"All I remember is someone standing over us…gloating."
It was 1980, and I was 13 years old. I was at the airport, waiting with my family to board a plane. Bored and fidgety, I went into the gift shop and bought a comic book. It was X-Men #137, a double-sized issue splashed with the title "Fate of the Phoenix!" I read it over and over again until it fell apart. The story was the climax of a three-year arc during which Jean Grey (ever notice that she is the only X-Man without a full "superhero" name? Although she did go by the awful name "Marvel Girl" for a while) became a force of nature, the Phoenix, complete with a new-agey green and gold costume with a scarf (!) around her waist. Jean became corrupted (with a little help from her enemies) by her power, and became Dark Phoenix. Now evil, she destroyed a solar system with several billion people. Professor Xavier's own girlfriend, the space empress Lilandra, condemned Jean to death and had her hunted and exterminated. And this issue, #137, was that battle to the death, written at a time when killing off a major superhero was unheard of. The Phoenix Saga was the ultimate comics epic: over-the-top cosmic superhero battles combined with a personal story of temptation, corruption, and eventual sacrifice and redemption. And Chris Claremont's well-balanced script and John Byrne's slick artwork made it work.
Unfortunately, none of these things have much to do with today's review.
Facts of the Case
Charles Xavier has a dream: a giant space battle and a female crying voice, calling, "Help me, Charles Xavier! Help me!" He summons his students, the X-Men, consisting of Gambit, Wolverine, Cyclops, Beast, Storm, Jubilee, and Jean Grey (Rogue is away on another mission). In a voice thick with melodrama, Xavier announces that the X-Men must steal the next space shuttle and fly to the nearby space station to prevent an alien invasion.
Arriving at the station, the X-Men battle "Eric the Red" (who comes up with these names?) and the mind-controlled astronaut crew. Eric wants to seize the station and use its laser to destroy an arriving alien ship, which contains the renegade alien queen Lilandra, but the X-Men manage to destroy the station in time (rescuing the crew, of course). However, the damaged shuttle spirals out of control and towards the radiation-saturated exhaust trail of the Lilandra's ship. Jean Grey volunteers to pilot the shuttle through, using her psychic powers to protect herself from the radiation, while the others hide in the shielded payload bay.
But when the shuttle crashes in New York Harbor, Jean is resurrected (with a new green and gold uniform) as Phoenix, the guardian spirit of the M'Kraan Crystal which Lilandra's evil brother D'Ken plans to use to conquer the universe.
The original "Phoenix Saga" from the X-Men comic books began in issue #100, more or less as recounted above, and ended in issue #137, with the spectacular death of the "Dark Phoenix" (which Jean becomes after turning to the…um, dark side). Don't cry though, because the whole three-year soap opera became pointless a few years later when the comic book writers, desperate for a storyline, revealed that the Phoenix was never really Jean to begin with (and the comatose Jean was found and brought back into the series), suddenly erasing years of emotional trauma and cheapening her sacrifice.
But hell, that's the X-Men: the comic world's biggest soap opera, complete with unrequited romance, bickering between teammates, cast changes, characters returning from the dead right and left. Of course, the interpersonal relationships are part of the series' charm in a way. The X-Men are not professional superheroes, but an informal team assembled by Charles Xavier. They argue, fall in love, and refer to each other as often by their real names as by their "superhero" names. We are meant to see them as human.
All of which places a children's cartoon based on the series at a disadvantage. Graz Entertainment and Saban produced an X-Men cartoon for Fox from 1992 to 1997, and struggled the entire run with balancing the soap opera elements with the usual self-contained American action cartoon formula, where everything must be simplified as much as possible. The awkwardness is evident in the scripting. Characters use each others' real and superhero names arbitrarily: in one pivotal emotional scene, Jean refers to her dearest love Scott Summers as "Cyclops," when sensibly she should call him "Scott." With so many major characters, the writers have to contrive ways to leave a few behind (usually Storm and Jubilee) at various points in order to avoid clutter. Dozens of supporting characters appear in brief cameos (even Dr. Strange and Spiderman!) without any clear rhyme or reason, and often without even being identified to the audience. In fact, Banshee appears prominently in three of the five episodes included on this disc, and at no time does anyone ever bother to identify him as "Banshee!" If I hadn't read the comics when I was a kid, I would have no clue who he was.
