Marvel made a lot cartoons in the 90s — but only a couple of them really worked. Today we’re talking about the better of their 90s efforts with The X-Men and Spider-Man.
Marvel, as a company, went public in 1991. At the time it probably looked like a good idea. Comic sales were starting to soar, the mega-success of Tim Burton’s Batman had made superheroes hot properties for film and television and Marvel owned almost all of the noteworthy characters not already owned by Warner Bros through DC. They expanded, they diversified, they made deals for movies that would either never happen or take years to happen and ultimately they almost went bust when the bubble burst.
But while they were flying high, they were doing what every other comics publisher in the business was doing (or trying to do): Making cartoons. A lot of cartoons.
Obviously, the story of superhero cartoons in the 90s is overwhelmingly dominated by Batman: The Animated Series, a production so miraculously good that in the eyes of many it supersedes its comics predecessor as a generation (or two)’s “definitive” version of Batman. Its shadow looms large over the genre for the entire era, both in its original three-season run and the reworked fourth-season revival tied-in to Superman that gave birth to the DC Animated Universe. But what of Marvel?
In most versions of cartoon history, Marvel was the sideshow in the 90s. While DC cartoons were redefining the entire superhero genre, Marvel’s more numerous (ten total, from 1992 to 1999) cartoons — comfortably couched in the more familiar superhero language of simple Saturday morning plotting, shouty/jokey dialogue, kinetic action and cheesy hard-rock/hip-hop scoring and often drawn to mimic the dismal state of 90s comic-art trends — were the also rans. And while it’s tempting to be revisionist… yeah, no. It can’t be denied that the DCAU was next-level and Marvel was playing by the numbers… and most of its output didn’t get past 1 or 2 seasons.
But we’ll talk about all the ones that didn’t work next week. This week is for the two that were not only popular, but unquestionably set the stage for the first wave of Marvel movies just under a decade later…
Was Marvel’s X-Men a popular comic in the 80s and early-to-mid 90s? Yes it was. Was it known to a mainstream audience? Well… if “kids and teenagers who didn’t read comic books but were tangentially aware of them” is part of the mainstream, then yes. But as more and more time passes and we begin to see The X-Men take shape as a mass-media franchise that exists outside and beyond comics — especially in the form of which characters are demanded for the movies and which storylines are considered “classic” and “important,” — it becomes increasingly clear that for most of the world, foundational knowledge of The X-Men begins with this Saturday morning cartoon from Fox.
As adaptation formulas go, X-Men at least had a pretty decent one: Re-do TV-safe variations on popular Claremont/Byrne X-Men stories of the 70s and 80s with a heavier emphasis on the prejudice-metaphor angle from the 60s using an art-style reminiscent of the Jim Lee takes on the characters from what was then the present. The result? A show that looked and felt an awful lot like what you assumed X-Men was if you’d mainly experienced it second hand.
To say that the series feels dated today is an understatement, but there’s a lot of good to be found in here. The artwork is pretty striking — or at least it is until something moves — and the music/sound are remain suitably exciting. The voice acting is a cavalcade of either shrieky or gravelly voices, but that’s sort of what you want for characters tasked with belting out expository-exclamations to reinforce who’s doing what to whom and why. Apart from Jubilee, almost none of the main cast are even pretending to still be keeping up the “teens at school” angle, but the outsized reactions to… everything, really, nails what’s so appealing about this franchise to adolescents of any era: Marvel Mutants (literally) wear their personalities and insecurities as costumes, and every IMPORTANT!!! line of dialogue feels like it should’ve been prefaced with “But Daaaaaaaaad!!!”
What the series did best was find a way to slip a genuinely surprising amount of the psycho-sexual subtext that (as we talked about regarding Generation X) gave the classic X-Men stories so much of their edge. It’s all quite PG, granted, but you definitely get the full helping of X loves Y but Y is with Z boarding-school hormonal angst that underpins the way these characters all relate to each other.
SPIDER-MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (1994 – 1998)
I remain partial to Spider-Man & His Amazing Friends, but on balance this series — largely overshadowed as “the other good Marvel cartoon” in its day — was the best Spider-Man adaptation up to that point. Even if, for some reason, it held back on physical violence much more so than most other superhero cartoons of the day.
The story? Well… it’s Spider-Man. Things work the same as they usually do, save for the powers/crimefighting etc starting in college rather than high school. Most of the changes involve the supporting cast (Felicia Hardy starts out as a wealthy heiress in this version, and isn’t The Black Cat until well into the fourth season) and the order in which legacy villains appear — most prominently that The Hobgoblin here arrives before The Green Goblin even exists. Electro, a small-time thief in the comics, appears here as the grandson of The Red Skull whose powers are the result of an experiment to create a doomsday device. Naturally, since the series was happening right in the middle of the Mary-Jane/marriage era in the comics’ continuity, she’s the most prominent love-interest right off the bat.
Speaking of continuity, like the two 80s Spider-Man series, this one also worked hard to pack as much Marvel continuity into things as possible. After a mostly episodic first season (apart from three-part story introducing Venom, because this was the 90s and you had to get Venom in there as soon as possible) the series switched to season-long overarching stories afterwards, mostly framed around scenarios that could involve other Marvel characters.
Season 2, “Neogenic Nightmare,” was based on the “Six-Arms Saga” that began in the comics’ 100th issue. Along with introducing Morbius: The Living Vampire (and Blade — a few years before the Wesley Snipes movies made the character a major player again), this storyline led to the first meetup between Spidey and the (then-current Fox Kids versions of) The X-Men and a magical time-changing tablet.
The third season, “Sins of The Fathers,” scooped up a surprisingly diverse number of references to Marvel characters tied to daddy issues — Mary Jane, of course, but also The Kingpin, the Osborns and Robbie Robertson and his son versus the street-level villain Tombstone.
Season 4 refocused on the supporting cast for the “Partners in Danger” megastory, which snakes in and out of substories involving Peter proposing to MJ and preparing for married life. Season 5 (“Secret Wars”) ended things big multi-hero crossovers: Spider-Man and a team of WWII-era heroes battle The Red Skull and Electro, The Beyonder shows up to stage a version of Secret Wars that involves cameos by Iron Man, Captain America and The Fantastic Four, a multi-dimensional series finale featured multiple Spider-Men (and Stan Lee!) …hell, they even found time to fit in a variation on The Clone Saga.
Unfortunately, as mentioned, the rest of Marvel’s 90s output wasn’t quite as impressive — or well-received. Next week, we’ll look into that.