I hope you’re sitting down, because I am about to make a bold suggestion: the core concept of the X-Men mythos is a little silly. Let us use the commonly-cited metaphor you tend to hear from the franchise’s most earnest fans: imagine that Martin Luther King has gathered a group of talented young black people at a special school where he teaches them to use their natural gifts to change the world around them into a place of loving acceptance, and that Malcolm X is across town with his own crew of young black folk, plotting less peaceful methods of change. Intriguing!
But now further imagine that Martin Luther King is a bald white psychic in a tech-fetish wheelchair, and that Malcolm X is an old man in a giant Lego helmet and purple tights. Finally, replace “talented young black people” with “mutant types with goofy powers, cheesy outfits and bad code names.”
X-Men is go!
Plus, I have said before that I find it difficult to accept the wildly random nature of all the supposedly evolutionary mutations these characters have experienced. My reliable example: “Hi, I’m Sally, I can read your thoughts. Jane here can move things with her mind. And this is Bob; he has seventeen testicles and the head of an elephant.” If you think that’s an unfair exaggeration, this DVD alone offers a feral werewolf-looking guy, a hulking weirdo who looks like Ned the developmentally-delayed Thing parody from The Venture Bros., a pyrokinetic couple and a girl named Dust, who can turn her body into grains of sand, then fly her sandy mass through the air as it grows from more or less human-sized to Bigass Swarm of Sand!-sized so that her sandy bits can take out an entire fleet of jets and helicopters.
Still, for all its histrionic goofiness and continuity bloat and overall inconsistency, the X-Men franchise at its best has given fans some fun and even stirring comic books, cartoons and films. But is Marvel Studio’s Wolverine and the X-Men: Heroes Return Trilogy DVD a brave new addition to the property’s portfolio of highlights?
Its opening credits sequence is very moody and fast-paced (but if that’s all we required from a cartoon, ThunderCats would still hold up), and on its surface, the animation in Wolverine and the X-Men is less cartoony than DC Comics’ animated fare, but that’s actually a bit misleading; while most of the character designs here aren’t quite as extremely streamlined as those you’ll see in Batman the Animated Series or Justice League Unlimited, and while most of the vehicles and backdrops and robots and the like are far more detailed here than in those other series, Wolverine and the X-Men remains plenty cartoony. If anything, the fact that it pretends otherwise just makes its cartoony aesthetic come across as distracting and dissatisfying, rather than a cool stylistic choice like in Justice League Unlimited.
An example of the show’s cartoony feel: characters race to evade smoke and flames that all but surround them, and yet their clothes remain pristine. Seemingly trifling issues like this give a series a disheartening sort of non-lived-in feel that makes it hard to invest in the narrative. (To be fair, the title character does look the worse for wear after said fire, but owing to his healing factor-fueled recklessness, he was actually inside the fire, so…)
The voice acting ranges from fine to pretty good, but the animation sometimes makes the physical “acting” awkward; Rogue gets all butthurt at Wolverine in an early scene and says, “Can’t you see I’m just like you?” and when she turns to run away, she looks somewhat bowlegged and gangly and misshapen.
There are other issues. Five minutes into the pilot, we are already subjected to two separate instances of a child fleeing danger, which would be fine except that in both cases, the child in question (a small boy in the opening credits sequence, a young girl in the story proper) is carrying a teddy bear at the time. This is such a lazy shortcut on the part of the writers (or animators, perhaps) that it calls to mind an interview with David Cronenberg which appeared in the comic book adaptation of eXistenZ; dismissing the meager scraps of characterization one finds in most action films, Cronenberg noted that you might see the protagonist in such a film play with his dog for a minute at the start of the film, and that is expected to be enough to convey to the audience that this is a normal, decent guy who we should cheer as he murders various bad guys for 90 minutes.
The teddy bears also reminded me of old Spawn comics, wherein kids always carried teddy bears so we wouldn’t forget how pure and innocent they were, and wherein we knew who the good guy was because he was always wreaking vigilante havoc on would-be rapists. Also, that teddy bear-wielding young girl, whose hair is as big as her body, is designed to look like a four- or five-year old (a caricature of a four- or five-year-old, in fact), but she speaks as confidently and compassionately and with as much quiet insight as an abnormally precocious teen.
Then, seven minutes into the pilot, we get our first repeated footage for a flashback; Marvel could be more subtle about cutting corners.
Still, towards the end of the first of this DVD’s three episodes, a villain straps a civilian into a “sensory overload helmet”, and while I wrote the phrase down for smug, clever use later, I cannot, to its credit, liken Wolverine and the X-Men to a sensory overload helmet.
This is not (quite) your typically loud, stupid Saturday morning cartoon, and in fact it seems to steadily improve as it goes along.
Some cute bits along the way: Beast reads one book with his hands while taking notes in another book with his feet, and later, a pissed-off non-mutant (who is Caucasian and upper class, just to hammer home The Big Metaphor About Prejudice) keeps repeating, “He has razors in his hands.”
I also like Toad much more than I probably should; here he is a green-skinned, web-toed, dread-locked slime-spewer in a red do-rag who tries to kick out the back windows of a police cruiser before finally resorting to simply vomiting copious amounts of green goo onto the two cops in the front seat and shouting, “Let me out of here, po-pos!”
Since the series seems to improve as it goes along, it almost seems unfair to be so harsh towards its pilot, but if Marvel Studios and Lions Gate want their new series to be judged from a broader perspective, then they (along with every other film company) need to stop this maddening trend of hastily shoving a few episodes of a series onto DVD when we all know they’ll also release the full season later.
Wolverine and the X-Men knows better than to slow its pace with tired expository introductions; this is a show that rightfully assumes that most anyone turning in is at least familiar enough with the franchise to know its central premise. Still, business doesn’t truly pick up until there’s only five minutes remaining on the DVD; Wolverine and his crew storm Magneto’s island base, and the ensuing battle is as exhilarating as an Avatar highlight reel. Magneto’s magnetic powers are used so ingeniously in this scene that by the time he is finished calmly dispensing with the entire X-team, you’ll wish you could watch an animated series dedicated to him, rather than Wolverine.
The most intense moment comes when Magneto uses Wolverine’s adamantium skeleton to manipulate him like a puppet; losing not a trace of his Zen calm, Magneto forces Wolverine’s hands under the chins of two of his teammates and threatens to force Wolverine to pop his claws.
Two of the DVD’s three episodes end with legitimately startling surprises, and I repeat my speculation that Wolverine and the X-Men is probably a series that improves with each episode.
Heroes Return Trilogy, alas, is little more than an X-tended advertisement for Wolverine and the X-Men; wait for the full season.