Jonathan Dobres

x-men re-examined: night of the sentinels 1 & 2

Marvel’s revival series X-Men ‘97 is their best work since Endgame, giving us the deft blend of social commentary, soap opera, and beautiful mutants in skintight clothing that made the X-Men a marquee cape team in the first place. Marvel has pulled off quite a difficult trick. X-Men ‘97 not only continues its predecessor as if no time has passed, but it gives us the show we remember, not the show as it actually was. X-Men ‘97 is vivid, fast paced, thought provoking, melodramatic, and frequently sexy. It makes a decade of blockbuster Avengers movies look intolerably boring.

It’s so good that it’s made me want to revisit the original, and if I’m going to sit here watching all 76 episodes, I might as well write about it. I’ll try to keep these short, but since this is the first entry (and a two-parter!), this one is going to be a little longer.

A little table setting. X-Men debuted on Fox in 1992 (on Halloween, in fact). I was ten years old, squarely in the show’s demographic. It immediately became the centerpiece of me and my friends’ Saturday mornings, the definition of appointment television. There was nothing else like it. Here was a show that had a hero (and a villain) for every taste. The good guys were as likely to fight each other as they were their archenemies. It was the first serialized kids’ cartoon. Its big ideas couldn’t be contained in a mere 22 minutes, and you couldn’t miss an episode (but don’t worry, the “Previously On…” would catch you up). Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted two months earlier, had a bigger budget and a full orchestra, but it didn’t have season-long epics and it never left you hanging, wanting more.

X-Men was a groundbreaking piece of kids’ entertainment, and stayed popular enough to run past the 65 episode hurdle that ended many other shows.1 Without X-Men, I don’t think we’d have gotten Disney’s Gargoyles or Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, both favorites of mine (and all other people of good taste). The success of the series, one of the few bright spots in Marvel’s business at the time, made it an appealing property to turn into a movie a few years later, which kept capes in theaters after the Schumacher Batman movies imploded.

It can be a dangerous thing to revisit one’s childhood. But, as Wolverine growls repeatedly in this debut two-parter: “I go where I wanna go.”

Part 1

Air date: October 31, 1992

The opening theme is, of course, iconic, but this will be the only time I mention it. Here, enjoy the Powerglove cover.

The debut story follows Jubilee, a young mutant just discovering her powers. Her foster parents register her with the Mutant Control Agency, and a Sentinel quickly arrives to apprehend her. When I was ten, I thought Sentinels—50 foot killer robots designed to hunt and “subdue” mutants—were pure comic book craziness. But in a post-DHS, post-Patriot Act, post-Blackwater world, it doesn’t seem so crazy that the government would allow a private company to create absurd weapons in the name of fighting a nebulous threat. I’m not saying Magneto was right, but the people who liked to say “Magneto was right,” turned out to be pretty right.

But Jubilee has already run away to the mall (natch), where she bumps into Storm (the regal and dramatic Mistress of the Elements) and Rogue (if a young Blanche Devereaux were Superman). Here the episode makes a rare departure from Jubilee’s perspective to introduce Gambit, who is elsewhere in the mall buying a fresh deck of cards.

We must—simply must—talk about Gambit. If Jubilee’s visor sunglasses and bubblegum addiction scream late 1980s, Gambit’s design screams 1990s. The brown trench coat over a neon tunic, the “we’d like this character to be easier to draw” cowl that frames his face, the inexplicable mastery of a bo staff he hardly uses. He is the most ’90s thing in this episode. Despite all that, Gambit actually debuted at the start of the decade, in August 1990. He doesn’t reflect ’90s character design, he defines it. And on this show, he is very obviously the writers’ favorite character. He never gets saddled with clunky exposition and spends most of his time being interesting and hot. Weird habit of referring to himself in the third person aside, he’s the one you’d want to hang out with. Or have sex with. This is his first scene:

Gambit is admiring a deck of playing cards.

Shop Girl, extremely into him: You must like to play cards.

Gambit: I like solitaire okay. Unless I got someone…to play with.

Full credit to Chris Potter here, who delivers this line with so much sex appeal that they must have blackmailed someone at Standards & Practices to keep it in.

Unfortunately, the Sentinel has arrived to ruin everybody’s fun. It bulldozes its way into the mall and immediately starts causing havoc. The amount of damage Sentinels do is hilarious. Just stomping around nice neighborhoods indiscriminately ripping apart houses and demolishing whole malls, while telling everyone to REMAIN CALM at 100 decibels.

