X-Men ’97 signals Marvel and MCU progress in a promising direction.

The X-Men strike a pose in X-Men '97.

This season, three streaming series have emerged as “talked-about shows” — shows that are widely discussed on platforms like X and TikTok, and even around office water coolers. The first two — Shōgun and Baby Reindeer — were pleasant surprises; how many historical epics set in feudal Japan and shows addressing male sexual trauma have dominated the viewing charts?

But the unexpected hit of the season is X-Men ’97, a revival of a cherished 1990s animated series that faced skepticism before its debut on March 20. Many dismissed it as a mere attempt to capitalize on Gen-X nostalgia. The recent cancellation of the Willow reboot and the influx of lackluster live-action remakes of Disney classics like Aladdin and The Little Mermaid had set a low bar, dampening viewer expectations.

Yet, much like the source material in the comics, X-Men ’97 proved to be remarkable, compelling, and, indeed, astonishing: a thoughtful, dynamic, intricate, and enjoyable reinterpretation of a property that had not aged well over time. Its success, resonating with both critics and a growing audience, signifies not only a rare triumph for the struggling franchise but also signals a more deliberate approach to storytelling within the MCU. It hints at a shift in strategy by the primary minds behind Marvel’s cinematic universe, demonstrating a willingness to learn from past missteps and forge a new path towards success in upcoming phases.

Reasons behind X-Men ’97’s success (and the failures of recent MCU films)

The X-Men assemble in X-Men '97.

It’s no revelation to state that reboots are often uninspired and lackluster, but X-Men ’97 triumphs by acknowledging the essence of its predecessor, X-Men: The Animated Series, and modernizing it with a contemporary narrative sensibility. When X-Men: The Animated Series premiered in 1992, it instantly captivated children and adult comic fans by condensing 30 years of lore into a digestible format. The vibrant visuals, distinctive and soulful voice acting (kudos to Alison Sealy-Smith and Lenore Zahn for breathing life into Storm and Rogue), and the costumes and designs by Jim Lee and Marc Silvestri from the comics, all contributed to its broad appeal amongst long-time enthusiasts and newcomers alike.

Seems straightforward, doesn’t it? Yet, it was a precarious task, especially for a franchise with a devoted fan base whose memories of the seminal show colored their youth. A recent re-watch revealed that X-Men: The Animated Series, while still engaging and occasionally entertaining, had grown outdated: uneven animation, disjointed storylines, and at times, offensive character portrayals, particularly that of Jean Grey.

X-Men ’97 rectifies these missteps while preserving the essence that made its predecessor resonate with viewers. Jean is no longer a stereotypical damsel in distress who faints at every challenge; instead, she exudes strength when needed and introspection when warranted by the plot. The same applies to Storm and Rogue; in just the initial five episodes, these characters exhibit more complexity than the entire cast of The Marvels, which struggled to flesh out its leading female trio appropriately and establish compelling dynamics.

In X-Men ’97, a genuine sense of camaraderie pervades not only among these characters but throughout the entire X-Men ensemble, a fundamental aspect of the franchise’s appeal. It transcends the focus on individual heroes and emphasizes the collective unity of a diverse array of characters with unique powers and, more crucially, distinct personalities.

Wolverine examines his claws in X-Men '97.

Distinct from the Fox X-Men films and subsequent animated adaptations, Wolverine assumes a subdued role in X-Men ’97 (barely featured). There is no singular protagonist in the X-Men; rather, the narrative centers on Xavier’s dream and the notion of a chosen family standing together against adversity. Marvel’s acknowledgment of this principle after years of mishandling by other studios is auspicious and indicates a newfound ability to harness the core appeal of X-Men for a modern audience.

X-Men ’97 embraces bold storytelling … and succeeds

Marvel Girl and Storm share a moment in X-Men '97.

Another pivotal aspect of X-Men ’97 contributing to its success and Marvel’s adept handling of the property is its willingness to take daring narrative risks. In only its second episode, the series depowers one of its beloved characters, Storm, and relegates her to the sidelines until the season’s climax. The third episode intertwines intricate plotlines from previous arcs like Inferno and Cable’s origins into a poignant 25-minute exploration of themes like motherhood, parental sacrifice, and identity.

