I can summarize most episodes of X-Men: Evolution from memory, in a fair degree of detail; so it surprised me when, in reviewing the Season 1 roster, I realized I recalled almost nothing of “Survival of the Fittest” beyond the fact that it involved some kind of summer camp scenario. When I started to watch, I realized why: in a season where even the bad episodes are usually entertaining, this one is just boring as all hell.
On my first pass, I stopped taking notes five minutes in, because nothing was happening. By the halfway mark, I was actively fantasizing about watching paint dry.1 But I am nothing if not committed, readers. I promised you a recap, and a recap you would have, come hell or high water.
Ah, well. At least I get to judge cartoon teenagers for their fashion choices.
“Survival of the Fittest” opens with a police car heading into Stokes County Maximum Security Facility. Not, note, Maximum Security Correctional Facility; for all we know, this is where they keep the radioactive fish2 or something. It’s shaped kind of like a ziggurat, which is cool, I guess.
We’re following a prison guard through a Get Smart-esque sequence of increasingly intricate locked doors. I assume this is actually Mystique, because years of X-Men media have taught me to assume that literally every prison guard is Mystique.
This particular guard and/or supervillain is headed for a big cylindrical cell at the end of a catwalk with no railings, because Earth-11052 gives no fucks about OSHA. It’s got very fancy electronic locks, though, including a retinal scanner with which the camera lingers for a weirdly long time. In related news, I am now 100% certain that the guard is Mystique, because in addition to the prison-guard thing, the intricacy with which someone’s identity is verified is almost always directly proportional to the probability that they will turn out to be Mystique.3
Within the big round cell is another, smaller round cell controlled by an intricate Simon game. The guard who is definitely Mystique smirks as a tank containing a helmetless Juggernaut is revealed, then drains out the liquid and–
Yep, that’s Mystique. CALLED IT!
Damn, I’m good.
“Wake up, Cain,” says Mystique. “It’s time you had a long overdue family reunion with your brother, Charles Xavier.” Presumably this reunion will be held in the Gratuitous Exposition Room at the Department of Redundancy Department, situated just off the big Rio Grande River.
But first, credits!
We open back up to a scenic mountain vista, interrupted by what sounds like the angriest camp counselor ever.
“You will not be making wallets, necktie racks, or paperweights,” he cautions a group of concerned-looking teenagers.4
Apparently there will also not be sack races, water balloon tosses, or pony rides; which is a shame, because I am 100 percent certain that an episode about the X-kids fucking up summer camp games would more interesting than what I’m currently watching.
We finally pan up enough to see the dude doing the yelling, a generic cartoon-drill-sergeant type whose voice reminds me of nothing more than Coach Oleander from Psychonauts. You know, I could be playing Psychonauts right now.5 I could be happy. But, no. I’m watching this dreck. For you.
That’s how much I love you.
Coach Oleander, whose actual name is Coach Hawk, lists off what the kids will actually be doing; and we finally get to see a few of the hapless campers. Oh, hey, it’s the Brotherhood! And a bunch of random teenagers we’ve never seen before and will never see again! Is this a school field trip to outdoor survival camp? Will we later see a Bayville field trip that’s just straight up dumping kids out of a helicopter into shark-infested waters? Because between “Turn of the Rogue” and this, that really seems like the direction they’re headed.
He also introduces the camp as “Ironback Survival Camp, a name you won’t soon forget,” which I promptly forgot and had to look back up so I could include it in this recap.
And there are the X-Men. And they’re all wearing new outfits, which in addition to completely fucking up my schema, are all hilariously awful. Let’s do a roll-call:
- JEAN GREY: Doubling down on her suburban-mom aesthetic, Jean is sporting an emerald green swimsuit tucked into khaki shorts.6
- ROGUE: Rogue gets points for rocking her standard color scheme, but immediately loses them because I’m genuinely unsure whether her hoodie is supposed to be cropped at the waist or actually tucked into her leggings. Rogue, no. You’re better than this.
- SHADOWCAT: Kitty nets “best dressed” despite the fact that she’s wearing shorts-overalls–cuffed shorts overalls–in 2000. That’s how low the bar is.
