I was a little too old to catch X-Men: Evolution the first time around. It debuted my freshman year of college, corresponding with the peak of my nerd pretension—that larval-geek phase where you insist on calling all comics graphic novels—and like the arch little fucker I was, I dismissed it sight-unseen as X-Men dumbed down.
A few years ago, I finally sat down and watched my way through X-Men: Evolution and came away with two conclusions: teenage Rachel was kind of a dolt; and X-Men: Evolution is delightful.
Not only is Evolution not X-Men dumbed down, it’s a really clever, appealing reinvention. In fact, Evolution accomplishes what the Ultimate universe never quite could: shaking off years of continuity and attracting an entirely new audience with a distilled version of one of Marvel’s most convoluted lines.
If you’re not familiar with X-Men: Evolution, the premise is roughly thus: The Xavier Institute is an extracurricular boarding school of sorts, whose students are mainstreamed into their district school—Bayville High—for academics. Some of the characters—Storm, Wolverine, and Professor Xavier on the side of the angels; Mystique, Magneto, and a few others on the other end of the moral spectrum—stay adults; everyone else is aged down to teenagers. Evolution draws characters and some story hooks from the comics, but for the most part, it occupies its own discrete continuity.
And as continuities go, it’s a good one. It’s clever and fun, it’s got a ton of heart, and it stays true to the core themes and characters of the source material without becoming overly beholden to the letter of the text. By the end, it’ll become a really, really good show; but even when it’s bad, X-Men: Evolution is bad in really entertaining ways.
Which is important, because X-Men: Evolution gets off to a pretty rocky start.
Here’s what you need to understand if you start at the beginning of X-Men: Evolution: for the first season, what you’re watching is mostly potential. There’s good stuff in there—expect regular glimpses of the seeds of what will eventually grow into an excellent show—but it starts out rough. It’s fun, it’s entertaining, and there’s enough to hook viewers, but it’s not good—at least, not yet.
So: what works? Well, the premise—although more in theory than in practice, at least at first. The idea of the Xavier school as an extracurricular boarding school makes a lot of sense, and the setup makes for some really interesting stories and conversations around the idea of mainstreaming mutant kids.
The characters—at least at the beginning—are a mixed bag. The ones who work—most notably Cyclops, Nightcrawler, and Rogue (we’ll meet her in episode 3)—really work. Again, you can see the raw material of what’s going to become a really great ensemble cast, but they’re not quite there yet.
From the start, X-Men: Evolution has a distinct visual style—something previous X-toons notably lacked, especially compared to the ultra-stylish DCAU. It’s rough around the edges right now—there are a lot of places where you can pretty clearly make out what they were shooting for, and where they missed the mark—but, again, that’s going to improve with time—but it’s distinctive, and a good fit for the premise.
So, the first episode of X-Men: Evolution is a mess, if a fairly charming one. The animation is inconsistent in ways that give the impression of too many hands and not enough time. The writing is badly uneven, and while some of the actors—most notably Kirby Morrow (Cyclops) and Scott McNeil (Wolverine)—hit the ground running, most of them take longer to hit their stride. The pacing is jerky, and it’s distractingly difficult to keep track of the (uneven and often contradictory) passage of time.
Let’s take a look.
We open with a high-school football game, in which some dudes in blue and white are squared off against some dudes in red and gold. “Blue-twenty-two,” shouts one of the guys in red, activating hundreds of Soviet sleeper agents in the stands initiating an elaborately choreographed dance sequence and then everyone does some sports stuff.
Red Team scores a touchdown, and its QB is immediately cornered by a tall redhead with a fancy camera. This is Jean Grey, who is abusing her position as yearbook photographer to get sexy photos for her “personal collection.” Evolution Jean is a boss.
Evolution Jean also looks like she’s in her mid-twenties, and speaks in weird sexual innuendo, often backed by smooth guitar riffs; which combined give the impression that she’s strolled over from a slightly creepy fake-high-school porno. That’s pretty much confined to this episode, thank god. She’s voiced by Venus Terzo, the Princess Regent of Videoland, who’ll do better at it once she’s got more to work with.
