Hi everyone, and welcome to the latest installment covering a cartoon from 1992 that still feels so relevant it kind of hurts you on an existential level, X-Men: The Animated Series! Seriously, this is a pretty stellar episode with a surprisingly adult script (even for this show), and I don’t want to wait any longer before diving into it.
Actually, I should pause to say one thing: I’m not going to attempt to keep politics out of these recaps. As sympathetic as I usually am to the “please keep your stupid politics out of my fun escapism show” argument, this cartoon happens to deal with a huge amount of political themes. Trying to write about this show without mentioning politics is like trying to write about My Little Pony without mentioning unicorns: You can try really hard, but at some point you have to acknowledge that Ponyland is just bursting to the gills with fucking unicorns, you know?
We start out at a jail; apparently this is some kind of super-secure jail for mutants, or perhaps just hardened criminals, but it doesn’t really matter. Beast is reading Orwell’s Animal Farm in his cell, and the idiot guards are taunting him, mistaking from the title that it must be a picture book for children. Beast doesn’t look terribly upset by this; I’ll bet if you asked him, he would lay the blame for their behavior at the feet of a sub-par American education system that allowed these people to go through school without learning about George Orwell, and he bears no grudge against them personally. For Beast, the root problem is never hate, only ignorance. He may not be entirely right, but he’s right more often than Magneto.
Speaking of which, Magneto is going nuts ripping up the facility with his magnetic tomfoolery, leading the guards to panic. Beast, bless him, calmly puts a bookmark in Animal Farm so he won’t lose his place, and prepares to scold Wolverine, whom he assumes is responsible for the all the hubbub. Alas, it is not the brash Canadian one, but Magneto, in all his power and glory! It’s telling that Beast already knows who Magneto is; even though Xavier clearly hasn’t told the other X-Men about Mags yet, he has confided in his fellow doctor.
Magneto wants to break Beast out of jail in the name of mutant solidarity, but Beast isn’t having it; he wants to go through the legal system properly, to prove that mutants can and should be treated as humans by the law. What’s really striking about this is how out of touch it is with today’s notions of “social justice;” from a modern, progressive perspective, Beast is putting himself in the hands of the oppressor and expecting the oppressor to give him justice after an appeal to their common humanity, and that’s a fool’s errand. The modern view, at least in many academic circles, is that you should do everything possible to disrupt “the oppressors,” because you’re never going to convince them to do the right thing through reason.
But that’s the nature of (this particular) Beast though; you can’t convince him that “civility doesn’t work” (or, more on the nose, that Civil Disobedience doesn’t work), because Beast’s whole character is about rejecting the primal, emotional reactions you’d expect a “beast” to be governed by, in favor of civility. If your path to justice isn’t civil, Beast has no interest. I never thought about it before, but really, Beast is the one who’s more diametrically opposed to Mag’s viewpoint, and not Xavier. Xavier and Magneto are different sides of the same coin, while Beast is using different currency entirely.
“While I respectfully recognize that this is in contrast to today’s notions of Performative Wokeness, I will surrender myself to the mercy of my Oppressor because I refuse to internalize the simplistic Oppressed/Oppressor dichotomy; not primarily out of any altruistic concerns for my ideological opponents, but because I do MYSELF an injustice by conceiving of my existence in such terms.”
“Also, jail gives me a lot of free time to read and that’s awesome, don’t ruin this for me bro.”
Magneto is surprised to learn that Xavier was responsible for the lawbreaking that got Beast jailed, since he always thinks of Charles as sitting around and doing nothing, waiting for humans to start being nice. This is another important distinction: according to Magneto, Xavier doesn’t fight, and that’s naive. In reality Xavier does fight, but he tries to fight surgically, picking the most important battles, whereas Magneto just wants to declare all-out-war all the time. It’s classic all-or-nothing thinking: Xavier does fight back against evil and injustice, but he doesn’t do it exactly the way Magneto wants, therefore Magneto treats it as Xavier doing fuck-all. If he had to accept that Xavier was also actively fighting for mutant rights, he’d have to examine his own views, and he’s too emotionally damaged to do that. Much easier to adopt an “you’re either with me or against me” mentality.
