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X-Men 97 Review: The Top 5 Improvements Disney+ Made (2024)

Smokey’s Top Five “X-Men ’97” Improvements

by Josh "Smokey Hell" Nelson

“Da-na da-na daaa da DA.” You know the song. In fact, you’re singing it in your head right now as you’re reading this. To be fair, it’d be rude not to. This is the one theme song you do not skip past, even when Disney+ asks. It’s the “X-Men” theme that served as the internal soundtrack I used to crush people on the ice like my name was Bobby Drake.

Growing up on the West Coast of Canada, playing ice hockey was as compulsory as the Songun Policy in North Korea. In those days of the early-mid 1990s, my sharpened blades cut their way through pristine sheets of ice. En route to obliterating our opponents, there was often only one thing that was playing in my head: “Da-na da-na daa da DA.”

For those who don’t know, I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Keeping focus during most tasks can be monumental without either medication or music as a time-marker. This is why having a constant internal soundtrack at my beck and call allows me to seamlessly travel through life without the general populace knowing just how much of a cacophony of thoughts is going on at any moment.

It’s been 27 years since “X-Men: The Animated Series” originally went off the air. I cannot count how many times that song has come back into my head since. “X-Men” is my Roman Empire. 

Marvel Origins

A best friend growing up, John (R.I.P), had a sizable collection of Marvel Trading Cards. They were some of the best ’90s collectibles there were (shut it down, Pogs enthusiasts). We used to play a game where we’d play superheroes, and we could choose any five powers with which to create an amalgamated character. I would always start off with Wolverine. Short, Canadian and angry… not exactly a stretch for me! My Favorite powers I would always go back to were Omega Red’s carbonadium tentacles, Gambit’s potential-to-kinetic energy charges, Colossus’ organic steel skin and Nightcrawler’s teleportation. Clearly, I favored the “X-Men” corner of the Marvel Universe.

It should come as no surprise that when I heard they were continuing the series as “X-Men ’97,” I nearly shit a Puck-sized brick (shoutout “Alpha Flight”).

Now that the first season has dropped in its entirety, I can tell you I am underselling it. This might be the single greatest piece of content that Marvel has ever put forth, animated or live-action. Ever. If you don’t believe me, just go check out the Rotten Tomatoes rating (currently 99%, the highest-rated Marvel content to this point).

You may be asking, how is it even possible that existing IP could be improved on this scale? As Tom Petty said, “Don’t bore us, get to the chorus,” so here it is.

(Warning:  This blog contains spoilers)

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Smokey’s Top Five “X-Men ’97” Improvements

5. The Facelift

X-Men 97 Review: The Top 5 Improvements Disney+ Made (2024)

We might as well start with the most obvious, the facelift every aspect of “X-Men ’97” received when compared to the original series. The opening credits have been faithfully reproduced. However, the animation is crisper, cleaner and more colorfully vibrant. 

Some of the characters have received visual updates (Gambit’s off-duty 90’s fashion), while some changes were a bit more subtle. Jubilee’s voice actor (Holly Chou) was actually of Asian descent for the first time in the character’s history! In a nod to Jubilee’s original series voice actor, Alyson Court, who returns as Abscissa (alternate future Jubilee) in a fun Mojo/Jubilee-centric episode.

Another major facelift:  the amount of costumes they squeezed in for every member of the “X-Men.” In addition to their familiar costumes, we got throwback costumes for Wolverine, Marvel Girl, Cable, Magneto, Cyclops and more. 

The mutant power animations were possibly the most noticeable visual improvement. The biggest included when Cyclops removed his ruby-quartz visor to unleash a tearful optic blast of full magnitude. Storm turned the desert to glass with every step when Nightcrawler pulled the bad guy (impaled by Wolverine) in the first-person view through the alternate dimension he enters during teleportation at the genocide of Genosha. Even when Magneto rips the Adamantium from within Wolverine’s body, the animation was both faithful to the original (where we see it grafted), yet more visually stunning. 

4. X-Men Cameos

In the original series, we received quite a few cameos from other characters from the “X-Men” world, as well as the Marvel Universe outside of mutants. This was ratcheted up to 11 for the remake, “X-Men 97,” in which we saw *draws a comically large, Ace Ventura-sized breath in*:

Banshee, Dust, Maggot, Marrow, Nature Girl, Squid Boy, Spider-Man, Angel, The Morlocks (Callisto, Leech, Ape, Erg, Tommy), X-Cutioner, Lady Deathstryke, Colossus, Psylocke, Sabretooth, Madelyne Pryor, Mister Sinister, Forge, Magik, Mojo, Longshot, Dark Phoenix, Blob, Thunderbird, Sunfire, Domino, Dazzler, Sauron, Quicksilver, Havok, Polaris, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Multiple Man, Wiz-Kid, Glob Herman, Pixie, Gentle, Exodus, Boom Boom, Sebastian Shaw, Moira MacTaggert, Emma Frost, Avalanche, Uatu the Watcher, Nimrod, Vulcan, Ronan the Accuser, Gladiator, General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross, Forearm, Angel Salvatore, Mimic, Brainchild, Amphibius, Captain America, Bastion, Rachel Summers, General William Stryker, Daria, Doctor Doom, Baron Zemo, Silver Samurai, Omega Red, Juggernaut, Hulk, Iron Man, Daredevil, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Cloak & Dagger, Crimson Dynamo, Darkstar, Alpha Flight (Northstar, Aurora, Puck), Frenzy, Psylocke, Mary Jane Watson, Graydon Creed, Scarlet Witch, Iceman, Kitty Pride and Mister Fantastic.

Quite the ridiculous amount of characters, right? While some were introduced organically according to plot, a section of the above names was introduced in spectacular fashion with our next upgrade.