The fellow on the other end of Jean’s lens is Duncan Matthews, douchebro extraordinaire. Duncan is basically the Flash Thompson of X-Men: Evolution, in that his job is to be a stereotypical jerk jock and to stand in for Wolverine as the guy who gets between Scott and Jean. (Evolution Wolverine is a teacher, and while Evolution does feature the occasional high-schooler-who-looks-thirty, it is generally pretty savvy about things like power differentials in relationships.)
Duncan’s douchebrohood is established straight out the gate, when he and two of his football bros get their coach’s permission to leave the field during a game to go beat a dude up under the bleachers. I did not attend a high school with a sports program,1 so I do not know if this is the kind of shit that actually happens at football games, but it strikes me as pretty dubious coaching. Your mileage may vary.
The kid Dunc and co. are off to beat up is Todd Tolensky. Todd is Evolution’s Toad, which is a damn shame, because how much more awesome a name is Mortimer Toynbee? So much more awesome. Not only is this Toad saddled with a bargain-bin name, but he’s basically gonna be the punching bag of this episode, and pretty much every scene he’s in for the next four seasons.
Toad isn’t entirely blameless—we first meet him while he’s emptying spectators’ wallets from under the bleachers at the big game—but his primary crime is being a poor kid with dubious social skills and terrible hygiene; which latter literally everyone he talks to feels the need to bring up, including teachers. Evolution deals with class in some seriously fucked up ways, especially this season—we’ll see a lot more of that next episode—but no one gets the brunt of it as badly as poor Toad.
He also frog-hops everywhere, but no one ever seems to comment on that. Maybe they’re used to it. Maybe it’s just a thing people in Bayville sometimes do. Maybe “the kid who hops everywhere” is one of those nigh-universal normal-high-school archetypes I missed out on along with football culture. Who knows? Probably not Toad, who seems a little oblivious.
Luckily for Toad, one of the people on the bleachers is Scott Summers, who is trying really hard to be a noir protagonist and failing miserably because, well, he’s Scott Summers. Don’t try to do noir, Cyclops. You are a lot of things, but noir is not one of them.2 Also, you’re cribbing Multiple Man’s bit.
Scott is hanging out with a random guy, who is not—as I first assumed—Iceman. Dude is in fact named Paul, but we won’t officially learn that for several more episodes, so for now, I’m just gonna call him Surrogate Alex, since he’s blonde and shorter and pretty much spends the show in Scott’s shadow. Also, their outfits coordinate, which raises a number of questions. Did they go shopping together? Does Scott know that they match, given that he presumably can’t see color, or is Surrogate Alex pulling a Single White Female? Leave your theories in the comments. Leave no stone unturned.
Nah, I kid. Surrogate Alex is a good kid. He’s basically the Harvey and/or Janet of X-Men: Evolution. Maybe he’s their nephew or something.
SO ANYWAY, Scott fumbles the quarter he’s flipping around, and with a hilariously plaintive cry of “Aw, my cash!” heads under the bleachers to look for it, where he discovers Toad about to get his ass handed to him by three football players.
I want to stop for a moment to talk about Evolution Cyclops, because, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the scales by which I measure X-media is how well it handles Cyclops. The Cyclops of X-Men: Evolution is both one of my favorite versions of the character and one of my favorite characters in the show. Alternate settings and universes highlight the characteristics that really define characters—or that the creators involved see as defining them—and for me, Evolution Cyclops is very much Scott Summers distilled. He’s not exactly nice—he’s prickly, difficult, uptight, and kind of passive-aggressive—but he’s also a very fundamentally decent person: quick to help; immediately protective of anyone abandoned, alone, or at a disadvantage; and reluctant to dismiss or give up on anybody, even nominal bad guys. He’s a believably uncool and too-serious sixteen. (Or seventeen? I’m not actually sure how old Scott and Jean are supposed to be. They both look way too old to be in high school.) He’s also one of the characters who benefits most from the age shift of Evolution: making Cyclops a teenager prevents him from sliding into the exaggerated martinet role he occupied in the original X-Men ‘toon. As a kid struggling to come into his own as a leader, Cyclops gets to keep a lot of those core traits while remaining a lot more sympathetic.
