Look, I get it. We all went onto Disney+ the minute we could and collectively shredded in the most radical fashion by loading up X-Men: The Animated Series and listening to a truly killer Whitney Houston riff. We’re all Children of the Atom, and Children of the ‘90s, at heart. But we could’ve been doing something more, my X-Men. We could have—should have—been watching X-Men: Evolution.
The nostalgic glitz and glamour of access to The Animated Series overshadowed the fact that Disney+ also launched with (alongside approximately one billion other things) X-Men: Evolution, a continued overshadowing the latter has endured pretty much since it first aired in the early aughts. But the chance to revisit Evolution allows us to remember that, in rejecting the nostalgic glee that makes TAS the charmer it is—for all its clunkiness at times, it remains a full-throated celebration of ‘90s X-books at their best and weirdest—its reboot sibling did some really interesting things with the X-formula.
When it could’ve easily been a way to try and launch a show riffing off the newly found cinematic successes of the X-Men at the time, Evolution—which aired on “Kids’ WB” from 200o-2003—did something that felt unprecedented instead. It allowed its heroes to, well...evolve. It did so, ironically, by devolving several of them. Well, de-aging them.
One of Evolution’s biggest risks to the X-Formula was giving us a show that truly embraced that Xavier’s abode was a school for mutant education, not just a cool base for the X-Men to hang out in between missions. The vast majority of the cast in Evolution is presented as teens only relatively recently awakened to their mutant powers, rather than X-heroes in their prime. While a few familiar mutant favorites, like Cyclops and Jean Grey, were slightly older than the main crew (initially including Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, Rogue, and newcomer Spyke), only Storm, Professor X, and Wolverine remained a similar age as to how they were presented in the comics. Although they were all X-Men, they were no longer just teammates and colleagues, but teacher and mentors to this next generation of mutants.
It was the best of both worlds—in the younger cast, Evolution balanced storylines about acceptance and teen angst with these kids just hanging out and being friends with each other, slowly but surely coming into their abilities as they became more assured in themselves and their relationships with the kids around them. In the older crew, there was now a new dynamic, not just leaders on the battlefield but people who had to teach the kids around them lessons they’d learned long ago as seasoned superheroes.
X-Men storytelling has always been about the future—fighting not just for acceptance in the now, but to secure the safety and prosperity of new mutants for generations beyond their own to avoid the struggles the X-Men and mutantkind at large have long endured. Evolution took that dynamic and made it less about generational storytelling on a societal level, and more on a personal one. The characters and their relationships with each other drove Evolution’s heart more than the action of the week, even if that was made compelling by watching these accurately bratty teens work with each other and their elders to be forged into an effective superhero team.
But this focus on examining new, younger iterations of the X-Men also worked in tandem with another thing that made Evolution so compelling: unlike TAS before it, which dove headfirst into the ephemera of X-Men comics sagas to tell its own definitive versions of beloved tales, Evolution was initially very hands-off with tackling the larger X-Mythos while it set up this new take on its familiar cast. Although the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants was the primary antagonist of the first few seasons (its members de-aged to match the X-Men, creating a fascinating recruitment arms-race between the heroes and villains), prominent villains like Mystique and Magneto were left to linger in the background.
Mystique eventually became a major foil for Rogue’s arc in particular in later seasons, challenging her uncertain path to the side of heroism after initially joining the Brotherhood. Magneto only really shows up in a major way at the climax of the second season, making his status as a major threat feel that more tangible, but also one that feels much more appropriate for a cast of young X-Men who’ve had the time to come into their own. It meant that instead of leaning on familiar stories, Evolution got to deal with its own ideas beyond examining the intrapersonal drama of its heroes: it’s why we got, after all, the creation of X-23, before she became a fundamental aspect of the X-Men’s comic book history.
It makes the last two seasons’ tonal shift away from the school drama and into more traditional X-Men storytelling avenues—after Magneto’s attack exposes mutantkind on a societal level, feel that much more earned, because you’re actually invested in the stakes of these characters at that point. They’re more than just the X-Men, they’re characters you’ve watched develop and flourish as they accept who they are, so when the time came for the show to tackle Apocalypse’s resurgence on the scene in its final, truncated season, the scale and scope of the story had an added weight—more than if these were just the X-Men we knew and loved, and Apocalypse threatening the end of all things was just another week of cartoons.
Not all of these bold changes were for the better, admittedly. The first few seasons where there’s more of a focus on standalone hijinks with the students, as the larger mutant worldbuilding develops in the background, meant that the expanding roster of X-Kids left some characters getting the short shrift. Spyke, in particular, was also often the weakest beneficiary of that. Although an interesting vector for a lot of Evolution’s core ideas—not just as the face of the younger main cast, but his role as an entirely new character, allowing for a new lens to examine both the established heroes and the bonds between both the older and younger X-heroes alike—as the show progressed, that same newness also left him underdeveloped. Pushed back to the sidelines even when he was ostensibly the focus, we never really got to delve into what made him stand on his own two feet outside of being “the new character” until Evolution was arguably much more interested in its wider narratives.
But X-Men: Evolution, for all its bold changes to what we knew and loved about the animated interpretation that came before it, still understood what makes the X-Men as a concept so appealing—and that makes it worth revisiting now more than ever.
For more, make sure you’re following us on our Instagram @io9dotcom.