The X-Men Episode Guide 3×04: ‘The Phoenix Saga, Part Two: The Dark Shroud’
The early ’90s were spoiled for choice when it came to comic book adaptations. Not only was Batman: The Animated Series on the air, but X-Men led Marvel’s push to get on the small screen, diving right into the often convoluted continuity of everyone’s favorite mutants, luring in a generation of fans, and paving the way for cartoons to follow. That’s why we’ve set out to review every single episode of the ’90s X-Men animated series. This week: The animated adaptation of the X-Men’s most soul-sizzling saga continues with “The Phoenix Saga, Part Two: The Dark Shroud!”
Previously, on X-Men:
Last week, we kicked off the Phoenix Saga in what has got to be the most improbable setup in X-Men history, and that’s saying something. After a bad dream, Professor X sent his students to hijack a space shuttle and go check out a space station, which had been taken over by a Shi’ar leather daddy named Eric the Red. He was trying to blow up a spaceship that was coming through a convenient wormhole, but alas, his plan was foiled by the X-Men, who are now plunging to their deaths in a space shuttle because none of them are actually astronauts. Whoops.
In our discussion of the ideal alien race to make an appearance in an X-Men story, several of you correctly guessed that I’d be partial to seeing them hang out with ROM: Spaceknight and battle against the Dire Wraiths. Thing is, that actually happened back in ROM #18. See, the rules of the Marvel Universe dictate that any time two races of sentient creatures produce an offspring, the kid is technically a mutant. Usually, this is just the rationale for Namor’s status as a mutant, but in this story, the subject was Hybrid, the half-human, half-Dire-Wraith who was probably the grossest character design for ten years in either direction. Go ahead, look it up.
A few of you also were, unsurprisingly, really keen on seeing the X-Men take on some of the baddies from Doctor Who, an obscure British television show for children. Thing is, that’s actually a little more possible than you might expect. The Marvel Universe has an equivalent of Doctor Who‘s Daleks called the Dredlox, a bunch of pseudorobotic killers that swarmed through an obscure issue of Power Man & Iron Fist shouting “INCINERATE!” and generally causing a nuisance until they were karated to death.
Comics in the ’80s were amazing, you guys. Amazing.
We pick up this week right where we left off, with the X-Men plummeting to their deaths, and look: I’m not saying I want 90% of this show’s cast to die on impact, but it would be nice to knock off early and go read a book sometime. Sadly, it looks like there’s a small chance for survival.
As Jean struggles with the controls — having lifted a working knowledge of how to fly a spaceship from the brain of the only actual astronaut they bothered to bring along due to their mind-bendingly awful plan — she’s suddenly enveloped by flames that appear from nowhere:
Spoiler warning, but being shrouded in cosmic fire is rarely a good thing.
After entering her body through the small of her back and/or the top of her head (the camera angle changes), this fiery force gives her the ability to get up and pull the “Relatively Safe Landing” lever. The Shuttle swoops down into Manhattan, taking a chunk out of the Empire State Building — Wilson Fisk’s gonna be upset about that — and blowing out a few windows before they skip across the East River, tearing up the shuttle in the process.
The capsule that the X-Men holed up in for survival survives relatively intact, but only for the moment. It starts to sink, and worse, it springs a leak that the Beast, scientific genius of the X-Men, tries to plug up with his hand.
To be fair, at least he’s doing something. Gambit seems content to just regard the water pouring in with mild interest, and Wolverine looks like he’s trying to remember if he left the oven on. Even better/worse is, of course, Cyclops, who frantically tries to open the door and cries out “the hatch is jammed!“, presumably forgetting that HE SHOOTS FORCE BEAMS OUT OF HIS EYES. He forgot his own super-powers, everyone. This is a thing that happened.
Fortunately for the X-Men, Wolverine does not forget that he has razor-sharp claws and carves them an exit, but not before offering his teammates what I assume is a mandatory reminder to hold their breath. Cyclops probably forgets that he can’t breathe underwater or eat fire, what, four or five times a week? That’s my bet, and folks, it is a conservative estimate.