In this scene, though, he seems to be trying his best to be Batman; although given what Batman does to petty criminals, I’m not sure he’d actually intervene if he saw three football players about to beat up a thief under some bleachers.3
Toad takes the chance to hop away, and Scott holds his own admirably until he’s distracted by Jean, who has presumably come in search of some more titillating photo opportunities. Duncan seizes the moment and knocks off Scott’s glasses, which goes about as well as you’d expect, given that they’re at a crowded sporting event and Bayville High stores its propane tanks right next to the football field.
CUE THE OPENING CREDITS! There are a lot of gradients, because this show was made in the early aughts; some very snazzy electric guitar riffs; and a bunch of characters we will not actually meet until later episodes.
Back at Bayville High, a classy and vaguely sinister Rolls Royce has pulled up. A classy and vaguely sinister back window drops, revealing a classy and vaguely sinister face shrouded in classy and vaguely sinister shadow.
It’s almost like they want us to think of Professor Xavier as a supervillain.4 Especially since he’s here to wipe everyone’s minds.
While the firefighters are putting out fires, Jean heads back to the bleachers to retrieve Scott’s glasses, aided by a bit of exposition that I’m 90% sure was added in post-script: “It’s too hot to touch… at least with my hands.” Jean. Sweetheart. No.
Duncan, meanwhile, has a head injury with convenient retrograde amnesia. Jean swings by for a quick “poor baby” as Duncan is loaded into an ambulance for what the soundtrack implies is going to be some very sexy first aid.5
Xavier wipes a cop’s mind; Toad eats a fly, because, Toad; and X and his driver—presumably Storm, since it’s a woman with long, white hair—head off to catch a train.
At the train station, we discover that the driver is indeed Storm, and that she is wearing make-up in a palette and concentration that I have literally only seen on Barbie dolls. But she only gets the spotlight for a moment, because they’re there to pick up Kurt Wagner, who has been traveling cleverly disguised as a Jawa.
But don’t get too used to that, because it’s Wolverine Time!
If you haven’t worked this out already, X-Men: Evolution jumps between characters and plotlines fast enough to give you whiplash, especially in the first few episodes. And every time it jumps to Wolverine, it is hilarious, because—again, for several episodes—Wolverine appears to be hanging out in an entirely different show. “Fuck your teen superhero drama,” says Wolverine. “I’m gonna go be the protagonist of a biker Western!”
It is absolutely delightful. Especially the part where he parks his ridiculous motorcycle, moseys into a mom ‘n’ pop gas station—having exchanged his helmet for a cowboy hat6—and demands a “bottle o’ water. Cold.”
And then he slices the bottle in half with his claws, chugs it, slams it back down, and growls at the shocked station attendant, “Recycle that, willya?”7
God, I love this show.
Seriously, though, Evolution Wolverine is great, and making him one of the adults in the series was a really clever move. Over the course of the series, it’s going to let him grow really well into the mentor role the character has always leaned towards, while setting up some pretty well-developed tension between that and his violent past. As a bonus, it also completely obviates the generally odious and overdone Scott/Jean/Wolverine love triangle.
Also, he drives a bright red motorcycle with flames painted on the sides. Of course he does.
Evolution Sabretooth, on the other hand, looks like he’s escaped from an anime, or possibly a Wild A.R.M.S. game8; and I, for one, am just fine with that. He is stalking Wolverine from the top of one of New York’s signature mesas, because, Sabretooth.
