I don’t normally do comparison reviews. But, in this case, I’m going to as showcasing the severe flaws with Evolution works so much better when you compare it to a good cartoon. Let’s dive right into it because this is going to be a long one.
The two cartoons take very different approaches. The good cartoon is a more child friendly version of various X-men stories including Days of The Future Past, The Dark Phoenix Saga, The Phalanx & Proteus. It also throws in some original stories in the same vein as the Claremont run of the books. Which is very blatantly the inspiration behind the cartoon.
Evolution decides to take things in a different direction by having a world where mutants are unknown to the general populace and having a young team of characters just coming into their own. Thereby combining super hero elements with more light-hearted school antics.
Now, to be fair to Evolution, the concept isn’t bad. Most of the X-men characters did join at a young age and showing the team in more of a fun, less action-oriented light could be a strong take. Unfortunately, it’s completely let down by horrendous execution.
With the good cartoon, there are two types of changes made to established stories. The first are changes to make them child friendly. So, Proteus won’t be leaving shrivelled up corpses in his wake and we won’t see Storm stab Callisto through the heart with a knife. The second changes are designed to simplify things. Because the comic story behind Archangel is very complicated and only works if you have Angel as a major character and nobody wants to see a cartoon that goes super in depth into Cable’s back story with all the Madelyne Pryor stuff.
What we get from it are simplified, family friendly X-men stories where the various seasons give us different big story arcs that are skilfully built up throughout and lead to some truly epic climactic pay offs. The series is also very good at balancing its cast so that every character in the main team gets their own moments of focus and glory.
But let’s stop with the praise and move on to exactly what’s wrong with Evolution’s execution. The first problem is the two season plot point of normal humans not knowing mutants exist. First of all, they do basically nothing with this. So, it’s pretty pointless. Secondly, this plot point doesn’t remotely work the moment they bring in Apocalypse as a character. You’re expecting us as the audience to believe that mutants have been a thing since Ancient Egyptian society, but not a single one has ever done anything to reveal their existence to the general populace. It’s hard enough to swallow when you have mutants running around who look like Nightcrawler and Beast but when you add in that long history, the humans in this world must be unbelievably stupid. Mutants probably have to remind them how to breathe regularly.
Another issue is with Xavier’s school. This series has his students going to classes and field trips at his school and also going to a public high school. How the hell is that supposed to work? Look, I get that private schools like Xavier’s are not really a thing in most places any more, but you could at least camouflage it as a boarding house for a proper private school. It would make a lot more sense.
Evolution also has a lot of problems with staying true to its premise. With the good cartoon, they absolutely nail what they’re going for. In contrast, Evolution can’t stick to its aesthetic. Instead of focusing on its young characters, it spends far too much time on the adults. Instead of keeping things light-hearted, it awkwardly shifts into more serious territory leading to a lot of tonal clash. And for students who aren’t generally supposed to be using their powers to fight menaces, the Evolution team ends up with a lot of encounters far outside of their pay grade. Especially Apocalypse.
There are a lot of more episode-based issues that pop up in Evolution too. I could write a novella with a couple pages for each episode, but I’ll just give three examples of varying degrees of egregious. There’s an episode where the “struggling” students are taken for a field trip and this includes Sunspot, who’s portrayed as a massive over-achiever. So, how is the massive over-achiever struggling? There’s also the way the X-men add Rogue to their roster. Basically, instead of sitting down with her own daughter and talking to her about her powers, Mystique decides to try tricking her into thinking the X-men are mutant hunters for no adequately explored reason. For that matter, why didn’t Mystique and Destiny just explain to Rogue that she’s a mutant? It’s not like they need to keep the existence of mutants safe from mutants. It’s also not like they didn’t know. It’s clearly shown that they did. Then we have Magneto’s big plan for the finale of the first season. He basically decides that he’s going to have his sanctuary aboard asteroid M but he’s going to decide who gets in, not by taking people who are willing to follow him, but by forcing the brotherhood to fight the X-men to earn their spot. And then he’s going to power them up and basically destroy the world. First off, this is an asinine plan. Secondly, this isn’t a Magneto plan. This is more like Apocalypse with his survival of the fittest shtick. Even then it would be a bad Apocalypse story.
Let’s talk about the way each series ends. So, if you don’t want spoilers for that, skip this paragraph. With the good X-men cartoon, we see Xavier injured, Magneto is persuaded to come help save him. He says his final goodbyes to both Magneto and his X-men. It’s all very touching and really delves into the dynamics you’ve seen throughout the whole series. He survives, but is forced to leave Earth and stay with the Shi’ar. We end with the X-men standing alongside Magneto to see him off and what happens afterwards being open to interpretation. It’s a fantastic way to end the series. With Evolution, we get a long, boring exposition dump from Xavier about how he’s seen the future and he knows Magneto is going to join the X-men, the Dark Phoenix saga is going to happen and blah blah. First off, it’s a rubbish, dull ending. Secondly, don’t bring up the Dark Phoenix saga in a show that’s supposed to be more light-hearted. It does not mesh. Third, this version of Magneto joining the X-men doesn’t work. In the good cartoon, Magneto is highly sympathetic and works with the heroes on multiple occasions. In Evolution, he’s basically a one-note, Silver age villain. He’s Hugo, here he comes with wicked intentions. And you can’t make a villain like that go good without a huge amount of work and character development.
