Hands down, the best Story Arcs from X-Men: The Animated Series.
X-Men: The Animated Series was the gateway drug for millions of comic book fans around the world. It arguably made more fans over the span of 5 years than the books ever did in the 40+ preceded it. I’m proud to admit I’m one of these fans that came into comics during its most popular era.
X-Men: The Animated Series, or XTAS, opened up a whole new world for kids and brought to life epic storylines and fan-favorite characters for existing fans. The series was one of, if not the best representation of what a series can be when its producers truly care about what they are putting out.
In 30-minute helpings, we were served bits of X-Men lore that sometimes took more than 4-years of comic storytelling to impart. XTAS was at its best when they dove into long-form arcs, and until this series, it was nearly unheard of in a syndicated show for kids. To qualify for this list, the arc had to consist of AT LEAST 2 episodes. We can talk about the best individual episodes later. Here are my choices for the 10 great multi-part story arcs from X-Men: The Animated Series.
10. Out of the Past
The season 3 opener has the X-Men investigating a crashed alien ship. They soon discovered that it was carrying a savage beast which was released from confinement by the Reavers, and an old foe of Wolverine’s, Lady Deathstrike. The beast, called the Spirit Drinker, absorbs the essence of whoever it comes in contact with. When it was freed, it immediately attacked the Reavers and then began to prey on the Morlocks, the subterranean colony of mutants. It fell upon the X-Men to defeat the monster and save those its attacked.
Let me start this by putting out a couple of qualifiers. By no means am I saying this two-parter was among the best the series had to offer. However, it does hold a special place in my heart. As best as I can remember, Out of the Past was the first and only episode of XTAS that made it into a primetime slot. All I can remember from when this originally aired was “I’m watching X-Men, and it’s dark outside!”
There are a couple of other things about it that stand out as well. It was the first time we got to see the animation budget get a bit of a boost. The colors were more vivid, the lines were crisper, better frame rate – everything just looked better. It was also our first glimpse into what was to come with the Phoenix Saga. Out of the Past 2 ended with Xavier describing to his X-Men what he saw when he touched the alien craft. Then we the audience were treated to a little preview buttoned up with a fiery promise of what was to come. It. Was. Epic.
9. Time Fugitives
In the distant future, Cable is at war against Apocalypse’s forces when time itself begins to unravel around him erasing everything and everyone. Before he’s swept up in the maelstrom, Cable is able to ascertain the source of the disturbance. He traced it to a point in the present where Bishop, another time traveler, interfered with an event in the past that needed to occur to ensure the existence of his timeline in the future (or… his present). Cable came to the unfortunate realization that he has to work against the X-Men and essentially assist his greatest enemy to save his world from destruction.
We got our first taste of time travel when we were introduced to Bishop the first time in Days of Future Past, but it got real when Time Fugitives premiered. The two episodes played out something similar to Back to the Future II. In the first arc we got Bishop seemingly assisting the X-Men in stopping Apocalypse’s plans to unleash the Legacy Virus, but it ultimately ended in tragedy for everyone.
The second part had Cable traveling back and undoing what Bishop set into play and ultimately righting both of their timelines. It was an extremely intricate story for a Saturday morning cartoon and I loved the producers for trusting that we could handle it. We handled it, right?
8. Til’ Death Do Us Part
Cyclops and Jean finally tie the knot! Or so they thought… Morph, the X-Men that was lost during the series premier returned to wreak havoc on his former friends. He started by impersonating the reverend at the wedding, sent Professor-X and Magneto on a goose chase, put Jubilee on a fake mission (for trying to “replace him”), tricked Gambit into kissing Rogue, and sicked an angry mob upon Storm putting her in the hospital. And that’s just the bigger things Morph set into motion! All the while Cyclops and Jean, while on their supposed honeymoon are lured into a trap set by Mr. Sinister. Whom, by the way, put all this into play.
At the age of 10 or 11, the only source of shock I got from my media intake came from the death of Optimus Prime in Transformers: The Movie (1986). Who saw that twist with Morph coming? What kind of Saturday morning cartoon does that to its adolescent audience? XTAS, that’s what. Til’ Death Do Us Part put us on an emotional rollercoaster as we watched a dearly departed character put our favorite characters through the wringer! It was traumatizing, but at the same time, you can’t help but laugh at a couple of Morph’s little deadly pranks. Such as turning up the Danger Room difficulty level on an unsuspecting Beast.
