Monday, February 18, 2013

Pryde of the X-Men!

In 1989, a pilot episode was created for a never-to-be “X-Men” animated series. And even for a 1980s cartoon, it had a LOT of homo-racial subtext and child predator jokes…

If you grew up in the 1990s, you probably watched the animated “X-Men” show on Fox. Alongside “Batman: The Animated Series” and the still-kinda’-underappreciated mid-90s “Spider-Man” cartoon, it helped steer animated TV away from the hokey, merchandise-motivated aesthetics and narratives of the ‘80s and pushed the genre into unprecedented heights of legitimacy. The shows were intellectual, and well-scripted, and surprisingly “adult”-natured for children’s TV. Hell, the very first episode of the Fox “X-Men” show touched upon death, familial loyalty, cultural xenophobia and politicized oppression; kind of a leap from watching “Denver the Dinosaur,” no?

Well, in case you weren’t on the up and up, that Fox “X-show” wasn’t the first attempt at turning the franchise into an animated series. Back in the late ‘80s, Marvel and its TV associates created a pilot episode for a would-be “X-Men” series, and because nobody saw the implicit value of the franchise, it ended up being a one-time special. Stuck in purgatory for a while, the pilot episode, alongside a couple of “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” episodes with X-Men cameos, ended up getting re-released on VHS right around the time the Fox X-show was taking off.

I have some pretty fond recollections of the video cassette. Granted, the episode itself wasn’t all that great, but the experience itself was pretty memorable. Hey, remember those Scholastic book catalogs you used to get back in homeroom during elementary school? Well, they were carrying this thing on VHS, and since I was such an avid Marvel fan, I just HAD to pick up this mysterious, “new” X-Men cartoon. I ended up picking up a few “Spider-Man” tapes that way too, which were basically one-off “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” episodes. But, since those things were LOADED with some killer video game commercials - including one with a (for the time, anyway) dope-looking CGI Venom - I just felt as if I was in on something nobody else in town was. Admittedly, it’s a stupid reason for liking a forgotten piece of pop culture memorabilia, but hey - that’s what made being a kid in the 1990s so dadgum awesome, wasn’t it? Well, that, and Gak. Can’t forget about Gak, ever.

Still a better Peter Parker than Andrew Garfield, though.
As far as I’m concerned, the absolute best thing about the entire VHS tape is this opening PSA from the Video Software Dealers Association starring an actor dressed like Spider-Man encouraging viewers to vote. There’s so much meta-text and furtive political connotations here that I don’t even think a Jean Baudrillard could effectively dissect it. As a kid, I thought it was just awesome seeing a Spider-Man in live-action (for all you young Turks, I actually remember getting excited reading about James Cameron’s never-realized “Spider-Man” movie in Cinescape all the way back in 1994), but now that I’m watching this as an adult…well, I have more than a few questions about the agenda here. OK, so it’s a PSA, released in the early 1990s, about voting.  There’s nothing too unusual about that, I suppose, until you remember that this is an animated, 30 minute-long video intended for children. The first time I saw this thing, I was a good 10 years away form being able to register, so who exactly is this tape trying to target? The parents of the kids watching the tape? Maybe the high-school aged babysitters that put this thing on to quiet the rug rats? Hell, maybe there’s been a massive, neck-beard audience for this kind of stuff even prior to the Internet. Needless to say, it’s a beyond-bizarre public service announcement, even for the heyday of weird-o PSAs. And trust me…that’s saying something.

After that, we get a blue-screen copyright warning and a bumper for the video production company (I think, anyway.) And just 54 seconds into the tape, we’ve got ourselves 1980s crap-rock, “He-Man” laser sound effects and animated army men trying to escape from quicksand-trapped tanks. You best believe, this shit is on, and hard.

