X-Men ’97 wasn’t about superheroes, it was about people

Rogue, in her green hooded costume, stands in front of the assembled X-Men including Forge, Morph, Beast, Storm, Sunspot, Nightcrawler, Jubilee, Wolverine and NOT Charles Xavier, thank god.
Image: Marvel Animation

Thoughts on the mutant struggle

Who are the X-Men for?

The malleability of the mutant metaphor has long been a strength of the Marvel property. As a product of the ’60s, it was popularly understood as the superhuman version of the struggle for civil rights. In the 21st century, fans have adopted it as a queer narrative, identifying with the coming out of mutant characters and the thematic throughline of found family that was present from the comics’ earliest days. In between and beyond, mutants have been easy for any outgroup or minority in society to identify with, a perpetual underdog and a victim of humanity’s terrible impulse to other its own.

In lacking a consistent real-world analogue for its mutants, X-Men stories often find specificity in their antagonists. The best ones are philosophical: Other mutants who believe in mutant supremacy over coexistence (Magneto, sometimes) or in the ruthless math of the Darwinian struggle (Apocalypse, always). Humans who see mutants as a biological gold mine to be stripped for parts (Mr. Sinister) or weaponized (William Stryker). Or other outgroups who find in themselves another possible future for humanity, one where mutants aren’t even in the picture (the Children of the Vault).

Season 1 of the Disney Plus revival series X-Men ’97 is a bit of a grand tour through this existential battleground for Marvel’s mutants, with a dizzying variety of antagonists breezing through to complicate their struggle for acceptance. In its three-part finale, the series settles on one: Bastion, a human-machine hybrid who sees his post-human transformation as a natural response to the extinction-level event that is mutation. An immovable object against the unstoppable force of mutants and their potential to replace “normal” humans as the majority.

Bastion, a blond guy with a goatee, stands in front of a bunch of pink monitors in X-Men ‘97
Image: Marvel Animation

Herein lies the specificity of X-Men ’97. “Tolerance is Extinction,” the finale’s title, takes its name from Bastion’s ideological argument: that humanity’s coexistence with, and embrace of, mutantkind will result in its own erasure. This is a very 2024 update to the baseline politics of X-Men stories, which are predicated on their heroes being “hated and feared” for being different. It’s a direct echo of modern far-right rhetoric (which is, in fact, quite old far-right rhetoric) that’s designed to gin up fear and anxiety over shifting demographics, as migrants or progressives or anyone who deviates from entrenched norms threatens the carefully accrued power of the elites.

The first season of X-Men ’97 was full of internal debates about how to contend with this sentiment — a deep-set belief that inspires anti-mutant militias, legislation, and genocide — and with the bystanders who let them all happen. It was remarkably unconcerned with its characters in the role of superheroes; instead, it was interested in them as people. People with a long history of dealing with oppression and bigotry, people who might be fed up or burnt out or desperate for someone to hold accountable for their pain. Some, like Rogue, shock their friends and teammates with the ways in which they lash out. But their fury is understood. Space is made for it.

The X-Men stand in funeral attire in front of a casket in X-Men ‘97
Image: Marvel Animation

This, in a way, is the central tragedy of the X-Men: They are always fighting a war to simply exist. In the tremendous essay “The Judgment of Magneto,” writer Asher Elbein puts it like this:

Read enough X-Men comics, and you’ll notice that the fundamental feature of the franchise—the idea of mutants as eternal stand-ins for Jews, or black people, or queer people—is its essential pessimism. In X-Men, minority life is wholly defined by oppression. No improvement can last; progress is always an illusion; as figures in an ongoing, eternal piece of intellectual property, mutants must always be hated and feared.

Perhaps this is a bleak read of the X-Men and their function as a metaphor for the marginalized. Comic book characters, however, work best as vehicles for simple ideas, and the complexity of any othered social group will always be served poorly by the need to keep the metaphor marketable, forever railing against an oppressor of some sort. The X-Men can never be solely for any one group that identifies with them; they are too dependent on the machinations of bigots and of those who would wish the X-Men ruin. Maybe instead their role is simpler: that there will always be a struggle, and always a side to choose.

It’s not unreasonable to be suspicious of X-Men ’97. Few nostalgia plays are so blatant — the year is right there in the title — or so targeted. Even as an evolution of a children’s cartoon, meant for the grown-up versions of those children, it retains the haphazard nature of its source material, the soap operatics of a long-running serial that ring strange in the ear of anyone not accustomed to them. Yet it still feels urgent, thoughtful, and vital for one small reason: It hurts. Like people do.

X-Men ’97 season 1 is now streaming on Disney Plus.

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