by Spike Valentine
Reminiscing about the ‘90s is nothing new to comic book readers nowadays, from people who were around at that period of time to younger folks who are very curious about what happened that decade regarding comics. The medium itself went through a lot; from the financial successes of the Death of Superman, the launch of X-Men (Vol. 2), the rise of new companies & indie authors to the burst of the speculators bubble and Marvel almost going bankrupt in December of 1996. If you want to dig in deeper about the topic of this modest frame of reference before continuing, I suggest you check out this article by Ryan Lambie published by Den of Geeks!
Back to the topic at hand. 1996’s economical decadence at Marvel spawned a wave of repercussions which mutated the company itself through more than two decades and still ongoing at the time of the publication of this article, especially regarding licensing out the IPs for live-action adaptations. This was nothing new for Marvel Comics and, historically, they had only found some success with 1977’s The Incredible Hulk TV show which spawned a couple of direct-to-TV films featuring Thor & Daredevil.
Generation X, the comic book, was a spin-off X-Men comic book derived from the ‘Phalanx Covenant’ storyline, which itself follows the ‘X-Tinction Agenda’ arc of the X-Men titles.
Though the actual first appearance of the team and its original characters was through a prologue freely distributed at San Diego Comic Con ‘94 a few months before the publication of the Phalanx Covenant event.
The team focused on the young 4th generation of X-Men with Banshee & a reformed Emma Frost acting as their mentors. The former ‘White Queen’ allied herself with the X-Men during one of Phalanx Covenant plots called ‘Next Generation’ mostly out of the grief the loss of her students, the Hellions, at the clutches of Sentinels sent by Trevor Fitzroy caused her.
This takes us to the production of Generation X, a TV movie/pilot produced in 1995 (still perceived as a stable time in comics) hoping to use the momentum of the X-Men’s popularity in comic books & cartoons, and heavily inspired by Joel Schumacher’s Batman Forever; released earlier that year and a huge commercial success–mostly because of the two previous acclaimed ‘Caped Crusader’ films by Tim Burton.
Released on February 20, 1996, and contrary to popular belief, this experiment written & produced by Eric Blakeney (21 Jump Street, the ‘80s TV show), directed by Jack Sholder (A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge) was not a ratings flop and did exactly what then producers (New World Television’s Bruce Sallan & Marvel’s Avi Arad) wanted it to do. According to June’s Wizard: The Guide to Comics #58, the TV film ranked third for its time slot in the Nielsen ratings and performed unusually well with the 18 – 34 male demographic.
“It’s very much alive at Fox. There’s a very good chance for it to continue We could also possibly take it somewhere else, but we feel Fox is our family. It did well in the ratings, but it didn’t go through the roof either. We did really well with publicity–we got a nice piece in TV Guide–but we’re hoping to do a little better in total households. But those demos are very good. Networks like Fox, Warner Bros. and UPN really like those demos. I don’t see it as a mainstream network show.” -Bruce Sallan
“I think it should be a series. Fox should put it on Friday nights before the ‘X-Files’ and they could have an ‘X-Night’ every Friday.” -Avi Arad
Considering its historical context and budget, it was more successful than any other Marvel live-action project since the original The Incredible Hulk which ended production in 1982.
I watched the original broadcast, and from what I remember the effects didn’t look bad at all, maybe not the best, but they didn’t take away the suspension of disbelief of this teenager.
This also happens to be the first Marvel team live-action adaptation, featuring prominently Emma Frost (Finola Hughes) and Jubilee (Heather McComb). And even though Jubilation Lee is portrayed as a Caucasian girl, it probably was due to the character originally written for the female teenage lead was Dazzler, but Jubilee was more popular because of the animated series. Obviously, back then the ethnicity of the characters was not an issue both with the producers and the progressive fandom of the period and the pilot also featured the brown-skinned Hispanic Skin (Agustín Rodríguez) who is also central to the story. In the team there’s also the Mondo (Bumper Robinson) a Black kid–in the comics it was later revealed he was the clone of a Samoan mutant), Monet St. Croix (Amarilis) the dark-skinned teenage female mutant Muslim of Algerian/French/Bosnian origin who also happens to be as perfect a people get (her character in the comic is like this and tends to subvert the Mary Sue paradigm). Banshee is played by Jeremy Ratchford, who had provided the voice for Banshee in the X-Men cartoon.
Replacing the comic book characters Husk & Chamber for budget reasons Buff (Suzanne Davis) & Refrax (Randall Slavin) were created. The first being a heavy-muscled strong woman and the second one a mix between Cyclops and Billy Idol.
This is, pretty much, the most ethnically diverse film by Marvel to date considering almost every progressive stack category was a first, specially if you consider the villain was disabled for a third of the movie as well.
And that villain, the mad scientist Russell Tresh, was played by Matt Frewer of ‘Max Headroom’ fame and pretty much was the most famous actor of the ensemble. His excessively over-the-top portrayal of the character, a mix between Jim Carey’s the Mask, the Riddler and Jeff Dahmer’s sociopathic tendencies were certainly the talk of the town regarding the TV show.
The TV film had charm and potential, it was edgy and over-the-top. It had an unfocused script centered around the conflict of what should have been secondary characters that made no sense regarding the Marvel mutant paradigm, yet it did an effort to somewhat portray that hated mutant minority theme. Consider, after all, this is also the first superhero team movie of all-time (considering Roger Corman’s ‘Fantastic Four’ was never officially released and the bootleg versions didn’t become popular in the ‘90s, public peer-to-peer file sharing wasn’t really possible until 1999, and even then encoding a movie and transferring it would have been extremely complicated).
Compared to what we had at the time, it was actually pretty faithful to the source material and there were certainly worse adaptations. Hell, it was even more closer to the comics than 2001’s X-Men!
What happened? I don’t think anyone really knows other than the people involved with the production. But there are two things which happened around the time which possibly affected severely the life of the project: Marvel’s financial shitstorm of the ‘90s & Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Marvel as a corporation in its entirety spiraled out of control in 1996, debt from printing products which didn’t sell made the speculators’ bubble burst and no company was printing out more variants than Marvel, Heroes World Distribution–Marvel’s own distribution company acquired in December of ‘94 which turned out to be a disaster from the start, destabilized the entire comic book direct market and ended-up collecting lawsuits from the clientele–, and a very unstable editorial staff/talent roster derived from this and creators jumping around to release their own comics independently inspired by the Image generation (and even then they managed to put out better books than nowadays Marvel).
WTF? Did you just say Buffy the Vampire Slayer?
In 1996, Joss Whedon tried to revamp his then failed IP from the butcher job his script received in 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer film starring Kristy Swanson and produced a 25 minute pilot produced by Fox starring Sarah Michelle Gellar. It was very similar in almost every single production aspect to Generation X except it was shorter in length and Whedon’s prowess as a show-runner was far superior and had a more natural understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of the ‘90s. The show was produced & distributed by Fox to be broadcast by Warner and, later, UPN. Sounds familiar?
In my opinion, having gone through all of this, it was more likely the corporate mess and the tough competition prevented Generation X from becoming a TV show. Instead, it’s now a forgotten TV film only Generation X nerds remember and can watch on YouTube (and Buffy’s unaired pilot too).