You know, nobody really expects solid lyrics in a late 1980s animated program jingle, but I have to say that the lyrics to this would-be show’s would-be theme song sounds particularly effortless. I really liked that verse about Magneto’s plans to “pillage and plunder,” which predate similar lyrics to the Captain Planet end-theme by at least two years. I also really like how the stanza is completed, with Bob Dylan-esque grace, with the narrator/singer claiming that the “team strikes like thunder.” Well, it was either that or use “wonder” or “chunder” to complete the couplet, I suppose.

The episode begins with a particularly melodramatic opening from Stan Lee (really, is there any other kind?), which does a pretty succinct job of setting the story for us. “Hey, there are mutants out there. Some are good, and some are bad. Here’s Magneto. Also, this entire cartoon may or may not be an allegory for racism/homophobia.”

So, Magneto is being transported out to somewhere in the desert by a military convoy. All of the voice actors are extremely throaty, and they keep reminding us that “mutants shouldn’t be allowed to live on earth with humans.” The White Queen uses her mental powers to make a bunch of troops think they’re melting, and Magneto is able to escape. A couple of million bonus points are doled out when instead of killing the shit out of the colonel that was berating him earlier, Magneto just drops him off in a sewage drain instead.

After that, we’re introduced to both Kitty Pryde and Professor X. Seeing no need to mask the fact that his schoolhouse is actually an underground training center for violent vigilantes, he lets the new recruit in on all of the ins and outs of being an X-Person. I really liked how right after telling her that he used a specialized, NASA-powered mind-reading device to find her, the first thing he shows her is a cavernous, virtual reality room filled with death traps. How exactly is the kind of overhead listed on the tuition bill, anyway?

"Meet your roommates, Kitty: a blue demon, Freddy Krueger and various people that can shoot laser death at things. Your parents ARE OK with this, right?"

From there, we’re introduced to the rest of the cast, whom are beating up a bunch of robots in a Mayan-like simulation (a metaphor for colonialism, perhaps?) There’s Cyclops, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Dazzler, Wolverine and Storm. Well, outside of Dazzler, that’s not really a bad line-up, at all.

One of the great recurring “gags” in the cartoon is that Nightcrawler has the hots for Kitty. Since Kitty isn’t exactly turned on be three-fingered devil Smurfs that canonically, smell like sulfur, she constantly has to use her “phasing” powers to ward off his advances. And then, you realize that Kitty is probably a high-school aged girl, and Nightcrawler has to be damn near thirty, and…well, yeah. As a bonus, having the ability to teleport probably helps him get out of a whole lot of “To Catch a Predator” appearances, though.

Literally every character on the team has a really pronounced accent. Storm, for all intents and purposes, sounds just like the Nubian-to-the-tenth-power-sounding voice actress that played the character on the Fox ‘90s show, and both Colossus and Nightcrawler speak with the expected Eastern European twang. Wolverine, however, has a hilariously offensive Australian accent, which makes him sound like a cross between Paul Hogan gargling and a bilabong tree getting thwacked by a jolly swagman.

The X-Men end up getting called on a false flag scare, which gives Juggernaut ample time to plow through the Xavier mansion. Magneto, for reasons that aren’t really clear, really wants the main circuit chip or something in Cerebro, and since Kitty forgets how to use her powers, she ends up forking it over the Master of Magnetism. Meanwhile, the X-Men wind up on some secret base, where The Blob and Pyro are holding an African-American family (ironically prejudiced against mutants themselves) hostage. Much homoeroticism follows.

Pictured: that "much homoeroticism" I promised earlier. 

So, following a quick skirmish, we find ourselves on Asteroid M, where Magneto and the Brotherhood of Terrorist Mutants (probably the most abrasive name for a non-profit organization I’ve ever heard) are plotting and scheming to enslave humanity. We also meet Toad, who is basically our comedic-relief, Gollum-esque sympathetic villain, which was required by law to be in every cartoon produced from 1970 to 1991. Back to the X-Mansion, where Storm uses her weather powers to clear up some debris. You know, I would really like to hear a quasi-scientific explanation for how she can manipulate conditions in the Earth’s atmospheres while completely indoors, kids.