The good X-men cartoon does an excellent job of offering character complexity. Every major character has a fairly well fleshed out back story. Even the minor characters tend to come across as fleshed out and very human. I also appreciate that the villains are very dynamically written with motivations that may or may not be evil, depending on the character. If I were to criticise anything, it would be that I don’t particularly care for what they did with Nightcrawler. He’s a complex character but they also really emphasise the religious aspect of his character which causes him to come across as overly preachy and just in general the type of person who’s a bit obnoxious to be around.
Evolution has an entire cast of highly annoying high school stereotypes. I’m not kidding when I say Nightcrawler is far more complex in the other cartoon where he appears twice than he is in this one where he’s part of the main cast and just an obnoxious class clown character. Same with Quicksilver who’s just an arrogant jerk character in Evolution. Evolution can’t even stay fully consistent with its stereotypes when it comes to Shadowcat. They can’t decide whether she’s smart, but a bit ditzy or the full air-headed ditz stereotype. And the villains in this are just evil for the evils. To the extent where both Magneto and Mystique are portrayed as egregiously terrible parents with no adequately explored reasons for them to be dreadful to their kids.
That’s another real failure in Evolution. It had the opportunity to explore what would have happened had Magneto raised his children and, instead of doing that in any meaningful way, they decided he would just be a negligent asshole. The good cartoon had two episodes where he interacts with his children and it handled it infinitely better. Providing them with a much more complex, interesting dynamic.
Some of the shit they do doesn’t even make sense. Why is Mystique working with Magneto? No one knows, there’s no reason for it. Why does she collect a bunch of super-powered teenage boys and then spend most of the series ignoring them? No reason. It’s all just aimless “they’re the bad guys, so they do evil things.”
Speaking of things that make no sense, Storm has a nephew, but the series also wants to preserve her back story as an orphan who wandered around Africa before becoming a Goddess figure to a small village. Even if Spyke weren’t a rubbish character, this would just be bad.
Seriously though, Spyke is such a terrible OC he doesn’t even get his own power set. They just gave him Marrow’s. And after they put him in the actual comics, he never had an appearance in anything good. Least, not as far as I know.
The romantic dynamics in Evolution are pretty dreadful as well. Both Cyclops and Jean are given ordinary human love interests just so they can have a long, drawn out “they like each other but what will happen with these other people?” thing. And it’s so goddamn annoying. The whole Shadowcat/Avalanche thing is terrible too. It’s basically every high school thing with the “sweet” girl who falls for a bad boy, but worse than most. And it’s creepy in Evolution when Wolverine starts responding semi-amorously towards Jean. Since she’s still a high school kid and he’s well over a hundred.
As a rule, the good cartoon does look better than Evolution. It just has higher quality character art, better set up action sequences and I honestly think the art style looks better for the characters and such.
That being said, Evolution doesn’t look bad. And I do actually prefer Wolverine’s orange and brown costume to his yellow and blue. Evolution’s art style is also more consistent. The last season of the good cartoon very noticeably changes studios.
This is one element where both cartoons have one problem in common. Namely, the accent work isn’t good in either. Neither Nightcrawler has a proper accent. The Russian accents in the good cartoon do not sound like actual Russian accents. Evolution’s version of Rogue has a horrible attempt at a Southern accent. As a rule, if any character in either of these cartoons is supposed to have an accent, it’s going to be off with only a few exceptions.
That aside, the good cartoon does have very strong voice work. Yeah, the accents aren’t there but the actors still do a fantastic job. Cathal Dodd, Lenore Zann, Chris Potter, Alyson Court, David Hemblen, Jennifer Dale, Alison Sealy-Smith and so many others just do great work.
Most of Evolution’s performances are fine, when you account for no one having even a modicum of personality. There are a few exceptions. Brad Swaile, Maggie Blue O’Hara, Meghan Black & Neil Denis are horrible in this.
Both series also have pretty great theme tunes. Evolution’s isn’t as good, but it’s still a nice, catchy tune.
Instead of the usual “Areas of Improvement” I’m going to list some lessons that Evolution should have learned from the good cartoon.
- Commitment to the premise. Evolution could have avoided a lot of tonal problems, major plot inconsistencies and plot lines that just didn’t work if it had just stayed consistent with its premise.
- How to handle long plot lines. The good cartoon plans these out very well and has very consistent writing for them. Evolution seems to be making shit up as it goes.
- Character complexity. The good cartoon is very good at giving its characters depth. As opposed to Evolution, where they just use high school character stereotypes without any degree of complexity.
Clearly, the early to mid 90s cartoon is just vastly superior. Are there minor problems with it? Certainly. Anything that really impacts the enjoyment? Not really. It’s easily a 9/10 cartoon. Fantastic, can not recommend it enough for comic fans or just people who like super hero media. Evolution, in contrast is a mess with a huge number of serious problems. I have to give it a 1/10. The only thing redeemable about it was the premise. But a premise is only as good as the execution behind it and, in this case, the execution is atrocious. Hence why X-men Evolution is the worst late 90s, early 00s Marvel cartoon. It might’ve run longer than Silver Surfer, Avengers or Spider-man Unlimited but all of them are less shit that it.