by Hans A. Carpenter
Before the MCU, there was a time when Marvel is spiraling down. The comic crash of the 90s had left the once giant destitute and on financial death’s door. Only two things kept them afloat, toys and selling off movie rights to popular characters. Both of these were made possible by a sprawling screen universe full of the rich characters and stories from the illustrious publisher’s pages. No, not on the big screen, on Saturday mornings in your living room.
In the 90s X-Men the Animated Series had the guts to tackle hard real-world issues as the titular super powered mutants dealt with fear and discrimination from the world at large. Classic stories like Days of Future Past and the Dark Phoenix Saga introduced a generation of kids, myself included, to the world of Professor X and his team fighting for peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants.
Some of the X-Men series is dated now, but the mature themes, character designs, and bangin’ theme song all still resonate today. This paved the way for a stable of Marvel TV shows including Spider-Man, Iron Man, Fantastic Four, The Incredible Hulk, and Silver Surfer. All of these shows are available for streaming on Disney+.
X-Men took the risk of serialized storytelling in the days of channel surfing where very few shows, let alone kid’s cartoons, took the risk of alienating audience members who were channel surfing. I don’t know if this is a glitch of Disney+, but the episodes seem to stream out of order. Either that, or the show was much more hodgepodge than I remember. Either way, it’s possible.
Surprisingly, Spider-Man holds up much better. This series does a great job of distilling what fans love about the character and his universe into a fun, easy to digest cartoon. This is still the definitive Spider-Man for a lot of fans.
The rest of the series have mixed results. Iron Man introduces a wide range of classic Marvel characters like Hawkeye and the Mandarin, but is incoherent at times and not nearly the level of animation on flagship shows like Spider-Man. Fantastic Four and Incredible Hulk are decent but nothing to write home about. By Silver Surfer’s lame animation you can see the wheels falling off over at Marvel in the late 90s.
Still, these shows are responsible for a generation of kids falling in love with the Marvel Universe. Characters like Dr. Strange, The Punisher, Blade, and Captain America team up with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men years before the MCU we know of today was a thing. Setting up this universe and the rich characters within it as a living, breathing thing in a lot of ways laid the ground work for people my age losing their minds when Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows at the end of Iron Man in 2008.
Without the success of X-Men and Spider-Man, there would have been limited if any interest in Marvel movie rights. If those franchises hadn’t been smash successes for Fox and Sony respectively, the comic book hero genre would have died in the cradle. Instead, those movie rights and toy sales from the cartoons kept Marvel alive and proved that superhero movies worked on the big screen. Marvel recovered, produced Iron Man in 2008, was purchased by Disney with all of the financial muscle that comes with it, and the rest is history, and a guaranteed billion for every film in the series.