Stay on target
I probably don’t need to tell you that X-Men: The Animated Series probably had the best version of the Dark Phoenix Saga, where Jean Grey is possessed by a benevolent cosmic force that turns dark. There’s a whole third season arc about it that is long and pretty much universally celebrated. The thing is, X-Men: The Animated Series goes far beyond the Dark Phoenix saga to deliver adaptations of old X-Characters and cameos from the greater Marvel Universe. Some of these characters end up being essential to understanding the full backstory to your favorite X-Men or X-Villains, others are characters who were uniquely and maybe best defined by their portrayal on the show.
Below, I’ve highlighted some of the essential characters that appear in X-Men: The Animated Series (that ARE NOT the Phoenix Force) and make arguments as to why they aren’t just cool, they’re essential (except Alpha Flight, who I think should be on every list about this show).
Though technically not an X-Men in the way that we conceive of the team, Ms. Marvel is an integral character to understanding X-Men: The Animated Series because the cartoon version of Rogue shows up with her power set. Rogue is flying and has super strength right off the bat in the animated series which are additions to her comic book portrayal where she only has the power to drain/copy mutant powers. It’s revealed in season two that Rogue’s beefier powerset in the series is because she drained all the powers from Ms. Marvel!
The episode in question is “A Rogue’s Tale” where Professor Xavier’s absence causes Rogue to become haunted by a blonde woman she hallucinates. The episode’s place in the overall mythology positions the bigger reveal to be that Mystique was Rogue’s adoptive mother, but the conclusion of that flashback also shows that Rogue took all of Carol Davers’ powers, leaving her in a coma and Professor X was keeping Carol’s personality at bay in Rogue’s mind. By the time the episode ends, everyone is better except poor Ms. Marvel, who is still in a coma so Rogue can continue to fly and be super strong.
In season one, Senator Kelly was running for President on an anti-mutant platform and provided the political face of the human enemy while Bolivar Trask’s Sentinels and Magneto’s Brotherhood of Mutants provided more fantastical enemies for the Professor and his X-Men. In “Days of Future Past,” Mystique tries to assassinate Senator Kelly while disguised as Gambit. The X-Men manage to foil that plot with some help from Bishop and right when Senator Kelly looks like he might be open to talking to Charles Xavier about Mutant Rights, he gets abducted.
In the season one finale, Master Mold had captured Kelly for brainwashing and the X-Men had to rescue him as well as defeat the Sentinel threat. In between seasons, this leads to Kelly’s election and when he appears in “Til Death Do Us Part” makes his first act as President to pardon Hank McCoy – meaning Beast finally gets out of not-a-popular-character jail a mere fourteen episodes in. Sure, President Kelly’s actions lead to the rise of the racist Friends of Humanity anti-mutant group who oppose how nice the President is being to mutants, but Kelly always was quick to denounce the mutant hate with an abbreviated but heartfelt blurting of support.
To be fair, Alpha Flight only shows up for one episode of The Animated Series called “Repo Men” where they try to capture Wolverine and take his Adamantium skeleton. This version of the team is Vindicator (who is called Guardian in the comics), Shaman, Puck, Northstar, Aurora, Sasquatch, and Snowbird (though no one says Snowbird’s name, maybe because she didn’t have a toy coming out). Vindicator’s wife, Dr. Heather Hudson (who would go on to be Vindicator herself in the comics) also shows up to trigger some Wolverine flashbacks.
Comic book scribe Len Wein wrote this episode and it sticks out as having an abrupt beginning and ending that makes little sense. Luckily, the main plot is about chaining Wolverine up and showing how Alpha Flight, the Canadian super-team aided in the making of Wolverine (including Heather Hudson and Logan reading together- sweet!). This lesser Canadian team never pops up again in the series to do anything substantial (they are shown as helping Earth cities evacuate in the Phoenix Saga, but they don’t speak), which makes this addition to cartoon Wolverine’s origins both bizarre and bizarrely-essential to understanding this weird series. Plus, this episode has some of Cathal J. Dodd’s best work as Wolverine.
Bishop’s power is that he can absorb and re-direct energy, which actually doesn’t come into play as much as you’d think it would considering the entirety of this series uses special laser and energy blast effects to show the powers of mutants. Instead, Bishop is mostly used as a hot-headed time-travelling soldier with a big gun. Which was great when he showed up in the first season two-parter “Days of Future Past” taking the place of the comic book Kitty Pride.
