The X-Men Episode Guide 3×13: ‘Dark Phoenix Part II: The Inner Circle’
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, we finally tackle one of the cornerstones of the X-Men as we continue with the Dark Phoenix Saga!
Previously, on X-Men:
Last week, we were dropped unceremoniously into the start of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Jean Grey, last seen heading off to the heart of the sun with a less-tearful-than-you-might-expect goodbye so that she could watch over the M'Kraan Crystal forever. For ever ever? For ever ever? Well, no. Turned out to be about three weeks before she came back with no explanation and was immediately put under the sway of Mastermind and the Hellfire Club -- uh, excuse me, the inner circle. The X-Men have been soundly smacked around, and it looks like Jean is under there control, but for how long?
(Spoiler warning: 20 minutes or so.)
In our discussion of characters that were redesigned for animation, a lot of people brought up interesting new costumes that were made from the small screen, but it was reader Steve Rubino who reminded me of something I had completely forgotten about: Avengers: United They Stand, a short-lived cartoon featuring character designs by people who apparently thought Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee had some good ideas, but really should've put a few more pouches and straps on their characters. Seriously, Google it, I'll wait.
Now imagine Clint Barton dressing like that in Fraction and Aja's Hawkeye.
I'm pretty sure United They Stand was canceled ten minutes into the second episode and replaced with a re-run of Power Rangers, but that might not be technically accurate. Either way, it's a nice reminder that as bad as X-Men gets, it could always be worse. And boy howdy, do I need that reminder this week.
This week, the Dark Phoenix Saga is finally getting going courtesy of writer Steven Levi and Producer/Director Larry Houston, and it's a pretty strict adaptation of X-Men #132 and 133, with a scene from 131 thrown in for good measure. Because of that, it's almost not worth it to even recap what happens in this episode -- if you've read five X-Men comics in your life, you have read this story, just as it appears here. So, you know, just imagine that, but with really, really terrible animation.
For the sake of completion, though, here we go. We actually open on Professor X, who has been out of the loop for a while and is now reaching out with his psychic powers to see what's going on with the kids. Today, this takes the form of a first-person shot that's slightly worse looking than DOOM on the Super Nintendo as his mind travels through the walls of the Inner Circle club, until he's shut out by Emma Frost's psychic defenses and pulls one of the most amazing faces we've seen in this show:
I don't know how it's possible for an animated character to overact, but here we are, and it's pretty great.
We then cut back to the Hellfire club, where Sebastian Shaw, Donald Pierce, Mastermind, Harry Leland and the White Queen are gloating about their victory, with the X-Men all chained up in their lavishly appointed drawing room. Again, it's just like we see them in the comic, except that Colossus and Nightcrawler has been replaced by Gambit and Rogue. This, for the record, is not exactly "trading up," but Colossus didn't really go full scumbag until Secret Wars, so I'll forgive it this time.
With a whole lot of fanfare, we're introduced to Jean Grey as the new Black Queen of the Inner Circle, and unlike Emma Frost, who got to keep her straight up lingerie costume, Jean has been modified. Some readers pointed out last week that Emma'ss drawn to look like she's wearing a swimsuit under her corset, but she's still pretty on-model -- she's still got the stockings, after al. Jean, meanwhile, has accessorized her Diana Rigg costume with a pair of blue sweatpants:
It's a great look. Perfect for the dominatrix supervillain who's just heading to the store to get a loaf of bread.
Okay, so remember last week when I noted that there's a creator credit in this episode, but only for writer Chris Claremont, and not for co-writer and artist John Byrne? Here's why that's so frustrating: After the big reveal of Jean, we cut down to the sewer to catch up with Wolverine, presumed dead by the Hellfire club. In the comics, this is my pick for the single most important moment in X-Men history, and I'd even make a case that it's one of the most important moments in comics history, particularly for how it ushered in the modern era. The impact is a little lessened in the show since we've seen Wolverine as a grumpy badass for the entirety of the series (the first thing that dude does is stab a robot four times his size until it explodes), but they obviously know they're dealing with one of the great classic moments. It makes sense, then, that when it comes time to show that moment, they stage it exactly as it's presented in X-Men #132:
You know, in the panel drawn by John Byrne, the guy who didn't get a credit? And just to make matters more hilarious, there's actually no dialogue in this shot -- they left Claremont out of it and just took the Byrne bit. It's just so weird.
They do, however, lift Claremont's dialogue from #133, however (along with Byrne's staging), when Wolverine fights the Inner Circle's witless minions in the next scene:
They even keep that weirdly specific reference to "vanadium steel." The only real change is to rephrase it slightly so that they're riffing on the "do I feel lucky" bit from Dirty Harry.
The next bit, though, is completely original to the show, and just to balance out all the negativity of the past few minutes, I'll go ahead and confirm that it's amazing. While the Inner Circle starts bickering over an internal power struggle (and while the X-Men are doing what the X-Men do, which is standing around waiting for something to happen), Wolverine is making his way back up to the top floor for his rematch. As the camera pans through a kitchen full of similarly sweatpantsed French maids, a member of the Circle Club who is holding a giant meat clever for some unknown (but no doubt extremely decadent) reason, is on a phone complaining about how his bottle of "Chateau Calamari" is late in arriving.
Now, "Chateau Calamari" was undoubtedly dropped into the first draft of this script with four nanoseconds of thought on what to call a fictional wine (CALAMARI ISN'T EVEN A FRENCH WORD), but I will forgive that, because this dude hangs up the phone, opens up the dumbwaiter, and GETS HIS STERNUM BUSTED TO HELL by Wolverine coming out holding a bottle by the neck:
Wolverine then walks over to the dude, looks at the bottle, says "Lousy year" and then drops it right on his junk. Then he casually grabs a turkey leg on his way up to go murder people. It is... the best thing.
