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X-Men ’97 worth watching

Last week saw the conclusion of Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97, a reverential continuation of the widely popular 1990s X-Men: The Animated Series. Going into the first season’s two-episode premiere back in March, I wasn’t all that excited for the latest Marvel adventure, as the comic-book franchise’s constant stream of content burned my once-passionate interest in superheroes too many times to count. But as I tuned in to the television show every week for the past two months, I avidly enjoyed it for what it was: a fun, campy melodrama reminiscent of Saturday-morning cartoons that operates outside the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

This is why X-Men ’97 is arguably the best Disney+ Marvel project out right now. The animated sequel isn’t bogged down with the MCU’s persistent problems of overt propaganda or nonsensical writing. Instead, it crafts a compelling story filled with intriguing characters, interpersonal drama, and inventive action that respects what came before.

Following the events of X-Men: The Animated Series, the iconic mutant team must learn how to move past the absence of Professor Charles Xavier, who leaves his students under Magneto’s leadership, in a world increasingly hostile to their kind. The X-Men don’t trust their former rival at first but slowly warm to him as they face new challenges together. It’s a simple yet effective premise that keeps audiences guessing as to where the next episode will go.

Fan-favorite X-Men members — Cyclops, Jean Grey, Wolverine, Storm, Gambit, Rogue, etc. — each return with dynamic character arcs of their own. Cyclops, whose appearances in the 20th Century Fox X-Men films left a lot to be desired, particularly shines in this new adaptation as the flawed, idealistic team leader who considers leaving the X-Men behind for a quiet life with his wife, Jean Grey. Not much of the spotlight is given to Wolverine, and rightfully so. While the claw-wielding vigilante will always be a popular character, his little screentime leaves more room for the team’s other members such as Jubilee and Sunspot.

The character work is bolstered by solid writing, which feels like it’s actually the product of functioning adults and not adolescents. Moreover, the stakes are meaningful, and consequences ripple outward from the characters’ actions. Despite its fantastical nature, the story is grounded and mature. Moreover, the retro 2D animation with its vibrant colors is stunning to behold, though it can be dizzying at times.

The show is not perfect. It runs through comic-book story lines with lightning-quick pacing. Because there are only ten 30-minute episodes, showrunner Beau DeMayo and other creatives probably pressured themselves to burn through as much source material as possible to make those episodes feel extra kinetic. I almost wish they would have taken their time with the story arcs and let the characters breathe a little, but that’s a minor quibble.

Another issue that stuck out was the show’s political focus. While this example isn’t a direct one-to-one comparison to real-life events, a battle scene akin to January 6 is prominently featured. In the second episode, anti-mutant protesters forcibly breach the United Nations headquarters in New York City, where Magneto is standing trial for his crimes against humanity. It’s a riveting action sequence, but the show’s creators presumably wanted to insert a political statement here to emphasize the social commentary regarding humans’ prejudices against mutants. This could have been easily solved by concentrating more on philosophical viewpoints rather than political movements. But it doesn’t detract too much from the story. There are also a few minor woke elements at play, with Morph being nonbinary and seemingly harboring romantic feelings for Wolverine. Again, not too much attention is drawn to it, so the story isn’t drastically altered as a result. X-Men ’97 is not without flaws, but it does a great job of entertaining its audience.

Despite the show’s many virtues, it isn’t garnering widespread fanfare, as its nonexistent Nielsen ratings indicate. Nielsen, which measures the minutes viewed for all available episodes in a given week, recently released its Streaming TV Top 10 list for April 15–21, when the show’s sixth episode dropped on Disney+. The latest ratings display Netflix’s Bridgerton at the bottom of the list for most-watched original streaming content with 228 million minutes, meaning X-Men ’97 hasn’t surpassed that number in the month since it’s been out. So far, it has failed to hit the top of the streaming charts at all.

With the viewership of four more episodes yet to be recorded by Nielsen, the show could very well reach the bare minimum to get onto Nielsen’s Top-10 list in the next month. Given each episode’s half-hour run time, it’s possible there were anywhere from 5 million to 7 million people watching any of the first six episodes during that one week in April, amounting to a possible total of 150 million to 210 million minutes. This isn’t a lot, and likely not the numbers the powers that be at Marvel were expecting. But that’s indicative of the audience’s present lack of interest in their content.

Even if Marvel offers a project worthy of praise (and one with more seasons in the pipeline), very few people care enough to watch it.

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