The X-Men Episode Guide 3×05: ‘The Phoenix Saga, Part 2: Cry Of The Banshee’
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 Phoenix Saga continues with Juggernaut, Banshee and Black Tom Cassidy added in, because apparently there wasn't enough going on already.
Previously, on X-Men:
In our last episode, the X-Men returned from their space adventure only to find that Jean had developed new powers and a spiffy new costume to go along with it -- a costume that I referred to as being a John Byrne design, even though it was actually Dave Cockrum, which should be obvious since it appeared pretty early into the "All New X-Men" run. Sorry about the mistake, I do that every time, and you'd think I'd know better by this point. Perhaps overwhelmed by her new threads, Jean was hospitalized for vague reasons, while space rays made Professor X's evil side erupt from his body to try to kill the X-Men. Evil X was eventually defeated, and Professor X decided he should head over to Muir Island to get to the bottom of things, by which I mean making a cosmic booty call that was answered by Lilandra, a sexy bird-lady from space.
In our discussion of Gambit's manscaping, most readers agreed that he's definitely drawing in chest hair with a Sharpie, but only one of you -- Matt Shea -- went as far as backing up your theory with a screenshot from a previous episode that showed Gambit shirtless. On Twitter, another reader provided evidence in the form of the Marvel Swimsuit Special, which depicted a similarly shorn Remy LeBeau.
I'm glad we got to the bottom of this mystery.
Before we get into the actual episode, I want to point out that yes, this is "The Phoenix Saga - Part 2," even though it's the third part of the series and last week brought us "Part II" of the story. That's not a typo, at least not on my part -- the people who made this show actually forgot which part of the story they were on while they were making the episode. Either that, or they just blanked on which number it is that comes between "II" and "IV." Both seem equally likely.
As the erroneous title fades, we're here at Muir Island, watching Moira MacTaggert and her new boyfriend Sean Cassidy making out on a romantic cliffside as Professor X's room explodes in the background.
Explosions and shrieking tend to ruin the mood for all but the most ardent smooches, and this is no exception. Moira wants to check it out and Sean insists on coming with her, but she tells him to stay put because she thinks Xavier's envy over their Frenching has driven him to unleash his dark side. This seems like a pretty poor evaluation of Xavier's character, but let's be real here. The dude did just attempt to murder his only friends and surrogate children, and these are pretty rough circumstances. If you're Charles Xavier and you go over to your ex-wife's house, only to find her cuddling up to a guy with a head of flowing, thick hair, standing there on his functional legs, you're probably going to be at least a little jealous.
Still, she needn't have worried. Not about that, I mean. Stuff's still blowing up all over the place and Cedric Smith is still shouting Xavier's signature "NNNYYYARRRRGGG" of pain, so there's clearly a problem. The thing is, it's even weirder than an astral projection bent on revenge: It's Chuck being menaced by his magically indestructible half brother while a bird lady in a sexy spider dominatrix outfit tries to defend him.
Seriously, can we talk about Lilandra for a second? First, her voice is recorded in such a way that she sounds like she's delivering her lines from within a coffee can. There's all kinds of weird echo and reverb for her, and it's never addressed or explained since Eric the Red and Gladiator just sound normal. Second, what is going on with that outfit. That thing makes no sense. It's a straight up Sexy Spider Halloween costume. Like, there's no getting around it, that is 100% what it is. If you saw that in a live action show, you would break your thumbs tweeting about it, and this is a cartoon. She could be wearing literally anything -- it costs the same amount of money to have someone draw something that makes sense; they're not saving any money by dressing her up in something that they got on clearance at Party Warehouse. It's just weird, and when she gets tied up later in the episode, it goes straight to alarmingly fetishistic. And that's without the part where Juggernaut asks if she wants to spank him.
No wonder they weren't paying attention to the episode numbers. They clearly had other priorities.