“Listen, Charles doesn’t like us breaking into government facilities on general principle, but there were kids being kidnapped, so we had to vaporize all of their data and destroy all of their advanced weapons.”
“How like Charles, to sit there doing NOTHING!”
“…what part of ‘we destroyed their entire operation’ is confusing to you?”
Naturally, the guards are trying to shoot Magneto, which Magneto tries to use as proof of the humans’ overall terribleness; not very convincing when Magneto was the one who broke in and started causing havok. Beast says that the humans fight because they don’t understand, but Magneto counters that they do understand; humans realize that mutants are superior, and that’s why they fear them.
This is an interesting point, but one X-Men dealt with relatively early in its publishing history. Cyclops has a wonderful speech in X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills about how mutant talents, while special, are not far-and-away above non-mutant talents in terms of overall value. Sure, being able to use your eye-lasers to punch through a wall has its uses, but how does that compare to a doctor who comes up with a new treatment for a disease, saving thousands of lives? How does enhanced physical strength compare to what a visionary artist or musician can do, enhancing the lives of millions? From this perspective, “Homo Superior” really isn’t superior in any meaningful sense, and is merely part of the vast continuum of human ability.
As an aside, the reason why I haven’t enjoyed X-Men comics in about 15 years is because Marvel Comics seems to have collective amnesia about God Loves, Man Kills. They’ve doubled down on the idea of mutants as this special, “endangered” species separate from humanity, which seems completely at odds with what the original point of the series was. Basically, regardless of how much Magneto is involved in the stories (and it varies), recent X-Men comics seem to be about a world where Magneto’s ideology won, and that’s not okay with me. But I’m getting too far afield of the episode here, and I’m sorry.
Mad that Beast isn’t read to join Team Mutants Only, Magneto goes on a rampage and destroys more of the jail. For the most part, he’s seen damaging tanks while the human pilots escape, but there are a few cases where it looks like the pilots must have been killed, or at least hurt. This will be important later.
Back at the mansion, Xavier is explaining his history with Magneto to Jubilee. Now, World War II and the Holocaust cast a huge shadow over this show– especially this first season– but since it’s a children’s cartoon, they can’t be too direct about those things. So Xavier says that he and Magneto met “after a war,” without giving any more specifics. There’s an interesting question here about whether or not Magneto is still truly Magneto if you detach him from the Holocaust, but we’ll come back to that another time.
Anyway, Xavier was using his telepathy to “cure” refugees from the war of their trauma, and I wonder; while this is supposed to be an example of what a good guy Xavier is, it’s does provoke some interesting ethical questions. Like, is his version of “curing” patients just burying their PTSD deep in their minds so it can’t affect them? Because that’s essentially what he does for Rogue, burying the Carol Danvers persona so Rogue can function (and we see what happens in Season 2 when he’s not around to do this). It’s questionable if that’s really curing anything, plus, these patients absolutely cannot consent to what he’s doing, because non-telepaths can’t fully understand how telepathy even works. I doubt this is a problem that we’re going to have to face in real life in regard to actual telepaths, but it is something that may come up the more we develop technology that directly interfaces with the brain.
“I’m going to bury those bad, bad memories away deep in your psyche; you’ll probably start having horrible nightmares sometime in the future and you won’t even know why, but hey, you win some you lose some. I’m a very ethical doctor.”
Magneto was supposedly a “young aide” to Xavier at the time, but the animators couldn’t be bothered to come up with a younger character design for Magneto, so he still looks about 45 years old. Magneto and Xavier reveal their powers to each other while rescuing their patients, and Xavier discovers Magneto’s rage at humanity. Xavier urges Magneto to use his powers to help make peace with mankind, only for Magneto to point out that humans “can’t even make peace with each other.” This is an ironic line on many levels, primarily because if there’s one thing that would make all of humanity band together in solidarity, it would be against the kind of mutant uprising that Magneto wants.
