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X-Men ’97 Just Sped Through One of the Greatest Stories in Comics History

Adaptation is always a challenge—but it’s a particularly daunting one in the case of comic books, where a new medium has to reckon with translating sagas told across years of issues and continuity fluxes. For the most part, X-Men ‘97‘s latest episode navigates this task the best it can, but the sacrifices it makes come at the cost of a character brimming with potential for further exploration.

The third episode of ‘97, “Fire Made Flesh,” picks up immediately after the cliffhanger from the opening premiere, when a second Jean Grey showed up in distress at the X-Mansion, much to the surprise of our heroes. It’s quickly established that the real surprise twist is not the existence of a second Jean Grey, but that the Jean who showed up at the door—and promptly collapsed, perhaps giving us immediately our biggest clue about her identity—is in fact the original Jean, and the woman we saw giving birth and planning a life beyond the X-Men with Scott in the premiere is a clone imposter.

Image for article titled X-Men '97 Just Sped Through One of the Greatest Stories in Comics History

Image: Marvel

What follows is 28 minutes attempting to condense one of the most famous X-Men storylines of all time—the legendary 1988 crossover arc “Inferno”—into a singular episode of animated TV. This would already be a daunting task for any show, even one as enjoyable as ‘97 already has been (and with the legacy of The Animated Seriesapproach to adaptation before it), and one that necessitates cutting and changing things up. A half-hour piece of television simply cannot cover the story and events of a crossover spanning over 20 issues of comics, and X-Men ‘97 understands this from the get-go. What it manages to cover in its own coherent version of this story is laudable, but it’s also not just “Inferno” that the series has to adapt in doing so. It has to try and tell the entire comic book history of Madelyne Pryor, before and after her transformation into the Goblin Queen—events that spanned decades of on-and-off comic book exploration, from the 1980s all the way up until the last few years—underneath all that. And it’s here that, for the most part, X-Men ‘97 really stumbles.

While “Fire Made Flesh” gets the basic beats of “Inferno” and its set up delivered—the discovery of the clone and Sinister’s manipulation of Jean and Scott to get at their genes through their child Nathan Summers, the clone’s descent into villainy and a pact with hell, and eventually our heroes convincing her to turn away from the dark—it does so rarely by centering the character of Madelyne in the way the comics had years to set up and pay off before “Inferno” even began. In fact, it’s more truthful to say the idea of the character of Madelyne is more in play when it comes to ‘97, rather than an individual character herself. Throughout the episode, she is only referred to as Madelyne once, when after her redemption in its climax she takes the name for herself seemingly out of nowhere as decides to move on and live the life she wanted away from the X-Men when she thought she was Jean Grey. She is otherwise only ever framed as an imposter of Jean Grey: first as a clone to be doubted by her friends and even her husband, then as a tool by Sinister for his own machinations, then when she becomes the Goblin Queen (sans any kind of real explanation as to why she suddenly has demonically tinged powers), and even when the “real” Jean psionically enters her mind to try and help the two of them sift through whose memories are whose—and even then, the conclusion the episode makes is that it doesn’t really matter, because they both might as well be Jean Grey.

Image for article titled X-Men '97 Just Sped Through One of the Greatest Stories in Comics History

Image: Marvel

In treating Madelyne as a twist to be revealed rather than her own character—itself part and parcel of the fact X-Men: The Animated Series had already brought a post-Phoenix Jean back to life, not giving Scott the time to grieve and move on as he did in the comics when he met Madelyne—X-Men ‘97 can’t quite sell the arrival of the Goblin Queen in the first place. We never get to see the story Scott and Madelyne had in the comics, where the former has to wrestle with his own doubts that he really could’ve found the new love of his life after Jean’s death, and the latter has to constantly fight this doubt that she is somehow Jean reborn or refashioned in some manner (even if that is, ultimately, what she became after the decision to bring Jean back to life was made). The episode spends so much time not giving her an identity of her own in the first place, its take on the events of “Inferno” and their impact on these characters, especially Jean and Scott, treat the hellish environs and the Goblin Queen’s descent as little more than spectacle and set dressing.

This is already a shame enough, but in so fundamentally putting aside Madelyne’s own personhood for the majority of the episode, it ultimately repeats the mistake that pushed Madelyne to the horrifying deal with the devil she made in the comics: a woman so steadfast in her refusal to be denied that she was her own person, a person beyond the Jean Grey clone she was retconned into being, a person who had built her own life and loves and dreams, that she was willing to sunder the Earth in hellfire and brimstone than accept a world that allowed that to happen. “Fire Made Flesh” never has that kind of emotional core to its struggle between the X-Men and the Goblin Queen, and ultimately Scott and Madelyne’s struggle with Sinister—leading to Nathan being infected with the techno-organic virus and sent onto his future destiny to become Cable—because it is unwilling to explore Madelyne’s identity as an individual beyond her role as a clone, only ever as a catalyst of the plot and for other characters like Scott and Jean.

Image for article titled X-Men '97 Just Sped Through One of the Greatest Stories in Comics History

Image: Marvel

Like I said, adapting reams and reams of comic book storytelling into a singular episode of television was always going to be an impossible act. There’s a case to be made that even if X-Men ‘97 turned this into a multi-part storyline, the inherent premise of its predecessor’s adaptive choices with Jean Grey would’ve still made things to complex or messy to condense into that format anyway. The show does the best with what it has, and beyond its specific failings with Madelyne as a character, it does ultimately still pull off it’s own version of “Inferno” in such an impossibly short amount of time.

There is, of course, the potential for X-Men ‘97 to revisit Madelyne down the line and explore what was left off the table here. Unlike the original “Inferno,” her realization of the dark path she fell down does not culminate with her death (it’s comics, she got better). There is now at least the potential for her return, especially having her memories of her life intact—a gift that was only really given to her in the comics during the events of the recent miniseries Dark Web, when Jean shared with her the memories of raising baby Nathan—to truly become her own person, instead of just a shadow of the “real” Jean. At the very least, she has her own name now! But as it stands, “Fire Made Flesh” and its ambitious retelling of such an iconic X-Men storyline could’ve been so much more than it ultimately is, and in sacrificing time, it could never have done justice to one of the most fascinating and misunderstood characters in Marvel’s mutant comics history.

Watch X-Men ‘97 on Disney+.


Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about the future of Doctor Who.

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