- NIGHTCRAWLER: Does Xavier program outfits into the image inducer for Kurt? Or did Kurt actually choose to appear to be wearing bike shorts, a fanny pack turned forward, and what appears to be a brown two-tone short-sleeved mock-turtleneck sweater? Either way, he looks like a slightly confused high-school drama student attempting to parody Eurotrash without really understanding the concept, and who will later blame his classmates’ cultural illiteracy when none of them laugh at jokes that hinge entirely on homophobia and a bad French accent.
- SPYKE: Evan has apparently decided to eschew his ubiquitous elbow pads in the one non-skateboarding context where it might actually have made sense to wear them. Instead, he’s sporting a tank top cut so low in the sides that it’s basically a tabard; which he has–of course–tucked into his boxers and a pair of inoffensively nondescript cargo shorts. The shirt–which is also functionally backless–would be enough to win Spyke worst-dressed for this mission, were it not for…
- CYCLOPS: I know that being completely incapable of dressing like a normal adult human is pretty much canon for Scott Summers, but this outfit takes it to a level that I assume must involve a lost bet. I mean, that’s not even a shirt. That’s, like, what’s left of a shirt after you get shipwrecked with Lee Forrester, which obviously has not happened in this episode.
Seriously, can you imagine any context in which ordinarily-kinda-buttoned-up-and-conservative Scott would look at that shirt and go, “Yes, this is a good plan”? No. No, you cannot. Because there is absolutely no canon-acceptable excuse for this shirt.
Except one: mind control. The shirt is the first piece of evidence in a strikingly solid7 case for a secret C-plot in which Cyclops spends the first ¾ of this episode mind-controlled; which I just now made up because the episode is so boring as-written that I have resorted to coming up with conspiracy theories to keep from giving up and recapping my goddamn wallpaper.
The X-kids have apparently chosen outdoor survival camp with Coach Hawk as an alternative to training with Wolverine, which is immensely disappointing, because it tells me that, given the prospect of 22 minutes of teenagers fighting dinosaurs in the Savage Land, the Evolution team instead chose to set this episode at the world’s worst summer camp. The kids are also pretty dubious about the setup, but Scott reassures them that “Professor X endorses this place.” Scott, Professor X also endorses training children as superheroes and has a yard full of actual artillery. The fact that this place is on his good list probably just means that it’s unusually likely to kill you.8
The Brotherhood figures this’ll be a great opportunity to murder the X-Men in the woods, until Lance–who I guess is going to be the voice of reason on this outing–takes them out of it. “We’ll beat them where it hurts most,” he says, “in public. In front of everyone.” Okay, then.
Back at super prison, Mystique finishes draining “cellular paralysis biofluid”–which concept seems iffy even on the scale of cartoon science–out of Juggernaut’s tank. Juggernaut has apparently been imprisoned in his fancy armored costume, which strikes me as a singularly stupid idea, although not quite as stupid as keeping his helmet in the same room instead of, say, a maximum-security facility across the country, or literally anywhere else. See, shit like this is why prison privatization is a bad plan.9
Mystique’s plan is to sneak Juggernaut out of prison and sic him on X in exchange for Cerebro. Juggernaut isn’t interested. “No one takes Juggernaut anywhere,” he tells Mystique, knocking her off of one of the prison’s many catwalks, which fortunately turns out to be only a few feet above the floor. Does Juggernaut just walk everywhere? That seems really inconvenient, especially considering that his best friend lives on the other side of the Atlantic.
At Camp Whispering Rock, the X-kids and Brotherhood are working out their differences by, um, climbing ropes? Blob’s breaks, and he complains that he’s “not built for this kind of stuff.” I would argue that it is in fact the camp that’s not built for this kind of stuff, since we know for a fact that Blob can throw monster trucks. Don’t let the structural inadequacies of this rope frame discourage you, Fred: you’ll always be the world’s strongest teenager to me.
It’s immediately evident that the main rivalry here is between Scott and Lance. Scott wins the rope climbing race, which ties them at 1-1, since I’m awarding Lance a bonus point for managing to wear an actual shirt. Then there are some ziplines and yelling and I guess boats and they both cheat using their powers, and Scott wins what turns out to have been a race, and I really don’t care at all.