While Wolverine is cold beating ass through the last level of Final Fight, Cyclops finally decides try making himself useful for once, and tries connecting to Jean through that psychic bond everyone keeps yammering about. I'll give you three guesses how effective he is. The White Queen notices what's going down, and lends her power to Mastermind so they can put the kibosh on that, and Cyclops finds himself wandering through a foggy emptiness surrounding an antebellum plantation, because that's what his girlfriend's brain is like now.
When he heads to the house, the door opens and the second best thing in this episode happens when Jason Wyngarde strolls out holding a cavalry saber and asks Cyclops what the five fingers said to the face:
Mastermind has officially challenged Cyclops to a duel to the death (sadly, it does not deliver on that promise), and they start battling it out in Jean's brain with cavalry sabers while dressed up like Ichabod Crane. Surprisingly, Cyclops gets the upper hand for the moment and Jean herself appears, telling him that she's been "set free from the constraints of morality" (hello) and that "the Phoenix force inside me aches for sensation" (hello). Cyclops tells her that she's just not herself, and when she laughs at him, it occurs to me that this is seriously Jean's only actual character development ever on this show.
Like, its literally the easiest thing in the entire world to see the Dark Phoenix Saga as a metaphor for the patriarchy trying to suppress female sexuality, since Jean's "evil" side is manifested as wearing sexy clothes and smooching a guy who isn't her pathologically repressed and sexually frustrated fiancee (with whom she spent her honeymoon strapped down to a table with khaki shorts firmly in place). You could wallpaper Versailles five times over with the number of senior theses that have been written about that very subject over the past 30 years, but in the show, it's especially noticeable because it's literally the only thing Jean has ever done that didn't involve shouting "Scott!" and then falling down because her power -- which is quite literally thinking for herself -- is just too darn hard.
Or maybe I can only really relate to her when she's openly mocking Cyclops. That could go either way, really.
Jean and Mastermind blast Cyclops with a heavy duty psychic hoodoo with the idea of killing his mind and letting the body sort itself out, but he just ends up laying on the floor moaning, or as Cyclops calls it, "Tuesday night." Turns out that he can't be psychically murdered, because he's still linked up to Jean and the Phoenix.
Now, they say this as though they're just going to have to shrug and not kill him, but I would remind you that there are SEVERAL OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM WITH CUTLERY AND BLUNT OBJECTS, at least one of whom is AN ACTUAL CYBORG. If they want Cyclops dead, there are ways. Sometimes I count them just to make myself crazy.
So that's when Wolverine busts in grappling with a couple of dandies.
You know, the first time I watched this episode, I was really down on it because I know the story beats by heart and the animation has gotten really awful in the past couple of episodes, but going through it again, everything involving Wolverine here is gold -- especially the part where he effortlessly kicks ass through a private army and is then immediately smashed against a wall and put through a table by Jean. ECW! ECW! ECW!
With that settled and the revelation that Wolverine wasn't actually killed in the earlier fight, the bickering about the power structure finally hits critical mass, and they decide that they need to hold a vote to decide the new Black King of the Inner Circle right then and there, and that's so frigging badass. Like, straight up pausing to participate in democracy while your enemies are standing there in chains, with one of them half dead on the floor and the other just having been knocked through furniture by a cosmic being bent on destruction? That is a baller move.
The motion passes, but while Jean is burning Wolverine to death with cosmic fire, she suddenly has a flashback of all the scenes they've shared over the years, and suddenly breaks free of the influence of Mastermind. One more time, just so we know where we stand: attacking Wolverine triggers emotions that make her personality reassert herself. Attacking Cyclops, to whom she was married and is still engaged, nothing. Haha, f**k you Cyclops.
And your dumb jacket.
The Phoenix breaks the X-Men free from Mastermind's control, and they start handily trouncing the Hellfire Club during their rematch, as they tend to do. It's a pretty bland fight, but it's worth noting that after Cyclops blasts Donald Pierce through the floor, Gambit turns to Emma Frost and says "tanks, mon ami! Leave the others to Gambit -- I hang onto this one!"
And then she blasts him right in the penis.
Nobody has tried to have sex with a computer yet, but this might actually end up being my favorite episode.
After a mildly entertainng sequence where the Beast is used as a weapon and Rogue tears a dude's arm off (relax, it's the cyborg), the fight spills onto the roof. Mastermind attempts to regain control of Jean, but it's too late by this point. The Phoenix is in complete control, and in retalliation for being manipulated, it drives Mastermind insane by revealing its true nature to him. That's actually really awesome, an amazing bit of truly Lovecraftian horror at the nature of cosmic destruction that pops up in this goofy and frequently terrible X-Men cartoon.
Scott shows up and tries to talk Jean down again (shockingly, he does not request that she cover her legs since there are unmarried men present), but the Phoenix tells him that Jean doesn't live here anymore, and OHHHH SNAP, WE HAVE A COSTUME CHANGE!
S**t just got real.
Discussion Question: I honestly wonder how hard college professors roll their eyes here in the year 2014 when they pick up a term paper and read "Dark Phoenix And Patriarchy: The Sexual Liberation of Jean Grey." Let's give them some better material to work with, shall we? What's a better title for a scholarly thesis about the X-Men? Here, I'll get you started: "Check Please: How The Devaluing Of Wolverine's Adamantium Skeleton Reflects A Changing Economic Model."
Next Week: Going to go out on a limb here and say Jean Grey probably won't kill a billion people as the Dark Phoenix Saga hits Part 3!