Tired of fighting with humans for Earth, Magneto ripped a chunk out of it. Literally using every bit of his mighty mastery of magnetism, he threw it into orbit and named it Asteroid M. Laced with hyper-advanced technology, it’s a self-contained fortress manned by Magneto, his loyal Acolytes (but not Exodus!), and any mutant that was willing to join him. All seems to be on the up and up until it is revealed that Magneto was only able to achieve this feat by relying on the mutant Cortez to augment and maintain his strength. Cortez proved to be treacherous and double-crossed Magneto and took control of Asteroid M until the X-Men came aboard and intervened.
Loosely adapted from Fatal Attractions, Sanctuary is just a cool story told over two episodes, which is a feat all itself because it surely could have gone another one or two. Wish it did. There was a lot going on here. It was the first time we saw Magneto’s Acolytes mind you without chief priest Exodus, Gambit had seemingly switched sides, Xavier had an old lover involved and the X-Men were in space! And only good things happen to the X-Men in space!
Sanctuary didn’t have the same gravitas of the story it was based upon, but there was enough familiarity to hold my attention. Not to mention, when this aired Fatal Attractions was only a couple of years old, if that. So, it was all still fresh in my mind.
6. Days of Future Past
In the year 2055, mutants and humans alike are lorded over by hordes of Sentinels. A measure of freedom is only granted to the few that are deemed useful, mainly bounty hunters. The mutant Bishop is counted among those few until he successfully apprehends several fugitives, including an aged Wolverine. Bishop suddenly finds himself on the other side of the fence and joined forces with the same people that he helped imprison. Free, he and Wolverine visited Forge who had a plan to journey into the past and stop their world from ever coming to be.
Believe it or not, this adaptation of Days of Future Past was my first. Sue me, when the original comic debuted, I was like 2-years old. I’m fairly certain this was the case with most fans today under 45. Being a die-hard, unapologetic, Gambit fan, it’s no secret as to why this pair of episodes appeal to me so much. While Bishop is undoubtedly the focus, Gambit played a big role as his target… Something I’d think would make a for a great buddy-cop/cat and mouse flick, had they bothered to produce the Gambit solo film. But I digress.
Days of Future Past was action-packed and fairly intricate as far as your typical Saturday morning show went. Being Bishop’s debut, it paved the way for several more appearances for the perpetually confused mutant, jerry-curled, time-traveler.
5. One Man’s Worth
Under the orders of Master Mold, Trevor Fitzroy traveled back from the future into the distant past and assassinated a young Charles Francis Xavier. The act changed every event from that point forward. Without his years of activism and the creation of the X-Men, the present timeline is nothing more than a bombed-out warzone. Bishop and his sister Shard discover what Fitzroy had done in the past and traveled back to thwart his plans, but not before making a pitstop in the new present day to recruit Wolverine and Storm.
This is arguably one of the most important pieces of media ever created within the entire X-Men catalog. I say this because it is the story that inspired the massive Age of Apocalypse 1990s crossover event which itself would go on to affect the X-Men comics for years to come. In this rare case, the comic book-based series made a huge impact on its own source material (this only happened two other times with Harley Quinn and X-23 making their ways into the books after first being introduced in TV shows). It’s obvious where Fabian Nicieza and company got so many twisted ideas for AoA. Out of all the weird things we saw in that tiny glimpse we got of the new present-day timeline, I don’t think I’ll ever get over seeing Wolverine wearing eyeliner. Dark stuff, man…
4. Beyond Good and Evil
Apocalypse is the master of space and time. With the intention of erasing all existence and starting over, he sets out to gather together every telepathic mind he can get a hold of from all across time and known space. Under his command is nearly every major threat the X-Men have faced up until that point. The X-Men, Cable, Bishop and several others like Archangel, and Shard are in a race against time itself as they put it all on the line to stop Apocalypse, rescue the taken psychics, and save all existence.
Amazingly, Beyond Good and Evil was supposed to be series finale and its evident by how the producers pulled out all the narrative stops. They didn’t kill off half their cast as we thought should have happened in Game of Thrones, but they gave their biggest villain, Apocalypse, even more, godlike power as he had taken control of the Nexus of Time (a physical location that acts as the waystation for all timelines).
