It’s New To Me – X-MEN: THE ANIMATED SERIES (“Sacrifice” / “The Dark Shroud” / “Cry Of The Banshee”)
In my years of TV watching, there have been tons of well-regarded shows that have eluded my gaze. Thanks to the magic of Netflix and other online streaming sites, I now have an opportunity to watch these shows and share my thoughts on them. It may be a classic to you, but It’s New To Me!
One of the things that has most impressed me about the X-Men Animated Series is in how it has drawn from the vast library of characters and storylines from decades of X-Men comics. The creators of the show could have just gone the easy route and had the team battle the same group of villains week in and week out, but their slavish devotion to the source material is but one reason why this show is still revered by fans to this day, despite its dated animation style and at-times hokey dialogue. After a rather underwhelming two-part premiere, Season Three really gets going starting with the third episode, which begins a multi-part storyline known as “The Phoenix Saga,” based on a key storyline from Chris Claremont’s early run on the original comic that introduced many of my favorite X-Men supporting characters such as the Shi’ar and the Starjammers and set off the a huge evolution of the character of Jean Grey. Just like in the original comics, the first three installments of “The Phoenix Saga” pack in a lot of story and add even more players to this already vast TV universe.
Part one of “The Phoenix Saga,” entitled “Sacrifice,” begins with Charles Xavier being haunted with images of a bizarre-looking spaceship being attacked by numerous fighters and a lone being within the ship crying out to him for help. Spurred by these visions, he sends his X-Men on a mission to infiltrate the launch of a space shuttle and travel to a space station in order to prevent the deaths of everyone there. The team is bothered by their mentor’s cryptic instructions but agree to take the mission, sneaking onto the shuttle and using Jean Grey’s telepathic abilities to disguise themselves as the crew in order to fool the space mission’s leader, Dr. Corbeau. Once they reach the station, the team is immobilized by a trap set by Eric The Red, an alien mercenary hired by a race of people known as the Shi’ar to infiltrate the ship from Xavier’s vision and has the entire crew of the space station under his control. Jean revives the team, and they fight through Eric’s brainwashed lackeys to rescue Dr. Corbeau and prevent him from destroying the rogue craft. They are successful at both, but their brief tussle damages the space station, prompting Eric to retreat and leaving the team to try to rescue the crew and leave safely. They reach the ship but face a perilous reentry to Earth, prompting Jean to pilot the ship while the rest of the team takes refuge in a radiation-proof probe within the ship, despite Scott’s protests. As the ship plummets to Earth, it passes through a fiery radiation field that Jean painfully absorbs as the episode ends with the image of a bird appearing within the flames.
“Sacrifice” works quite well as both a standalone space adventure and as an introductory chapter to a multi-part epic storyline, introducing a new threat with ties to something bigger and widening the overall universe of the X-Men Animated Series to include an intergalactic threat. The huge climactic battle that we’ve come to expect from this show has yet to occur, as the fight between the X-Men and Eric The Red is short and results in the destruction of the space station, but it helps to raise the overall tension of the storyline, promising a much bigger confrontation than usual once the central threat is revealed. Ending the episode on such a major cliffhanger was also a lot of fun, as it reminded me of how comic book issues tend to end at a point in the storyline that immediately hook readers in and make them want to buy the next issue to see how the heroes will get out of such a seemingly impossible predicament. “Sacrifice” is a good old-fashioned superhero tale ripped almost entirely from its comic book roots and is a fantastic start to what is sure to be a thrilling storyline. 4.5 out of 5 Bug-Shaped Ships.