As the series progressed, Bishop remained the same, but the series also transformed Cable (who made the list as well!) into a time-travelling soldier. Then Bishop’s main character traits had to lean heavy on two tropes: 1) Bishop knows something is wrong but fails to stop it, and 2) Bishop fires his gun at stuff, and it causes no damage until the last time when it causes the perfect damage. Considering Bishop should – by all logic – be a boring character, all of his episodes in X-Men are pretty good episodes. To the point where it’s hard to deny that Bishop was essential in some ineffable way to the series.
The first season has Cable show up more like his 1990’s anti-authoritarian anti-hero persona, and it fits in that narrative when our X-Men get trapped making a dam in slave labor conditions. At that point, you need a cocky and mysterious mercenary-type individual to help with the jail break. Fans of the comic know that Cable is Nathan Summers, the grown son of Cyclops and a clone of Jean Grey, so having him as something of an easter egg in “Slave Island” and “The Cure” was fun (like when Moondragon shows up in the background of a season four episode).
Then, in season two, Cable was revealed to be from the future, but they never made mention of the Summers family connection. In the series, Cable is from the year 3999 when the apparent final battle against Apocalypse is taking place. Cable has to jump back to 1990 with Bishop – who at this point is a very similar character – to save his young son Tyler in “Time Fugitives, Part 1 and 2.” Putting Cable at ideological odds with Bishop worked once, but by the time Cable returned for season four’s “Beyond Good and Evil,” Tyler was grown and Cable was so similar to Bishop that Bishop gets banished from the plot once Cable shows up. Meaning this character kind of ate the potential of another essential character while not diminishing either.
Apocalypse is a daunting force in the X-Men comic books, bringing about the “Age of Apocalypse” a few different ways (most recently during Marvel’s Secret Wars crossover event). The animated version of the character ends up being more of a Doctor Claw archetype (the villain of Inspector Gadget). Prone to monologuing to either hero or villain that is around to take in his view of the world, Apocalypse is an arch villain in every possible way. Cable keeps trying to stop him in the past to win a war with Apocalypse in the future, which seems entirely unavoidable. That means that there’s nothing the X-Men did in their animated series that stopped the inevitable future of Apocalypse Vs. Humanity.
Like a lot of X-Men villains, Apocalypse’s powers are easy to animate through beams and blasts when he’s not shifting in size or monologuing and the design, pulling more directly from the comics than the X-Men Apocalypse movie did, is colorful and pops with pinks and purples. It’s not that the animated Apocalypse is better than his comic book counterpart, it’s that he’s the big villain of the series…well, that and humanity’s inherent fear of things that are different.
Jubilee is the point of view character for X-Men: The Animated Series, so she is by default essential, even if this isn’t the best version of the Jubilee character that fans have seen (call me crazy, but I like Vampire Mother Jubilee – of recent comics – better than animated Jubilee). You can tell how her Jim Lee “Blue Team” costume was updated to be a super-90s yellow trenchcoat and ever-present boxy pink glasses.
Even though Jubilee doesn’t always have a lot to do with her fireworks powers, the character became popular as the teenager stand-in for the young Saturday Morning audience. Because of that, Jubilee is probably the most cameo’d X-Man to show up in the film universe for absolutely non-essential reasons. Katrina Florece played Jubilee in X-Men and saw all of her lines hit the cutting room floor. Kea Wong plays X2: X-Men United and X-Men: The Last Stand, but – again – she has nothing to do. Jubilee was going to show up in X-Men: Days of Future Past but got cut before casting and finally Jubilee got some lines in X-Men: Apocalypse as played by Lana Condor. But she’s still unessential in the movies, while fully central to the animated series.
Morph was a character chosen for the X-Men team in “Night of the Sentinels,” the show’s pilot. Morph was based on a character called Changeling that had actually appeared in X-Men comic books before. Changeling was an adversary of the X-Men that could change his shape. Eventually, Xavier swung Changeling, but the character wasn’t long for the X-Men and was killed. Since he was dead in comic book canon, it was an easy choice to make him dead in the second episode of the series to provide some stakes. They also changed the name to “Morph,” because DC Comics had a trademark out on another character called “Changeling” at the time.
In the series, Morph is a friend to all the X-Men, especially Wolverine when he’s seemingly killed by a Sentinel. Then, in season two he pops up being controlled by Mister Sinister and having a split personality: a good Morph who still loves his former X-Team, and a bad Morph who thinks his teammates left him for dead in a Sentinel battle). Once Morph is brought back to life by ret-con, he actually has some of the better emotional baggage of the series since he shares it with the audience: we totally saw the X-Men leave him for dead. We thought he was dead too. But not Morph.
The entire series is available for download or purchase from Amazon.