Because we’re so excited for the upcoming “Logan,” which will be the last time Hugh Jackman puts on those shiny metal claws that famously immortalized him as Wolverine, we take a look back at some of the X-Men’s greatest hits… in animated form, that is.
During the 1990s, Marvel unleashed a wave of animated series based on their most popular characters, from a certain web head to an animated version of Tony Stark’s adventures. But without a doubt the series that had the most impact was the incredible and critically lauded “X-Men: The Animated Series.” Set to an iconic main theme and featuring awesome adaptations of some of the most legendary X-Men stories of all time, “X-Men” stands tall as one of the best superhero cartoons ever made. Without any further ado, sit back and check out our picks for the 15 best episodes of this series.
15. DEADLY REUNIONS
The fourth episode of the series finds the X-Men dealing not only with Wolverine’s former nemesis but also Magneto’s attack on a nuclear power plant. There are a lot of really clever Easter eggs for future episodes in this episode, from Weapon X cameos to the beginnings of Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants! But what is great about this episode is the actual reunion between Xavier and Magneto.
This pairing gives the series its first great ideological clash between the two characters and even more importantly, for Xavier, the sudden realization that not everyone is willing to go on the same path that he is planning. In a way, this episode serves as the introduction to the Magneto/Professor X rivalry that will continue to anchor the show for many seasons, and gives us our first battles between two pairs of friends-cum-rivals: Magneto & Professor X, as well as Wolverine & Sabretooth.
14. THE FINAL DECISION
With a title like “The Final Decision,” the series really knew how to escalate its sense of doom effectively. After Senator Kelly is kidnapped by Magneto, the X-Men struggle to try to keep the peace when humanity starts hatred rallies against mutantkind. One of the important things that this episode does is that it makes the X-Men protect someone who wants to hunt them down. That has always been a recurring theme in the X-Men comics throughout its history, of course: protect humanity even though humanity is against them.
The other main idea explored in this episode also happens to be technology run amok. By having Master Mold, who’s creating Sentinels, rebel against Bolivar Trask, the series introduces the theme of artificial intelligence becoming self aware. It’s very “Terminator”-esque, as Master Mold takes matters into its own hands as it plans to destroy humanity. However, it also adds another layer of opponents for the X-Men that becomes more and more complicated as it goes on. In terms of escalation, this episode really knows how to deliver as the final stand finds the X-Men battling a gigantic army of Sentinels in spectacular fashion.
13. WEAPON X, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE
When talking about X-Men it’s impossible to not bring up Wolverine and the Weapon X program. Logan’s troubled past has long been one of the more fascinating aspects about the X-Men universe and this episode decides to deal with them from the beginning. The episode does a great job of actually exploring Wolverine’s origin story, all through dream sequences, and it even delves deeper into the relationship between him and Sabretooth.
One of the best depictions in this episode is how incredibly disoriented Wolverine seems throughout it. With a flurry of dreams tormenting his psyche, he’s constantly at odds with what happened and what didn’t. This episode even touches upon the doomed relationship between Silver Fox and Wolverine, but more importantly it effectively portrays how complicated Wolverine’s past really is. It also gives us a lot of great visuals, from the actual Weapon X costume to the portrayal of the adamantium bonding process. Plus, the title is even a great reference to the great Steven Soderbergh film.
12. ONE MAN’S WORTH
“X-Men: The Animated Series” wasn’t afraid to tell stories that required multiple episodes and “One Man’s Worth” is one of its finest and craziest. Taking place in an alternate timeline (in an obvious nod to the “Age of Apocalypse” storyline) where Professor X is dead and all the remaining mutants are led by Magneto to battle humanity, it’s one of the series’ most ambitious story lines; one that completely reinvents several characters and presents entirely new dynamics for the series. And this doesn’t even cover the arrival of Bishop and Shard to change the future.
What makes these episodes such standouts are how wildly imaginative they are. They beautifully incorporate some of the X-Men’s crazier elements like time travel, alternate timelines and many others, while still tackling serious themes like racism. There’s even some real world parallels between how the series positions Fitzroy as “the mutant traitor.” In many ways, “One Man’s Worth” demonstrates how crucial and important not just Charles Xavier is to the X-Men universe, but how even one person can shape the flow of history.
11. THE CURE
This late Season 1 episode introduces the concept of a cure to mutation, while also presenting one of the X-Men’s most iconic characters: Angel. The main crux of the episode follows mercenary Cable and his quest to stop Dr. Adler’s cure. While the much-maligned “X-Men: The Last Stand” delved into a similar cure story line, this episode tackles it in a much more effective and nuanced way and actually presents a conversation between how this cure affects the group as a whole. (It’s of course pretty telling that a cartoon is better able to do this than a full-length feature film ostensibly for adults, but never mind that for now.)
