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Evolution Leaps Forward

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X-Men: The Last Stand, due in theatres May 26th, is one of the most anticipated movies of the summer season. The road to this point has been a rocky one for the X-Men property. Just as the X-Men comic struggled for years before catching on, efforts to develop the brand outside of comic books have been a challenging but steady evolution.

Strictly speaking, the X-Men first made it to television in 1966 (as part of a Sub-Mariner cartoon on The Marvel Superheroes) and in a trio of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (1981-1983) episodes. In both of these cases however, the X-Men were supporting cast or relegated to cameos. The first true X-Men show was 1989’s Pryde of the X-Men, a Marvel/Sunbow Productions effort. This pilot for a proposed NBC series was occasionally aired as part of the Marvel Action Universe (which featured old Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends episodes, along with other cartoons such as Robocop), and eventually was released on VHS.

Sporting a silly opening theme and campy Stan Lee narration, Pryde of the X-Men featured Kitty Pryde’s induction to the X-Men, as the mutant heroes (Professor X, Cyclops, Dazzler, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Storm & Wolverine) battled Magneto and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (White Queen, Juggernaut, Toad, Pyro & Blob). Despite the high quality of animation, Pryde of the X-Men is probably best remembered for Wolverine’s inexplicable Australian dialect.

The next attempt at an X-Men cartoon proved much more successful. Debuting on Fox in October 1992, Saban’s X-Men: The Animated Series was a hit with kids of all ages. Coinciding with the X-Men comic boom of the early 90s, the series starred many of the popular characters of the time, including Professor X, Wolverine, Beast, Cyclops, Gambit, Jean Grey, Rogue, Storm and Jubilee (and a plethora of guest stars and cameos). In addition to generally being an exciting example of animation, the series drew praise for it’s handling of topics such as racism and religion. Perhaps most attractive to comic book fans however, the series drew heavily on the source material, adapting stories and concepts such as the Mutant Registration Act, Days of Future Past and the Dark Phoenix Saga. The series ran for 4 solid seasons before it’s final, somewhat uneven, final year.

The show was originally scheduled to end after the 65th episode, but Fox extended their order for an additional five episodes. Following the “final” show in 1996, Saban and Fox reached an agreement to produce six more episodes, allowing the series to wrap up some loose ends. The final six episodes aired sporadically through 1997. While the animation was distinctly different from the earlier episodes, this did allow the series to conclude with the X-Men graduating from the Xavier Institute. 

Not strictly speaking an X-Men movie, several X-men and related characters were part of Fox’s 1996 TV movie, Generation X. Based on the spin-off title of the same name, Generation X starred Jeremy Ratchford and Finola Hughes as Banshee and the White Queen. The story focused on the duo leading a young group of mutants, consisting of original (Buff, Refrax) and comic-created mutants (M, Jubilee, Mondo & Skin), against a mad scientist (Matt Frewer). Intended as a pilot for a potential series, the movie never really “clicked” with either comic fans or general audiences.  

After years of false starts, the X-Men finally made it to the big screen in the 2000 20th Century Fox film directed by Bryan Singer. Staring James Marsden (Cyclops), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Halle Berry (Storm) and Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier) as the X-men, the story focuses on a conflict with Magneto (Ian McKellen) and his Brotherhood of Mutants (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Tyler Mane and Ray Park as Mystique, Sabretooth and Toad, respectively). During their efforts to prevent Magneto from using a machine to turn the world’s leaders into mutants, the X-Men encounter two new recruits in Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, replacing Dougray Scott who had to bow out at the last minute due to injury) and Rogue (Anna Paquin). Criticized by some for deviating from the comic books (most notably in replacing the colorful superhero costumes with a black-leather uniform), the film garnered far more positive reviews and ensured the launch of a movie franchise.

Spinning out of the success of the feature film, the X-Men returned to the small screen, both in syndicated reruns of the Saban cartoon, but also with a brand new series. X-Men: Evolution mixed established characters with original creations in a re-imagining of the X-Men mythos. The majority of the cast were high school students at the Xavier Institute who were under the tutelage of teachers Professor X, Storm and Wolverine. The series proved to be a somewhat tough sell with the traditional X-men fans, but was successful with the pre-teen audience that Kids WB was geared towards. The series, which inspired a short-lived comic adaptation aired for four seasons, ending after 52 episodes. X-Men: Evolution was also responsible for introducing the character X-23, who later was written into Marvel Comics’ continuity. 

Bryan Singer brought the X-Men back to movie theatres in 2003 with X2: X-Men United. Reuniting Stewart, Jackman, McKellen, Berry, Romijn-Stamos, Janssen and Paquin, the new film also introduced Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler. Loosely based on the 1982 graphic novel God Loves, Man Kills, X2 united the X-Men and the Brotherhood against William Stryker, a mutant-hating military man. Firmly landing within the top grossing movies of the year and named the best comic book movie by Wizard magazine, the biggest criticism of the movie seemed to be the title (which some suggested sounded a little too much like an English football club). Fans embraced the movie for the increased action, humor, faithfulness in tone to the source material and plethora of cameos and comic book Easter eggs. 

Which brings us to May 26th and X-Men: The Last Stand, the last film in the X-Men trilogy - although, not necessarily the last X-Men film as the producers have been clear in stating that this film ties together all the thematic and plot threads from the first two movies, but certainly leaves open the possibility of further movies. Brett Ratner has stepped aboard to direct this outing, after Singer was unavailable due to his Superman Returns obligations and Matthew Vaughn stepped down due to personal issues. Most of the principle cast returns (Cumming’s Nightcrawler being the most notable exception), including Janssen’s Jean Grey who died at the end of the last movie. Given Jean’s resurrection, it seems likely that at least a portion of the movie will borrow from the Dark Phoenix Saga, as well as the publicly announced story of a war among mutants over a “cure” to mutations. As with the previous sequel, several new mutant characters join the saga (Beast, Angel, Callisto, Juggernaut, Psylocke and Kitty Pryde most notably) along with an inevitable score of cameos.

Looking beyond the upcoming cinematic release, there seems to be at least the possibility of three spin-off films. The first, and probably least surprising, is Wolverine, a prequel to X-Men that will see Hugh Jackman reprise the title role. A Magneto prequel also appears to be a strong consideration, as Ian McKellen has discussed the possibility that CGI effects may be used to “de-age” himself and Patrick Stewart to appear as their characters would have in the 1940s and 50s. There is also rumors of a Rebecca Romijn Mystique film which has yet to be confirmed. Finally rounding out possible upcoming X-Men projects is rumored new animated series, likely not to hit the airwaves until 2007.

So it seems, barring any unforeseen disasters at the box office, that May 26th will be anything but the X-Men’s last stand. 

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