Other than a truly epic set-piece and the luxury of having both Cable and Bishop involved we finally got to see fan-favorite Psylocke make her animated debut. She even spent a fair amount of time around her classic comic romantic interest, Archangel. This was definitely an all-hands-on-deck type of story and ended with X-Men finally defeating Apocalypse. With how this series would ultimately end, perhaps this should have been its swansong.
3. Dark Phoenix Saga
After saving the galaxy from destruction at the hands of a mad intergalactic tyrant, Jean, still possessed by the Cosmic Entity known as the Phoenix Force returned to earth. After weeks of intense psychotherapy, the Phoenix refused to leave Jean and even starts to speak independently of her altogether. In hopes of luring the powerful being into their fold, the Hellfire Club began to telepathically manipulate the Phoenix through Jean’s mind and ultimately her emotions. However, their ambition betrays them as the Phoenix breaks free of their illusions and goes on a rampage throughout the galaxy. After slaughtering an entire planet, the Shi’Ar empire’s new Empress, and X-Men ally, Lilandra decrees that Jean must be put to death before she sets the entire galaxy ablaze.
It’s pretty funny to see a billion-dollar movie studio attempt to adapt this story not once, but twice and fail both times. The two live-action attempts pale in comparison to the XTAS adaptation. The Dark Phoenix was as much of an action-packed space opera as the Phoenix Saga was before it, but had even more of a dramatic punch to it. It was emotional and strangely deep as it explored infidelity, capital punishment, mental health, betrayal, and sacrifice. All before my weekly dose of Power Rangers.
2. Night of the Sentinels
The young mutant Jubilee runs away from home after her powers began to manifest. In an attempt to provide Jubilee with help for her “problem,” her foster-parents report her to the Mutant Registration Act authorities who immediately dispatched a Sentinel to her home. The giant robot eventually traced her to a nearby mall. Fortunately for Jubilee, several of the X-Men are present. They defeat the mutant-hunting automaton and rescue the teen, but now have to contend with the true face of the Mutant Registration Act.
The first episode of what would go onto become the most influential onscreen representation of the X-Men and Marvel Comics, in general, is the pilot episode of X-Men: The Animated Series- Night of the Sentinels. If nothing else, Fox nailed the introduction of this series and laid out the stakes in which the characters would have to contend with throughout the series. Mind you, Morph’s apparent death would be the only one throughout the series, save for Jean’s temporary sacrifice at the end of the Phoenix Saga (Child of Light).
We shared the grief that washed over the X-Men as they believed they’d lost one of their own. Just like Cyclops, we took a hit to the gut. From the very beginning, it was evident that this was going to be a special show that rarely protected their audience from going through the motions along with the cast. I mean, who to this day doesn’t get goosebumps when Wolverine mounts the back of a Sentinel and yells “This one’s for you Morph!”?
1. Phoenix Saga
After experiencing visions of conflicts in space, Professor-X sent the X-Men to the Eagle-1 Space Station to meet it head-on. After battling the Shi’Ar representative, the alien double-agent, Erik the Red, the X-Men escape the doomed station, with the help of Jean. As she’s piloting the shuttle to safety, she’s overcome by the cosmic entity called the Phoenix Force. After the Phoenix and Jean merge, it is revealed that the mad emperor of the Shi’Ar Empire, D’Ken seeks to use the power of the M’Kraan crystal to dominate the entire universe. Jean, enlists the help of the X-Men to stop him before he can achieve his ambitious goals.
It’s amazing to think that it took 2 seasons of XTAS to get to this point, but it was well worth the wait. The Phoenix Saga took 5 episodes to tell and subsequently was the longest arc in the series. For us that had to watch it as it premiered, meant we were dedicated to it for nearly two months! To binge, it would take more than 2 and a half hours (with commercials), which is well into the feature-length territory.
It was the first XTAS story arc that went longer than two episodes and it needed every minute. The XTAS producers and writers crammed so many new characters and concepts into the mythos, the series would never be the same in terms of its scope.
It was soon followed up by the Dark Phoenix Saga. While not as long as the Phoenix Saga, the Dark Phoenix Saga was necessary to wrap up the story and to properly adapt the story. When joined together, the two arcs created the best animated comic book adaptation of anything ever to be produced. That is until someone makes an Age of Apocalypse mini-series.
What do you guys think? Which XTAS arc was your favorite? Let us know below.