The X-Men Episode Guide 4×04: ‘Proteus, Part I’
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 creepiest, most horrifying animation the show ever did -- and they actually did it on purpose!
Previously, on X-Men:
In our last episode, Morph made his return to the series, having undergone treatment at Moira MacTaggert's Muir Island facility to recover from... well, death, primarily, but also the far more nebulous "being evil." These, I should point out, are two things that are pretty notoriously difficult to cure, but they pulled it off. Unfortunately, Morph proved to still have a lingering fear of giant genocidal murder robots, which seems less like a crucial flaw in someone's personality and more like a pretty natural survival instinct.
In our discussion of great lines that changed our opinions of characters, a lot of people brought up some really cool moments from comics history, but reader Matthew Rice brought one that I wrote about pretty recently, Dr. Doom's line to Dr. Strange in Triumph and Torment: "I will bear any ordeal, Strange...but Doom does not BEG." It's a pretty great key to his character. Of course, I also liked what Greg Packnett had to say:
"I used to think heroes and villains were completely different, but then a supervillain said 'We're not so different, you and I....' to the hero he captured. Blew my damn mind."
And now, on to this week's episode!
This week, writer Bruce Reid Schaefer and producer/director Larry Houston bring us "Proteus, Part I" and I have to admit that i'm actually pretty excited about, since the original story that it's based on is one of my all-time favorites. See, Chris Claremont and John Byrne introduced Proteus all the way back in X-Men #125, and while the Mont was two years into his run as a writer and over a year into his partnership with Byrne, this was the first big story that felt like an event. Like a lot of what they did, it introduced themes and imagery that would come back again and again, and because it hits right before the all-important Dark Phoenix Saga, it's often overlooked by fans. That's a shame, too, because it's great.
I mean, this is the story that even I read and think "Wow, Cyclops is awesome." So, you know, it's pretty good.
As for how well it translates to animation, well, at least it starts off pretty well. We open on Muir Island, with an establishing shot that features Morph happily snoozing away his PTSD in one of those cryogenic stasis pods from Alien, only to cut to the sub-sub-sub basement, where Moira, Banshee and their ridiculous accents are watching some giant energy monster get blasted by lasers.
Turns out, these are, uh... health.. lasers? And they're meant to help this young man overcome his uncontrollable mutant powers. But who is he? He's... Kevin! Which, to be fair, is not a very intimidating name, which is probably why they labeled his cell door "MUTANT X." Either that, or they already had the room from when they were using it to store all those unsold copies of the Howard Mackie book about Havok in an alternate reality where Storm was a vampire, or whatever the heck was happening back in 1998.
Moira is pretty upset by the whole situation, but it seems like it's working when the giant monster turns into what appears to be Marty McFly.
Unfortunately, this is only the start of things getting heavy. Kevin blasts his way out of the cell and makes a break for it, jumping into Banshee's body and possessing him while Moira tries to calmly talk him down and shoo him back into the tiny little room wher he's blasted with lasers while people watch through a mail slot. It's not exactly an appealing offer, which is probably why Kevin ends up spinning the whole world around all crazy-like.
Meanwhile, at the X-Mansion, the team gets a distress call from Moira, asking them to get there as soon as they can, and we're off in the Blackbird on another transcontinental adventure. And with that much flight time, you know what that means! Flashbacks!
So uh... did Professor X serve in the Chinese army? I mean, I am pretty sure that uniform with the big red star on it isn't from the U.S. military, but I could be wrong on that one.
Anyway, Professor X chats to his students about how he proposed to Moira (without ever once mentioning his defection to the Communists, which is really burying the lede here), only for her to send him a Dear John letter that arrives on the front lines just in time for him to be paralyzed and make out with a physical therapist who looks suspiciously like Mary Jane Watson.
Keep in mind that this is all a flashback being narrated by Professor X, which means he chose to include that in there while talking to his students. Dude is a straight up creep.
Anyway, Moira gets divorced from her new beau, Professor X founds the X-Men and breaks up with Mary Jane, and now you know... the rest of the story. At least until the next big reveal comes along and adds even more to it.
The X-Men land on Muir Island, and Moira shows them the security tape of how she kept Marty McFly in her basement and shot him with lasers, and also lets everyone know that Kevin/Mutant X/Proteus, as he will be called by his mom for the duration of the story, has the power to warp reality around him and is telepathic. As Beast says in a pretty great line, he's "a teenager who can quite literally do anything he wishes. Not a comforting thought!" So good luck dealing with all that, X-Men!
As the X-Men go out to deal with Proteus, Charles stays behind and smoothly turns the conversation around to being about Moira's ex-husband, asking what he's up to these days. Turns out, he's a politician running for Secretary of State (of Scotland), and who has secured the endorsement of Riot from Jem:
He's the Family Values candidate!
As for Kevin, he's hopping around bodies out in town, hitting up the local mutant bars until Professor X zaps him with his telepathy and sends him fleeing into other bodies. And just in case you forgot we were still in Scotland, here's one of his victims:
As the X-Men search, Proteus makes it to the mainland, using his reality-warping powers to raise all kinds of ruckus and searching for his father, twisting up buildings and leaving everything cartoonishly distorted in his wake. It's actually really cool, some of the best animation that the show has done yet, as Proteus just grabs hold of things and distorts them like he's playing around in PhotoShop:
It plays especially well, given the show's tendency to rely on flat, "realistic" (for lack of a better term) animation. Skewing things into stylized cartoons is a really great effect when it's playing off something like that.
Eventually, the X-Men themselves catch up with Proteus and we get one of the best fight scenes that the show has ever done. It's genuinely unsettling, with Proteus bringing objects to life and distorting the world around the characters, but it really goes to the next level when he starts twisting the characters themselves. It's actually pretty fun when it's Rogue, who has toe deal with four tiny little action figure-sized versions of herself...
...and it's pretty cool when he summons a Bigfoot to fight the Beast, too. But just like in the comics, it's Wolverine who takes the brunt of it, and it's TERRIFYING.
Wolverine's claws turn into snakes that attack him, and then he's slowly torn in half. Twice. I am shocked beyond all reasoning that this actually got past BS&P on a show that can't even say the word "kill," but here we are, and if you had nightmares about this, I want to hear about it.
So that's how the episode ends: Proteus has defeated the X-Men and reduced Wolverine to a crying lump curled up on the ground in the fetal position. Oh, and he's Moira's kid, but you already knew that.
Discussion Question: In addition to hearing about your Proteus-induced nightmares, let's talk about how good the actual Proteus animation looked. It's great, and it really takes advantage of animation with all the moving, twisting horror that it produces. What other shows did familair comic book effects well in animation? I'm particularly fond of how great Batman emerging from the shadows always looked in Batman: The Animated Series, and there was one Spider-Man cartoon that really got his skittering down well, but surely there are others!
Next Week: Find out of Cyclops throws coffee in Wolverine's face and slaps it out of his hand as we get into "Proteus, Part II!"