X-Men ’97 review: a nostalgic reminder that superheroes can still be fun

The X-Men prepare for battle in X-Men '97.

“More than just a cynical nostalgia play, X-Men ’97 is an enjoyable, action-packed romp that highlights what’s so great about Marvel’s mutant heroes.”

Pros

  • Great animation
  • Stellar voice cast
  • Action sequences are killer
  • Episodic storytelling at its finest

Cons

  • Too many characters at times

Nostalgia can be dangerous. What we once thought of as great in our youth can turn out to be mediocre when it’s viewed with fresh, modern eyes. The 1992-1996 series X-Men: The Animated Series is one show that hasn’t aged well; what once seemed dynamic, exciting, and fun to watch for a 10-year-old in the early ’90s now seems clunky, corny, and bad to a grown adult in 2024. X-Men: TAS is less timeless and masterful than, say, Batman: The Animated Series, and as dated and creaky as Denver, The Last Dinosaur.

Fortunately, X-Men ’97, the new sequel/reboot series now streaming on Disney+, threads the needle very carefully between honoring its source material while also updating the franchise for a modern audience. From its colorful, expressionistic animation to its stellar voice acting to its classic cliffhanger-ending storytelling, X-Men ’97 is a retro blast that will satisfy devotees of the original while simultaneously winning over new acolytes to Xavier’s band of merry mutants.

Shows of Future Past

Storm prepares to use her powers in X-Men '97.
Disney+

X-Men ’97 wastes no time in picking up right where X-Men: The Animated Series left off when it ended nearly three decades ago. Don’t know what happened? Don’t worry, all you need to know is Professor Xavier is dead, Jean Grey is pregnant, and mutants are still hunted and feared by the human population. The first episode, To Me, My X-Men, is a soft remake of the original series’ classic opener, Night of the Sentinels: Part 1, with solar-powered good guy Sunspot in the role of the newbie mutant learning just who the heck all these X-Men are that Jubilee played all those years ago.

She’s here too, and she’s still a SoCal mall rat dressed in a bright yellow trench coat and oversized green shades. There’s also team leader Cyclops, more of a Boy Scout than ever, but now a bit uneasy in the role Professor X used to occupy; Jean Grey, eight months with child, but still able to pack a mean telepathic punch; Storm, still mistress of the elements, but now with a snazzy mohawk; Rogue and Gambit, locked in an eternal “will they or won’t they?” flirtation; Morph and Wolverine, who can only tolerate each other’s presence; Beast, the eloquent, Shakespeare-quoting blue-haired strong man; and Bishop, a relative newcomer who can absorb energy and blast it back at his opponent.

The X-Men play a game of basketball in X-Men '97.
Disney+

These X-Men are all assembled, sorry, gathered, to do what they’ve done since the beginning: protect mutants from those giant purple machines called the Sentinels and to preach tolerance over hatred. Yet, what X-Men ’97 does so cleverly, both in its opener and in its subsequent episodes, is to add a bit of an edge to everything, and the sense that anything can happen to any character, no matter how beloved they are.

That’s why in addition to the Sentinels, the X-Men also have to deal with the Friends of Humanity, “normal” folk who use Sentinel technology to try to whoop some X-Men butt. They don’t win, of course, but the stakes are raised higher and higher, until the first episode reveals the show’s first jaw-dropper of a cliffhanger: Magneto, the team’s oldest adversary, is back, and he wants to join the X-Men.

From the Ashes

That isn’t a spoiler as the promo spots already gave that twist away, but it underlines just how devoted X-Men ’97 is to changing things up. This isn’t just nostalgia bait; it also wants to push these characters forward, which results in a show that’s genuinely thrilling. You don’t know what will happen next, and isn’t that the primal appeal of serialized storytelling? Whether it’s a comic book or an animated series, you’ll want to turn the page or stay tuned for the next episode.

Wolverine and Gambit charge into battle in X-Men '97.
Disney+

It helps that X-Men ’97 has so much good source material to play with. Like X-Men: The Animated Series, X-Men ’97 liberally pulls from classic storylines, puts them into a blender, and creates a bizarre hybrid that feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. That’s never more true than in the season’s third episode, Fire Made Flesh, which has elements of Inferno, Fall of the Mutants, Rogue and Magneto’s storyline in the Savage Land, and X-Factor issue No. 68.

This might seem chaotic, and to some degree, it is, but it also allows for some great character moments, like a glimpse at Morph’s unrequited love or what motherhood really means to Jean. The episode itself is darker and more adventurous than the original series ever dared to be, and hints at the risks and rewards future episodes may take and reap.

The X-Men fly the Blackbird in X-Men '97.
Disney+

When assessing the animation style of X-Men ’97, it’s important to remember that number, 97, and what it means. The show is not only set in that year, but looks it, so if the visuals seem old-fashioned, that’s on purpose. To me, the animation is miles ahead of the original series, and is more akin to mid- to late-1990s anime like Serial Experiments Lain in its rich, textured colors and smooth character movements. The action pops more due to the show’s refurbished look, with Cyclops’ optic blasts flashing more red than before, and Gambit’s playing card energy blasts exhibiting a more brilliant purple than in previous iterations.

Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97 | Official Clip ‘Sisters’ | Disney+

The voice acting is better, too, with many of the same actors from the original series back to resume their old roles. Of the old guard, Alison Sealy-Smith’s Storm shines the brightest. The team’s resident weather witch is still prone to making grandiose statements (“Surrender the boy or face my fury!”), but she also has several moments when she’s really vulnerable, and Sealy-Smith delivers more nuance and emotion than you’d expect a cartoon character to have. Among the new additions, veteran voice actress Jennifer Hale does Jean Grey right, and Ray Chase manages to make the sometimes square Cyclops seem shockingly interesting.

The Age of X-Men

X-Men ’97 might have seemed to some like a cheap play at easy nostalgia, but give credit to Marvel Studios — they know what made the original show so popular to a generation of fans, and what needed to be updated to make a revival work in 2024. The end result is not only a thrilling and adventurous animated show, but one of the best comic book adaptations in years. This show truly gets the X-Men like few others have, and that includes the 20th Century Fox films and even recent X-Men comics.

The X-Men stand outside at night in X-Men '97.
Disney+

X-Men ’97 doesn’t need to be Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse to stand out, nor does it strive to be anything else than what it is — an almost perfect encapsulation of what made those Saturday morning cartoons so good to begin with. The original series may no longer measure up to others in the genre like Batman: The Animated Series, but I can safely say that X-Men ’97 does. It will remind you just why you fell in love with these superheroes in the first place.

The first two episodes of X-Men ’97 are now streaming on Disney+. New episodes will debut every Wednesday until May 15.

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