Lastly, the fifth episode delivers a devastating twist by introducing an Omega Sentinel, a colossal robot that indiscriminately decimates numerous mutants, including the innocent Leech, formidable villain Sebastian Shaw, and most surprisingly, fan-favorite Gambit, who sacrifices himself to protect his beloved.

Rogue mourns Gambit in X-Men '97.

X-Men ’97 takes bold creative choices, propelling its narrative into unexpected territories. Its fast-paced, unpredictable nature keeps viewers engaged, eagerly anticipating what unfolds next. The credit largely extends to the show’s creator and head writer, Beau DeMayo, and supervising director, Jake Castorena, who intuitively understood that to forge a deep connection with audiences, and the show itself, is to provoke strong emotions. Following the pivotal episode titled Remember It, fans flocked to social media to express their shock and grief. The series dares to push boundaries, refusing to hold back, signifying that no character, not even a beloved rogue like Gambit, is safe.

Pepper grieves as Iron Man perishes in Avengers: Endgame.

This is precisely what the MCU needs to inject new life into its multiverse: daring storytelling choices with substance. This was the key to the success of Avengers: Endgame. What could have been a convoluted mess of cameos and unresolved plot threads from nearly two dozen movies materialized into a cohesive cinematic event that captured a cultural zeitgeist, concluding the Infinity Saga fittingly.

Iron Man met a heroic end, Captain Marvel fulfilled her role as a deus ex machina, and Black Widow and Steve Rogers found closure in their arcs. The film also laid the groundwork for intriguing new narratives, from Scarlet Witch’s quest for purpose amidst loss to Thor seeking a new chapter, hinting at an evolution in Marvel’s storytelling approach.

Implications for the MCU going forward

Hope and Scott share a moment in Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania.

However, the subsequent outcomes were not as favorable. For every triumph like WandaVision, lauded as Disney’s best offering, there were numerous letdowns such as Thor: Love and Thunder and Secret Invasion. Even acclaimed releases like Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 felt like swan songs or retrospectives on past glories. Too much focus was placed on characters (Ironheart, Agatha Harkness) and storylines (Kang’s multiverse conquest) that failed to resonate with audiences. The aftermath was a harrowing 2023, with Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania leaving even die-hard fans fatigued, and The Marvels emerging as Disney’s biggest box office failure.

Although not directly tied to the MCU, X-Men ’97 heralds a shift in Marvel’s creative vision, diverging from revisiting former successes and instead cultivating new franchises that accentuate their inherent appeal. For the X-Men, it entails embracing the franchise’s melodramatic storylines and managing a diverse ensemble of characters united by a common objective: advocating for mutant acceptance in a world fraught with fear and prejudice. X-Men ’97 submerges viewers into a world teeming with intrigue and peril, where alliances and rivalries coexist, taking risks beyond the conventional.

This essence mirrors the timeless popularity of X-Men comics spanning decades, particularly during Chris Claremont’s tenure as a guiding force. Beloved characters meet their end, new figures emerge to inherit their legacy, and the overarching narrative defies expectations.

The cast of "The Fantastic Four."

Marvel’s application of this strategy extends to another iconic property, the Fantastic Four, acquired from 20th Century Fox. Though still in pre-production, the creative decisions, such as Vanessa Kirby’s fitting casting as Sue Storm and the unconventional choices of Ralph Ineson, John Malkovich, and Paul Walter Hauser embodying Galactus and potentially Puppet Master and Mole Man, exemplify Marvel’s understanding of what drives the Fantastic Four: zany ’60s charm and retro sci-fi appeal.

Even the promotional imagery exudes a nostalgic charm, indicative of Marvel’s refreshing approach that wholly embraces the innocent allure of their newest ventures.

Cyclops and Jean reach out to Professor X in X-Men '97.

X-Men ’97 has swiftly become one of Disney+’s most-watched shows this year, poised for further growth as more viewers discover its exceptional blend of familiarity and novelty. Beyond being a remarkable achievement in itself, the series signals a revitalized MCU poised to deliver narratives that resonate with fans, departing from the studio’s preconceived notions of what viewers desire. Time will reveal if X-Men ’97 signifies a brighter future for Marvel or remains an isolated gem amidst a sea of uninspired sequels and spin-offs.

You can now stream all ten episodes of X-Men ’97 season 1 on Disney+.

Valentina Rogers

Valentina is a tech-savvy wordsmith, blending her expertise in digital trends with a talent for crafting compelling stories that resonate with readers of all backgrounds.

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