Back at the mansion, Scott and Jean are off to school? A party? Work? College? The moon? The timeline is incredibly unclear. Maybe it’s that night. Maybe it’s the next morning. Maybe it’s a year later. Or maybe they’re all ghosts, doomed to relive the same day over and over and over; which would also explain why Scott is banging on the bathroom door and telling Jean, “Give it up. It’s hopeless.” He’s right, Jean. You’ll never get out. Never. Resign yourself to an eternity of floating hand mirrors and cavernous, windowless hallways whose dim lighting does not provide any useful clues about the passage of time.
Nah, it’s the next morning, but we only know this because the Professor describes Kurt as having arrived “late last night.” It’s worth noting that Kurt is still decked out in his Jawa coat. Did he sleep in it?
Introductions commence. Scott gets a lecture about control, because Evolution Professor X is even more of a tool than Xavier 616. Everybody bonds over their cool superpowers.
Know who doesn’t have particularly cool powers? Toad. (Actually, that’s not entirely true—Toad has really useful powers; he’s just bad at making them look not horribly unappealing.) Toad is at the principal’s office, because the principal wants to talk to him about his burgeoning kinda-friendship with Scott Summers.
Also, the principal is basically evil 90s powerbutch Sigourney Weaver, and I am so into that.
In addition to being kind of a jerk, Principal Evil Sigourney is obviously more than she seems. She knows Scott has powers, and orders Toad to spy on him. Toad is reluctant—Scott is literally the only person who has been nice to him, in this show and possibly ever. BAD MOVE, TOAD. You’ve made Principal Evil Sigourney angry, and apparently when Principal Evil Sigourney is angry, she straight-up transforms into the fucking Shadow King.9 We cut away as she is apparently about to devour Toad.
Back at the Xavier Institute, Kurt gets a present: an image inducer. This fancy gadget make him appear human, but that’s not all! It also changes his clothes into what I initially assumed to be Professor Charles Xavier’s dubious interpretation of what the kids are wearing these days.
It is not. As it turns out, in the world of X-Men: Evolution, the cool kids wear their pants at the waist and tuck their shirts into their boxers, which are pulled up suuuuuuper high. This is a thing; and it will continue to be a thing through the entire series; and I will continue to make fun of it for the entire series, because it is terrible; and if you disagree, you can get the fuck off my lawn.
Xavier also gives Kurt a superhero costume, because, what the else are you going to give a fourteen-year-old whose parents have entrusted to your care?
GOOD NEWS! Toad has not actually been devoured by Principal Evil Shadow King Sigourney, because he shows up by the lockers for a kinda creepy attempt to bond with Scott. PRO TIP, TOAD: If you’ve seen someone level an athletic stadium in the last 24 hours with force beams from their eyes, playfully stealing their sunglasses may not be the best way to initiate a friendship.
Fortunately for Toad, Scott is a total sucker for hard-luck cases, so once he’s got his shades back, he goes straight to the payphones (remember those?) and calls Xavier to encourage him to give the weird, smelly, hopping kid a chance.
Xavier is already aware of Toad, because his use of his powers in the hall set off Cerebro’s alarm; which is weird, since Toad was already hopping around all the time. Why is this time different? Did he hop extra high?
“Is he one of us?” asks Kurt.
“That remains to be seen,” says the Professor, who literally seconds ago told Scott that they couldn’t turn anyone away. Spoiler: Professor Xavier is the worst.
“Sure, Rachel,” you say, “but we all know you already think Xavier is a dick. You’re just letting your biases influence your interpretation.”
And you are so very wrong, because Evolution Charles Xavier is so much worse than Xavier 616.
Don’t believe me? Let’s play a game:
Pretend you run a school for at-risk teenagers: ones who are especially vulnerable and potentially dangerous because of their powers. Let’s say one of your two senior students has called to let you know that another kid may be in need of your help, and you’ve subsequently discovered that the kid is trying to sneak on to your property. How do you respond?
A) Call the authorities and report the kid for trespassing. He’s got to learn to follow rules.
B) Welcome the kid into your home. He’s had a rough time, and you’re not there to judge.
