?Yes, 21. Really, considering how great this ’90s cartoon adaptation of Marvel’s uncanny X-Men was, it’s almost a shame to limit it to even a number that large. The series was simply that good for most of its 76 episode run, although if you sat through to the bitter end you already know that Season 5 was a tough pill to swallow. Nonetheless, limit it we did, letting our choices be dictated by storytelling quality, action quantity and overall relevance to the X-Men canon. Now, almost 20 years after the series premiered, we’ve seen one X-series come and go and are in the midst of another, yet it’s hard to argue that this incarnation, inspired greatly by but not limited to the early ’90s work of Jim Lee and company, was the greatest on-screen treatment the X-Men have ever seen, including the movies. From the more grown-up art style and storytelling along with its ability to expand a great narrative across an entire season (capturing the feel of a comic) and having one of the most killer intros and themes in cartoon history, X-Men had it all in a series that truly deserves a place at the table for the greatest Saturday morning cartoons of all time. So, here they are — our picks for the 21 best episodes in X-Men. Suit up!
21) Cold Comfort
“Cold Comfort” — the story of why Bobby Drake aka Iceman left the X-Men — was a fan service smorgasbord too delicious to ignore. Not only did it finally give the popular character some screen time, but it also showed off some vintage X-footage (Beast, Scott, Jean and Bobby in their original uni’s), but gave the members of X-Factor some time to shine. The episode isn’t perfect, but the story keeps a welcome lighter tone thanks to the familial bickering between Xavier, Bobby and Cyke while shedding light on Iceman’s past.
20) A Rogue’s Tale
By the time “A Rogue’s Tale” was televised during Season 2, X-fans who hadn’t missed a beat of the series were already well acquainted with Rogue’s much maligned ability to touch-drain the life energies, memories and powers of humans and mutants she makes skin contact with, and her history with Cody, the boy she tragically put in a coma by way of her first kiss. What hadn’t really been delved into by the show though was why Rogue is able to lift really big stuff, withstand a merciless beating, and well, fly. Enter “A Rogue’s Tale” which explores Rogue’s history through nightmares, visions and shapeshifting trickery. In the episode, viewers learn how Rogue was once a member of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (as Mystique’s foster daughter) before she met Professor Xavier, and had been tricked by Mystique into draining the powers (super strength and flight) of Ms. Marvel permanently during an attempted aircraft hijacking — leaving Rogue much more powerful than before and Ms. Marvel a possible permanent coma patient. The episode strikes a good balance of action and revelation, culminating in a battle within Rogue’s mind between the entrapped disembodied psychic spectre of Ms. Marvel, a Cerebro-linked Jean Grey and Rogue herself.
19) Deadly Reunions
The story in “Deadly Reunions” begins with Magneto baiting Professor X by blowing up a chemical plant. After the X-Men attempt to stop Magneto (and fail) Magneto and Professor X face off with Xavier’s psychic ability proving too much for Magneto to withstand. Meanwhile Rogue “accidentally” absorbs Cyclops’ powers while trying to resuscitate him and memorably blasts herself across the room before Cyke instructs her to close her eyes, deactivating the beams but rendering Rogue blind until the power wears off. Back at the mansion after Senator Kelly declares his soon-to-be successful run at the U.S. presidency, Sabertooth expertly talks Jubilee into releasing his restraints. Once in control, he reveals that he’s under Magneto’s employ, essentially giving a lurking Wolverine the green light to take out his frustrations on his old foe, proving that his stand on Sabertooth was the correct one. The episode is action packed and features a very cool sequence illustrating the deep confines of Sabertooth’s mind while Xavier tries to break through his mental barriers psychically, making it a great episode for the nostalgic appreciators of the show and newcomers alike.
18) One Man’s Worth
Inspired by the Age of Apocalypse storyline from the comics, two-parter “One Man’s Worth” explores what the future might look like if Professor X was assassinated by Fitzroy and Nimrod in 1959, and features cool new looks for Nightcrawler, Beast, love birds Wolverine and Storm, and their leader, Magneto. Of course, whenever an alternate future is involved in X-Men, Forge and Bishop aren’t far behind, and along with Shard, Wolverine, and Storm, they successfully prevent the assassination, changing both the future and present for the best and ending the sweet romance Wolvie and Storm enjoyed in their alternate timeline. Sniff.
