Movies & TV / Columns

411 Comics Showcase – X-Men: Evolution

April 28, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard

Last week, I made a comment stating that total overhauls of something that already works rarely turn out well. You can’t make Superman a dark, put upon savior figure or he ceases to be Superman. But you can rework the basic ideas behind what makes Superman work with a main character who is younger and less experienced and call it Smallville. You can even gender flip it and have Supergirl. Tweaking the ideas to make something new while still holding true to the basics is how long running media like comic books and TV stay fresh and relevant.

So I got to thinking about things that significantly altered the status quo of something I already loved, yet managed to work. It’s not a long list, but at the very top is a little cartoon series called X-Men: Evolution. As a very young kid, I loved the first X-Men cartoon, and it’s primarily the reason I love superheroes in general and the X-Men specifically. A big cast of colorful and dynamic characters, exciting action, big ideas about bigotry and personal identity, and one of the coolest intro themes ever. It was a nearly perfect representation of the comics. But over time, my favorite series has become Evolution, a new series that came out shortly before X-2, back when Marvel Studios wasn’t a thing and the X-Men were still their most marketed product. And if you’ve never seen X-Men: Evolution before, man, was it different.

Evolution’s major concept was throwing out the established canon in favor of doing its own thing with the characters. Taking a cue from the earliest Stan Lee-Jack Kirby comics as well as The New Mutants, most of the X-Men are teenagers, with Wolverine, Storm, and Professor X as adults running the Xavier Mansion. The main cast consists of Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde, Rogue and newcomer Spyke, Ororo’s nephew with powers borrowed from Marrow. In terms of personality, the X-Men mostly feel like how their characters would feel if put in a John Hughes movie; Jean, Scott, Kurt and Rogue feel like they could practically slip into the roles of Claire, Andrew, Brian and Allie from The Breakfast Club, while Kitty Pryde comes across like she’s walked off the set of Mean Girls.

In short, the adolescent angst that is the subtext of the Claremont era of X-Men is just made the text. And it works pretty well, once you get over how jarring some of the changes are. It’s weird seeing a teenage Jean as an athletic social butterfly instead of a shy, quiet proper lady, but that’s the difference between 1960’s stock types and early 2000’s stock types. And the reimagining of Rogue (and later Wanda) as a Goth? For something that seems so odd at first, it really does feel like the brooding loner Rogue was originally conceived as. Hell, Grant Morrison was such a fan that he almost reimagined the comics Rogue in the same way (which I don’t think would have worked). It’s also fun seeing ideas like “What if your mean principal was actually a shape-shifting super villain?” and “What it Hank McCoy was a high school science teacher?”

Another concept that works exceptionally well and arguably better than any previous incarnation is how this show handles The Brotherhood of Mutants. Mystique recruits troubled mutant youths into her own gang; Avalanche is re-imagined as a John Bender-esque criminal, Toad is a sarcastic loser, the Blob is… pretty much the Blob as an actual sixteen year old. And Quicksilver and later Scarlet Witch? Man, if you thought their daddy issues in the comics were rough, check how Magneto works as a parent to actual children. Speaking of parents, Mystique’s connections to Rogue and Nightcrawler is a major subplot throughout the series. What works so well here is that the Brotherhood gets time to flesh out their own dynamics and feel as much like a family as the X-Men. And for a lot of the social outcasts that X-Men speaks most strongly to, I think they will find the Brotherhood a more accurate depiction of how we find our own communities.

Another aspect that I sincerely love about the series is that the focus is on the kids and not the teachers. This means that this is the least Wolverine-centric X-Men series since the 1990’s. Don’t get me wrong, I love Logan, but I love the other X-Men and he tends to overshadow them in the movies and other cartoon series. I enjoy him as the gruff sort-of father figure in the background, and when an episode does focus on him, it feels fresh. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this series introduces X-23, so if you’ve enjoyed Laura in comics, video games or Logan, you can tip your hat to this series.

Of course, the series has its share of flaws as well. Spyke never really worked for me; maybe I’d have liked him more if this was my introduction to X-Men and I didn’t have pre-existing attachment to other characters. Storm also feels like she could have used more attention, and the one episode where she is the main focus is pretty bad. The New Mutants are little more than glorified cameos except for Tabitha Smith (Boom Boom) and Iceman, and the fourth season wastes a lot of the momentum that the third season had.

But I really admire the series for taking chances with presentation, while also never straying from the core of what X-Men is about thematically. The themes of persecution being overcome by mutual understanding, the feeling of being ostracized and feared until you find a community that accepts you, and the focus on a wide group of people with different problems are all present. It’s a little more chill than the nonstop action of most versions of the X-Men, but frankly, I don’t mind. If you haven’t given it a chance and you’re someone who appreciates cartoons, or are maybe a writer looking for inspiration on how to reinvent the wheel, I highly recommend checking this out.

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What is your favorite X-Men animated series, and would you like to see another?