I guess it’s nice that Lance at least asks if Scott can swim before avalanching his bout out from under him, though. You’re a good kid, Lance. I mean, when you’re not attempting to kidnap and assault your classmates.
Coach Hawk decides to take the No Exit approach to dealing with insufferable teenagers and informs them that their next exercise is all about teamwork: their job is to retrieve the flag that he has planted on the top of–I kid not–Mount Humiliation.10 Easy, right? Not so fast: it’s the whole team or nobody. Coach Hawk will declare victory only if the flag is accompanied by a snapshot of the whole team, at the pinnacle.
The contest appears to only be between the Brotherhood and the X-kids, which raises the question of what happened to the handful of normal students who were along on the trip. Were they eaten by bears? Did they decide they’d had enough of this nonsense and wander off to another cartoon? WHO KNOWS? IT’S A MYSTERY!
Scott is all about cheating their way to victory, which means that Jean gets to be the mean parent this episode. I actually really like Jean here–her somewhat pedantic sense of fair play fits what we’ve seen (and will continue to see) of her. Because of her abilities, the world’s pretty much there for the taking–she’s a telepathic straight-A student and telekinetic soccer star–but instead, she consistently chooses to work for it.11
Evolution Jean is really neat, y’all.
What I don’t really buy here is Cyclops. In the rest of the show, this kid colors in the lines like it’s his god-given mission, and now he’s suddenly gone full Obnoxious Jock? You can sort of no-prize an explanation based on the idea that the rivalry with the Brotherhood blurs the boundaries between normal teenage stuff and superhero fights, but it’s still pretty forced. So, yeah, mind control.
At stately Xavier Manor, Charles Xavier is dismayed to notice that the kids are using their powers. “Did you tell them not to?” Wolverine asks.
“No,” says Charles, who was apparently hedging his bets on Cyclops being written consistently. “I was hoping they would make that decision for themselves.” Charles, seriously, have you ever even met a teenager?
Unfortunately, what’s building up into a decent snarkfest is interrupted by an alarm going off: Cerebro has spotted an enhanced mutant signature, which it identifies quickly as Cain Marko.
“Somehow he’s escaped,” Xavier exclaims. “But that’s impossible!” And then he exhaustively recounts the Juggernaut’s backstory; because, really, isn’t that the entire point of Juggernaut episodes? The only real difference is that in Evolution, the gem of Cyttorak just booted up Cain’s latent mutant powers, which apparently include very gently upending stopped police cars in what may be the most anticlimactic show of super strength to grace this series so far.
While Juggernaut battles traffic laws, the X-kids are hard at war with nature, making their powerless way up a mountain trail. The Brotherhood, meanwhile, has decided to scale the cliff face, which kind of seems like cheating, since it relies on both Toad’s jumping and Blob’s super-strength, but it’s not like they can just turn those things off, and in any case I could not care less who wins at this point, let alone whether they do so legitimately. Cheat away, Brotherhood. The faster you win, the faster this episode will be over.
Storm goes out in the blackbird to try to stop the Juggernaut with weather, which goes about as well as you’d expect. Wait, no. She’s not trying to stop the Juggernaut; she’s fogging up upstate New York to stop the authorities from tracking the Juggernaut down, so that they won’t get hurt trying to recapture him. Well, I guess that’s one way to spend an afternoon.
Blah, blah, blah, mansion defenses; blah, blah, blah, telepathy; blah, blah, blah, helmet. I’m pretty sure every single iteration of the X-Men has done this exact same Juggernaut story, and it’s always dull as hell.
Oh, look, he walked through a train. Whee.
Back on Mount Humiliation, the Brotherhood’s path has led them to an abandoned mineshaft, which Toad insists contains a tunnel leading almost directly to the top. This camp is terrible. As they go in, the camera pans portentously to a fallen DANGER sign, because that would certainly have been adequate to deter a bunch of teenage supervillains, had they seen it.