17) Beauty & the Beast
In what might be the most strictly emotional episode of the series, “Beauty & the Beast” really does a great job of delving into what makes Beast tick. On the cusp of curing his patient Carly of her blindness, Beast soon realizes that he has fallen in love with her. When the Friends of Humanity kidnap Carly, Beast is forced to team up with her prejudiced father to rescue her. Meanwhile Wolverine has dawned a trucker cap and shades to infiltrate F.O.H Headquarters, where Beast soon joins him to rescue his true love. After some routine roughhousing, Wolverine masterfully orchestrates an escape that simultaneously plays head games with F.O.H leader Graydon Creed by having Cyclops, Jean and Jubilee broadcast a hologram of Sabertooth into the building, revealing Sabertooth to be Graydon Creed’s father and causing his F.O.H lackeys to desert him upon the revelation. The episode concludes on a touching note, with Beast telling Carly he loves her and Carly’s father thanking Beast for his help.
While not exactly essential to the series’ continuity, “Obsession” is an enjoyable entry composed in the same style of a good summer blockbuster. Befittingly obsessed with destroying Apocalypse after being unwillingly transformed into Archangel by his technology, Warren Worthington aka Angel’s specialists and historians uncover a scroll that displays what is purportedly a weakness in the back of Apocalypse’s neck that may be the secret to destroying him once and for all. After a few minutes of having it out with Apocalypse in his giant form near the Statue of Liberty, the X-Men come to Archangel’s defense and Apocalypse retreats. Back at the mansion, the X-Men detect a “mighty ship designed by creatures beyond the stars” according the early apocalyptic scholars in one of Beast’s books. Meanwhile, Rogue spends some quality time with the recovering Archangel revisiting the fact that she absorbed part of his mind in their previous encounter, and despite the rest of the team’s objections goes off to help him on his suicide mission to destroy Apocalypse. Wolverine, Cyclops and Beast board Apocalypse’s ship and set a trap which springs perfectly, entrapping Apocalypse in a force field. Unfortunately Apocalypse knows the deactivation code and chooses the moments after to reveal the weakness on the scroll was only a cruel ruse. Fortunately for the good guys, the relationship Beast struck up with the ship’s computer while arming the trap comes up big as the ship turns on Apocalypse and jettisons him deep into space after the team escapes in the Blackbird.
15) Weapon X, Lies, and Video Tape
“Weapon X, Lies, and Video Tape” almost gains entry onto this list by merit of its title alone, but luckily for us, the story that came with it is equally great. The episode opens with Wolverine freaking out on the other X-Men after another of what has become a routine set of nightmares and delusions involving his past. After the incident, Wolverine hops in a jeep and heads to Canada, following the coordinates on the back of a picture uncovered by Jean and Beast in his room after his departure. Per said coordinates, Wolverine ends up back at the remains of the lab where his Weapon X experiment took place. The episode uncovers more of Logan’s Weapon X training and his history with Silver Fox, Sabertooth and Maverick, and while it concludes with the good guys taking on a giant robot named Talos who hilariously launches boob-mounted rockets at them towards the end of their skirmish, it’s still a worthy chapter in X-lore.
14) Beyond Good and Evil
Depending on how much you loved the X-Men episodes featuring time travel, you were either giddy with joy or ready to leap into oncoming traffic by the time would-be series finale “Beyond Good and Evil” rolled around, featuring an epic four part story that teamed the deadliest of the X-Men’s foes against them in unison with the objective of fulfilling Apocalypse’s plot to use the world’s greatest psychics to recreate the universe in his own image from his headquarters in the Axis of Time. With stakes that high and its nods to several series high points, it’s pretty easy to tell that this was supposed to be the last one, which may diminish the value of the episode to some degree considering there was a fifth season, but its epic scale more than makes up for any arguable shortcomings, and its nerd-friendliness is unquestionable.
