In addition to the successful movie franchise, a number of animated series have taken a stab at the Uncanny X-Men. Fans speak most fondly of the flawed-but-loyal 1990s show, while the less said about X-Men: Evolution the better. Of them all, however, the best may be the shortest-lived. Wolverine and the X-Men–a 26-episode gem appearing on the NickToons network last fall–found the perfect balance of action, affection, grown-up sensibilities and kid-friendly fun to deliver a first-rate rendition of Marvel’s misunderstood superheroes. Hit the jump for my full review.
The secret lies in the way it blends the best elements of the comic books with a new and engaging storyline. Wolverine and the X-Men begins in the middle, with an explosion at Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters that decimates the building. When the smoke clears, both Professor X and his prize pupil Jean Grey have disappeared. The remaining X-Men scatter to the winds, and in their absence, the world goes to pot. The U.S. government cracks down harder than ever on “The Mutant Menace,” while Magneto retires to Genosha to form his own mutants-only nation. With those two forces on a collision course, the future looks bleak indeed: a fact confirmed by Professor X when he reappears in a post-apocalyptic wasteland twenty years after he first vanished. In order to head off the end of civilization, he reaches back through time to telepathically contact Wolverine and give him a vital mission: reform the X-Men, learn the cause of the conflagration, and put a stop to it at all costs.
The framework wouldn’t work if the creative minds behind it didn’t know the characters like the back of their hand. They use it as a fulcrum to incorporate all manner of plot threads from the comics, including Genosha, Days of Future Past, the creation of Archangel, and the omnipresent Phoenix saga. Each storyline arrives in appropriately respectful terms, and yet none of them intrudes upon the series’ ability to do its own thing.
The results feel at once refreshing and traditional, honoring the fans’ love for these characters while providing a few surprises to keep them on their toes. The animation uses comparatively simple techniques, but avoids cheap shortcuts or sloppy workmanship. The producers combine that with sharp scripts written by people well versed in X-Men lore. They integrate catch phrases and famous quips smoothly into the uniformly strong dialogue. Vocal actor Seven Blum makes a striking impression as Wolverine, backed by a talented supporting cast who never let us forget the heroes amid all the (largely well-rendered) action.
Wolverine and the X-Men also succeeds in bringing the sheer variety of characters to life without making the show feel crowded. Fan favorites like Nightcrawler and Gambit all have their chance to shine, while still keeping the central story arc on track. The show even finds time for a few other Marvel favorites like Nick Fury and the Hulk, all contained neatly within the series’ self-defined framework.
The only fly in the ointment comes at the end: with a second season promised and a new arc moving into position, the producers promptly pulled the plug, leaving loyal fans to gnash their teeth at what could have been. (Despite high ratings, the funding fell through, and Marvel’s subsequent sale to Disney may not have helped on that front.) On the other hand, it still provides a well-conceived narrative with a strong beginning, middle and end. In addition to the episodes themselves, the DVD contains a few modest featurettes and audio commentary on most every episode courtesy of the show’s producers. It’s not an overwhelming package, but the show really makes its own gravy. For X-Men fans, it forms an indispensable addition to their collection: proof that these superheroes can be so much more than props for an aging movie franchise.