The team flops around in the water for a few minutes, but Jean never pops up, even though the cockpit of the shuttle (severed from the rest of the craft) landed in the same place, pretty much intact. Things start to get panicky, but then she emerges from the water with a full-on, X-Men #101 inspired costume change:
Aesthetically speaking, this is a pretty massive upgrade, going from one of the worst costumes in the history of superhero comics to an easy contender for the best. Seriously, I love Byrne’s Phoenix design, but the record will show that I’m a sucker for a superhero rocking a sash, like Iron Fist and both Captains Marvel. Bursting out of sudden death, on fire, screaming “I AM THE PHOENIX!” before collapsing back underwater and going into a coma, however, is a little less of an upgrade. It is, however, exactly what we have come to expect from Animated Jean.
From there, we cut to a hospital, where Jean — wearing what appears to be a blue suit jacket with brown lapels while she lays in a hospital bed — is recovering from the exertion. She has no memory of what happened and no knowledge of what this “Phoenix” may be, but is most shocked to learn that she actually flew. That actually makes sense. Up to this point, Jean has had the least-defined powers on the actual show, bouncing back and forth between minor telekinetic parlor tricks and impressive telepathic stunts. Suddenly getting the ability to lift herself through the air is arguably even more of a leap in power than it was in the original Phoenix Saga comics.
That’s not the most important thing that happens in this scene, though, which is that Beast is a) fully clothed, right down to a pair of red Chuck Taylors, and b) straight up rocking a Howard the Duck t-shirt:
This oveshadows the thing I think we’re supposed to be paying attention to, which is that Professor X and Cyclops are yelling at each other over whose fault it was that their last mission ended in a disaster that almost killed anyone and gave Jean a rad new costume (hint: it’s all of your faults, you are all terrible), but man, that shirt is mind-boggling. This is the first time we’ve seen Beast wearing anything other than his trunks with, like, a hat and coat, and it’s a Howard the Duck t-shirt. That’s so weirdly specific.
After the argument, and Beast’s suggestion that Wolverine go blow off some steam at a strip club instead of punching trash cans in an alley for no discernible reason (the thing about hitting up Flashdancers is implied), and everyone goes their separate ways. Professor X heads up to the roof of the hospital, where he’s parked his flying F-1 racecar, but when he hovers into it and tries to fly back to the mansion, he’s suddenly hit with a hot pink beam directly to his skull that causes him to crash back down to the roof and then split off into an unconscious physical body and an astral projection in a cape:
Ra’s al-Ghul wore it better, slick.
Incidentally, if you’re hoping that the reasoning behind this is going to be explained at any point in the rest of this episode, I have some bad news. The closest we get later is Prof explaining that it just unleashed the dark side of his personality that totally wants to murder his only friends, and that’s that. There’s not even a token attempt at addressing why a communications beam would do this, and nobody really seems all that bothered by Professor X having a pronounced dark side that, again, wants to murder the X-Men that he is apparently barely keeping in check. You’d think someone would bring that up.
Either way, Ra’s al-Xavier commences to making a ruckus, astrally projecting himself all over town and doing some attempted murders on the X-Men, who are the only ones who can see him. First, he stalks Wolverine, who is in down in the subway unimpressed by an advertising campaign for the concept of Fun:
X lures W into another car by making him think he’s fighting Yuriko, Sabretooth and, making what I believe is his third appearance on the show, Deadpool. That only lasts a few seconds, though, as Wolverine crashes out of the car and onto the tracks, where he hallucinates Jubilee, tied up on the rails like a victim of Snidely Whiplash, while a spectral Xavier drops goop on his feet to hold him in place in the path of an oncoming train.