13) Out of the Past
Season 3 premiere and two-part episode “Out of the Past” introduced a lot of new elements to the series — Lady Deathstrike, a new animation style, intergalactic intrigue and last but not least, shirtless basketball. All kidding aside though, “Out of the Past” was one of those cool haunting episodes that made X-Men special, mostly thanks to the eerie score and the presence of its star character the Spirit Drinker, a terrifying alien creature that has the power to live up to its name by sucking the life force from its victims and trapping their minds within itself leaving only their bodies behind. The episode also serves as another look into Wolverine’s past, both regarding Yuriko and his dealings with the CIA, and works as a nice, dark prologue to The Phoenix Saga as it’s revealed that the Spirit Drinker’s ship was actually a prison cell of Shi’ar design.
After a season of Bazooka Joe-sized mini-adventures attached to various episodes, the two-part Season 2 finale finally got to the heart of the matter, revealing that the whole Savage Land debacle Professor X and Magneto found themselves snared in was Mr. Sinister’s doing, even though it was originally Magneto who created it. Having captured Jean, Professor X, Magneto and Morph who has bucked Sinister’s mind control and returned to the X-Men’s side, Sinister lures the rest of the X-Men into a trap of a rescue mission. Once the blackbird lands, Cyclops, Storm, Rogue, Gambit, Wolverine and Beast soon learn that their mutant powers have disappeared, just like Chuck and Magnus experienced before them. Not only that, but they’re immediately thrown into an unfair battle with Sinister’s Nasty Boys who retain their special abilities. With the rest of the team captured, Wolverine who was able to break away during the skirmish teams with Ka-Zar to fight dinosaurs and break his people, and the rest of the X-Men free, concluding with another satisfying session of target practice for Cyclops as he blasts the meddlesome and obsessive Sinister to shreds once again in an epic X-Men season finale.
11) Whatever It Takes
After Cerebro registers a tear in the Astral plane near Mount Kilimanjaro (and Beast quietly blames Bishop for the instance), Rogue and Storm take it upon themselves to investigate, only to find that Storm’s godson Mjnari has been possessed by the horrifying Shadow King, an evil spectre of psychic energy who crossed paths with Storm previously when he inhabited the guise of Amahl Farouk, the ring leader of the pack of street thieves Storm was a member of as an orphan in Cairo. Meanwhile, Wolverine tracks Morph into Brazil where he soon finds that his friend and former teammate is still unwilling to return home. Back in Africa, Storm and company manage to drive the Shadow King back into the astral plane, resealing him in oblivion. The episode concludes with another snippet of Professor X’s and Magneto’s adventures in the Savage Land. “Whatever It Takes” stands out from other episodes because it’s so refreshingly different in its setting, villain and tone — a welcome change after all of the comparably complex and time travely goings-on in the show’s previous installments.
10) The Phoenix Saga Part 5: Child of Light
While it’s tempting to just make an entry called “The Phoenix Saga: All of It” and call it a day, considering that episodes involving the team’s dealings with the Phoenix and Shi’ar could almost be given their own season, it wouldn’t exactly be fair to the other entries on this list whose stories cover less ground. Enter “Child of Light,” the most epic of entries from the Phoenix Saga, in which Phoenix and the X-Men have it out in a final battle with D’Ken (Lilandra’s evil bro) over the fate of the universe. Jean apparently makes the ultimate sacrifice, Spider-Man, War Machine and Mjnari make cameos, Beast quotes Dickenson, and viewers get a satisfactory conclusion to one of the most beloved of X-Men storylines.
9) Slave Island
“Slave Island” was a radical departure from the episodes that came before it — mainly thanks to the dark subject matter it put into play. Sure, by the time it aired X-Men had already made its mark as a cartoon series with a more adult tone in its previous 6 episodes, but actions that were included in its story, namely the enslavement of Jubilee, Gambit and Storm along with other mutants in a work camp and Storm’s bloodcurdling confinement to “the box” after an escape attempt really set it apart. And of course, the episode also marks the first appearance of the take-no-prisoner ass-kicking time traveler Cable (Gambit: “Who are you?” Cable: “The Wild Man of Borneo. See ya around.”) who contributes greatly to the mutants’ escape from the Sentinel slave camp. When all is well again the team returns home to a completely demolished school and a missing Professor X in one of the series’ greatest cliffhangers.
