Inside the Rise and Fall of Marvel’s Most Underrated X-Men Show
“It just imploded.”
The year 2009 will forever be a low point for the X-Men franchise. Following a successful (if uneven) original trilogy, 20th Century Fox went all in on its biggest star with X-Men Origins: Wolverine, which managed to hold the record of worst-rated X-Men movie on Rotten Tomatoes for an entire decade, until the release of Dark Phoenix in 2019 (another low point for Charles Xavier’s gifted youngsters). But while Origins: Wolverine showcased the worst of what mutantkind had to offer, another X-Men project released that very same year revealed what the superhero team could look like when everything went right — even if it never got the credit it deserved.
Wolverine and the X-Men is the ugly stepchild of X-Men animation. Never as cool as Evolution nor as iconic as the ’90s Animated Series, Wolverine is nonetheless a worthy addition to the X-Men canon. And it’s worth revisiting on its 15th anniversary as Marvel Studios prepares to relaunch the franchise yet again.
Assembling a Team
Director Steven Gordon, who worked on both X-Men Evolutions and Wolverine and the X-Men, tells Inverse that when he first came aboard the latter show, it was a total mess.
“I guess they'd been working on it and developing it for some time, and it wasn’t getting anywhere, and so they fired the whole crew,” he says, “or virtually the whole crew.”
Gordon joined the new team, which included series creators Craig Kyle and Greg Johnson, along with writer Christopher Yost, who’d go on to co-write Thor: Ragnarok.
(Kevin Feige also has a producer credit, but Gordon doesn’t recall interacting with the architect of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: “This was very early on for Kevin. I don’t even know how much he was involved at that point, whether or not he was doing anything but kibitzing, as opposed to how involved he is these days. I don’t believe I ever heard his name involved in the production.”)
With the crew assembled, X-Men and the Wolverine managed to debut with a two-part premiere that aired on Nicktoons Network 15 years ago on January 2, 2009.
In total, the series ran for 26 episodes before a shock cancellation that left fans reeling from its Season 1 finale cliffhanger (more on that in a bit). But what sets Wolverine and the X-Men apart is right there in its name: a singular focus on Marvel’s most famous mutant.
An Unusual Premise
When Wolverine and the X-Men begins, the iconic team has already been devastated by a mysterious event that disappeared both Jean Grey and Professor X, causing Cyclops to spiral into depression while the rest of the squad disbands and goes their separate ways. But when Professor X, somehow flung into a dystopian future, manages to make contact with Wolverine in the present, he tasks the Canadian superhero with reuniting the X-Men and averting an apocalypse caused by the anti-mutant Sentinel program.
Wolverine follows orders and assembles a team that includes Beast, Iceman, Kitty Pride, Storm, and the often-overlooked Forge. Before too long, Emma Frost shows up, offering to fill in as the group’s telepath. Meanwhile, in the future, Xavier forms an alliance with Bishop and Domino, among others. And in a third plotline, Magneto rules over the mutant island nation of Genosha with help from his children Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Polaris.
For Gordon, the basic premise was a solid one that gave Wolverine a good reason to lead the X-Men, though his biggest criticism is the way the series treats Cyclops, an unflappable team leader reduced to something far less for the sake of a plotline. Some fans may have enjoyed this unique take on the character. Gordon didn’t.
“I get the whole Cyclops being a depressed lovelorn person,” he says, “but to me, it doesn’t say much about his character. I think he worked more successfully in X-Men: Evolution.”
Throughout its 26 episodes, the series does an impressive job of moving the plot forward at a steady clip while also offering plenty of one-off detours. In one episode, Nick Fury shows up and asks for Wolverine’s help fighting the Hulk. In another, a vengeful Cyclops takes on the classic X-Men villain Sinister. If you’re looking for a crash course in the X-Men universe, you can do a lot worse.
Wolverine and the X-Men also draws deeply from the comics while telling an original story (offering the best non-comic depiction of Genosha so far, for example), which was refreshing to some fans after Evolution had mostly ignored its source material.
“Craig and Chris were very big fans of the comics,” Gordon says. “So they were pulling and calling from all of their favorite versions of the X-Men and trying to synthesize it all into one type of storytelling. It definitely felt like it was a deeper understanding of the comics than what we had done on Evolution. I think a lot of fans are probably very happy with Wolverine of the X-Men because of that fact.”
Visually, the look of Wolverine and the X-Men is simple but accessible. The cartoon doesn’t take a lot of risks with its animation, though it does still feature some pretty great action.
“The animation wasn’t bad at all,” Gordon says. “It was far superior to the ’90s show, but that’s a low bar as far as animation, unfortunately.”
Wolverine and X-Men’s Season 2 That Never Was
By the end of Season 1, most of the show’s many story threads find a way of tying together (although the Hulk never shows up again) as Wolverine and the X-Men builds to a climactic finale. Ultimately, our heroes save the world, but in a tragic twist, it turns out that one apocalypse has been replaced by another, setting up a Season 2 plotline inspired by the X-Men comics crossover event “Age of Apocalypse.”
Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be. While early work did begin on Wolverine and the X-Men Season 2, the show was canceled before it could advance beyond the earliest stages of production.
“Nothing had been storyboarded,” Gordon says. “Some scripts had been broken or discussed, and we were actually doing some character development for several months.”
Among other things, Season 2 would have introduced Deadpool into the series, and Gordon still has the concept art to prove it. He shared that art, along with new “Age of Apocalypse” character designs for Cyclops and Colossus, with Inverse, offering our best look yet at what might have been.
“I’m not sure how any of these characters were going to be used,” he says. “I was just being given the basic designs by the character designer. My job was to do expressions and attitudes for them.”
As for why Wolverine and the X-Men was canceled, some fans have speculated that it was a victim of rising tensions between the then-nascent Marvel Studios and Fox (which owned the rights to make X-Men live-action movies), but the truth is far less satisfying. At the time, Marvel wasn’t in the business of financing its own shows, which required a third-party animation studio and the show’s distributor to sort out the details. When they couldn’t, the entire thing fell apart.
“They couldn’t agree on who would give the larger percentage of the money towards it and who would own the bigger percentage and so forth,” Gordon says. “And so it just imploded, even though they had a surefire guarantee for a second season. They just could not work it out, which is weird to me.”
A decade and a half later, it seems unlikely we’ll ever get a second season of Wolverine and the X-Men. Then again, stranger things have happened. With the rights to the X-Men firmly back at Marvel, the studio is gearing up to relaunch the original ’90s animated series. But maybe once that’s run its course, Kevin Feige will remember the lesser-known cartoon he helped produce and decide to give it another shot. And if he doesn’t, you can always just re-watch the first one on Disney+ and imagine what might have been.