All right, so check this shit. Magneto’s plan is to use Cerebro to turn himself into a mega-magnet, so he can take control of a comet and slam that sumbitch right into Earth, while he and his mutant cronies just kinda’ hang out in space,  wait awhile to return to Earth, and restart civilization. If you’re not seeing some parallels between this and the “Mother Wheel” prophesized by Louis Farrakhan, you probably need to hit up the cultural studies section at Books-A-Million more frequently.

A shouting match between Wolverine and Kitty Pryde reveals that the latest X-recruit is 14. So yeah, bang up job on all of that child endangerment shit, Charles. And so, the X-Men hop in their space place and don their space suits - how the hell they ended up getting NASA equipment, we’ll probably never find out - while Cyclops advises Storm to do totally impossible weather shit while they’re just hanging out in the vacuum of space. And, time for our boss run portion of the episode, as Dazzler holds off Pyro, Wolverine kung fus Toad, Colossus dukes it out with Juggernaut and Cyclops battles the White Queen. Eventually, it comes down to Nightcrawler and the Blob, with old Kurt using his teleportation powers to simply sneak past Magento’s blubbery protector.

Nightcrawler; a HUGE fan of Stanley Kubrick, apparently. 

And so, Kitty Pryde shows up and tackles Magneto, while Nightcrawler does some blue-looking stuff to re-shift the comet’s trajectory, or something like that. Magneto and the evil mutants evacuate, but Nightcrawler is forced to stay onboard until the comet collides into the asteroid (yeah, you read that right) and then he teleports at the very last second but, oh no! He’s falling into the earth’s atmosphere, where he will assuredly get disintegrated!

Then again, it’s not like the dude could just teleport himself safely into an air lock or anything. Oh wait, yeah, that’s the whole premise of the character. We get a full X-reunion, and Stan Lee sends us home with a promise of future adventures…that never happened. Oh well.

I’m not really sure who all the voiceover folks were. Outside of Frank Welker, I’ve never heard of any of these people. I’m sure some hardcore animation nerds are reading this, so if there’s anybody on the roster that’s accomplished anything of note since, please feel free to drop me a line.

According to the IMDB, the main writer of the episode, Larry Parr, wrote every single episode of every single cartoon made in the Reagan Years. Go ahead, look at his resume, and try to tell me otherwise. As for why the show was never picked up, I really can’t tell you. I guess it was mostly because animated TV was going through such an upheaval, with syndicated programming looking a lot less bankable than a Big 4 afternoon or Saturday morning slot.

Probably the biggest cultural import of the episode, of course, is the fact that it served as the inspiration for Konami’s legendary, six-person “X-Men” arcade cabinet. If I even have to begin explaining to you how awesome that thing was, you might as well take your iPod and jam it right down your esophagus now, you technologically-elite, snot-nosed Millenial waste of space.

In hindsight, I think it’s a pretty underwhelming one-off, and had it been given a go-ahead, I doubt much stuff of substance could have arisen. The animation was OK, but the voice acting was atrocious, and as far as scriptwriting went, it was horrifically by-the-numbers. Even so, it’s an interesting look at what could’ve been…although what could’ve been was nowhere near as awesome as what we actually ended up with. Is “Pryde of the X-Men” anything more than a brief curiosity piece? Eh, probably not, but it’s still kinda’ fun to soak up all of the Bush, Sr.-era cheese and clumsy attempts at social commentary. And hell, how can anybody hate anything that opens with Spider-Man telling you to go down to your local video store and ask for voting registration papers?


  1. Nice post.
    I like the way you start and then conclude your thoughts. Thanks for this nice information. I really appreciate your work, keep it up.
    animated video production

  2. i laughed so hard that i pissed and shit my pants


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