How ‘X-Men’ Became One of TV’s Best Animated Series (Flashback)

X-Men Animated Series

“Mankind has always feared what it doesn’t understand.”

Spoken by Ian McKellen’s Magneto in the first X-Men feature film adaptation in 2000, that pivotal theme has always illuminated a character’s stance in every medium of this particular Marvel universe. In 1992, an approximate version of the line was uttered by Storm (voiced by Iona Morris) in the pilot of the X-Men animated series, which premiered 25 years ago in October. 

The Fox series’ influence also included pushing comic book stories into mainstream pop culture, as well as preparing future audiences with a story structure that challenged growing minds. As if pulling this off wasn’t a large enough challenge, X-Men concurrently offered hope and emotional refuge from the adolescent anxieties of its young viewers, which we all know (now) simply turn out to be simply less advanced versions of later adult anxieties.

The X-Men comics, originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1963, were a part of Marvel’s efforts to push the medium toward more three-dimensional characters and an increased focus on their interpersonal relationships. Genetic mutation provided a blanket origin story, with most special powers needing little to no explanation. The X-Men are brought together with a common mission of saving humanity, many times from themselves, but the most compelling angle has always been how they each grappled with doing it while society holds them in contempt.

“The X-Men are, in fact, antiheroes. The world fears them. The world is afraid of mutants,” Bob Harras told ET in 1993. At the time, Harras was Marvel’s chief editor of the X-Men storylines and a producer on the series. While other superheroes, such as Batman and Superman, are looked up to and celebrated, Cyclops, Wolverine, and Jean Grey have no such luck. “If you know the X-Men, you read about them, you realize they're really good people and just because they're different, there's no reason to be afraid of them. I think that's what the readers hook into.”

The ‘80s had been flush with successful children’s animated programming, yet Marvel president Margaret Loesch struggled to sell the idea of an X-Men TV series. Just as Professor Xavier saw great potential in his mutant pupils, so did Loesch in these beloved characters and stories. It wasn’t until Loesch became CEO of Fox Kids that she was able to champion the concept and bring the Marvel heroes to a new medium 15 years later.

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“This has been a labor of love for a group of us, myself, and Stan Lee, who have tried for a long time to get this on the air,” Loesch said at the time. “Unfortunately, as a producer, I wasn't successful, but as a network executive I have been successful in contributing to it getting on the air.” Its first season was a bona fide hit for the Fox Kids programming block and, along with Batman: The Animated Series, ended a dry spell within the Saturday morning lineup.

While X-Men became the No. 1 show with viewers ages 6-17, the series also benefited from a built-in adult fan base of comic book readers. Producers tried to stay within the realm of children’s television while still being able to entertain this older audience.

“It is certainly difficult to do something for everybody,” said Loesch. The pilot, “Night of the Sentinels,” tackled this goal head-on, as we meet adult characters and Jubilee, a teenager (and accidental arcade vandal) on the run from mutant-hunting sentinels. While there’s more than enough humor and one-liners to go around, the episode also establishes how the series would incorporate serious universal issues and how they planned to mine popular characters and storylines from its source material.

“However,” she added, “we try not to lose the magic of the X-Men. We've tried not to skew it so young that we would alienate the comic book reader or the older comic book fans. It's a challenge.”

“I think they've made a really, really strong effort to mirror what goes on in the comics,” said Harras. Throughout its 76 episodes, the series included well-known storylines like Days of Future Past, The Dark Phoenix Saga, and Wolverine’s ‘Weapon X’ backstory. “I think they've tried to see what we've been successful at for 30 years and translate it very well to Saturday morning TV.”

It also revolutionized what could be attempted during the weekend programming block, with X-Men bringing serialized storytelling to Saturday cartoons. “If it had [been previously attempted], certainly not on this level. A story arc that extends over weeks adds all sorts of new wrinkles to the mix,” former Fox Kids executive Sidney Iwanter recently told The Hollywood Reporter about one of the show’s unexpected legacies: “Hence the now quite ubiquitous invention of the X-Men’s ‘Previously on…’ recap.”

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Throughout the show’s five-year run, audiences saw glimpses of newscasts featuring clips of politicians and corporate leaders fueling public hysteria, and promoting a fear of minorities for their own personal gain -- a theme that remains relevant 25 years later. The series excelled at depicting how members of the superhero group reconciled wanting to fight for a better world amidst this persecution, and how they helped each other discover that what makes them different is ultimately their greatest strength.

At least when it comes to pop culture, mutants could not be more in favor at the moment. The Gifted recently debuted on Fox, Josh Schwartz’s adaptation of Brian K. Vaughan’s The Runaways drops on Hulu Nov. 21, Legion season two will premiere early next year on FX, and the trailer for Josh Boone’s The New Mutants has comic and horror fans anticipating its April release. And maybe -- just maybe -- someday we’ll find a way for Sam Rockwell to portray X-Men series fan favorite Morph on the big screen.

“I run into people all the time that are into the comic books and have known it for years,” Morris, who portrayed Storm on the first season, told ET about the fandom surrounding the animated series. “I'm surprised, because I just had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

X-Men is currently streaming on Hulu.