Wolverine and the X-Men: Heroes Return Trilogy

This is not (quite) your typically loud, stupid Saturday morning cartoon, and in fact it seems to steadily improve as it goes along.

Wolverine and the X-Men

Distributor: Lionsgate
Cast: Steve Blum, Phil Morris, Crystal Scales, Jennifer Hale, Liam O’Brien, Michael Ironside, Nolan North, Chris Edgerly, Danielle Judovits, Fred Tatasciore
US release date: 2009-04-21

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.






'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.