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.1But 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.
Oh, Evolution Season One. You try so hard. And sometimes you hit your mark: sometimes it’s “Turn of the Rogue.”
And then, sometimes, it’s “SpykeCam.”
Here’s the thing about Spyke: he’s a character born of good intentions and just stunningly thin execution. He’s got a lot of potential, but the actual episodes that focus on him–which are fairly few and far between–and his eventual, deeply dubious fate are almost universally weak. I want to like this dude, and sometimes I really do–but often, it’s in spite of, not because of, the stories built around him.
Ah, well. We’ll always have Dracula: The Rock Musical.
Not only am I back recapping X-Men: Evolution, but I get to jump back in with my hands-down favorite episode of Season 1.
Remember back in Episode 3, when I told you that a lot of the best stuff in Season 1 revolves around Rogue? This is what I’m talking about, right here. “Turn of the Rogue” is a great showcase of my favorite aspects of X-Men: Evolution: the balance and interaction of the superheroic and the personal; emotionally resonant coming-of-age stories; and some of the strongest writing and performances of the season.
I like this episode, because this is where Evolution starts to catch its stride and find its voice. “Middleverse” is kind of a mess animation-wise, but it’s also a one-off, a lighthearted breath of fresh air before we dive headfirst into the Big Ongoing Story next episode.
It also gets bonus points for being a Forge episode, which is almost always a plus. Comics Forge tends to be dark and brooding and at the center of convoluted storylines and soap opera, but two out of three animated Forges are uncomplicatedly delightful. The best animated Forge, of course, is Wolverine and the X-Men Forge, who just straight-up is Miles to the extent that we had his action figure in college and more than one person assumed it was a custom portrait. But Evolution Forge is pretty great, too.
Before we jump into this one, let me tell you kids a story.
Once upon a time, there was a gentleman by the name of Dwayne McDuffie. McDuffie was an incredibly important figure in comics: these days, he’s best known as the creator of Static Shock and the co-founder of Milestone Media; for his work across the DCAU; and as a tireless and outspoken advocate for black representation in superhero comics.
In 1989, when McDuffie was an editor at Marvel Comics, he wrote a biting, satirical pitch that has since become industry legend. In his pitch, McDuffie points out that 25% of African-American superheroes appearing in the Marvel Universe over the last year have had skateboard-based superpowers or fighting styles, and proposes a new team to take advantage of this and other equivalently exciting trends, featuring four black guys on skateboards:
Twelve years later, the fifth episode of X-Men: Evolution would introduce the Xavier Institute’s sole black student and the show’s first original character, Evan “Spyke” Daniels:
Let me get this out of the way fast: “Mutant Crush” is my least favorite episode of X-Men: Evolution. Yes, even more than “The Cauldron,” which I’m pretty sure is objectively the worst episode of the series.1
But while “The Cauldron” is terrible, it’s hilariously terrible. “Mutant Crush” is. Well. It’s a decently written episode, I guess. And it’s got a lot of moments I dig. It’s just also really fucked up and disturbing, and not in hilarious and pedantic ways.
Seriously: Shit gets dark in this episode. If you don’t want to read a humorous write-up of a story that is essentially about stalking and kidnapping, you may want to skip this one. I recognize that this is essentially a humor column, and I tried to find okay ways to be funny about this episode, but I mostly ended up with a lot of tonal whiplash, and a pretty high volume of commentary on the ways women are socialized to appease violent men, and some really inappropriate references to John Fowles’ The Collector.2
And on that note: Here is a link to the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s help page. NDVH is a pretty solid organization, and in addition to the actual hotlines–which include a phone line and web-based chat, both confidential and anonymous–they’ve got a very good list of resources, including LGBTQI and teen-specific stuff. (NDVH is, however, mostly U.S.-specific. If you know of international resources or have other specific recommendations, please stick ‘em in the comments, and maybe we can get something useful out of this clusterfuck of an episode.)
Evolution Rogue is awesome. She’s one of the characters who fares best in reimagining–as I wrote about Cyclops in S1E1, Rogue is very recognizably written in the spirit of some of the best previous versions of the character, with the letter flexible enough to let her develop organically in her new context and setting.
So it should be no surprise when I tell you that a lot of the best stuff in the generally pretty shaky and uneven Season One centers around Rogue. And that, my friends, begins here. Lace up your best New Rocks, dig up some black lipstick (or steal your friend’s eyeliner crayon and be careful not to lick your lips), and get ready to rumble.
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.