Xavier has already defeated his old colleague once, but he’s disturbed that Magneto is starting a new campaign for mutant supremacy. Jubilee reassures him that with the X-Men here now, Magneto can’t fight all of them, and Xavier doesn’t respond. You can kind of tell he’s thinking “Actually, he can fight all of us,” but you don’t say that to a vulnerable 13-year-old whose just had her entire life turned upside down.
Scene change to the courthouse, where Beast is being arraigned. Anti-mutant protesters hold up signs saying things like “GO BACK HOME,” and “GO BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM!”, which is amusing since Beast is a U.S. Citizen. This is typically the problem with telling people to go “back where they came from,” because Earth isn’t that big a place; if you’re dealing with say, a Shi’ar invasion, you could get some mileage out of “Go back to the solar system where you came from, bird-feathered scum!” but that’s a rather unique circumstance.
Angry Mob in New York: “Go back where you came from, mutant!”
Beast: “Very well.” *Packs bags, goes home to Illinois*
Angry Mob in Illinois: “Go home, mutant!”
Beast: “I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”
Inside, the prosecution moves to deny bail to Beast because he’s a danger to the community. I think it’s not accidental that the prosecutor is depicted as a black woman; just because you’ve experienced prejudice, that doesn’t mean you won’t dish it out to somebody else when you get a chance. I think it was actually a pretty ballsy choice to do this, since you didn’t see a lot of black female lawyers in cartoons (or on live-action TV) in 1992, and this is a decidedly negative portrayal, brief as it is.
“Your Honor, The People would like to clarify that the phrase ‘People of Color’ has never included, and will never include, blue people. Some colors are just wrong.”
Beast’s lawyer claims that The People want to deny bail just because Beast is a mutant, and the judge is offended by the suggestion that the court is prejudiced. The kind of brilliant thing is, I think the judge honestly believes he isn’t prejudiced; he’s just part of a larger system that is. Like the judge may honestly want to be fair to Beast, but if everything he’s heard about mutants for his entire life has been biased to give him a negative impression, there’s a limit to how fair he can be.
Just in case any adult viewer had somehow missed the fact that anti-mutant sentiment is meant to parallel real-life racism, Beast takes this opportunity to quote The Merchant of Venice. Oy vey, the man has about ten PhD’s, and none of them have taught him how to properly read a room. The judge denies bail, and I can’t even say he’s wrong to do so; the audience knows that Beast did not approve of the violence Magneto did in the course of trying to rescue him, but the court has no real way of knowing that. There’s an element of Magneto’s fears being a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it’s stuff like his attack on the jail that torpedoed any chance of Beast being positively received in court. Beast knows this, and seems more sad than angry.
“Oh God, he’s really doing it. He’s quoting The Merchant of Venice in the courtroom.”
“I thought we talked to him about this.”
Beast holds up a copy of Crime and Punishment and says he’ll have a chance to “catch up on his Dostoevsky,” and I call BS; there’s no way in hell that Beast hasn’t already read Crime and Punishment at least three times, possibly in the original Russian.
Then all hell breaks loose when Sabretooth busts into the courtroom and starts attacking at random. Grrr, Sabretooth! Stop making Beast look bad by association in court! I don’t know, I feel like I should be excited for the arrival of Sabretooth, being such a major recurring villain and so on, but he’s much less interesting than everything else in this episode. The guards manage to use their wimpy little laser guns effectively (for once) and knock down Sabretooth, leading Cyclops to say “they’re going to kill him!” This is unusual, because while characters use euphemisms for murder a lot, very rarely on this show do they actually use the words “kill” and “die”; I think there was some kind of limit to how often you could use words like that on a Y-7 program.
“Arrgh, this is the one time these puny pink laser guns do something? Are you kidding me?”