There's a bit of a fight scene that includes the pretty much mandatory "GET OUT OF MY HEAD!", but it all goes wrong for Chuck and Lilandra when someone else joins the fight and starts blasting hot pink leopard print rays.
Has Erica Henderson become a supervillain?! Nope. It's just the Juggernaut's usual partner in crime, Black Tom Cassidy.
I remember reading about Black Tom when I was a kid. Not in a comic, but in a magazine like Flux or Wizard that was running down the worst mutants. Those articles can be pretty reductive and miss the point a lot of the time -- and look, I say this as someone who laughs at his own "Aquaman sucks" jokes on a pretty regular basis, but Wizard once labeled Jack Kirby's New Gods as a "worst" -- but it was really hard to argue the point when it came to Black Tom. As they said, his mutant power is that he's friends with the Juggernaut and he once had a disease that was slowly turning him into a tree. Any way you slice it, that's not exactly Dr. Doom.
Here, though, he's at least able to KO both Xavier and Lilandra, who seems to have a battle strategy built around poses usually seen on USA Up All Night:
It's not very effective.
BT reveals that they're here to kidnap Lilandra, and Jugs throws Charles out the window for good measure. He starts plunging to his death, but fortunately, it turns out that Moira's new boyfriend is also the Banshee, who leaps off the cliff screaming like Roger Daltrey in "Won't Get Fooled Again." It's actually pretty cool at first, but it wears out its welcome once you realize that you're not about to see David Caruso drop a pun about a murder victim. Either way, once he's rescued, Charles has a pretty difficult time convincing Moira and Banshee that Lilandra actually exists. Again, this seems pretty weird when you consider that they're willing to accept "magically indestructible half-brother" without so much as batting an eye.
Back on this side of the Atlantic, Cyclops and his turtleneck are keeping a watchful eye on Jean as she sleeps in the hospital, which means he has a front row seat for the moment that she explodes into flames in the shape of a bird and then announces that she and the Phoenix are one. He gets a little freaked out, but before you start feeling any sympathy for that dork, keep in mind that he phrases it as "What's going to happen... to us?" It's not always about you, Scott.
The rest of the X-Men are chilling right outside the door, which is pretty convenient, since the Professor calls up from Muir Island and asks them to come out and help him find his missing and possibly imaginary new girlfriend. "She's from, uh, space," he undoubtedly said over the phone. "So she goes to a different school. You don't know her."
Also worth noting, Gambit's eyebrows have officially gotten Out Of Control.
Real talk: Michael Keaton was not a great Batman, but he would've been a phenomenal mid-90s Gambit. Think about it. You know I'm right.
Cyclops mopes about how he doesn't want to go out on a mission and wants to stay there brooding over Jean, and Wolverine quite rightly flips right the heck out on him, reminding him that "you ain't the only one worried about Jean! Aliens in spaceships runnin' round messin' with Xavier, the whole blasted world's turning upside-down!" I'm not quite sure it's all that much weirder than what they deal with in their day-to-days, but it's enough to snap Cyclops back into action. Or, you know, what passes for action when we're talking to Cyclops.
Back in Ireland, Black Tom and Juggernaut are hanging out at the Cassidys' ancestral home, waiting to be paid off for their kidnapping. Soon enough, a spaceship lands and out walks Eric the Red, who I would like to remind you dresses like this:
When did this show become a full-on BDSM porno with all the actual sex cut out? Was it sudden, or did it just happen so gradually that we didn't notice until people were being tied up and carried around by muscle bros in red leather half-shirts?
After a bit of haggling and some strong-arming from the Juggernaut, Eric agrees to pay them for their time, just as the X-Men arrive at Muir Island. Moira insists that this is all just in Professor X's head -- and Banshee backs her up, referring to her as "Dr. MacTaggert," which is pretty weird for someone he's making out with -- and Wolverine basically threatens to stab them if they don't shut up.
If only he would do that every time anyone said anything, this would probably be the best show ever.