The cliffhanger pays off immediately at the beginning of part two, entitled “The Dark Shroud, where the team lands in New York Harbor and discovers that Jean has survived the radiation exposure, though she has experienced a major wardrobe change, has gained a new set of powers, and calls herself the Phoenix before she passes out. While recovering at the hospital, Jean is ordered by Xavier not to leave until they can get to the bottom of what happened to her. Scott lashes out at Xavier for sending them on such a deadly mission with such spotty information, sparking a brief argument between them that is broken up by Beast. Xavier is once again bombarded with visions of the impending intergalactic threat, and the trauma creates an evil doppelganger of his that splits from his normal persona and goes on to attack the other X-Men by showing them upsetting images that prey on their own personal fears and insecurities. They quickly discover that this Dark Xavier cannot be seen by anyone else except them as he makes his way to the hospital to attack Scott. Jean’s new powers destroys Xavier’s doppleganger, and the team regroups with his true self as Eric The Red spies on them. In order to determine the cause of this bizarre event, Xavier travels to Muir Island, where he once again meets up with his old colleague and love Moira MacTaggart and meets her fiance, Sean Cassidy, better known by X-Men fans as the mutant Banshee. As Xavier checks into his room at the Institute, the alien being that has been contacting him transports directly into his room, introducing herself as the Shi’ar Princess Lilandra and explaining that she has rebelled against her brother, the power-mad Emperor of the Shi’ar Empire named D’Ken who intends to use a powerful crystal known as the M’Kraan to achieve unlimited power, which would threaten both her world and Xavier’s. She explains that she stole the crystal from her brother and is on the run and that she psychically reached out to Xavier because they have an unexplained connection. Their introduction to each other is rudely interrupted when Xavier’s half-brother the Juggernaut barges in and grabs Lilandra as the episode ends on yet another cliffhanger.
After spending most of the previous episode in space, it was a bit of a letdown for the majority of the next part of “The Phoenix Saga” to take place in plain ol’ New York, and it was especially strange to have the main threat of the episode be a ghostly apparition of Xavier, decked in a green cape so you know he’s evil. It’s a fairly silly plot, but it does show just how much of an effect these visions from space are having on the poor Professor’s psyche, and the reveal at the end almost makes this rather arbitrary and somewhat easily defeated threat worth the effort. If anything, it gave the rest of the team something to do as the overall plot of “The Phoenix Saga” only moves forward a little bit, but hopefully the rest of the installments within this storyline provide less filler going forward. “The Dark Shroud” earns 3.5 out of 5 Howard the Duck T-Shirts.
Part three of “The Phoenix Saga,” entitled “Cry Of The Banshee,” is easily the most action-packed of the installments so far, as the X-Men team up with Banshee to rescue Lilandra, who is being held at Banshee’s ancestral home in Ireland by Juggernaut and his partner, an evil mutant named Black Tom Cassidy (who also happens to be Banshee’s brother), whom we discover have been hired to hand the Princess over to Eric The Red. It’s here where we get the big climactic battle that the two previous episodes have sort of been leading up to, at least for our expectations, but it ends anticlimactically when a superhuman Shi’ar warrior called Gladiator appears to berate Eric for not bringing the M’Kraan to D’Ken in a timely fashion. Gladiator easily tosses Juggy into the ocean when challenged by him and then overtakes the X-Men before trying to abduct Lilandra. The Princess reaches out to Xavier with a message that is also picked up by Jean, who is once again overtaken by the Phoenix Force and flies to Cassidy Keep to battle Gladiator as Eric flies away in his spacecraft. Jean flings Gladiator away from Earth, telling him to inform D’Ken that Lilandra is under her protection. Lilandra then recognizes her as The Phoenix, a legendary being charged with protecting the M’Kraan from falling into the wrong hands. An exhausted Phoenix then warns Lilandra that D’Ken is nearby and is set to arrive on Earth soon.
“Cry Of The Banshee” is a much worthier follow-up to “Sacrifice” than “The Dark Shroud” was, mostly because it features a pretty satisfying and visually interesting battle and raises the stakes a bit by bringing the threat that Lilandra is fleeing from to Earth. I also liked how it quickly but efficiently established the rivalry between the Brothers Cassidy, revealing that their powers do not affect one another, and demonstrated just how powerful Jean is as The Phoenix both in her regular mutant powers and in sheer strength as she easily defeats Gladiator shortly after he manhandled the Juggernaut. I guess it also should be said that this was the episode that sparked the brief but influential “I’m The Juggernaut, Bitch” Youtube video that became an early Internet viral sensation and was bizarrely paid tribute to by Brett Ratner in X-Men: The Last Stand. I admit that there were times when I chuckled a bit imagining the terribly profane things that were dubbed into this episode now that I finally saw the original version. While it wasn’t quite as well-rounded as the first installment of “The Phoenix Saga,” “Cry Of The Banshee” was a lot of fun to watch and earns 4 out of 5 Hasty Checkouts.