The X-Men Episode Guide 5×12: Descent (Or ‘Literally No One Cares About Mister Sinister’)
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, it's the origin of Mr. Sinister, and I'm not even going to lie: I have already checked out before this thing even starts.
Previously, on X-Men:
In our last episode, we discovered that while Wolverine has several problems with his memory that make it almost impossible for him to remember his past, he is also fully capable of holding a grudge that lasts for fifty years. To that end, there was a flashback to World War II, where Wolverine teams up with Captain America to blow up a ton of Nazi robots, which is every bit as awesome as it sounds.
This led to a discussion of what other Marvel Universe guest stars we would've liked to see on the show, and the overwhelming favorite among the Commenteers was Iron Man. This seems like something that would've had a chance at happening, considering that there was an Iron Man cartoon that ran while X-Men was on the air as part of the Marvel Action Hour, but since it was syndicated rather than being on Fox, it was probably too much of a hassle to sort out. Commenteer James McGhie, however, suggested that Jubilee should hang out with the "kid whose power is 'owns a rocket skateboard,'" which is something I can definitely get behind. How we made it through the '90s without at least one Rocket Racer animated series will forever remain a mystery.
This week, the flashbacks continue, but before you get your hopes up, I can tell you right now that it does not live up to last week's. I mean, last week they gave us Wolverine and Captain America fighting exploding Nazi robots. This week... it's the origin of Mister Sinister, and it makes no sense. Like, I realize that coincidence is the driving force of X-Men and superhero comics in general, but this thing... Yeesh.
Writers Steve Melching and David McDermott and producer Tom McLaughlin start us off in London, 1888, with a series of horrifying attacks in Whitechapel, and right away, I am already shaking my head. I mean, look, I get that Jack the Ripper is an interesting place to look for inspiration, even when you're making a cartoon for tiny babies, and I realize that the producers of X-Men had no idea what was going to be happening on television two decades later, but for real, y'all. There's an episode of Brave and the Bold about Jack the Ripper, and it's got time-traveling Batman teaming up with Sherlock Holmes and then fighting THE ACTUAL DEVIL. Once you've seen that, everything else is clocking in at a distant third.
Especially since the Broadcast Standards & Practices rules that governed the content of the show meant that they couldn't even say the word "kill," let alone actually show a murder. As a result, this evil figure in Whitechapel seems to pretty much just sort of jump out and spook people a little bit before running away.
Fortunately, Scotland Yard has top men working on the case: James Xavier, whose head appears to be emerging from a bear trap made of hair:
Xavier, whose voice sounds eerily familiar, believes that the culprit behind these... crimes? is one Nathaniel Essex, but the cops refuse to believe him. See, Essex is in his sixties, but the culprit is clearly a younger man. Also, the cops are wary of charging a respected "man of science" with these crimes, which is understandable. I mean, who ever heard of an evil scientist?
Xavier, however, has been hunting Essex for the past thirty years, dating all the way back to when his hair and beard were only slightly unacceptable:
That's right, folks! It's everyone's favorite literary technique: a flashback within another flashback.
Back then, Essex was fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin's work on natural selection, attending lectures alongside his employer and father-in-law, (sigh) Lord Grey. Back then, Jimmy X was into hassling Darwin about whether evolution could explain the soul and probably gave his own lectures on how the banana is the atheist's worst nightmare, but Essex and his goofy flat top are all about this whole evolution thing, particularly with regards to how it can sharpen up one's teeth and stick a big red jewel to one's forehead. I'm not sure he really understood what evolution actually was.
While all that was going on, Xavier was also treating Essex's wife (and Lord Grey's daughter) Rebecca for some unknown chronic illness. What he didn't know is that Essex, who you will remember does not go on to be Doctor Sinister, was also treating her in secret using... forbidden techniques!
