X-Men – Night of the Sentinels

I looked at Pryde of the X-Men a few weeks ago, a failed pilot that was intended to launch an X-Men TV series. Just a few years later, an X-Men series would be launched that many consider THE X-Men series, even with a few subsequent versions that are pretty good in their way. I’ve always liked the show, never loved it, though, so I thought it was ripe for a look at again.

The writers really made use of the serial format, and the first season was definitely a go for broke effort, so I’m going to look at it in order here and there to give it a reappraisal.

First thing to draw attention to is THAT intro and THAT theme tune. If you know it, you’re humming it to yourself. Tremendously successful at establishing who’s who on the hero side and showing a few characters on the side of Magneto. But who is that little pink guy in the green suit?!

Night of the Sentinels Parts I and II (by Mark Edward Edens)

We get to enter the world of the X-Men via teenage mutant Jubilee, whose very own foster-father unwittingly betrays her, meaning the Sentinels come calling to pick her up. On the run, bumping into Storm, Rogue and Gambit at the mall brings her into the fold of the X-Men. Little hints of things to come are sprinkled in the first few minutes, such as news reports showing Sabretooth on the rampage. It’s just not in the writing that there’s depth, visually there is as well too with the background designs and colour palette. A room that has panels that range from green to purple to pink doesn’t look silly on screen. It’s a very Kirby-esque design aesthetic.

The X-Men are introduced in ways that quickly establish their character, for instance Beast performing experiments and Morph showing off his power, cackling in his creepy manner. He is of course the first to “die” in the series, to make an impact and establish the severity of action in the show, but it wouldn’t be the last time we see him. Professor Charles Xavier and Jean Grey provide a good explanation of what mutants are and establish the rationale of their team and setup in a far less clunky way than the old Spidey series did.

It’s surprising on reviewing these episodes, perhaps because it’s taken for granted, just how quickly they established the chemistry between the team, not wasting time in bringing them together. They’re cohesive and know each other well. The actors have the characters nailed too, with great voices. The one that obviously stands out is Wolverine, the man with a bad attitude hiding the heart of gold, an anti-hero who still does real heroic things. He’s antisocial, terrible to get on with (especially if you’re Cyclops), but he does have a conscience, and that balance of qualities helped establish him as the breakout character that he became. It’s also surprising how relatively quiet and calm these early episodes are.

Villains are established early on as Henry Gyrich, who runs a programme to capture mutants, and Bolivar Trask, creator of the Sentinels. Trask is less sadistic and obviously evil than Gyrich, who is a manipulator and interrogator who messes with minds and emotions to get what he wants. The female president vetoes his plans, recognising that something sinister must be afoot, forcing Gyrich to go rogue (no pun intended).

There are little animation issues here, like repeated pieces of animation, shots that don’t line up (Morph’s jacket changing lengths between shots), errors like Gambit’s eye colour changing, but overall it’s an excellent introduction to the series, with the big guns of the Sentinels being used, but holding back other villains and allowing things to gestate.

Enter Magneto (by Jim Carlson and Terrence McDonnell)

And here is one of those villains. Beast was captured in the opening episodes, taunted by bigoted, redneck prison guards, but Magneto tries to free him. Beast refuses, preferring to have his day in court. Magneto is presented well in his first appearance, his face in darkness. David Hemblen’s strange accent is perfect for capturing the untraceable otherness of Magneto, someone who is more forceful and doesn’t care about human life, unlike his former friend Charles Xavier. It’s a contrast between violent action and peaceful negotiation and pessimism and optimism.

Also showing up is the lawless and wild Sabretooth, bringing unpredictability and an implied past with Wolverine. Although Wolvy is often the hothead, when the X-Men bring an injured Sabretooth home with them to help heal him he’s right when he talks about knowing the danger he holds. Between their feud and the split between Magneto and Xavier, it’s building towards their tussle.

