We'd like to remind everyone that Judge Kerry Birmingham isn't a "mutant," that's unfortunately just what he looks like.
"X-POSED!…Seize the X-citement with all 13 episodes of this X-treme season from the hit animated series!" (X-cruciating X-puns courtesy of Warner's copy writing department).
It seems like the movie tie-in animated series is pretty much expected these days. Even 2005's loved-by-no-one Fantastic Four film has spawned an upcoming animated series. When a non-starter like Osmosis Jones can have a successful cartoon spin-off, you know that the bar for this sort of material is set pretty low. X-Men: Evolution came on the heels of 2000's solid X-Men feature film, sort of a no-brainer spinoff, with the added burden of having to compare with a much-loved animated X-Men series from a decade earlier. It's not a particularly good position to be in: how does a series distinguish itself not only from a pack of similarly opportunistic shows, but from a revered predecessor? That it even reached a third season is a testament to both the perennial appeal of the X-Men and this decidedly different spin on a much-altered concept.
Facts of the Case
Just in case anyone isn't clear on this by now: Charles Xavier, "Professor X," runs a school for "gifted" students, genetic mutants with powers and abilities greater than those of normal people. Hated and feared by the public at large, Xavier's School for Gifted Children trains these youngsters in the use and control of their abilities. Many of his graduates, using codenames like "Wolverine," "Storm," "Cyclops," and, uh, "Jean Grey," use their abilities to protect the world from rogue mutants and other superhuman threats. They call themselves "X-Men."
Warner Bros. presents all 13 episodes of the third season of X-Men: Evolution on two discs:
• "Day of Recovery"
• "The Stuff of Heroes"
• "The Stuff of Villains"
• "Blind Alley"
• "X-Treme Measures"
• "The Toad, The Witch & The Wardrobe"
• "Self Possessed"
• "Under Lock and Key"
• "Cruise Control"
• "Dark Horizon Part One"
• "Dark Horizon Part Two"
It's hard, as a devotee of the X-Men for most of my life, not to compare this iteration to the ones that came before it. I'm of the generation that loved the (sadly, still unavailable) '90s series and all of the comic books released before and since. The '90s series had, if nothing else, a near-slavish adherence to the comics of the time, slightly streamlined and reconfigured to appease both obsessive X-fans like myself and the ostensible audience of children.
Evolution, however, has none of that. It seemed logical, at its inception, that it should mimic the movie's continuity and characterization; necessarily bastardized for the trip cross-medium, the movie continuity was still "acceptable." Evolution also has none of that.
Instead, this series established a separate continuity that rankled. Characters were aged or de-aged seemingly at random; the locale was moved to generic "Bayville," where Xavier's School was more an extracurricular for students already attending Bayville High. It was, in short, a pale photocopy to guys like me: a version so far removed from the source material that it hardly seemed like the X-Men in any way other than name.
What a difference a few seasons make.
In Season Three, Evolution seems to have hit its stride. Having long ago established its cast of dozens (the comics' cast could easily fill twenty seasons' worth of episodes), the creators are free to use characters and their powers to whatever extent, with whatever intent they like. Freed from laborious exposition and character establishment, they're free to really put the X-Men through their paces. Gone are (most of) the extraneously juvenile elements that marred earlier episodes, replaced instead with the life-or-death stakes and intricate plotting that tends to characterize the best-loved X-Men stories. The soap opera elements, long a draw of the X-Men in any medium, are developed in ways less annoying and more mature (not coincidentally, less of the action centers around Bayville High as the oldest mutants head toward graduation). That Cyclops and Jean Grey get beyond their seasons-long Dawson's Creek-style longing for each other and actually begin a relationship is as good a sign as any that this series has finally decided to push the envelope (at least as far as Saturday morning animation goes) and get beyond the confines of what should have been a more dynamic premise to begin with.
Coming out of Season Two's cliffhanger, the series really gains some momentum, upending the status quo and finally gaining the sense of urgency it lacked in previous seasons, saddled with origin episodes and somewhat underwhelming schoolyard dilemmas. Longtime favorites, like Kitty Pryde, the Mary Tyler Moore of the comic book world, get a chance to shine, and there's moments for virtually every minor character, even Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man (er, Multiple Boy). The writers are clearly enjoying the looser constraints. It takes a bit of confidence to tackle a villain with as much corny, convoluted baggage as Apocalypse ("Dark Horizon"). For the longtime fans, there's even a clever episode that contrives to get all five of the comics' original X-Men together ("Under Lock and Key"). The only real clunkers in the set are "Cruise Control," in which the X-Men party in a tropical paradise with friendly natives before the volcano intervenes, in a plot that's more suitable for Josie and the Pussycats than the X-Men; and "X-Treme Measures," in which much of the plot laughably hinges on a deadly sports drink.
Episodes are apparently in order of production, not date of first airing. Sound and picture are nominally good. Special features are decidedly geared towards younger viewers and clip-heavy. Two "Cerebro's Mutant Files" featurettes recap characters and abilities for newcomers. "Mystique's Trivia Challenge" isn't particularly challenging, and isn't an interactive feature (Mystique "pauses" before giving you the answer to each question). Of interest to older viewers and nerds like myself is "X-Men Season Three: X-Posed," a too-short making-of featuring interviews with writers and producers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If it shares anything with its prior animated incarnation, Evolution has the same sense of timeliness. The '90s series was faithful to the comics, in some ways to its detriment, saddled with the ill-advised fashions of the time and big hair straight from the decade before. Likewise, Evolution is clearly a product of its time; in twenty years, will kids watching nostalgic reruns on cable really believe that teenagers did that much skateboarding and snowboarding? And just what kind of music is that supposed to be? Should I mention the deadly sports drink again?
My only real gripe about the packaging: knowing that an entire season of this series fits on two discs in a standard double-DVD keep case makes the fact that Warner Bros. released the first two seasons over eight discs issued in cardboard clamshell cases even more offensive (well, offensive in a DVD-purchasing context). The fourth and final season would ideally be released in the exact same format as Season Three, preferably in time for the DVD release of X-Men: The Last Stand.
X-Men: Evolution is far from flawless I'm still not convinced that the aging and de-aging of characters is anything but unnecessary, and much of the character design comes off as awkward but it has, yes, evolved from its dicey roots as X-Men Babies into an exciting and worthy canon of its own.
I still prefer the old series, though.
Protecting a world that hates and fears them? It's more than I've done lately. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Cerebro's Mutant Files: The X-Men Heroes" Featurette
Review content copyright © 2006 Kerry Birmingham; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.