As it turns out, Essex had also been rounding up 19th century mutants to live in an "asylum for the physically infirm" so that he could study them. He even arranges a showing for Darwin and a few other notable scientists of the day. Unfortunately, it seems that Ye Olde Mutantes were possessed of abilities that were slightly less impressive than, say, shooting laser beams out of your face, so everyone pretty much agrees that Essex sucks and they should all make fun of him for not even having the decency to have a proper set of mutton chops or a two-foot beard.
With that, Essex vows to Show Them, Show Them All!
Back in the present -- er, the present of 1888, I guess -- Xavier finishes his seven-minute flashback just in time to be shown a body that was actually taken out by the "butcher" roaming the streets. His reaction is pure horror at what Essex has done, claiming that he has "altered nature itself," which is a pretty bold statement considering that the only thing we ever see if it is a super gross foot.
Xavier also refers to Essex's "sinister experiments," which is like the ninth time they have used the word "sinister" to describe something in this episode. I think we get it.
At this point, we are treated to yet another flashback as Xavier and the Inspector head out to roust Essex and put an end to his... murders? I guess? That gross foot looked like it was probably pretty dead, so yeah, let's go with murders. This time, at least, it goes by a little quicker, focusing on Essex's growing obsession with mutation and how he used the foulest of science! to turn himself into, I dunno, a Dracula.
The upside to all of this is that Rebecca Grey (whose voice also sounds eerily familiar) has been doing much better under Essex's secret treatments. This does not sit well with James Xavier, who went to confront Essex because of, you know, all of that evil he's doing of curing his wife's incurable illness and exactly zero other things that we've seen other than one gross foot. It's at this point that Xavier reminds him that every has been speaking of "sinister experiments," and Essex replies, I kid you not, with "Sinister? I'll remember that."
Listen. I'm not any happier about this than you are, but we're just going to have to get through it.
In a move that I don't quite understand, Essex leads Xavier down to his basement so that he can see that he's mistreating his mutant "patients," and is then super surprised that Xavier is not completely cool with this. A fistfight breaks out -- although in true BS&P fashion, there is no actual punching involved save for Xavier kind of aggressively shoving Essex at one point. During the scuffle, Essex's basement mutants get ahold of his keys and free themselves, running out into the street and immediately setting fire to a rather significant portion of London.
This, as you may expect, does not do a whole lot for the public perception of Mutants in Victorian England. As a crowd starts to form, Xavier heads out to calm them down, telling them that yes, the dude who shot a fireball out of his hands was "born with abilities that may frighten us, but he had no choice in the matter, any more than we can choose the color of our eyes!" Okay, that's a good start, I sure hope he doesn't say anything that might give them the idea that they should riot in the streets -- "The true monsters walk amongst us undetected! There is your monster: Nathaniel Essex!"
Hoo boy. The Xavier Family is never really going to get that great at not inciting violence, are they?
Essex flees the mob back to his home, but when Rebecca sees his glowing red eyes, she starts to freak out, and Essex claiming that they will be "the Adam and Eve of a New Genesis" doesn't really calm her down, since that is something that someone says right before they start stitching up corpses. The mob ransacks the house, Essex disappears, and we cut at long last back to 1888, where Jack (the Ripper, you may have forgotten this episode was nominally about him when it started eighty years ago) reveals himself to be not Essex, but someone that Essex "gave life" after rechristening himself as Mister Sinister.
Xavier and the Inspector bust in to stop him, but it's too late -- Sinister has already boarded a boat to America. He leaves behind an autographed copy of On The Origin Of Species as a final taunt, and when we cut back to 1997, we see that it's the same copy of the book that Professor Charles Xavier keeps on his nightstand. The End.
Please note that this was Mister Sinister's final appearance on the show, and is therefore completely pointless.
Discussion Question: I'm not even going to bother memorializing Mister Sinister, but let's be real here: is the reveal that he was married to one of Jean Grey's ancestors and is now super interested in Jean's sex life and producing a child the creepiest reveal in Marvel Comics History? If not, what is? Do I even want to know?