This past Halloween was extra sweet for a certain group of comic book fans, one that I just happen to be part of. Even if you’re not a comic book fan and were just a kid of the 90s, growing up on a steady diet of Saturday morning cartoons, this year marked a special milestone for one of the best shows of that era.
Yes, it involves superheroes. Yes, it involves X-men, which I often go out of my way to discuss. Yes, it involves this iconic theme music that has since become my ring tone.
That insanely catchy guitar rift that got stuck in the heads of millions of fans is from “X-men: The Animated Series.” On October 31st, 1992, this series debuted on Fox Kids and countless childhoods were forged from that day forward, including my own.
That was 25 years ago and while that thought makes me feel way older than I care to feel, it still brings back fond memories. One of my favorite parts of the day, as a kid, was rushing home from school, turning on the TV, and watching my favorite shows. “X-men: The Animated Series,” along with shows like “Spider-Man” and “Power Rangers,” were a big part of my carton diet.
I largely credit this show and “Spider-Man” for getting me into comic books, superheroes, and everything that came with it. I also credit those shows with giving me an early understanding of character development, romance, and storytelling, which would go onto help me write my sexy novels.
For that reason, and many others, “X-men: The Animated Series” has a special place in my heart. I imagine many X-men fans feel the same way because it was this show that helped the X-men really peak in the 90s. What the Avengers are today, the X-men were in the 90s. They were very much the alpha and omega of all things involving superheroes.
While this 25th anniversary gives me time to reflect fondly over how much this show enriched my childhood, my life as an adult has only further expanded my perspective. When I look back on “X-men: The Animated Series,” I’m somewhat amazed by how relevant it still is in terms of theme, drama, and story.
It’s easy to forget that this series came out at a time when most cartoons followed a simple, predictable formula, regardless of whether or not superheroes were involved. There was evil. The heroes found out about said evil. They fought it. Then, the credits roll. “X-men: The Animated Series” dared to think bigger.
While the animation and voice acting might be somewhat dated, this show dared to speak up about social issues. It dared to explore ideas of hate, bigotry, and discrimination. At a time when parents were still fighting mortal crusades over rock music, this show tried to be relevant in a new way.
Now, as I look back on this series that lasted for five years and 76 glorious episodes, I realize just how progressive and insightful this show truly was for its time. As more and more forms of media, including comics, push for greater diversity, “X-men: The Animated Series” found a way to pull that off 25 years ahead of schedule.
In a sense, the X-men have always been about progressive themes like inclusion, diversity, and justice. Even though some of those words have become toxic today, they embodied the best of it, going back to its earliest days of drawing parallels with the Civil Rights movement. This show just captured it at a time when it a new form of progressive concepts were taking hold.
So, in honor of the 25th anniversary of this show, I’d like to highlight five reasons why “X-men: The Animated Series” was even more progressive than you remember. Even if you’re not a fan of X-men or comics, it’s amazing to think that a show from 25 years ago achieved so much of what others are trying to accomplish today.
“Genuine bigotry and hatred was depicted in ordinary people.”
To X-men fans, it seems obvious. Bigotry and hatred are very much a part of the X-men’s DNA, going all the way back to their early days in the 60s. However, for a kids cartoon, this was akin to Miley Cyrus flashing her tits on an episode of “Hannah Montana.”
“X-men: The Animated Series” did not water down the themes of blind hatred and bigotry espoused in the comics. If anything, they took it a step further by giving a voice, putting that blind hatred on display through characters like Graydon Creed.
This especially played out in the second season where hate groups like the Friends of Humanity formed. They’re the anti-mutant equivalent of the KKK. Their hate was so blind and deep that when one character, Jubilee, asked them why they hated her so much, Creed said simply, “You were born!”
That kind of hatred is harsh in real life, let alone a kids show. The fact that this show gave the X-men more than just monsters, tyrants, and aliens to fight showed an uncanny, if that’s not too fitting a term, willingness to scrutinize these painfully real issues.
As a kid, I barely understood it. As an adult, I’ve come to appreciate it even more. I like to think that exposing that kind of hate in a cartoon showed an entire generation of kids what true assholes look and sound like. Given the amount of assholes in this world, those lessons were invaluable. Plus, it was way more entertaining than “Sesame Street.”
“The characters were diverse and had vastly different personalities.”
Here’s a quick question that should trigger some unpleasant conversations on message boards, as if there are any others. Look at the cast of the Avengers movie. Aside from talking raccoons and androids, what do you notice? They’re mostly men, they’re mostly white, and they mostly have the same avenging personality.
