sketch in even the skimpiest details about many of them. As an example, the Brotherhood seems to be led by the mutant Domino, but she’s only named on-screen once in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, and the only mutant abilities she exhibits are darker skin and gravity-defying cleavage. It feels like watching X2 as the first live-action movie: while it built on the achievements of its predecessor and was a better movie overall, it was also almost entirely impenetrable to a new viewer. One of the hallmarks of Chris Claremont’s heyday writing the Uncanny X-Men comics was his ability to create long-running story arcs that were accessible enough to gain new readers month after month, no matter how tangled they got. Wolverine and the X-Men seems to have the long-running story aspect down pat, but not the accessibility. However, the show has already been renewed for a second season, so perhaps my concerns are irrelevant.
There is one element of “Hindsight” that truly rankles and requires a small spoiler to discuss (skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know). At one point, an MRD officer uses a sensory overload device to torture the non-mutant father of the family who assisted Wolverine. When Wolverine frees the family, he tosses the MRD officer into the device, turns it on, and leaves him there. Poetic justice for sure, and perhaps not something to be taken too seriously, but it sends an almost unforgivably terrible message about torture: “It’s bad when Bad People do it, but it’s OK (and even funny) when Good People do it to Bad People.” Unfortunately, that’s probably the exact line of thinking that the MRD officer used to strap the father into the device in the first place, to say nothing of its relationship to untenable real-world justifications for torturing prisoners. Admittedly, Wolverine isn’t presented as a terribly noble hero at this point in the show, and it might also fit into a larger scheme charting his growth and development as a leader of the X-Men. Unfortunately, neither of those excuses can entirely negate the message being sent here, and when you consider that three top military and FBI interrogators and the dean of West Point have told the producers of 24 that the use of torture on the show was promoting illegal behavior and negatively influencing the training of interrogators, I think it’s better to assume at this point that the audience isn’t going to catch any subtler points when it comes to torturing people.
In the end, Wolverine and the X-Men has plenty to offer to X-fans, regardless of which version of the team you favor. However, while it is made up of quality component parts, it’s still a bit of a tossup whether that quality will be enough to draw you in if you’re not already one of the faithful.
Wolverine and the X-Men premieres on the Nicktoons Network on January 23, 2009, at 8:00 PM (Eastern).
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this review stated that “the Army and the FBI” visited the set of 24. The review has been modified to more accurately characterize the visitors, who were members of those organizations, but were apparently not speaking in an official capacity for the Army or the FBI.