We gave it a B-
Typical teenage angst — you’re sitting by the phone, waiting for him to call, positive that the pimple on your forehead has grossed him out. Or maybe it was your braces, or your glasses. Just when you’re convinced you probably also made a fool of yourself in gym class — BAM! A 30-foot robot smashes through your window and you have to fire power blasts at it through your palms to defend yourself. Bummer. And, like, he still hasn’t called.
Such is the lot of teenage mutants — human, not turtle — on X-Men, the half-hour animated superhero series on Fox. Based on the way-popular Marvel comic books, the TV ‘toon centers on eight teens and young adults in a school for mutants who, rather than developing, say, prehensile thumbs, have evolved into beings capable of telepathy, telekinesis, and the like. And — Calling Dr. Freud! — these attributes usually manifest themselves around puberty.
This hormonal metaphor, plus typical teen feelings of anger, isolation, and cliquish friendship, inform both the X-Men comics and the cartoon, making the latter a hit right from its Jan. 9 debut (Nielsen now rates it No. 2 on Saturday mornings). Most of the X-Men (and -women) aren’t literally teenagers but an indeterminate age somewhere between the Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place crowds. Yet their hopes and dreams are straight out of S.E. Hinton. ”Why is this happening to me?” one moans. ”I used to be a normal kid. It’s not my fault!” Even badass Wolverine, who grunts in Clint-Eastwood-spaghetti-Westernese, sits in his room sighing about how Jean Grey is dating Cyclops instead of him.
This would all seem campy if not for the layer of mutants-must-help-humans noblesse oblige and a ’90s slant that, despite the sexist name, makes X-Men seem like PC-People: Their mentor, Prof. Charles Xavier, is physically challenged, men cry, and we see fewer guns than in your average Bugs Bunny cartoon. While only one X-person is African-American, the mutants are a de facto minority — Cyclops, Wolverine, Jubilee, Storm, Rogue, Gambit, the Beast, and Jean (no dramatic name, for some reason) Grey are feared and loathed in a Twilight Zone-ish allegory of racial/ethnic/lifestyle intolerance; Colin Powell sure wouldn’t want them in the Army. Mutants are jeered at by the equivalent of villagers with torches; all mutants, wrongdoers or not, must register with a quasi-governmental agency or face arrest by giant robots called Sentinels.
These robots and other things mechanical absorb the brunt of the violence, except during the heroes’ occasional hand-to-hand battles with evil mutants like the animalistic Sabretooth. And though an X-Man called Morph (created for the TV series) gets immediately offed like all those Ensign Smiths on the old Star Trek, regular humans go unhurt — even when archvillain Magneto makes Army tanks turn on each other, the soldiers scurry away unscathed.
The animation itself has little style but lots of detail, plus terrific whir-clunk-clang sound effects. And the characters’ movements have that generic fluid jerkiness that is as common to this generation of action cartoons as the wide-eyed-waif look was to the 1960s’ Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and their ilk. Even so, the art is miles above the pasteboard cutouts of the 1960s and ’70s superhero ‘toons, and the characters are more believably flawed. The dialogue still comes straight from drive-in movies, though: ”It’s me you want!” ”You’ve trained your X-Men well, Xavier.” ”I’ll avenge you, my friend — I swear it.”
Not exactly Proust — nor even Marvel Comics, where the more three-dimensional X-Men tend to speak like real people. Wolverine also chain-smokes cigars and sometimes kills in the comic books, which are presumably aimed at an older audience. Yet for all its shortcomings, this show’s cartoon heart is in the right place. These are superheroes you know would be out there, sweeping up broken glass, after the L.A. riots. B-