Meanwhile, Scott sends Kurt to make sure that the flag is still there, which is sort of cheating, but maybe not, since he’s not actually getting it? His next idea–having Evan spike a rope up to the summit instead of using pitons–is definitely cheating. I’m still not ruling out mind control, although I’ll acknowledge that it’s possible that Scott has finally realized what he’s wearing and is desperate to finish the race so he can go home and change. Unfortunately for the world of fashion, Jean is there like a Jiminy Cricket in mom shorts to set him straight.
The Brotherhood’s shortcut leads to a vertical shaft way too narrow to get through. Apparently Toad figured that Lance could “avalanche it open,” which is the worst idea yet in an episode so far constructed entirely from bad ideas. Pietro, always on board for some poor decision-making, is all in; and Lance–who, I’m grateful to note, has learned to use his powers without making an O face–promptly collapses the mine shaft onto the Brotherhood.
Who could possibly have seen that one coming, amirite?
The X-Men scramble toward the peak, victory in sight, but Lance’s earthquake causes Evan to lose his grip and tumble to his death. Nah, just kidding. Jean catches him, because using powers isn’t cheating if the alternative is certain doom.
Rogue finds the brotherhood at the bottom of the mineshaft. “Aw, c’mon,” whines Toad, “Don’t leave us down here, man. Not for some stupid flag.”
“We won’t,” says Cyclops. Either 15 minutes is the time limit on mind control, or the impetus to do actual superheroing is enough to snap him back to canon personality. Either way, welcome back, kiddo. We missed you.
Back at the mansion, Xavier is still going on about the Juggernaut’s backstory. I don’t care, and even Wolverine looks relieved when the alarm goes off, indicating that Juggernaut has entered the mansion grounds.
Wolverine goes out to challenge the Juggernaut, and the Juggernaut just sort of shrugs him off, but then stops to fight him for no apparent reason. Is there a universe where Cain Marko at some point realized that he never actually has to fight anyone–he can just kinda barrel along and ignore them?
Mystique, is still trailing along after the Juggernaut based on her belief that he will help her out of some heretofore-unexpressed gratitude for breaking him out of prison. Seriously, Mystique, if you want Cerebro stolen, maybe ask the guy you know who controls metal and can just rip it out of the house with a thought?
Nah, Juggernaut barrels straight through the mansion walls, destroying Cerebro in the process and leaving a series of neatly Juggernaut-sized holes in the walls, which reminds me of yet another video game12 I would rather be playing than watching this stupid episode.
Juggernaut continues to toss Logan along like his favorite chew toy until he manages to bust into the Danger Room to confront Xavier. Mystique for some ineffable reason decides that this would be a good time to scold Juggernaut for reneging on the deal that she has singlehandedly decided that they made, and which he has been denying exists from the outset. Mystique is probably one of those people who assumes someone has stolen her stuff every time she misplaces it, and then spends hours ripping apart her co-workers’ desks looking for a stapler that will turn out to be in the wrong drawer of hers.
No one stole your goddamn stapler, Mystique. It’s right where you left it.
“Charles, aren’t you going to welcome me home?” demands Juggernaut. Dude, have you met your brother? Sending an angry little man with claws to attack you is probably his idea of a joyous homecoming surprise.
Back at Camp Whispering Rock, the X-kids safely retrieve the Brotherhood from their mine shaft in what’s clearly meant to be a callback to the not particularly memorable rope-climbing scene from earlier in the episode. Of course, as soon as the Brotherhood is out, their rivalry kicks back in–Pietro sprints to the peak, and Kurt decides that rules are for losers and teleports after. They’re playing tug-of-war with the flag when the Blackbird surfaces from behind the mountain to let both groups of students know that their mentors are in peril. I guess the plan is to throw a bunch of teenagers at a supervillain strong enough to take down all of the adults? How very Charles Xavier.
Either way, it can’t be too urgent, because they’ve apparently got time to snap a quick Polaroid of both teams gathered around the flag, which they drop down onto Coach Hawk from the plane. TEAMWORK!