Now, look at the X-men. You’ve got an uptight white guy, a burly Canadian, a sexy southern woman, an African goddess, a smooth-talking Cajun, a giddy teenage girl, and a guy in a wheelchair. Even by today’s absurd diversity standards, the X-men check a lot of boxes. They’ve been checking those boxes since long before diversity was even an annoying buzzword.
It’s not just that the cast of “X-men: The Animated Series” was diverse on the surface. It’s not just that they disagreed with each other, as the Avengers frequently do. They had such wildly different personalities that didn’t always mesh. Cyclops and Wolverine alone had all sorts of clashes and not just over wanting to sleep with the same redhead.
That kind of diversity of thought and personality is something modern cartoons, TV shows, and movies still struggle to achieve. “X-men: The Animated Series” managed to achieve that at a time when Hillary Clinton was still likable. It was a big accomplishment at the time and one that only gets more impressive as the years go by and people still fight about diversity in media.
“The show did feminism and strong female characters RIGHT.”
I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it in future posts. Talking about feminism is dangerous, divisive, and frustrating, especially in wake of recent scandals. Nobody seems to know how to even handle feminism or strong female characters who aren’t Wonder Woman. Long before the “Wonder Woman” movie raised the bar, though, “X-men: The Animated Series” made sure it set that bar pretty damn high.
Even by modern standards, “X-men: The Animated Series” found a way to do feminism right. Unlike other cartoons, the female characters weren’t part of the supporting cast or relegated to roles of a love interest. They actually participated on the same level as the male characters.
They didn’t have to create new female characters or force a female character into a male role. “X-men: The Animated Series” simply took characters like Storm, Rogue, Jubilee, and Jean Grey and maximized their strengths. They gave them personalities, power, and individual stories. They didn’t have to show up their male teammates. They could stand on their own and thrive as women.
In terms of feminism, “X-men: The Animated Series” was at omega-level standards long before it became a priority. At a time when we’re still struggling to make solid female characters, it’s remarkable and refreshing to see how well it was done.
“The show didn’t shy away from harsh, dramatic moments.”
People used to make a big deal about cartoon violence. The big worry was that kids would see a cartoon duck fighting with a cartoon rabbit and think that playing with double-barreled shotguns were toys. It was a very different, very strange time, to say the least.
“X-men: The Animated Series” basically gave a big, adamantium finger to this debate, at least to the extent that they could get around the network censors. This show did not shy away from the harsh, dramatic moments that had played out in the comics. In fact, in the second episode of the series, one of the characters dies.
Keep in mind, this is a kids show where characters are not allowed to curse or show blood. The fact that this show killed a character in an early episode, and referenced death on more than one occasions, showed a remarkable willingness to portray real struggles with real stakes. Sure, it probably upset a few parents, but it sent a powerful message about the real world.
“X-men: The Animated Series” dealt with real issues of bigotry, hatred, and intolerance. As such, it couldn’t water down the harshness and the pain it incurred. These are issues that people are still reluctant to talk about today and this show brought it up during the Clinton Administration. That shows both guts and foresight.
“The villains, heroes, and themes had layers of complexity.”
Watch any cartoon made before 1992 and chances are the characters you see will be pretty basic. You have your evil, mustache-twirling villains. You have your generic good guy/hero types. You have exaggerated violence and shameless toy promotions. There’s not a whole lot of depth there.
“X-men: The Animated Series” once again dared to do more. It dared to let its characters grow and evolve over the course of five seasons. It’s an approach that worked so well that others, like the “Spider-Man” cartoon that debuted two years later, went onto adopt it. These characters had all sorts of layers and depth in the comics. The show chose not to simplify it for a young audience and embrace that complexity.
Sure, characters like Magneto, Sinister, and Apocalypse came off as generic bad guys at first, but they developed more and more depth as the series went on. There were even times when Magneto came off as genuinely sympathetic. For a kids show, these moments were pretty heavy and something you just wouldn’t get with the Ninja Turtles.
Today, everyone is trying to give their characters that Walter White style of complexity. Everyone is trying to create a series with a sense of progression. Well, “X-men: The Animated Series” were already doing that in the days of dial-up internet.
The fact this show succeeded to the extent that it did, while being as progressive as it was, even by modern standards, is nothing short of uncanny. After 25 years, the show still has a special place in the hearts of X-men fans. Sure, the animation and dialogue may be dated, but those progressive themes have never been more relevant.