What is significant about this episode is that it firmly introduces the series’ biggest bad: Apocalypse! The great way that the series handles Apocalypse this early is by having him act as a puppeteer pulling the strings. He’s influencing mutants like Mystique and slowly building his army of four horsemen, capturing his classic insidious tyranny from the comics. It’s definitely a tease but an effective one that prepares this series for its biggest Apocalypse-centric episodes.
10. SLAVE ISLAND
An impressive episode that actually tackles the idea of luring mutants into a paradise island and stripping them of their powers by forcing them into slavery, “Slave Island” proves that “X-Men: The Animated Series” was never afraid to present complex themes, even if it was aimed at children. This, of course, was another long-standing tradition, ever since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the franchise back in 1963. While several of the X-Men are captured in Genosha, they discover that another mutant is hunting down the Leader responsible.
This episode certainly explores some of the worst aspects of humanity, like racism and of course, human trafficking. It’s an insanely dark episode that also includes some pretty terrifying visuals, like that of a Sentinel capturing a powerless Storm or the introduction of Master Mold. Certainly humanity’s fear of mutants is on display in a lot of the episodes, but in this one, it really becomes a focal point and one that the creative team behind the show always aspired to incorporate into their episodes.
9. TILL DEATH DO US PART
Mr. Sinister has always been one of the X-Men’s deadliest foes, and this two parter introduces him in a pitch-perfect way. Following the wedding of Jean Grey and Scott Summers in the first episode and a series of betrayals by former X-member Morph, Mr. Sinister is revealed to be the man behind the curtain. The second episode has Mr. Sinister taking Jean Grey and Scott hostages and revealing his plan to steal their powers to form a perfect race of powerful mutants.
One of the more disturbing things about Mr. Sinister is how he’s basically obsessed with Jean and Scott, and this episode taps into that obsession in a really creepy way. Aside from Mr. Sinister’s introduction, you also get a great fight between the X-Men and Mr. Sinister’s go-to bruisers, the Nasty Boys. There’s a fascinating aspect about Mr. Sinister that is very scary, which of course is that he is willing to hurt other powerful mutants in order to create an even more powerful race, just so he’s able to lead. It’s a dangerous idea that gives these episodes its true power.
Charles and Magneto are trapped on a prehistoric island called the Savage Land, and for the first time in a long time, must work together to escape its dangerous inhabitants. These episodes explore one of the most distinct characteristics about Charles and Magneto: their friendship. Plus, this two-parter does a great job of tying that arc to Mr. Sinister’s plans of an all powerful race. Mr. Sinister has always been one of the best X-Men villains and “Reunion” justifies it with a showcase that exemplifies how his philosophical views effectively differ from the rest of Professor X’s enemies.
These two episodes actually make Mr. Sinister even more of a threat by directly influencing Xavier. Sprawling in scope and featuring a power-hungry villain bent on supreme dominance, these two episodes are a great example of how to have multiple story lines and do a great job of intersecting them in a coherent way. It also effectively ties Morph’s story arc into the grander picture set amidst Mr. Sinister’s plans.
7. THE DARK PHOENIX SAGA
Based on the acclaimed Chris Claremont run and arguably the most popular X-Men story ever told, this series’ adaptation of the iconic Dark Phoenix Saga remains the best. With appearances by the Hellfire Club and others who seek to control the all powerful entity, the thrilling conclusion to Jean Grey’s most famous story line is as grand as it is emotionally powerful. This arc even has one of the best fights in the entire, between Dark Phoenix and Charles, set in the Phoenix’s mind!
Like some of the best episodes of the series, this popular story arc knows how to escalate tension: what starts out as a small conflict soon grows into an intergalactic one as even the Shi’ar Empire get involved. What this adaptation of the beloved storyline gets right is not only the massive scope, but also the great internal conflict that Jean goes through while battling the all powerful Phoenix. It doesn’t hurt that the episodes are faithful to the comic, or that they’re all written full of character moments that are just as important as the cosmic implications.
6. COME THE APOCALYPSE
A terrific sequel to “The Cure” that fully reveals Apocalypse in all his terrifying glory, “Come the Apocalypse” is not only well-named, it also shows how to do fan servicing perfectly. Having finally acquired his most powerful horseman in Archangel, Apocalypse sets out to destroy humanity and mutantkind by enforcing his Darwinian philosophy onto those he considers too weak to survive. There’s a great point that Charles says about Apocalypse in this episode, opining that, unlike Magneto, he can’t be reasoned with because his power is his philosophy; something that may be particularly resonant today.