Wolverine escapes that pretty handily (real claws can cut through hallucinatory bukkake, it seems) but by the time he does, Evil Xavier is off to menace Gambit and Jubilee, the former of which is attempting to run a seduction game on one of Charlie’s Angels while they wait in line for a movie:
Jubilee, the worst wingman in the game, butts in before he can kiss-close and reminds Gambit that he promised he’d take her to the movie. Gambit’s response? Classic scumbag: “This show not gonna last all night, petite… but I still be goin’.” Cartoon Gambit, you are my everything.
Xavier interrupts and starts blasting them, explaining his actions with “I created the X-Men, and what I created, I can destroy!” and this is apparently enough of a threat that they need to call in Storm, who is sitting on top of the Brooklyn Bridge meditating because, you know, Africa and stuff.
After Gambit knocks over a hot dog cart, the NYPD finally shows up with intentions to arrest the X-Men for causing all this trouble. it’s at this point that they start to realize they’re the only ones who can see Astral Xavier, and instead of trying to explain this to the police, Storm shows up with the forces of naytcha at her command and whips up some unconvincing fog so they can beat feat. This appears to be her new thing for the season, and it is the worst. You’d think a cartoon could do convincingly opaque fog, as it is literally just dropping a gray blob onto the cels. And yet, here we are.
“I can’t see a thing!” says Al Powell’s hotheaded rookie partner, turning directly away from the direction he knows his clearly visible suspects to be.
Next up, Evil X drops by the hospital to make some trouble for Scott and Jean. Jean’s newly heightened psychic powers allow her to see immediately that it’s just an astral projection that’s not really there, and she warns Cyclops that he only thinks he’s the target of a force beam that’s threatening to push him out a window, saving his life and then zapping the prof with a bit of Phoenix Force to get rid of him. I’m of mixed opinions about this development, to be honest. On the one hand, it’s nice to see Jean contributing to the team and not immediately swooning. On the other, being tricked into jumping out a window of his own volition would basically be the perfect death for Cartoon Cyclops.
With Jean pinpointing the Professor’s location, the team reunites to figure out just what the hell is going on:
Answers are not forthcoming.
There is, however, some creep watching them and beaming live footage up to Eric the Red, circling the earth while watching X-Men on his big-screen TV. He goes unnoticed by the X-Men, two of whom can read the minds of anyone in the vicinity and one of whom specializes in using his enhanced senses to track and detect enemies. Maybe Cyclops’s I-Forgot-My-Own-F**king-Powers disease is spreading to the rest of the team!
In order to figure out just what’s going on, Professor X hops into yet another flying racecar and heads over to Muir Island, where his ex-wife opens up the conversation by introducing her new boyfriend, Sean Cassidy. Xavier is visibly cheesed off by this — and Cedric Smith does a great job with his tooth-gritting pleasantries after the introduction — which is only made more hilarious by the next scene, when Banshee asks Moira if Charles still loves her and she goes “ah dinnae think sah,” all while X watches creepily from a nearby window.
X, stricken by loneliness, decides to reach out to whatever force it is that’s been psychically probing him for the past few years, which means that he is attempting to make contact with extraterrestrial life for the sole purpose of a cosmic booty call. And it works.
Yes, the alien force that’s been probing X all month is revealed to be Lilandra, which we already knew last week but is treated as a big reveal here because, Jesus, I don’t even know anymore. The entire structure of this show is like an Escher painting of plot threads flowing uphill.
After she unmasks, Lilandra talks a lot about the M’Kraan Crystal, and almost all of it is impossible to care about. Short version is basically “Hey, you’ve seen Star Wars, right? This bird lady is Princess Leia.” Also, there’s some stuff about how she and Xavier are star-crossed soulmates, but just as she starts lovingly stroking his head (really), the door busts in and, well, if you were watching YouTube videos circa 2005, I’m sure you know the line.
Discussion Question: Let’s do a simple one this week. Scroll up a bit and look at the picture of Gambit in line at the movies, top few buttons undone: Do you think Gambit actually has chest hair, or that he just sharpied it in for peacocking purposes? Show your work.
Next Week: The Phoenix Saga trundles along and I try to resist the temptation of just writing the whole article in viral video quotes.