Because the X-Men series is so continuity-heavy, a good deal depends on one's knowledge of the characters and the subplots. This disc, marketed as the "Phoenix Saga" contains five episodes from the third season (right in the middle) of the X-Men television series. Although each episode on the disc is self-contained, with its own opening and closing credits and clips from the previous episode, being dropped into the middle of an ongoing storyline can be confusing. In addition, these five episodes are not even the complete saga (Jean's Dark Phoenix phase and subsequent death are not covered here), so significant plot points are dropped and may seem inexplicable to the casual viewer. For instance, much of episode 2 is taken up by a battle with Xavier's evil astral form (which oddly wears a cape). Eric the Red comments on how he would like to use Xavier's astral body as a weapon against the X-Men later, but the plot point disappears completely from the story and never pays off.
So apart from the messy story, how does it look? Well, the video transfer is extremely clean, although the horridly garish colors (more on that below) cause some softness and bleed from time to time. I don't blame that on the transfer however; I blame that on the artists. The audio is solid, although the voice acting is overdone and melodramatic. This tends to be more amusing than gripping, especially during the awkwardly inserted plot expositions, where everyone speaks to each other in cliché "comic book" speeches.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Perhaps this is just a reaction to having spent last weekend at a science fiction convention watching hours of Japanese TV animation, but what is it with American cartoons? The color palette in X-Men is frightening. For example, Wolverine wears his yellow and black costume throughout the adventure, looking like a grumpy bumblebee. I agree with Bryan Singer on this: what looks fine in a four-color comic book (with a skillful colorist at least) looks awful on screen. Japanese television animators manage to make the limited frame-rate and simplified color palette work for them, and on lower budgets most of the time. The animation in X-Men always struggles to do too much: characters in motion seem stiff and awkward and faces are distorted. To make up for the physical limitations of the animation, the designers of this show seem to have used the same logic that leads some people, when trying to talk to someone who doesn't understand English, to merely speak the exact same sentence louder. Without any subtlety to the drawing style or the script (and certainly no subtlety in the voice acting), the artists here just made all the colors really, really loud. While this may work on more simplistic children's cartoons, it really does X-Men a disservice. The series' narrative complexity (dozens of characters, intertwining subplots) becomes merely confusing and visually grotesque. And because this disc contains only part of a longer storyline, casual viewers who are not familiar with the huge cast of characters and complex plotlines are likely to get pretty lost.
In fact, I'm not exactly sure whom this disc is actually for. Fans of the comic book are likely to find the truncated storyline (action takes precedence over character development) and weak artwork disappointing. But kids who might go for the action scenes are likely to find the soap opera confusing. Yes, I know it seems like I want it both ways, but there have been animated TV series where action and ongoing melodrama have been effectively balanced. Star Blazers, anyone? Oh wait, that was a Japanese show again.
And fans of the Bryan Singer movie who have recently embraced the X-Men and are looking to play catch-up? I recommend you avoid this disc altogether. Try reading some of the collected comics volumes instead. Most of the Phoenix/Dark Phoenix story is available, and I guarantee it makes more sense on paper than it does here.
Since Universal is likely targeting this disc for kids, little can be expected in the way of extras. The French dub provides a bit of entertainment (I like to provide my own made-up translations for laughs). The packaging is highly misleading though: the cover shows the Sentinels and Magneto, neither of whom even appear in a cameo in this story. I have also seen this disc marketed on the web as the "Dark Phoenix Saga." Do not be fooled. Although the X-Men cartoon did adapt the Dark Phoenix part of the story (including Jean's death), this disc contains only the first five episodes of the beginning of the story arc (and many fans of the comic agree that the early part of the story is the weakest). Jean only appears here as Phoenix; her transformation into the dangerous Dark Phoenix will come later. Expect Universal to release that story on DVD if this disc does well.
I have yet to see the new X-Men cartoon series, X-Men: Evolution, but I hope the new producers learned a valuable lesson about how to translate comic books to television. In the meantime, I'll just put in my Mobile Police Patlabor tapes, or watch Toonami on the cartoon network, and dream of what might someday be.
This court uses its formidable psychic powers to compel Universal to do a better job packaging their kiddie product. Saban and Graz, found guilty of crimes against animation art, are ordered to clean up all the property damage caused by the X-Men and their adversaries. The X-Men themselves are held over until better adventures come along.
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