TV on DVD: Marvel's X-Men-- Volumes 1 & 2

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In the '90s, the multiplex belonged largely to the world of DC Comics with the international success of Batman which was re-imagined to Dark Knight origins by way of visionary comic book artist Frank Miller and director Tim Burton that led to Christopher Nolan's turn behind the wheel (following the ghastly Schumacher camp works of the mid '90s). However on the small screen, a different group of superheroes from a rival comic book company ruled the airwaves as the decade was about Marvel's X-Men.

Wildly popular in both comic book form and as part of the Fox Kids Saturday morning lineup that threw some DC into the mix when fittingly the Bat joined the action packed comic cartoon schedule with the critically lauded Batman: The Animated Series-- the bonus that Marvel fans had over DC ones is that X-Men felt like a far more pure adaptation, moving directly from comic to television without having any major film series from which to draw any immediate popularity or visual cues.

Incredibly intelligent, gorgeously drawn with its intricate lines, shapes, and attention to detail that still stuns in DVD form from Buena Vista Home Entertainment with the recently released the first thirty-three episodes (spanning seasons one and two in their entirety along with the crucial start of season three over two volumes)-- Marvel's animated X-Men provides a superlative Origins experience to those anxious about Hugh Jackman's brand new big screen Wolverine smash.

Also coinciding with the recent release of the three feature films in trilogy form and on Blu-ray that tie in not only with Jackman's fourth foray as Wolverine but the upcoming 2011 X-Men Origins installment Magneto-- this must-own set for Marvel enthusiasts and X-Men devotees plays even better the second time around for those of us who first encountered the series in our adolescence as we're now able to delve beyond the multi-layered subtext of the show which dealt with hot button issues on a weekly basis.

The longest-lasting series on Fox Kids, as Wikipedia reports, Marvel's X-Men premiered on television nearly thirty years after author Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby creation first debuted the characters in comic book form in September of 1963 with The X-Men #1 (which introduced readers to both the central cast of heroes as well as their initial main villain Magneto).

And with its emphasis staying true to the origins, the television adaptation created by Larry Houston and Frank Squillace frequently utilized the rich history and source material of the beloved comic books but presented them visually in a style and with the same primary line-up of superheroes fans encountered on the news-stands in the early '90s comics drawn by artist Jim Lee.

The storyline of the series focuses primarily around the "outsider" status of its characters who long for peace in a world filled with intolerance. To this end, we first discover in our X-Men leader, the extraordinarily telepathic, charismatic, optimistic, wheelchair bound Professor Xavier who runs a school and idyllic, Utopian styled X-Mansion, taking in other individuals dubbed mutants by the outside world for possessing an "x-gene" that gives personalities an unexpected ability Xavier channels for the good of the planet.

Rounding out the main cast of characters, we're also introduced to personalities those only familiar with the films will no doubt recognize in the form of Scott a.k.a. Cyclops who can expel crimson beams of energy from his eyes and serves as the group's deputy leader much to the chagrin of his main romantic rival Wolverine whose sharply fine-tuned senses and genetic ability to produce deadly blades or "claws" have only made him more cynical, despite his unrequited romantic love for Cyclops' beautiful red-headed girlfriend Jean Grey. Grey, much like Professor Charles Xavier has a gift for telekinesis and telepathy.

Along with fan favorites like the rebellious Gambit who uses playing cards like throwing knives, the Shakespeare quoting, philosophical great blue Beast whose tender sensitivity and superior mind is overshadowed by his enormity, and the young fireworks spouting Jubilee whom the X-Men recruit in the first episode, we're also introduced with two regulars who-- at least in TV form-- begin to grate on the nerves a bit in their characterization with the inclusion of Rogue and Storm.

Voiced by Lenore Zahn, we become acquainted with the temperamental and folksy southern Rogue whose inability to share an intimate kiss or hug with a fellow human being for fear she'll kill them (as was the case with boys in the past growing up) comes with the trade-off of not just being able to fly but giving her the benefit of absorbing energies, the past, and special powers of anyone she touches.

While her likability fluctuates, the character who immediately makes you want to reach for the mute or fast-forward button is embodied by the unfortunately humorless and monotone prone Storm (voiced in '92 by Jona Morris until a change occurred that same year for the rest of that run by casting Alison Sealy-Smith) who whips up ferocious winds that give her the opportunity to fly and control the weather to help level the playing field.

Although they're dynamic in the comic book-- next to the poise of Jean Grey and scene-stealing Wolverine on the series-- sadly the characters don't stand much of a chance but Storm fares the worst in a characterization that just never manages to get us emotionally involved as opposed to Rogue who we empathize with from the start, understanding her pain of never being able to touch a fellow human being.

Despite the dud of Storm who was still one of the weaker parts of the ensemble when Halle Berry had the misfortune of trying to bring her to life in the films-- the episodes contained over the course of four discs contained in the two volumes that boast the "Night of the Sentinels" storyline in Volume 1 and "The Phoenix Saga" in Volume 2 are immediately addictive and make the perfect invite for a marathon viewing as numerous several episode arcs of highly compelling storylines fill out the early seasons captured in the set.

Additionally, we watch as the X-Men contend with the deadly shape-shifting Mystique whose ability to fool numerous characters in the group by impersonating the X-Men themselves leads to a more complicated dynamic when he takes advantage of Gambit's desire for Rogue and Wolverine's undying love for Jean as well as familiar comic book characters such as Magneto, Angel, Colosus, militant mutants, humans who want to manipulate the X-Men, strip them of their powers, or send them away, including that dynamite storyline with Senator Robert Kelly.

Additionally, the television writers due a wonderful job in fleshing out the back-stories of numerous characters including Wolverine and his brother Juggernaut as well as Alpha Flight-- the Canadian superhero group Wolverine was involved in before he crossed the border.

Infusing the series with some unexpected emotional depth that one doesn't typically associate with the comic book realm whether its in the love triangle central to the group in the form of Scott/Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine as Scott and Jean get married or when the Beast falls in love with a blind girl and finds that prejudice is sending him down a possibly perilous Beauty and the Beast scenario.

And true to the comics, the series also manages to serve as an allegory as it deals with issues of tolerance with thinly vieled storylines that serve to celebrate diversity (as the comics have been credited with dealing with Anti-Semitism in Holocaust and slavery styled structures and championing the rights of the disabled, LGBT communities, racism, and religious intolerance) in some episode plot-lines that deal openly with typically taboo social issues avoided in children's programming and Saturday morning animation.

Highly recommended-- the series has been preserved to its full-screen aspect ration with the additional of subtitles for the deaf and/or hearing impaired in English as well as providing French and Spanish audio and subtitle tracks-- and despite the fact that neither volume boasts a unique extra, the true special feature is in the source material itself with its bevy of multi-part episodes that you can you can watch in their entirety such as via the moving "Phoenix Saga" in all five parts back-to-back as opposed to impatiently waiting for the weekly installments.