At Cassidy Keep, Eric makes the $10,000,000 payoff in exchange for Lilandra, who is of course tied to a chair at this point. She still has her psychic connection with Charles, though, and since he is not currently a waterlogged corpse being dashed on the cliffs of Muir Island, she's able to reach out to his mind and send him a mental snapchat of the Cassidy family crest. Between that and Wolverine confirming that he smells something that "ain't even human" in Charles's room, that's all the evidence that Moira needs to accept that her ex-husband's alien bondage fantasy is actually a real live girl.
Soon enough, the X-Men are on their way. Now, keep in mind that a) Muir Island is off the coast of Scotland and Cassidy Keep is somewhere in Ireland, a minimum of about ten miles across the ocean, and b) they have an airplane. So how do they cover the distance? Well, if you guessed that they'd opt to leave the Blackbird parked outside Moira's house while Rogue and Banshee carried the rest of the team in the most undignified way possible, give yourself a gold star.
I believe the idea here is that they're trying to sneak in and an SR-71 Blackbird is a little showy for a stealth operation, but if that is the case, riding in with a guy whose mutant power is super-loud screaming, which he immediately uses to take down the "space station zombies" Eric's been using as henchmen for three (or possibly two) weeks now.
What follows is actually one of the show's best fight scenes, even taking into account that it's set in a big, featureless castle with Super Mario-esque red brick walls and no furniture. On one side, it's Wolverine, Gambit, Jubilee and Rogue, and on the other, it's Eric the Red, Black Tom and the Juggernaut, and they break out into this battle that's staged really well, with lots of back and forth action, switching between opponents and clever uses of super-powers. Maybe the single best part of it is when Rogue slams the Juggernaut through a series of walls, providing the background for smaller skirmishes that fade in and out of focus as the fight rages:
It's actually really cool, and creates a sense of depth that would be a lot harder to pull off on the comics page, making it one of the few examples of the show really innovating with what it's doing. It's ambitious and it works beautifully, definitely an improvement over the fight scenes we've been getting for the past couple of seasons, even though it's a fairly short set piece.
Eventually, once Lilandra frees herself from bondage by arching her back, the fight spills out onto the rooftops. The baddies are making a break for it, but before they have the chance, we get another pretty cool technique: a first-person POV shot of a pair of outstretched fists flying through the atmosphere and closing in on Muir Island.
Again, it's a nice technique to build suspense, even though it only shows up about 30 seconds before the reveal. And that reveal? It's Gladiator of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, who shows up in classic Villain Upgrade style to lay a verbal smackdown on Eric the Red, throw the Juggernaut to another country with a flick of his wrist, and knock Rogue, the X-Men's heaviest hitter, out just by looking at her with his heat vision. It's a really awesome introduction, and while it's a cliché technique, it's effective as heck too.
Professor X is, of course, telepathically creeping on all these proceedings, but Jean is also telepathically creeping on him, so when he starts flipping out about this mohawked superman attempting to drag his new ladybird off to space, she goes full-on Phoenix right there in the hospital and sets off to cause a ruckus.
Phoenix shows up at Muir Island, and the astonishing levels of power we've just seen proves to be completely ineffective at dealing with her. She crushes Gladiator with one hit, and flings him out to space, letting him live as a mercy. But that in turn takes a lot out of her, leaving Jean weakened as Emperor D'Ken himself shows up in his spaceship.
Holy crap, did this show just get really good?!
Discussion Question: This episode had one of the show's best action sequences, so let's talk about our favorite fight scenes and set pieces in animation! I'll get things started by saying that I love the big planetarium fight in Batman: The Animated Series's woefully underrated "Prophecy of Doom," and that the pirate ship battle from the Adventures of Tintin movie might be top five action sequences I've ever seen in a film, animated or not. What are your favorites?
Next Week: The Phoenix Saga continues, as we skip over any hypothetical third chapter there might've been and go straight to Part IV!