The year was 1996. 10-year-old me was fresh off the X-Men animated series, and I needed more. Reading didn’t come naturally to me, so I resisted even comic books until I became more confident in my comprehension. (I still made my parents buy me comics, but I mainly just looked at the cool covers and ads for stuff I’d spend days pining for.) Then, my local FOX affiliate, Channel 43, aired a preview for a “live-action X-Men TV movie” called Generation X. Well, okay, calling it “live-action X-Men” was a little ambitious. That movie was still four years off, unbeknownst to me at the time. From what I could glean from the commercial, I’d get to see an X-Person, Jubilee, who I recognized from the cartoon. Good enough for me. I’d await her arrival in my cathode ray tube with bated breath – and, sure, whoever else came with her. Tuesday rolled around. The broadcast started. And, within about 20 minutes…I flipped the channel over to something else.
Last night, I decided to relieve my greatest disappointment by rewatching Generation X in its entirety. Partly, I was curious to revisit the story I ditched out of boredom 25 years ago. Mainly, I just wanted to make sure I did justice to the 20 bucks I spent on this bootleg Blu-Ray (which still delivered VHS quality, I assure you).
Yep – the movie was still bad. There are lots of well-documented reasons for this: budget constraints made the filmmakers (the same ones behind Roger Corman’s Fantastic 4) ditch comic book-relevant characters because showing their powers would cost too much. Instead, they used mutants with more “invisible” abilities and invented new characters when they ran out of established ones that fit the bill. Furthermore, Joel Schumaker’s Batman Forever was taken as a gospel superhero text which this one imitated down to the extreme camera tilt in shots, neon colors, and Jim Carrey-esque villain (played by Matt Frewer, whose shtick predates Carrey’s, but whose fame doesn’t trump him). Speaking of casting, many actor choices moved this film far afield from the comics, even going so far as to whitewash Jubilee by using a white actor to play the character who is the daughter of two Chinese immigrants to the U.S. Again due to budget cuts, the script had to account for conflict set in minimalist a minimalist dreamscape that doesn’t cost too much or appear in any way relevant to the content of Generation X comics. While the writing contains a number of interesting moments surrounding body positivity and discrimination, it never fully goes there. Instead, it is fairly full-throated in its queer-coded villain, accessorized with all the unfortunate ’90s tropes expertly catalogued by the Netflix documentary Disclosure. Also, the ways in which the movie is willing to sexualize both children and their teacher Emma Frost is unsettling to say the least.
So I validated my 10-year-old self that chose Home Improvement (or something) over this. As my friend David Tuchman said, “I was so confused when it wasn’t good. I didn’t understand yet that some things are just bad.” David was around my age when he first saw Generation X, and, when he made that comment, it clicked for me that I experienced the same media literacy coming-of-age moment with this movie. For David, and for me, programming up until that moment in our lives felt like a generally neutral organism, arriving out of the ether and thrust before our eyes for spontaneous absorption. After this, it became clear that, as David went on to say, these were “products put together by people that could fluctuate in quality.” Maybe that’s a universal mental evolution that moves us, as consumers, from passive receivers to active critical participants in media. I suspect mileage will vary, though, based on the neurology of each audience member. On the studio side, assigning value to this flop takes perhaps a bit more consideration.
Knowing now where Marvel was headed, this effort felt at least a little bit like an important strike-through in the process of elimination the studio racked up throughout the decade. Over the course of the ’90s, we see Marvel start to pivot from the heightened, do-good, feel-good TV movies (1990’s Captain America comes to mind) toward investigating just how socially conscious their work could be. While Generation X isn’t the greatest example of this, the X-Men animated series mentioned earlier, plus the myriad X-comics from the middle part of the decade, can certainly pass muster. Marvel surely knew that this was likely a reason why their X-titles, including the Generation X comics, were the top-selling comics of their era. The Generation X film dabbles in this gritty realism through select conversations around race and body type, even going so far to drop an f-bomb in the European cut of the movie. Blade moves Marvel movies down this road more artfully. X-Men (2000) approaches the mark Iron Man would later hit. Were this to become the TV series it was initially planned to be, I have to wonder if they would have leaned into this more, or if the mid-’90s just weren’t a time where primetime network television could have supported this from a superhero source.
Ah but the toys. The toys truly worked. While they were more plastic manifestations of the characters as they were in the comics, I only knew the Generation X movie at the time. This meant that, to me, action figures like Chamber (the first one I bought) and Emplate were those just-off-screen characters that were off fighting the way cooler battle that existed in my imagination. (In fact, the battle was in another dimension – 2-D – in the comics.) From Chamber’s light-up feature, to Jubilee’s snap-on roller blades, to Phalanx’s “living” heads, the Generation X toys stood slightly taller and did slightly more than Toy Biz’s main-line X-figures.
The figures of characters that had some Generation X screen time translate some of the film into plastic. Jubilee’s costume is teased at the end of the movie by Buff (played by Arlene Hicks). The White Queen action figure features the blazer worn by Finola Hughes. But the real value of these figures are in the comics-only characters. They got their due without a show or a movie to support them, so, for us reluctant readers, we were given characters we knew nothing about, and that was exhilarating. Their roles in our toy box were defined solely by us, with their action features read and placed in the spectrum of good to evil by 10-year-olds like me.
I have no idea how well these figures did or did not do for Toy Biz. They were popular enough for a ToyFare exclusive mail-away (Synch), and for a near saturated presence on the toy shelves. That said, I have no problem today picking up one or two of these toys at shows and cons across the nation typically for no more than 10 bucks.
Ultimately, I can’t recommend Generation X as a TV movie. A comic? Sure. Toys? Absolutely. But sometimes a movie is just a studio’s lesson in what not to do, and we all get to watch them learn it. Thankfully, Marvel did.
Do you have memories – fond or otherwise – of Generation X? Let us know in the comments!
By Jonathan Alexandratos