One of the best things this series gets right about Apocalypse is that he is this larger than life, hugely powerful being that is borderline omnipotent; he’s more terrifying here than he ever was in “X-Men Apocalypse,” showing just how right the series got it. Even though the episode focuses more on the battle between the four horsemen and the X-Men, it does give us the first impression of how powerful Apocalypse truly is. He can command legions but also shape shift and destroy cities by doing the least amount of work possible. Now that’s evil leadership!
5. BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL
When it comes to madly ambitious storytelling in the X-Men universe, it doesn’t get any better than this decade-spanning, dimension-hopping, time-traveling series of episodes. When Apocalypse gains the ability to skip through time, he sets out a chain of events that affects the X-Men universe in unforgettable ways. “Beyond Good and Evil’ feels like the series finale; grand, sprawling and operatic. It completely takes advantage of Apocalypse as a villain and as a truly intimidating figure who now has the ability to alter reality itself.
The episode also has a great villain team-up between Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister as they both seek to destroy the X-Men by changing history. In many ways, this is the quintessential Apocalypse storyline of the series; it fearlessly pushes the boundaries of time itself and runs crazy with it in spectacular fashion. Everything about this episode works, from the crazy time traveling plot to Apocalypse’s portrayal as an all powerful being intent on changing time and reality. It’s epic and big and incredibly audacious in the best way possible.
4. ENTER MAGNETO
Loosely inspired by “Uncanny X-Men #1,” this episode introduces both Magneto and Sabretooth to the series. After Magneto tries to break Beast out of prison, he sets his sights on a military base to target humans. It is a pitch-perfect introduction to Magneto where every single trademark of his is on full display, including his hatred for humans. There’s something refreshingly simple about this episode in that it solely focuses on Magneto’s quest to destroy humans while also telling a bit about how well he and Charles Xavier used to know each other.
The great aspect about this episode is that it introduces Magneto as a villain, but also touches upon the fact that he and Professor X used to be friends. That friendship/rivalry that has always existed between them is one of the most fascinating aspects about the X-mythos and this episode makes it a point to briefly touch upon that.
3. THE PHOENIX SAGA
The iconic Jean Grey story officially begins in this thrilling five-part episode arc that changes Jean into the all powerful Phoenix. After Jean is reborn as the Phoenix entity, it leads to a spectacular intergalactic showdown with the Shi’ar Empire to stop D’Ken from having dangerous power thanks to the legendary M’Kraan Crystal. There’s no arguing that this is a loving homage to Claremont’s story; a grand space opera with stunning visuals and a great portrayal of Jean’s next evolutionary stage in the form of the Phoenix.
It’s interesting to see that Phoenix’s first appearance is one that gives Jean incredible power, but that she still has control over it and tries to use it for good. This series’ commitment to stay as faithful to the original stories, as well as ramp up great dramatic emotion, are some of the reasons why this remains the best adaptation of the groundbreaking Phoenix saga to date.
2. NIGHT OF THE SENTINELS
As the first official episodes in the series, the greatest triumph of this two-part premiere is that you get introduced into this world through the eyes of Jubilee, who joins the X-Men. It is through her perspective that we are thrust into the X-Men animated universe as the episodes establish the tone of the series as a whole; that is to say, true to the comics with heavy allusions to real-world issues. “Night of the Sentinels” actually does a great job of introducing this world to how terrifying it is when you’re being hunted by someone who thinks you’re different, especially as seen through childlike eyes.
Again, one of the best parts of this series was how well it was able to capture the gravity and terror of enemies like the Sentinels, painting them as lethal, unstoppable threats to their way of life, thus capturing the importance of themes like racism or any other fear of the Other . Again, these are hallmark elements of the X-Men series in any medium, but it was captured and moulded beautifully as a Saturday morning cartoon, without making it too childish.
1. DAYS OF FUTURE PAST
Based on the seminal story arc by Chris Claremont and John Byrne, this superb adaptation gets the tone and visuals from the original source material perfectly. While the swap from Kitty Pride to Bishop might be a controversial change, everything else remains pretty much the same. From the opening with the post-apocalyptic future of 2055 to the time travel aspect of the story to the visuals of mutants being hunted by Sentinels, this remains the quintessential “X-Men: The Animated Series” story.
There are even visuals that are incredibly haunting for an animated program, including Bishop’s retelling of the future and showing mutants being led into concentration camps. It’s an incredibly bleak retelling and one that fits perfectly with the tone of the original story. It makes changes to fit its own universe, but at the same time, respects its original source material. “Days of Future Past” is the type of story that this show excelled at: emotionally powerful, compelling and complex in tone and character interaction.
What was your favorite episode of “X-Men: The Animated Series?” Let us know in the comments!
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