3. Morph

X-Men 97 Review: The Top 5 Improvements Disney+ Made (2024)

I struggled to choose only one “X-Men ’97” character for the top five (Cyclops, Magneto and Rogue were in consideration), and I landed on Morph for a few reasons.

First, a subtle upgrade was Morph’s pronouns being “They/Them,” which makes a hell of a lot more sense, given their power set. Representation matters, and now Morph can be that character that underrepresented people can identify with.

As noted, Morph was also used as a vehicle to introduce at least 14 names off that cameo list. Some of those (namely Quicksilver and Hulk) were some of the most incredible action we’ve seen from those characters on the screen, live-action or animated. Hulk’s spin attacks to obliterate a few Sentinels was stunning. It also served as a way for Morph to really prove to the viewer that he can hang with (and become) anyone in that universe instead of being the Joey Fatone of the X-Men.

Last but certainly not least, the “will they, won’t they” Morph had with Wolverine helped flesh out both characters’ development. It added a dimension that has – for Wolverine – some historical precedence in an alternate universe version of comics.

For those who doubt or view Morph’s affection towards Logan as ambiguous, main writer and showrunner Beau DeMayo has gone on record stating, “From story bible to the script, Morph’s confession to Logan was always romantic. I discussed this openly and often during production. Suggesting otherwise, never mind contradicting the intention of a queer writer-showrunner, is both offensive and straight-washing. […] To talk about representation and it mattering, and then contradict a gay black creator once they are able to become one of the few showrunners who are gay and black, is just disingenuous.” 

2. Fight Choreography

X-Men 97 Review: The Top 5 Improvements Disney+ Made (2024)

We all know the Fastball Special (a tandem move usually between Wolverine and Colossus), but can we talk about Cyclops in episode No. 1? When confronting the Friends of Humanity to rescue Sunspot, he maneuvers around the fight with a combination of slight hops and optic beam blasts. It was the first moment in this update that made me snap to attention. 

However, let’s get back to my boy, Wolverine. Some of my favorite fight scenes were tied directly to my favorite of the X-Men. Already noted is the moment when Wolverine impales a bad guy while Nightcrawler is pulling him through the alternate dimension.

That was merely the icing on the cake of that scene. The way those two worked around and with each other in such close-quarters combat was breathtaking; Footwork more beautiful than Baryshnikov and Muhammed Ali rolled into one. 

There’s No “X” in Team

The most obvious was towards the end of episode No. 1, where the X-Men were on a mission to hunt down Bolivar Trask. They instead fell into his trap with a previously unknown Master Mold and a bevy of Sentinels. I say obvious because the animators, storyboard artists and fight choreographers clearly wanted to flex their true might with a team display of powers.

First, Cyclops took no assistance from any flight-capable teammates when the Blackbird blew up. Instead, he used his optic blasts directly into the desert floor to serve as a makeshift retro-booster. It was an unbelievable choice that makes you wonder why we hadn’t seen that before!

Then (in one of the coolest combos committed to cartoon), Gambit kinetically charges Wolverine’s adamantium claws to explosively tear through Sentinels. Again, how is this something we never experienced in the original run?

Gambit was basically charging playing cards, his staff and not much else in the past. His heroic death, going out in a blaze of glory, was an incredible glimpse of the true limits of his power. He single-handedly took down the Wild Sentinel who had just mowed down thousands of mutants in the previous few minutes prior. 

1. X-Men Character Development

The original series, despite there being many multi-part episodes, felt insular when it came to character development. In the new “X-Men ’97” episodes, you see fully fleshed-out changes playing out from a couple of episodes to the entire season. This adds delicate layers of depth to what the viewer is emotionally investing in. 

These are not Saturday morning cartoon plotlines (and not just because new episodes were dropping on Wednesdays). There were legitimate jaw-dropping moments that I can only equate to what “Game of Thrones” would do with their ninth episode every season.

I was watching in real time and knew full well what would happen. Still, the mutant genocide in Genosha was one of the most shocking moments I’ve ever seen committed on-screen. From Uatu watching from the background (a dead giveaway that shit is about to go down) to the moment Cable makes a brief appearance, tearfully warning his mother. Finally, “Terminate Mutant”, and watching familiar face after familiar face be vaporized by the Wild Sentinel. With Gambit’s heroic last stand, the stakes had never been higher, the action more believable or the emotion more palpable.

Looking Forward

Episode No. 5’s amount of relationship conflicts was staggering: Logan and Jean, Jean and Scott and Madelyne, Gambit and Rogue and Magneto. The depth the writers have bestowed upon these characters who are already rich with history feels like a cherry on top of the immaculate job they have done with the show. 

My only concern going forward is that the main writer of “X-Men ’97” from season No. 1, DeMayo, was unceremoniously let go before it debuted. Thankfully, DeMayo had already written season No. 2 before that happened, and the showrunners have confirmed that they will honor his ideas while a new head writer will be in place for season No. 3. Honestly, they would be fools not to, as DeMayo prepared such an unprecedented masterpiece. Whatever the reason may be for the parting of ways, I thank DeMayo for his involvement and contributions in making “X-Men ’97” everything it has been so far. 

“X” Marks the Spot

Playing on nostalgia? Absolutely. However, even if the original series had not existed, this iteration would capably stand on its own. 

I wish my friend John was still alive. We could have been watching our kids grow up playing the same games we did at their age, imagining ourselves as custom composites of those “Children of the Atom.”

He would have loved that. And he would be just as obsessed as I am with the return of the X-Men to animation.

Thanks for reading my top five “X-Men ’97” improvements. Remember, where there’s Smoke… there’s fire! For more entertainment and sports takes, find me on Twitter, @MrSmokeyHell.

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