8) The Final Decision
“The Final Decision” is one of those great adrenaline filled finales that we love to see in any of our favorite action serials — enemies teaming up to become friends in order to defeat a greater evil, loose ends getting tied up and our favorite characters coming up in big unexpected ways. Starting up where “Days of Future Past” left off, Magneto has kidnapped Senator Kelly — as he attempts to crush him with a beam aboard his ship, Sentinels intervene to rescue Kelly and hand Mags his ass. Back at Sentinel H.Q., Dr. Trask reveals that he wants a presidential order to put Sentinels in charge of controlling mutants once Kelly becomes President, to which Kelly hastily agrees. Master Mold, who apparently survived the “Slave Island” debacle, reveals to have other ideas though, taking control of the situation and revealing his plans to replace Kelly’s brain with a computer as part of a global takeover plot. After pressing the anti-mutant federal agent Henry Gyrich for the location of the Sentinel base, prompting him to reveal that thousands of Sentinels have already been produced, the X-Men take off on a suicide mission to stop them. Ultimately Magneto shows up with perfect timing to bail everyone out and to allow Professor X the time to awesomely fly the blackbird loaded with TNT right into Master Mold’s heart to end the Sentinel threat. Beast finally gets out of jail, Senator Kelly starts supporting mutant rights, Cyke pops the question to Jean and Wolverine proves to be a worthy team player… but Mr. Sinister’s shadow looms over the team through a brief cameo at the end of the episode, keeping fans at the edge of their seats for what was to come.
7) A Deal with the Devil
With all due respect to “Red Dawn” — the first episode of the series where Omega Red causes trouble for the good guys — “A Deal with the Devil” is strictly better because it forces Wolverine and Storm to join Omega Red in what has to be the last place on earth either of them would want to be packed in with the big red death machine — a tiny mini sub two miles under the ocean. As the story unfolds, we learn that Omega Red has been thawed out by the U.S. government in order to use him to retrieve an unstable Soviet nuclear sub. If Omega Red agrees, he is told, he’ll be returned to human form and a normal life. Omega Red does accept the terms, but on one condition — that he gets to take his old enemy Wolverine and the claustrophobic Storm into the deep with him, demands to which the duo reluctantly agree for the good of public safety. From there the tension only grows, which Wolverine getting into verbal sparring matches with Red despite Storm’s warning that any physical altercation would surely breach the hull and kill them all. So, to review: ticking time bomb inside, unstable nuclear weapons outside. Of course once at the controls of the Soviet sub Omega Red inevitably turns hostile, taking over the situation, illustrating his plot to destroy the world’s 15 largest cities with the vessel’s missiles. Luckily for everyone involved, Beast and Rogue are there to destroy the missiles in mid air with the Blackbird to prevent them from reaching their intended destinations, and Rogue’s attack on the sub gives Storm and Wolverine time to escape to the mini-sub and damages the sub’s navigation device, sending Omega Red to the ocean’s bottom, wrapping up quite possibly the most white knuckled X-Men episode ever.
6) Days of Future Past
There’s plenty to love in this two-parter that introduced viewers to the Terminator-but-with-mutants future that consistently intermingled with the lives of the present-day X-Men in the series. The episode opens in New York City circa 2055 with an aging Wolverine being captured by a “tracker” known as Bishop after he’s been weakened in a Sentinel battle. Bishop, under the assumption that he’ll be spared as long as he acts as a mercenary to bring “rebel” mutants back to Sentinel HQ for termination soon learns that his tail is equally on the line and helps Wolverine escape their giant purple hands. Wolverine then takes Bishop to meet Forge who sends Bishop back in time to stop a pivotal assassination and prevent the robo-ruled future, jumping through the portal just in time to avoid an undesirable brawl with Nimrod. Once he arrives in the 90’s, he attempts to ice Gambit under the impression that he is the assassin that will cause his post apocalyptic future. Eventually of course, it’s revealed that Mystique — under the guise of Gambit — is the culprit with the target being none other than president-to-be Senator Kelly. Luckily Gambit shows up to stop the attempt, even finding time to drop doppelganger puns. Once Bishop returns to the future however, he finds things are just as bad as they were when he left, prompting him to get back to work with his new pal Forge. Meanwhile, the X-Men attempt to meet with Senator Kelly after the incident only to find Kelly’s office trashed and the Senator missing. While Cyke instantly lays blame on the same crew they just tussled with, Professor X suspects a different evil noting that his watch has stopped, dropping it to the ground only to see it stick to the side of his hoverchair, alluding to more of Magneto’s mischievousness in another great cliffhanger.
