X-Men 97: Animated revival series is a smart nostalgia play

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Wenlei Ma
The Nightly
3 Min Read
X-Men 97 is a continuation of the beloved 1990s cartoon series.
X-Men 97 is a continuation of the beloved 1990s cartoon series. Credit: Marvel Animation/Marvel/Disney

Weaponising nostalgia is a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s too subtle to register, other times it’s too clumsy or cynical to be effective.

But when it works, it’s powerful stuff. Fans are happy, newcomers are happy, everyone is happy.

X-Men 97 debuted last week on Disney+ and the first episode was the streamer’s most-watched full length animated premiere since 2021. It’s rocking a 98 per cent critics score on Rotten Tomatoes and a 92 per cent audience score – whoa, agreement.

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X-Men 97 is the continuation of the deeply, deeply adored X-Men: The Animated Series, which ran from 1992 to 1997.

For kids of that era, the nineties cartoon was seminal to their childhood adventures in pop culture. It was the first screen adaptation dedicated to Marvel’s iconic mutant heroes, almost a decade before the 2000 movie which starred Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen.

X-Men 97 is a continuation of the beloved 1990s cartoon series.
X-Men 97 is a continuation of the beloved 1990s cartoon series. Credit: Marvel Animation/Marvel/Disney

The original series was zippy and vibrant, and it translated to TV the comic book stories of the outcast heroes whose difference gave them their power. For kids who felt they didn’t belong, the X-Men’s isolation could stand in for anything they were being bullied for – racism, homophobia, classism, you name it.

The series ran for five years and even after decades of X-Men’s big screen adventures with charismatic stars such as Hugh Jackman and Ryan Reynolds, super fans remembered their cartoon counterparts fondly.

The announcement of a revival was met with fevered anticipation, and it promised fans that the enterprise would meet them where they wanted to swim: in the rivers of full-blown nostalgia. More of Cyclops, Rogue, Wolverine, Beast and Storm, just as you remembered them.

Take, for example, the show’s title. The “97” is a direct nod to when the original series wrapped up in 1997. It’s a direct acknowledgment of its intentions and its ambitions. And then consider one of its official posters – the design is of nine VHS cassettes lined up on a big shelf with the tag line “New episodes. New era.”

The X-Men 97 poster evokes a time when VHS was the dominant home entertainment technology.
The X-Men 97 poster evokes a time when VHS was the dominant home entertainment technology. Credit: Disney/Marvel

It’s hardly subtle but it’s smart. It may be “new” but every signal is that it’s not so new as to be too challenging for those who don’t want to be challenged.

The animation is sharper but the powers-that-be resisted any attempt to change it from its 2D origins. Even some of the same voice actors have reprised their roles, including Alison Sealy-Smith, Carl Dodd, George Buza and Lenore Zann.

Sometimes, books, shows, movies and games need to be updated to reflect evolving social values but the X-Men world was always ahead of its time. It was doing then what some are still struggling to accept now. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s characters have endured because they connect with every generation.

For a new generation, X-Men 97 has a new character in a young mutant named Roberto. He’s new to the team and acts as the audience surrogate for fresh viewers.

X-Men 97 is a continuation of the beloved 1990s cartoon series.
Storm in X-Men 97 is voiced by the original voice actor, Alison Sealy-Smith. Credit: Marvel Animation/Marvel/Disney

The timing was also clever because the Fox and Disney merger in 2019 has meant that there hasn’t been a live-action X-Men movie since then while Marvel Studios worked out how to slowly introduce the characters into its cinematic universe.

It has been a drip feed – the first MCU mention of the word “mutant” came in the final moments of the 2022 Ms Marvel streaming series while Patrick Stewart cameo-d as a multiverse copy of Professor X in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness.

In an environment where superhero and comic book screen franchises are being dragged down by fatigue, the absence of X-Men characters (the Deadpool & Wolverine movie is due in cinemas in July) have worked in its favour. There’s a lack, so there’s a want.

Will every nostalgia project work? Absolutely not. But when you have source material that naturally lends itself to be revived and still stay relevant, it’s a no brainer.

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