Deadly Reunions (by Don Glut)

We get the first ever “Previously, on X-Men!” at the start of this episode. Xavier works on trying to heal Sabretooth’s mind, showing some bizarre demonic imagery, including based on Wolverine, who Sabretooth works to antagonise. When I saw the episode title, I imagined the main backbone of this episode would be the two wild men fighting, but it’s actually more about Xavier and Magneto, who continues his terrorist activities to draw out the X-Men, leading to the first meeting in a long time between the old friends. In an interesting twist, Charles know’s Magneto’s past and can mentally torture him with it. Other plot points sprinkled in are signs of Storm’s crippling claustrophobia and Senator Robert Kelly declaring his desire to be president in order to deal with the “mutant threat”.

Captive Hearts (by Robert Skir and Martin Isenberg)

A subtle scene in the first two episodes showed that Wolverine had feelings for Jean Grey, and this episode further establishes it. Scott and Jean are stalked by a mutant and end up captured, introducing us to the underground society of the Morlocks, homeless mutants who are too deformed to live among humans for fear of mistreatment. However, they do not come across as wholly sympathetic, as their leader, Callisto, forcefully states that she intends to make Scott her companion and co-ruler and more – someone to provide a heir, whether by blackmail or other means. Someone assisting her is the old lady Annalee, who looks and sounds kindly, but in actual fact can play with the minds of people too, making Jean think she’s a helpless child in a very creepy scene. We get one of the first big X-Men battles, with the sewers providing a large environment for a sprawling fight with the Morlocks. Annalee almost allows the Morlocks to succeed, by using Logan’s resentment of Scott to almost rip apart the X-Men. Resisting this manipulation but made vulnerable by it, Logan makes a temporary exit.

Cold Vengeance (by Michael Edens)

Wolverine retreats to the frozen tundra of Northern Canada and takes up with Inuit fishermen, seeming happy and ready for a new life away from the trouble and conflict he’s been involved in before. However, Sabretooth tracks and attacks him, even using a young fisherman who is jealous of Wolverine to draw him out. Logan’s distress is palpable when he wails about wanting to be left alone and not caring any more about how the feud between him and Victor Creed started, just wanting to let it be. He resists going back to his old ways, but ultimately has to.

In a subplot, the other X-Men discuss a place called Genosha, an island where mutants are welcome. Storm, Jubilee and Gambit go to investigate. We know it will be a trap, and it is. Strange scene of Storm dressed in holiday clothing, but the other two remain dressed in their usual X-Men battle gear.

Slave Island (by Mark Edward Edens)

Genosha is indeed a slave island, and a lot of mutants are enslaved there, such as Sunfire, Northstar, Avalanche, the Blob and Mystique, who makes a surprisingly low-key debut here. Jubilee tries to lead a breakout while Cyclops and the others go to join them unwittingly.

The engineers of this whole setup are Gyrich and Trask, the latter of whom has created Master Mold, an even bigger Sentinel that builds more Sentinels continuously. They are produced from his chest like a loaf of bread being brought out of the oven. At the end of the episode, when the X-Men have turned the tide and the Sentinel factory is flooded, Master Mold shows a shocking lack of awareness when he forgets to unplug himself and subsequently gets battered and destroyed by the Sentinels he has created.

I had a bit of confusion watching this episodes because Cameron Hodge, who had previously appeared as Beast’s lawyer in an earlier episode, is palling around with Gyrich and Trask. Also, there’s a former colonel who now calls himself Leader running the island who looks like he should be part of the Hellfire Club. Neither of these points are clarified or established. Then we have Cable turn up, with his A-Team-like leitmotif already established, to mess with their plans. The X-Men and other mutants are able to escape, but back at the mansion find it demolished.

Conclusion: There is a variable quality with these episodes between great and OK, but the success of them is in the fact that I only planned on reviewing two or maybe three episodes today and ended up doing just over half the first season. The time just flies by and you’re into it every minute, it’s so easy to access and enjoy. I’ll pick up with that last thread on Thursday.