In the Danger Room, Juggernaut confronts Mystique and Professor X. The Professor makes one halfhearted attempt to reason with him, and when Juggernaut doesn’t immediately capitulate, decides, “You’ve learned nothing and you never will.” He then activates something called “Logan’s Run,” which is clearly supposed to be a clever reference but doesn’t make any sense because a) I’m pretty sure they’d all be fucked, and b) if Wolverine couldn’t stop Juggernaut, it seems ridiculous to assume that his training program would be able to.
Juggernaut is predictably undeterred by the spinning morningstars and other Danger Room tomfoolery; but fortunately for Mystique and Professor X, the kids are here to save the day with some conveniently timed child endangerment.
Wolverine comes to for long enough to tell the kids that they have to get Juggernaut’s helmet off; which they manage using some teamwork that’s actually pretty cool; although I don’t really get why Juggernaut never just clicks the helmet latches back in place, given that the heroes always unhook them one at a time.
“Now, that’s something you don’t see every day,” says Mystique.
“I agree, and that’s a shame,” answers Xavier, who wishes that scrappy gangs of teen rivals would unite to beat up more members of his immediate family.
“C’mon, boys,” says Mystique. “Let’s get out of here before you’re invited to a slumber party.”13
Cyclops and Avalanche exchange a series of slightly backhanded insults, and the Brotherhood kids head home, presumably to braid each other’s hair and make s’mores without the X-Men’s pernicious influence.
Back at Stokes County Maximum Security Recycled Footage Facility, Professor X, Wolverine, Scott, and Jean are gloating over the Juggernaut, now once again unconscious in an aquarium.
“You can’t control the will of others, Charles,” says Logan. Actually, Logan, I’m pretty sure he can. I mean, what you described is literally Charles’s mutant power.
Scott, who apparently has his personality back, thinks it was cool fighting alongside the brotherhood, and hopes they get to again.14
“Well,” says Jean, “It’s like Logan said. You can’t control the will of others.” Again, Jean, that’s just definitively not true. I mean, Scott can’t, but you definitely can. Scott makes a joke about how Jean could be the Brotherhood’s conscience, and Jean responds, “Hey, even good guys need a nudge once in a while,” which I’m going to take to mean that she was in fact the one mind-controlling him all episode because after thirty years of being backburnered, she had finally worked out that it was the only way she was going to get to be a protagonist.
“Jean, whenever you think I need it, nudge away,” says Scott. And since there’s absolutely no okay way to follow that line, that’s where the episode ends.
1. At one point, I got so bored that I extrapolated a wildly implausible and wholly imaginary mind-control subplot hinged on dubious connections between this episode and the cult-classic 2005 DoubleFine platformer Psychonauts, but I decided not to include it in this summary because it was even dumber than the actual episode.
2. I know. But I really don’t have a lot to work with, here.
3. It’s predictable enough that I’m not sure it even counts as irony at this point.
4. Does anyone actually make necktie racks at summer camp? Are necktie racks even a real thing? Have I been storing my neckties wrong because I never went to normal summer camps as a kid?
5. Yes, even the Meat Circus.
6. I’m pretty sure I have a photo somewhere of my mom in this exact outfit, circa 1990.
7. Actually, it’s somewhat shaky; but at this point, I’ll take what I can get.
8. Scott’s insistence that they should trust someone so clearly untrustworthy would be a point in favor of mind control, but we already know that he has zero common sense on that front, so it could reasonably go either way.
9. I mean, that, and the massive human rights abuses.
10. It’s a metaphor that’s also a real mountain, or at least a real matte painting of a pretend mountain. Or a real digital matte painting. One of those, probably.
11. There’s definitely a spinoff essay in here somewhere about Jean Grey and the persistent phenomenon of women working twice as hard for half the recognition; but I hate this stupid episode and I’m currently working in the dining room because someone is drilling holes in my office wall for Internets or some other shit that I was not warned about and I kind of hate everyone and everything right now, so you can write your own gender studies paper this week. 15 pages on Silver-Age women of Marvel and unrecognized emotional labor, on my desk by Monday. GO.
13. I bet there’s fanfiction about exactly this, and it involves both makeouts and crying.
14. This reminds me of one of my favorite things about Silver-Age Cyclops, namely his absolute refusal to give up on Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch.