Cast: Ray Chase, Jennifer Hale, Alison Sealy-Smith, Cal Dodd, J. P. Karliak, Lenore Zann, George Buza, A. J. LoCascio Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 30-40 min. x 10 episodes MPAA: TV-14

Returning to the 1990s X-Men cartoon seems like a safe nostalgic bet for Marvel Studios to entice their Millenial fanbase. But sequel series of X-Men ’97 does not play itself safe at all. It’s a cartoon developed by people who grew up with X-Men and knew what made it work. They not only progress the story, but give it the teeth it deserves, serving up something that no other Marvel Studios TV show has yet to have: Stakes.

The tensions between mutants and humans continues onward in the show, taking place after a dying Charles Xavier was whisked away from Earth for a possible cure to his illness. In his absence, the X-Men are still fighting against the vocal bigotted group Friends of Humanity and a progressive resurgance of the Sentinels. In need of leadership, the villain Magneto has opted to turn in his helmet and adhere to Charle’s wishes. It’s one thing for Magneto to make that pledge to co-existence, but it’s quite another when he’s put to the ultimate test as anti-mutant forces grow more fervent and continue to gain ground.

Although this continuation of X-Men adheres to all the previously established designs and lore, this show has a newfound freedom. No longer bound by the restrictions of network TV that forced, the series leaned harder into it’s depictions of violence and bigotry. A refreshing character added into the mix for this season is Eduardo. As a teenager with solar powers and coming from a well-to-do family, this kid assumes that these anti-mutant forces won’t target him because he keeps his head down and is “one of the good ones.” It’s that perception of combating the intersectionality within prejudice and dispelling the belief that bigots are willing to meet anybody halfway. They won’t in this show and the stakes are so high that some X-Men don’t survive this season. Even the season finale leaves things up in the air about who is still alive.

Though set in the year 1997, this issues of X-Men ’97 feel more relevant today than ever before. Consider the second episode where the villain X-Cutioner stages a riot to storm a UN hearing for Magneto’s crimes. As he leads a mob inside, it’s impossible not to think of the January 6th insurrection. The relations become even more vocal as X-Cutioner fights his way through X-Men and complains about how much mutants whine about oppression and that it’s hard for regular folks, too. It’s a cry that rings true for anybody who has endured the moaning of someone who wants to rant about how “All Lives Matter.”

Of course, a meaningful piece of media still needs to be entertaining first and X-Men ’97 is unbelievably exciting to watch. The animation quality hasn’t diminished for the action, bolstering such dazzling sequences as Gambit using his heat-charging hands to power up Wolverine’s claws for an attack on a Sentinel. The characters are not much given redesigns as they are given a new coat of paint, where the basketball attire of the heroes is all kinds of horny and Morph’s favoring of a non-binary look feels more fitting for a mutant who can assume any identity.

The drama of the character also becomes a strong point of the series, where the motivations of the characters shift over the course of episodes. Cyclops, for example, goes from being an expetent parent aiming to make the world better to a bitter mess who finds little trust in humanity. Eduardo shifts from being closeted about his mutant powers to going radical by the climax. Storm has a powerful arc of getting in touch with her inner self after having lost nearly everything. I was even surprised to see how the usually level-headed Beast finds his romantic relationship with a human woman starting to decay amid genocidal events.

By the time the show reached its fifth episode (which may be the best of the season), I was completely hooked. I was already to watching to see how the many events would congeal over the course of the season, considering how the show darts around from fighting Sentinels to besting sillier villains like Mojo. But the tensions rise fast in that mid-season episode, punching the audience in the gut for how effortlessly it switches from a melodramatic love triange to a vicious terrorist attack on mutants. This show gets so dark at times that it might still feel alien to believe this came from the same studio as Marvel’s more formulaic superhero shows.

X-Men ’97 has everything one could possibly desire in an X-Men show and then some. It’s a bolder superhero saga that isn’t afraid to take the heaviest of risks and highlight the most topical of issues. It’s a revival that remains faithful to the 1990s episodes, but amps up what might’ve been too risky for the era. This show tackles bigotry head on in a way that doesn’t feel like it cheapens the X-Men either for the softer eyes of children or the fragile formation of an extended franchise. You don’t make a show interesting by playing it safe and you don’t conquer bigotry by sitting on the fence. Courage is what’s needed to make superhero shows like this as exciting as they are culturally important. It’s nostalgic, sure, but also hopeful for the future and looks towards a better tomorrow rather than retreating to the retro. This is the optic blast the genre needed and is easily one of the best superhero shows, let alone superhero cartoons.

You may also like