Or what should feel like 100 decibels, if the sound design wasn’t so bad. I never noticed it as a kid, but it’s awful, the element that ages the show the most. The fights on this show feature an array of dazzling abilities, but they often sound like nothing. Rogue flies through the air, punches the two and a half ton Sentinel hard enough to knock it over, and yet it sounds like a foley artist gently slapping a tin sheet.

Rogue, Storm, and Gambit are unable to stop the Sentinel, but luckily Cyclops shows up (people just sort of arrive places on this show) and easily blasts its head off. This is, unfortunately, about as cool as Cyclops gets for the foreseeable future.

The X-Men then abduct Jubilee (but for good reasons, as heroes do) and she wakes up at the X-Mansion. She meets the rest of the team: Beast (that CS major you knew who spent tons of time in the gym), Morph (a shapeshifter with an off-putting giggle), Jean Grey (telepath dressed like a stripper, welcome to 1992), Wolverine (pre-Hugh Jackman, still short, hairy, and talking like Popeye) and Professor Xavier (surprisingly inert).

Jubilee realizes that she’s put her foster parents in danger and tries to return home, but she just falls into Henry Gyrich’s trap, and is re-abducted to an undisclosed location. The team decides to raid MCA headquarters and destroy its files to protect other mutants. The show spends a surprising amount of time giving us little character insights while they infiltrate. Cyclops is a true believer and boy scout, Wolverine wants to do what’s right but can’t stand all these rules (“I go where I wanna go!”), Gambit prefers to work alone, Morph is a capering jackass, Rogue tragically can’t touch anyone without killing them, Beast is loquacious, Storm lives her life theatrically, you know how it goes. Like I said, this show offered something for everyone, often simultaneously!

The episode ends on the cliffhanger of the team opening a security door, armed guards waiting on the other side. The outro credits are worth a mention, as they feature some mind blowing early ’90s CGI.

Now That’s What I Call ’90s: “Look what she did to the VCR just by touching it!”

Favorite Rogue-ism: “You look nervous as a long tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.”

Part 2

Air date: November 7, 1992

The team makes quick work of destroying the MCA’s files, but Sentinels foil what should have been an easy retreat, with Morph apparently killed (“confirmed” by Xavier and Jean’s telepathy). The team returns home in shambles, with Wolverine threatening to kill Cyclops over what happened. We’ll learn via flashback that Cyclops botched their exit from the MCA, resulting in Beast’s capture and Morph’s death (sure). Leading with the aftermath, focusing on the team’s interpersonal conflicts, and only revealing the actual events a little later was unheard of for a Saturday morning cartoon. It’s the kind of narrative choice we remember thirty years later.

Less remembered is Gyrich’s meeting with President Stairmaster. Sorry, she’s on a Stairmaster while talking to him, and the show hasn’t actually mentioned her name yet, so she’s President Stairmaster, okay? It would be the most ’90s moment in this episode, but Stairmasters go back to the ’80s. She says that while she finds the Sentinels highly effective, the idea of a mutant registry is appalling, making her more of a Bush Sr. than a Bush Jr.

Cyclops hatches a plan to damage a Sentinel and follow it back to its factory. When it asks Cyclops to surrender, he replies, “Of course…NOT!” So if you were to ask me, “How ’90s is the ’90s X-Men show, really?” I would just play you a clip of that.

The damaged but mostly still functional Sentinel returns to its factory in Detroit by crashing straight through the ceiling, which again, begs the question of whether a Sentinel’s secondary imperative is “Cause at least $5 million in property damage per hour.” This factory is also where Jubilee is being held. That was revealed much earlier (along with the introduction of mad scientist Bolivar Trask), but it has almost no bearing on the plot. In fact Jubilee doesn’t get much to do here, which is strange given how central she was in the last episode. The fight out of the facility is pretty fun, and everyone has a chance to show off.

Jubilee decides to go live with her fellow mutants at the X-Mansion. Saying goodbye to her foster parents, she tells them, “You guys are the best foster parents I ever had.” Bear in mind that these parents feared her burgeoning abilities, put her name in a national surveillance database, and briefly colluded with a powerful anti-mutant bigot. If these are the best foster parents Jubilation Lee ever had, I shudder to think what the worst were like.

Loose threads. Could there be a reason why that Sentinel’s sensors lingered on one “human” guard at the MCA after Morph “died”? What’s going to happen to Beast? And how long will Cyclops be second guessing himself?

Now That’s What I Call ’90s: Cyclops firing a “NOT” joke at a Sentinel, very possibly the most ’90s thing in the entire series, but I hope we haven’t peaked too early.

  1. A 65 episode order ensures that there will be enough episodes to eventually air them in daily syndication, repeating the series quarterly. So networks usually saw 65 episodes as a good investment, while anything more was wasted money.