C) Let the kid in, but give him a stern talking-to about respect and private property.
Fuck, no. You’re Charles Fucking Xavier. You send Storm10 outside to zap the kid with lightning.
So, yeah: Evolution Xavier is the fucking worst.
Also, it’s randomly night now, because time passes completely differently at the Xavier School than the entire rest of Bayville.
Toad survives the lightning gauntlet and makes it into the foyer, where he immediately makes fun of Kurt for looking funny, because, again, Evolution Toad lacks both rudimentary social skills and a sense of irony.
Kurt—who already has a codename—responds by accusing Toad of “reek[ing] like unwashed lederhosen.” I guess on Earth-11052, German insults plateaued around the year 1900.
What follows is a fairly charming fight scene in which two ultra-agile teenagers wreck a lot of priceless antiques and absolutely suck at trash-talk, while Professor X and Storm hang out and make arch comments in the background.
“This test if over,” Professor X finally declares. “Todd Tolensky does have the special gift of the X-gene. He is welcome to join us if he so desires.”
WHOA WHOA WHOA BACK UP A MINUTE THERE PROFESSOR
You already knew this kid has an X-gene, because he set off Cerebro. (Also, because he bounds around like a frog and catches flies with his six-foot tongue, but that’s kind of secondary at this point.) Which means this entire exercise was—what? A bizarre hazing ritual? Proof of concept?
Seriously, why would you do that? What could possibly make Professor X and Storm think this was a good plan? How are these people allowed to be responsible for minors?
Toad will have none of this bullshit, so he attacks Kurt again. Kurt teleports blind,11 landing them both in a wall as a brutal object lesson to future generations of students.
Nah, just kidding. They end up in the Danger Room, as a brutal object lesson to future generations of students.
And that’s when we learn that there is no way to shut off the Danger Room from anywhere else in the mansion. This seems like a fairly serious design flaw, considering that the Danger Room is tucked away deep in the subbasement, and the dude running the show has mobility issues.
Luckily, Scott12 and Jean happen to be suiting up in a random hallway, oblivious to the chaos, so Professor X sends them in to keep the Danger Room from killing the new kids while he and Storm make their way downstairs.
“I’ve got the cannons,” Cyclops tells Jean, who does not have a code name. “Keep them clear of the tentacles.” This is the worst school ever.
The Professor and Storm finally get to the Danger Room control booth and shut down the program, although for some reason there’s a delay on it, giving Kurt just enough time to accidentally wreck everything even more. Toad runs the fuck away.
Just in case you needed an illustration of how thoroughly spending your formative years with Charles Xavier will fuck you up, Cyclops immediately apologizes for having failed to stop Toad, having been irresponsible enough to get himself knocked out while attempting to defend a hapless peer from his insane guardian’s murder playground. Run while you can, Toad. Run while you can.
“It’s all right, Scott,” the Professor says, magnanimously. “He wasn’t ready to be one of us.” I mean, who could possibly have predicted that this kid would react badly to being attacked by superheroes and then teleported into a room full of laser cannons and bladed tentacles?
Worst. Xavier. Ever.
The hapless Toad, for his part, catapults through a window and lands smack dab in the middle of Wolverine’s biker Western. Wolverine immediately pops his claws. I assume based on what we’ve seen so far that official Xavier policy is for Wolverine to immediately eviscerate any children he finds on the lawn, but Xavier is feeling merciful today, so he appears in an upstairs window in time to tell Logan to let the kid go. Wolverine reluctantly does, but not before calling Toad “stink boy.”
Inside, Kurt is concerned that laying waste to half the mansion probably means he’s about to get expelled and/or murdered by the faculty. Faced with adversity, Kurt blindly teleports away. Again. You’d think he’d have learned his lesson when he ended up in the room full of murderbots, but Evolution Kurt is not the brightest blue crayon in the box.