Wolverine, who’s even less excited by Sabretooth’s appearance than I am, is prepared to let Sabretooth die, which probably comes off as shocking and disturbing if you don’t know the history between the two characters yet. Cyclops fights off the guards and saves the ‘Tooth, although how he lugged about 400 pounds of feral Canadian mutant back to the mansion without Wolverine’s help is anyone’s guess. Nevertheless, somehow Sabretooth ends up in the X-Men’s infirmary.
Jubilee is immediately sympathetic towards Sabretooth because he reminds her of Wolverine; fortunately for her, Wolvie isn’t in the room to hear her say that. Cyclops passes on to Xavier that Wolverine knows (and hates) Sabretooth, and the Professor wants to know why; naturally, no one knows why because Wolverine refuses to tell anyone anything. This little storyarc ends up being about how the team should have had a little more trust in Wolverine when he told them that Sabretooth was bad news, but Wolvie’s at fault too for not even trying to explain. If he’d sat Cyke and the Professor down and told them his whole history with Sabretooth, they might not have kicked the guy out, but they would certainly have been a lot more cautious. The only way Wolvie’s decision not to share information reads as anything other than horribly stupid is if you assume that sharing stuff from his past has come back to bite him more than once, and he’s afraid of making that mistake again.
“Grrrr, I hate this guy so much! Don’t ask me why, it’s a secret. I will take to my grave the reason why I hate this guy, but I want everyone to know that he is just the worst. The worst!”
Wolverine wants to literally push Sabretooth out of the mansion, bed and all, which is kind of funny; he could just pick up Sabretooth and throw him out of the house, but then he’d have to actually touch him, so I guess just shoving the entire bed outside was more appealing. Obviously, Xavier is not going to tolerate any patient being forcibly removed from his infirmary like that, so Wolverine is forced to decide how far his loyalty to Xavier goes. Or rather he would have been, except Magneto attacks a nuclear missile base (!) and everything else is put on hold.
On the way out, Wolverine asks why the X-Men have to go beat up Xavier’s old enemy, but go easy on his, and there’s a very simple answer: because Xavier is in charge, and the X-Men trust his judgement Re: who needs to be beat up more than they do Wolverine’s. But what he says manages to touch a nerve anyway, as Xavier’s grimace shows. The Professor is very conscious of the dangers of abusing his power as the X-Men’s leader; granted, he still does it, but he’s worried about it.
“You know what you are, Chuck? A big fat hypocrite.”
“Be that as it may, nukes are being launched. I need you to go stop Mutually Assured Destruction. You can be angry at me whenever we’re not busy saving the world.”
“…Oh, I see what you did there.”
Magneto starts wreaking havok at the missile base, and to be honest, I’m not sure what his goal is here, exactly. Does he want to set off nuclear Armageddon, figuring that while humanity’s leadership is destroyed, he’ll be able to fill the vacuum? Seems kind of foolish, since a lot of mutants would be killed in a nuclear war too, but I can’t think of any other motivation that makes sense. If he just wants to destroy this one base as proof of what he can do, all he’s doing is setting all military everywhere on high alert, making his life harder. I can’t really complain that the specifics of his plan aren’t discussed though, because there’s no way they could be discussed on a show with this age rating; frankly I’m surprised they got away with identifying the missiles as nuclear warheads, specifically.
Anyway! Storm, Wolverine, and Cyclops show up. No idea where Rogue, Gambit and Jean are right now (you’d think this would be an all-hands-on-deck kind of situation for the X-Men), but whatever; I will have to get my regular dose of Gambit another day. Magneto quotes The Tempest, because spending any time around Beast apparently does that to people, and introduces himself. He seems genuinely disappointed that the X-Men aren’t in favor of his “Nuke our way to happiness” plan. He writes off Xavier’s dream of peaceful coexistence as hopeless, leading Storm to haughtily respond that his preferred alternative is a civil war. To which he basically says, “YES, exactly! A gold star for you!”
