Generation X: The Original Movie Mutants by Jerry Whitworth
In recent weeks, rumors have spread that Kevin Feige’s remark about ‘mutants’ in the Marvel Cinematic Universe at San Diego Comic-Con 2019 was meant to mean a change of branding from ‘X-Men’ to ‘mutants’ when its characters make the transition. While Marvel’s plethora of mutants began with the X-Men, in the decades since their inception, the likes of Alpha Flight, Soviet Super-Soldiers, New Mutants, Morlocks, Freedom Force, X-Factor, Excalibur, X-Terminators, X-Force, Team X, XSE: Xavier’s Security Enforcers, Six Pack, X-Ternals, Generation X, Big Hero 6, New X-Men, X-Statix, Exiles, Agency X, and the Young X-Men have sprung up from that well. Interestingly enough, Fox’s X-Men brand began with one of these later groups in Generation X.
In 1992, the animated series X-Men debuted for Fox Kids and became a massive hit. No one could have foreseen the impact this event would have on Marvel when Toy Biz, a lesser known toy company who lost the license to DC Comics and gained one for Marvel in 1990, turned that investment into a cash windfall to effectively consume Marvel in a merger in 1998 thanks to the sales of X-Men action figures. This merger/acquisition was largely facilitated by the economic bubble burst of the comic book industry in 1993. Such was created by a speculator market formed when decades old comics began to fetch massive sums of money that companies like Marvel fed by producing books with multiple variant covers for consumers who falsely believed all comics could be flipped for a significant profit. In order to survive the bottom falling out, Marvel sold the film and animation rights to the X-Men to Fox for a mere $2.6 million. Fox’s first project with the property was a television film based on the most recent generation of mutants in Generation X.
When X-Men was created, it was about a team of teenage mutants. As the characters aged, new generations followed with the New Mutants and X-Terminators. By 1994, Scott Lobdell and Chris Bachalo’s Generation X emerged with characters Jubilee, Chamber, M, Husk, Skin, and Synch lead by veteran mutants Banshee and Emma Frost (formerly the White Queen of the Hellfire Club). Over time, new members joined in Penance, Artie Maddicks from the X-Terminators, Leech from the Morlocks, Mondo, Franklin Richards from the Fantastic Four, Gaia, and Maggott from the X-Men. In 1995, Toy Biz produced two waves of toys for the series with a total of eleven figures. Introduced as a teenage X-Man among adult heroes in the tradition of Kitty Pryde, Jubilee spent five years our time in the group before transitioning to Generation X. Just as Pryde was used as a gateway to introduce new viewers to the team in the Pryde of the X-Men pilot for a proposed X-Men animated series, Jubilee served that role in 1992’s X-Men cartoon. As such, she rubbed elbows with the likes of Wolverine, Storm, Cyclops, and Jean Grey as some of the most recognizable X-Men in the public’s minds. It was a no-brainer then when Fox chose Generation X for its first foray into the brand, she would be its featured character.
Little is known as to why Fox chose Generation X for its first entry for its X-Men acquisition. Power Pack, a Marvel team of child heroes, was developed as a television pilot for NBC that the channel passed on ordering as a series. Fox acquired the pilot and began airing it infrequently in 1991, generally during its off season. Around this time, Fox had secured the rights for a television film based on the Incredible Hulk series starring Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno as the titular characters after the success of The Incredible Hulk Returns (1988) and Trial of the Incredible Hulk (1989) in the wake of the flop that was 1990’s The Death of the Incredible Hulk that ended its run at NBC. Sadly, Bixby passed away from prostate cancer in 1993 before the project could begin. Still, these developments seem to indicate Fox wanted live action Marvel in some form on their air waves. Writer Eric Blakeney of 21 Jump Street fame was tasked with producing a Generation X script and horror film master Jack Sholder was brought on to direct. Often, the project has been cited as a pilot for a television series but Sholder has repeatedly claimed such was never the case, at least as far as he was informed. The result was one of the most diverse and interesting television events of its time.
Noted earlier, the film featured the character of Jubilee as its star, bringing one of the big name stars of the cartoon into the world of live action. During this period in time, representation of the source material was not as important to the general public as it is today and the character of Eastern Asian descent was cast with white actress Heather McComb (who went on to become a reoccurring character on shows like Profiler and Party of Five). Interestingly enough, Jeremy Ratchford who provided the voice for X-Men‘s Banshee was cast to play the character in live action for the film. Soap opera heavyweight of General Hospital and All My Children fame Finola Hughes portrayed the sultry, commanding role of Emma Frost. The cast was filled out by Agustin Rodriguez as Skin (sharing equal screen time with Jubilee), Amarilis (best known as Patty Gilbert on Sweet Valley High) as M, and Bumper Robinson (coming off of playing Dorian Heywood on A Different World and who went on to have an extensive career as a voice actor, notably as Sam Wilson/Falcon in various shows) as Mondo while original characters in Buff and Refrax, played respectively by Suzanne Davis and Randall Slavin, were introduced as Chamber and Husk were deemed too expensive to represent their powers using CGI. Matt Frewer, a cultural icon of the 1980s as Max Headroom, played the film’s antagonist Doctor Russel Tresh who was obsessed with entering the dreams of others and bending them to his will. A year removed from 1995’s hit film Batman Forever, Tresh was clearly influenced by the character of the Riddler and Frewer threw himself into encapsulating Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the part as a deranged, juvenile, egotistical, over-the-top psychopath. Generation X (1996) was a ratings hit and received many positive reviews. However, for the team at Fox, it was viewed as something of a dry run for what was to come down the line.
It’s difficult to precisely gauge the influence of 1996’s Generation X. The exterior of the X-Mansion used for the motion picture was Hatley Castle in British Columbia. Subsequently, Hatley was also used as the X-Mansion exterior for all of the X-Men and Deadpool movies to come after. It was also the exterior for Luthor Mansion on Smallville and Queen Mansion for the Arrowverse. By the time of the project filming, Vancouver was a hot spot for film and television being used at the time for The X-Files and today most of the CWverse. In the wake of Fox’s acquisition of the X-Men license, Marvel produced the syndicated television series Mutant X in 2001. Featuring a team of young mutants protecting their kind from the government, Fox took Marvel to court claiming they were trying to produce a brand similar to the X-Men thus infringing on their arrangement. The result was a legal quagmire that lasted years until all sides came to an agreement privately. Mutant X lasted three seasons before being abruptly canceled due to struggles within one of its production companies (ending a year before Fox’s final legal agreements in 2005). By 2017, Fox returned to the small screen with its live action mutants in two series: Legion and The Gifted. Fox’s final X-Men property, interestingly enough, was 2020’s The New Mutants.
After Disney acquired Fox’s holdings (including the X-Men) in 2019, 2020’s The New Mutants was already filmed but not yet released due to conflicts within the studio. In many ways, the New Mutants in the comics were a precursor to Generation X and their film was going to have a horror twist which mirrored the plot of the 1996 TV movie (which even made reference in story to the A Nightmare on Elm Street series and whose director, Jack Sholder, directed the second film in that franchise). Both films featured young mutants at odds with each other being held prisoner (New Mutants decidedly more-so than Generation X) dealing with horror brought on by dreams. Mentioned earlier, the casting of Jubilee back in 1996 went by without a whisper but such was not the case in 2020. Sunspot, a character hailing from Brazil with African descent, was played by Henry Zaga who is a pure Brazilian causing a significant backlash. Perhaps as it started, so shall it end.