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TELEVISION REVIEW

X-Men: Evolution, Third Season

X-pertly Done

By Fred Choi

staff writer

X-Men: Evolution, Third Season

Showing on Fox

Saturdays, 11:30 a.m.

Even though I’m more of an obsessed fan than the average person, I think I can objectively say that X-Men Evolution, now in its third season, is proving to be the best incarnation of X-Men yet, although purists may disagree.

There have been several previous adaptations of the X-Men based on the original comics, which began in the 60’s but didn’t achieve real success until their makeover in the mid-1970’s. These included some obscure versions, such as a ridiculous episode of Spiderman and His Amazing Friends in the early 80’s, which featured the X-Men; a dated one-off cartoon episode for TV in 1989 in which the Canadian X-Man Wolverine had an improbably Australian accent; a long-running animated television series that ran for five seasons, from 1991 to 1996; and a highly successful live-action movie version. The latter has been the most well-known and well-received adaptation thus far, a trilogy directed by Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) and starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Halle Berry. The first episode debuted in 2000 and the second is due this coming May.

Given the large body of X-Men mythology that has developed over the years in the sprawling comic book series and its numerous spin-offs, it is perhaps unsurprising that X-Men Evolution has liberally adapted and sometimes blatantly ignored the previous material and adaptations.

No doubt in order to ride on the success of the movie and to appeal to the Saturday morning cartoon-watching demographic, boys and girls, the main way the creators of the show have twisted the X-Men lore is by making the majority of the characters high school-aged -- and included all of the angsty self-identity and raging hormone issues that come with it. Although some may sneer at such a move, they should recall that the original comics featured highschoolers as the core characters. In any case the new series, although at times a little Saved By the Bell-ish, has more than proven that this restriction has generally not detracted from the quality of the episodes.

The new incarnation began the first season with a small group of six young mutants: the well-known Cyclops with his optic blast; Jean Grey, who has telepathic and telekinetic abilities; Nightcrawler, who can teleport; Shadowcat, who can “phase” through solid objects; Rogue, who can absorb other people’s powers upon physical contact; and a new character, an African-American boy named Spyke, named for the bony projectiles he can throw from his body.

(Side note for the curious: Spyke, perhaps originally influenced by the well-known X-Men character Marrow, seems to have been presented for a short while in a slightly less politically correct form than the X-Men Evolution show to the Mystery Men-esque X-Men comic book spin-off, the re-hauled X-Factor comic (renamed X-Statix), which has featured such memorable team members as “U-Go Girl” and “Doop”.)

In Evolution, as in the other adaptations, the mutants attend and live in the Xavier Institute (presided by the well-known characters Professor X, Storm, and Wolverine) while they attend the nearby Bayville High, run by the villainess Mystique as “Principal Darkholme.” The cast also includes baddie Magneto and the “Brotherhood,” comprised of the familiar villains Toad, Avalanche, Quicksilver, and the Blob.

Structurally, the first two seasons were well-paced, although generally stand-alone and expository. The first few episodes introduced most of the new recruits one by one, and a storyline was carried through the first half of Season One as Rogue’s loyalty, at first with Mystique, eventually turned towards the X-Men. The rest of the first season featured unrelated episodes, some of which obviously laid down the basis for future episodes, including storylines involving Mystique’s relationship to Nightcrawler, Wolverine’s past, and the villain, Juggernaut.

Season Two took a surprise turn as the series introduced nine “new recruits.” including Iceman, Boom Boom, Wolfsbane, Berzerker (apparently a character adapted from an obscure comic involving the Morlocks, a group of mutants who live in the city sewers), Multiple, Sunspot, Magma, Canonball, and Jubilee, most of which were members of X-Factor, a younger group of X-Men in the original comics.

Instead of introducing the new recruits one by one, the second season was almost entirely episodic, and many of the episodes were completely unrelated to the traditional X-Men lore. The well-known X-Men character Beast was an adult added to the Xavier Institute, a man named Robert Kelly replaced Mystique as principal of Bayville High (in the original comics Kelly was a senator who was a key player in the mutant vs. human debates), and the Scarlet Witch was added to the Brotherhoods’ group, but it was only in the last two episodes of that season that started to be really plot-driven. And what a great difference a good plot makes. The series was always engaging, and with the kidnapping of Wolverine, along with Beast and several of the students, the introduction of the Sentinel, an extremely well-designed robot designed to capture mutants which is much more formidable here than in the original cartoon series, and the disappearance of Professor X, the series took off like a rocket. Having the same two writers, Steve Granat and Cydne Clark, work on these four crucial episodes certainly didn’t hurt either.

There are so many reasons that X-Men Evolution succeeds. Although some of the stand-alone episodes are a little less interesting, Evolution has done a great job balancing the high school scenes with superhero action. In addition, they know how to bring out the issues of isolation and the desire to “fit in” that have been so inherent in the X-Men stories, along with other issues such as responsibility, jealousy, and self-control with sensitivity and honesty.

The most recent episode was hands-down brilliant, as the students at the Xavier Institute, now exposed as mutants and returning to their high school, have to face open taunts, fear, discrimation, and intimidation for being “muties.”

In an extremely clever twist, Nightcrawler, a blue-furred mutant who until he entered the Institute was always persecuted because his physical appearance was impossible to hide, is able to pass as “normal” with the aid of his device which disguises his appearance. The TV footage of the mutants only showed him in his blue-furred form and no one has connected the human-looking student with the blue-furred mutant, so Nightcrawler tries to take advantage of the situation by ignoring his friends and pretending to be “normal.”

Evolution is at its best when it sets up scenes like this and plays them through expertly without getting self-indulgent. The series’ immediately eye-catching animation is clearly influenced by the recent Batman series (with Archie noses) and looks much cleaner than the original series. The original series, although lots of fun with a lot of extra characters and such lines as Storm’s “Wind, repel him!” always looked too cluttered, because it included too many shadows and tried to mimic the look of the comic books. The storyboard artists of Evolution should also be applauded for the consistently creative style of animation. Likewise, William Anderson’s music is consistently ear-catching and well-done.

There are a few changes which will send purists howling in the streets, however. The students generally have abilities more powerful than they ever had in the comics. Since when was Shadowcat able to phase a plane with three other people in it through a mesa? And since when was Jean Grey able to lift up a car, let alone a jet? And everyone knows that Mystique can only transform her appearance, not her body mass, and she certainly can’t change into a wolf or a raven that can fly.

In a completely baffling but surprisingly palatable change the playful, flirtatious Southern Rogue has been transformed into a reclusive goth chick (who has a crush on Cyclops no less, probably because the former Wolverine-Jean Grey-Cyclops love triangle would have been too pedophilic here).

It remains to be seen conclusively whether or not this will be a series in which all of the characters stay at high-school ages, although it looks like it may be. Although this would undoubtedly be unfortunate because it would cause the show to feel stagnant and “unrealistic” in the hands of the current director and writers, I have the hope that they’ll be able to keep the show as engrossing, entertaining, and sometimes even emotionally engaging as it currently is.