I see this argument taking place a lot today, albeit in slightly different form. A lot of people go around saying “Do not even try to reason with members Group X, they are trash, they are garbage, it is hopeless,” and in some cases, they may even be right. But then it’s like…uh, what alternative do you propose? I have yet to hear any good ones. People who don’t outright call for violence seem to have their hearts set on the naive hope that if they just ignore their ideological opponents hard enough, they’ll somehow stop existing. At least Magneto realizes that the only solution his logic allows for is violence, and he’s up-front about that.
Magneto throws the X-Men around a bit just to show he means business, then takes off. One thing that’s nice about Magneto as a villain is you don’t find yourself asking “why didn’t he just kill the heroes?” because he will always spare mutant lives on the assumption that they’ll eventually realize that he’s right and join him. Anyway, Wolverine’s version of trying to stop the nuke is to smash up all machinery in sight and hope that some of it, somehow, connects to the launch mechanism; in a way, Wolverine is kind of like a befuddled senior in a “Learn to Use the Your Computer!” class who just doesn’t get how this newfangled technology works. Needless to say, he is about as successful as most 89-year-olds at setting up their email, and the nukes launch.
Professor X said that he “should have stopped Magneto when he had the chance,” which sounds an awful lot like saying he should have killed him when he had the chance, but censored for kids TV. Actually, what the Professor could do (and has done in the comics, although it didn’t stick) is disable Magneto’s mind to the point where he’s a vegetable; either way, not something they can be specific about on this show. Storm decides the only solution is to use her winds to pull the missiles after her and then detonate them over the ocean, killing herself in the process. Apparently there were no rules against suicide on Saturday Morning cartoons at Fox Kids; probably just the word suicide itself was banned.
Using Cerebro, Professor X sends technical information about the missiles into Storm’s mind, which teaches her how to disable them without blowing them up. This seems to work kind of like learning a new skill does in The Matrix, since in a couple of seconds, Storm knows enough about the warheads to know exactly how to deactivate them. Telepathy on this show is exactly as weak or as powerful as it needs to be at any given moment, but to be fair, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a show that utilized telepathy where that wasn’t the case.
You have no idea how hard I worked to get this screenshot. So many shots on this DVD end up just being a blur of two cells together, and there were very few shots with Storm AND any of the missiles in the same frame! See what I endure for you, dear reader?
In an impressive display of her power, Storm guides the missiles, uses electricity to deactivate them, and deposits them harmlessly into the ocean. She then faints, not unlike a nineteenth-century woman in a corset getting the vapors, but eh, I’m not going to make a big deal out of it. It is sexist that Storm (and also Jean) are more likely to faint after using their abilities than the men are, but I don’t think this scene makes Storm look fragile; it makes her look incredibly badass, first for being dedicated enough that she was willing to kill herself on the spot, then for working so hard to stop the missiles that she had nothing left after she was done. Anyone who thinks she looks weak for reaching her physical limits is being unreasonable– the woman just single-handedly averted nuclear war, for crying out loud. Have some respect.
“What would have happened if Storm was on another mission, and instead we had say, Rogue–“
“Don’t ask those questions, Wolverine. Storm was here. STORM MUST ALWAYS BE HERE.”
As the X-Men take off, Magneto gives credit where credit is due and admits that the X-Men have been well-trained. He seems genuinely confused as to why Xavier would turn his back “on his own kind,” and oh dear, this might be hard to explain. If Magneto doesn’t understand why Xavier doesn’t see “provoking global nuclear war” as synonymous with “helping mutantkind,” it may take a while for them to get on the same page here.
“All I wanted was the death of untold millions and the utter chaos that would emerge after the devastation, is that really so much to ask? Why does Charles have to be so unreasonable? He really hasn’t changed from that time we were involved in the [redacted]War in [redacted].”
Next time: Sabretooth reveals his evil scheme! Jubilee pulls her weight! Rogue flirts too much and makes everyone super-uncomfortable! See you next time for Episode 4, Deadly Reunions.