Thursday, August 18, 2011

X-Men: Volume 1

There’s no real way to say this other than to just say it: Fox Kids completely and utterly ruled. At any one time, Fox Kids was broadcasting Animaniacs, Batman: The Animated Series, The Tick, Spider-Man, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Taz-Mania and X-Men. And that was just in 1994. I watched Fox Kids for at least the last half of the 90s. You were getting two hours an afternoon and four hours on Saturday mornings before the grown-ups wanted to come along and watch Ricki Lake or whatever. It was the best.

While I’m unfortunately no longer a child living in 1994, DVD box sets help me to prolong having to grow up and be more interested in Jersey Shore than Big Bad Beetleborgs. In 2009, Buena Vista started releasing the full X-Men series under the Marvel Comic Book Collection line. Within ten months, Buena Vista had put out five volumes of the two-disc sets. There were five seasons of X-Men, but instead of releasing the show in a season format (as most television shows are), Buena Vista opted to divvy up the show’s 76 episodes in roughly equal chunks for each volume.

I can kind of see the point in this, as even with season three’s 25 (!) episodes, no one is going to pay more than $30 for X-Men DVDs, and the final season only has 10 episodes. At the same time, some of the episodes are aired out of continuity order, and releasing by volume pretty much forces you to buy all five. For example, the first season is contained in its entirety on X-Men: Volume 1, but after the very satisfying season finale, there’s three extra episodes that starts off the next season. It prevents each set from standing on its own.

The main X-Men team here is made up of Professor X, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Beast, Storm, Wolverine, Rogue, Gambit and Jubilee. The characterizations are a little mixed. Professor X seems to show up only when the rest of the team is at an impasse and the plot needs to continue. Cyclops is constantly yelling at everyone, especially Wolverine and Gambit. Beast is removed from the team in the first two episodes to serve a prison sentence (he gets out by the end of disc two), though he’s portrayed as very noble throughout. Morph is another character who starts with the X-Men, but he gets killed in the second episode before any real conclusions about him can be made.

Jubilee acts as the audience surrogate, a young teenager who is new to this whole superhero thing and the world the X-Men live in. Despite having the most useless superpower of the team, she’s surprisingly effective in the role. Jean is absolutely useless, basically serving to illustrate how high the stakes are for our heroes. She’s constantly shown as still learning about her powers, which puts her far behind the curve of everyone save Jubilee. Jean is frequently shown trying to use her telepathy to help the team, only to collapse in screaming pain.

Surprisingly, Wolverine is almost as big a whiner as Jean. Even though he gets an entire episode to himself (“Cold Vengeance”) and even though he’s everyone’s default favourite, he doesn’t actually do anything especially interesting throughout the set. In fact, it isn’t until the opening episodes of the second season (and the final episodes of X-Men: Volume 1), after Morph is brought back, that storylines with Wolverine finally start to heat up. Plus, by then, the writers had long given up on a failed attempt to get over “I go… where I WANNA go” as a catchphrase for him.

Storm and Rogue compete for the most character development. Storm gets an episode dedicated to overcoming her claustrophobia (“Captive Hearts,” though her claustrophobia comes back up in “Slave Island”) and another episode dealing with her past and the best villain on the set, Shadow King (“Whatever It Takes,” the last episode on the set). Rogue gets two episodes dealing with giving up her powers to be normal, only to change her mind when she realizes how much good she can do with them (“The Cure” and “Come The Apocalypse”). Rogue emerges from X-Men: Volume 1 as the best character, the one X-Man with both the best and most tragic mutant powers. She’s also aided by a teased relationship with Gambit, who oozes charisma and is by far the coolest character.

Magneto, the X-Men’s default archrival, isn’t utilized too much. He shows up in three episodes and we get both his backstory and mission statement, but in the finale of season one (“The Final Decision,” which is an interesting title for an episode where the Sentinels try to wipe out all of humanity…) he’s shoved aside fairly quickly so we can get to Master Mold, the “final boss” of the season. Apocalypse shows up for the two Rogue-centric episodes and is sufficiently evil. The viewer is left wanting more from both Magneto and Apocalypse in season two. Mr. Sinister shows up at the end of the set as well and Cyclops actually gets to yell at him instead of his teammates. Sinister seems like evil incarnate until Shadow King’s appearance in the very next episode. Sabretooth is definitely the most disappointing villain of the X-Men: Volume 1, but part of that is probably related to his being tied to Wolverine.

Part of me wishes this two-disc set wrapped up with “The Final Decision,” which really is a satisfying finale. But the other side of including three episodes of season two to make the viewer want to watch the next volume is, well, I really want to watch the next volume now. And you know what? I think the 1994 version of me would be quite pleased with that.

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