Without Fox's 1992 X-Men cartoon, the modern "superhero movie" wouldn't exist.
X-Men was Marvel's craftiest stab at turning their heroes into household names and mainstreaming the imaginative, bizarre mythology of comic books. The hand-drawn, hyperdetailed animated show introduced Wolverine, Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Professor X to an audience that hadn't and likely would never have picked up a comic book. Fans of the X-Men paperbacks would naturally tune in, but the show functioned as a gateway drug for kids who couldn't get the mature books of the eighties. The show adapted classic story lines into 22-minute chunks, teaching a new generation how to speak X-Men. Cultural osmosis and nostalgic reverence for Fox's Saturday morning staple kept the X-Men in the conversation until superheroes launched their major cinematic campaign. Bryan Singer's 2000 film X-Men wouldn't have been a success without its animated counterpart from a decade earlier.
All 76 episodes of the original series are available to watch on Marvel.com, and they're eye-opening. They're weird. They're really weird. The X-Men went everywhere in their four-season run, from the far reaches of space to the Earth's core to alternate dimensions and the barren wasteland known as Washington, D.C. By the time comic-book movies were a phenomenon, audiences weaned on X-Men were ready for anything. The suspension of disbelief bar was set high.
With The Wolverine hitting theaters this weekend, now is the perfect time to revisit the X-Men series and see which episodes stand the test of time. Below are five essential episodes to get you started. Rattle off your own in the comment section.
"Enter Magneto," Season 1, Episode 3
Before traversing into the oddest parts of X-Men lore, the cartoon presented an arc thematically in tune with the feature films. The first time we're introduced to Magneto, the series' most notable villain, he's colored with shades of gray, a defender of mutant rights who believes in eradicating the lesser, uncooperative species. An X-Men TV show could have tossed the dramatic underpinnings of the comics to the wayside in favor of superpowered action. Instead, it found a way to mesh them together. Nothing goes with sugary cereal like conversations on the evolving diversity of modern society.
"Days of Future Past," Season 1, Episodes 11–12
Before Bryan Singer translates the X-Men's loopy time-travel story for his 2014 tentpole of the same name, you can watch the two-part cartoon version that adds another layer of intrigue. The original story had the X-Men going back in time to undo their dystopian future, where giant robot "Sentinels" rule over concentration camps of mutants (buzz out of Comic-Con suggests Singer took the same direction). The cartoon takes a similar approach, adding in fan favorites Bishop, a mercenary from the year 2055, and Gambit, who may or may not be an assassin steering the future into the ground. Singer has his work cut out for him if he's going to top this version.
"Mojovision," Season 2, Episode 24
X-Men hit peak ridiculousness in an episode about the televised gladiator fights of an alternate dimension. The X-Men are beamed off of Earth and into a cage match by Mojo, an obese spider-robot whose only goal is high ratings.
"The Phoenix Saga," Season 3, Episodes 29–32, 40–43
X-Men: The Last Stand fumbled the renowned "Phoenix Saga" because it wouldn't go all the way, keeping the setting contained and the action focused on the more popular characters. The animated X-Men was able to go there, complete with Jean Grey's resurrection into an otherworldly entity known as "the Phoenix," appearances by intergalactic rogue agents the Starjammers, and an all-out psychic war that culminated in the X-Men fighting "Dark Phoenix." We didn't know it at the time, but X-Men was subtly preparing us for the dense, episodic storytelling of modern television.
"The Lotus and the Steel," Season 4, Episode 60
The Wolverine is based on Chris Claremont and Frank Miller's influential arc from the early eighties, and while X-Men never straight-up adapted the text, they took snippets for individual episodes. "The Lotus and the Steel" hits most of the beats, sending Wolverine to Japan and ending with a showdown against the Silver Samurai. If there's no time for Wolverine this weekend, this episode is the perfect alternative.