Angst All Around
It’s always somewhat disheartening to watch cartoons that are obviously intended to connect with the kids. Hanna-Barbera’s ‘toon output from the late Sixties through the Eighties comprises a long list of programs, designed to be hip and contemporary, that never lasted more than a season and are largely remembered by those of us who grew up during that period as just plain embarrassing, from Fred’s stupid ascot on Scooby-Doo to the Top Gun-esque SWAT Kats - The Radical Squadron (who, being only two anthropomorphic cats in one jet fighter, were neither a squadron nor particularly “radical”). According to the executives at H-B and Filmation, Inc., most kids wanted to be teenage rock-star spies, wear scarves and bell-bottoms, and drive really hideous customized Chevy vans. Me, I was just waiting for Bugs Bunny to come on.
In the grand tradition of cartoons made by adults to show children what it’s like to be teenagers, Kids’ WB is serving up a new version of The X-Men, based on the venerable Marvel comics about a team of mutant superheroes who band together to protect humanity, even though said humanity fears and wishes to ghettoize them because of their mutations. This is the second attempt at an X-Men animated series—the first was hugely popular and is still in syndication—but this one comes hard on the heels of last summer’s live-action film and is intended to capitalize on the film’s momentum. The cartoon is also heavily informed by the film’s subtext of marginalization, where the mutants served as metaphor for other disenfranchised groups (director Bryan Singer referenced the philosophical divide between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, and star Ian McKellen likened the film’s issues to those facing the gay community, with “closeted” and “outed” mutants).
In this case, however, the marginalization is age-based. X-Men: Evolution consciously parallels mutation with adolescent angst. While the ages of most of the X-Men, in the comics, film, and first cartoon, are around their late twenties/early thirties (the “bibles” of the major comic book companies say that all superheroes are 29 years old unless otherwise indicated), the characters in this cartoon are students at generic Bayville High School. The only adults are the X-Men’s wheelchair-bound mentor Professor Xavier, the weather-controlling Storm, and the elusive badass Wolverine, who is not “officially” on the team but rather a watchful friend—they’re like Dad, Mom, and that uncle who occasionally shows up to raid the fridge and borrow money. At Xavier’s Institute, the grownups teach the kids—whose strange new abilities surface with the onset of puberty—how to cope with their genetic destiny, although curiously, the only uses for those powers seem to be in combat.
When they’re not in training to kick other people’s asses, the X-Men fly around the country attempting to recruit new mutants to come back with them and learn to kick other people’s asses. At the same time, a second group of evil mutants led by Mystique, are trying to do the same, leading to frequent battles when the two sides meet up. As the shape-shifting Mystique is currently posing as the principal of Bayville High, all of these mutants, good and evil, meet up day after day. The only difference is that in the field, in costume—wearing their colors, if you will—the two groups are free to unleash their powers openly, while they must all maintain a low profile at school.
The shift in age, from adult mutants beating each other up to teenagers beating each other up, is presumably supposed to trip the triggers of the show’s target audience, mostly pre-adolescents—let’s say junior high, tops. The teen X-Men interact in that magical place, high school, and get to drive cars and look fashionably funky (mandatory skater cuts for the guys and thumb rings for the girls) and do all those other things a kid would do in a parent-free environment. Spyke, who grows pointy things on his body and shoots them, is also a top-notch skateboarder. Cyclops must wear his modified sunglasses to contain the beams of force that emit from his eyes, but still, as impediments go, having to wear cool-joe shades is pretty kid-friendly. Even Nightcrawler, who has blue fur, three-digit hands and feet, and a pointed tail, is immediately given a device—by Xavier, on whom the irony is apparently lost—that imposes a pre-programmed slacker illusion on his form, thus sparing him the inconvenience of looking different. If it weren’t for the fact that they’re mutants and all, the X-Men would have it great.
The evil mutants, on the other hand, are ugly as sin. The Blob is invulnerable, but this is due to his enormous size and the density of his rolls of fat. The Toad is agile and quick, but he also has the gaunt frame, the bloodshot eyes, and the rancid b.o. of a heroin casualty. Avalanche (who creates avalanches) is just flat-out thuggy-looking. Even Mystique, who can make herself look like anyone, wears the image of the pinch-faced, bun-wearing schoolmarm in her “Principal Darkholme” guise. All together now: good equals attractive and cool, bad equals ugly and geeky. What’s more, all the attractive mutants and all the ugly mutants are obligated to form gangs and learn to throw down. Wow, it is high school!
But it’s not necessarily a high school I’d want my kids attending. And the X-Men aren’t a gang with whom I’d want my freakishly mutated child associating. Despite the lip service the grownups give about embracing one’s individuality and appreciating the gifts of others, the group dynamic at work among this crowd is the same old hierarchy. In the comics and in the film, Cyclops is the team’s leader because of his seriousness and strategic mind, but teen Cyclops has neither. The psychic Jean Grey is more mature than he is, and thirteen-year-old Kitty Pryde, who walks through walls, is smarter. Cyclops is the leader simply because he’s the athletic white boy, the “big brother” of the group, according to the show’s website. Moreover, his budding relationship with Jean Grey, who’s also a cheerleader, is the only one possible for either of them—Kitty’s too young, Spyke’s black, Nightcrawler’s blue, and Rogue has this hangup about being touched (she absorbs people’s powers and memories through skin, whether she wants to or not). In the comics, Cyclops and Jean Grey are long-time lovers but at least have other options open to them. In adolescent cartoon-land, even among mutants, only the jock gets the pom-pom girl.
It’s clear what the producers of X-Men: Evolution are trying to do, and their ambition—to present these popular characters working through the trials about to beset the pre-Clearasil crowd that makes up their audience—is admirable. What disappoints, however, is the sheer number of missed opportunities here and the decision to subscribe to the same old social norms. As the people behind Buffy, the Vampire Slayer have discovered, the unreal dynamic of superheroes and unearthly creeps opens the door to a great many situational possibilities that wouldn’t work in more traditional TV fare. If we can be inspired by such bravery and daring from our heroes, couldn’t we find at least a little of the same in their creators?