He is, however, super lucky, because he once again manages to avoid telefragging himself, this time landing in the Blackbird hangar. Scott shows up a minute later and convinces Kurt to stay with what would be a more reassuring pep talk if it weren’t clearly coming from a place of severe Stockholm Syndrome.
It’s light out in the next scene, but Toad is still wearing his weird costume, which means that either it’s the next morning or it has somehow magically become day again; and either way, I have officially given up on keeping track of the passage of time in this episode.
Inside Bayville High, Principal Evil Sigourney is chewing Toad out for his failure to effectively infiltrated the Xavier School. Outside, we linger on the scene of a bunch of bikes falling over in their rack. I’m pretty sure this is supposed to foreshadow Magneto’s arrival a few minutes later, but what it actually looks like is that Principal Evil Sigourney has at Toad hard enough to knock over a bunch of bikes two stories away.
Have I mentioned that it sucks to be Toad? It sucks to be Toad. Not only did he spent his brief stint at the Xavier School fleeing for his life, but apparently Xavier wiped all of the details out of his mind on his way out the door, rendering him incapable of defending himself from Principal Evil Sigourney, who kicks him out of his office and then yells so hard that she transforms into classic Mystique.
If I were Mystique, I would totally do goofy magical-girl transformations when no one was looking. I mean, come on. Why would you not, amirite?
But Mystique doesn’t have time for any Moon Revenge Heartflower Sexy Beam Whatevers, because suddenly all the metal stuff falls off her desk, and we hear the disembodied voice of Magneto, whose powers in this show apparently include a very heavy foot on the reverb pedal. I guess this is supposed to be scary, because Mystique quails in fear as Magneto menaces her.
With a cloud of floating paperclips.
As he hovers outside her window.
In broad daylight.
Which, honestly, is a pretty fitting ending beat for the first episode of X-Men: Evolution.
NEXT WEEK ON X-MEN: EVOLUTION: Avalanche has a good attitude towards menstruation.
1. I did, however, attend an actual School for the Gifted, so I can say with reasonable authority that the Xavier Institute is pretty accurate.
2. I guess Wolverine and the X-Men Cyclops is pretty noir. But he’s earned it. Also, when you’re voiced by Nolan North, genre restrictions no longer apply to you.
3. Cyclops > Batman, forever. Suck it, Sims.
4. I genuinely can’t tell if Professor X is intentionally set up as the worst person ever in this show, or if it just sort of happened by accident; but he really, really seems to be coded as a bad guy in this episode (and a lot of others).
5. In general, the first season of X-Men: Evolution gives the impression of being a TV show set among a lot of other adjoining shows. Sometimes characters wander between them, and it is delightful.
6. Consider the logistics of this for a moment. He pulls up to the gas station, turns off his bike, loses the helmet, digs out the cowboy hat, straightens it out—because even if it’s one of those crushable ones, which it has to be, it’ll at least need to be shaken out—and then puts it on and moseys in.
7. It’s worth noting that Wolverine’s voice actor, Scott McNeil, is good enough to 100% sell this ridiculousness.
8. If you’ve played Wild A.R.M.S., you now have the opening theme stuck in your head. You’re welcome. If you haven’t played Wild A.R.M.S., go listen to the opening theme, because it is splendid. I can whistle it from memory.
9. I’m genuinely unsure whether we’re supposed to recognize her as Mystique at this point. I guess most people who’d only seen the movies would see a blue shapeshifter and go straight there? But we haven’t heard her name at all, and she really does just straight-up turn into the Shadow King’s astral form.
10. Storm’s hairline changes dramatically when she gets into costume. It’s disconcerting.
11. Remember how in the comics and movies, Nightcrawler was super careful about not teleporting blind? Evolution Nightcrawler has none of those qualms. It is a miracle that this kid never ended up embedded in concrete.
12. Except this takes place minutes after Scott gets off the phone with Professor Xavier, which means he should still be at school, unless the Xavier kids have some kind of half-day thing going, which I guess would make sense; but then why would he have gone to the cafeteria?