5) The Dark Phoenix Saga Part 4: The Fate of the Phoenix
When Lilandra and company return to Earth to claim Jean in order to hold her responsible for the destruction she caused as Phoenix, Xavier takes the opportunity to invoke a customary Shi’ar challenge, positioning his X-Men against Lilandra’s Imperial Guard for the custody and subsequent fate of Jean Grey. Before the epic battle on Earth’s moon, the X-Men philosophically debate the ethics in turning Jean over. Jean throws on her Marvel Girl and the challenge, or more specifically, brawl between the two teams commences. When the X-Men prove to be outmatched, Jean returns to her Phoenix form, and Professor X orders the team to destroy her. After the dust settles, the Phoenix separates herself from Jean and each X-Man touchingly gives a piece of their life energy to resuscitate her, concluding the team’s dealings with the Phoenix once and for all.
4) Repo Man
One of the many things X-Men was really good at was making sure the back stories of most of the key characters were thoroughly explored. Often times this was accomplished by craftily devoting a whole episode to a particular character. This approach was a natural fit for the Clawed One, as his loner mentality and multiple solo missions gave writers plenty of space to craft stories around the secrets locked in his past. Of those, “Repo Man” is undoubtedly the best, with Wolverine being lured to Canada under a false pretense only to be jumped by members of his former team Alpha Flight, including Vindicator and Puck. Besides the inherent coolness that non-X-pros must have found in learning that Wolvie was part of a different team of mutants before joining the X-Men, the episode is also the archetypal entry in the series regarding Wolverine’s history with the Weapon X program, taking viewers back to the experiment that famously covered his bones in the adamantium that help make him such a finely tuned killing machine. Wolverine is captured and returned to the lab in order conduct painful scans to discover why the program was such a success on his skeleton, but once the rest of Alpha Flight learns that the reason they bagged Wolvie wasn’t to regain him as a teammate, they spring to his defense, freeing him only to receive a stern warning from the man in yellow.
3) Til Death Do Us Part
In another two-parter, “Til Death Do Us Part’s” story begins during Scott and Jean’s wedding day and just like in the ’90s comic, Wolverine is notably absent from the ceremony. Unlike that issue though, it’s revealed that Morph, now under Sinister’s control and hell-bent on ruining the X-Men’s lives, was posing as the reverend, voiding Scott and Jean’s nuptials. Meanwhile, Graydon Creed and his Friends of Humanity begin to stir up trouble by attempting to steer the public against mutants again despite Senator Kelly’s best efforts. After Professor X leaves for coordinates left in a video message by an apparently embattled Magneto, Morph begins a deadly game of Guess Who by impersonating different members of the X-Men, most notably convincing Gambit that he’ll finally be able to get some action from Rogue while impersonating her, only to have him fall prey to her powers after trying to kiss the real Rogue while she was napping. As fans already are aware, Sinister’s crown jewel objective is to acquire Scott and Jean, choosing to have his own team of mutants, known as the “Nasty Boys” capture them during their honeymoon in order to acquire their genetic material for a slave race of mutants he hopes to create, blocking their powers with the same collars used on the mutants in Genosha in the “Slave Island” episode. Luckily for the newlyweds, Wolverine, Gambit, Rogue and Beast show up in the nick of time to own Sinister’s lackeys, which along with Morph’s help give Cyclops time to free himself in order to blast Sinister’s torso to shreds with his optic beam as he retreats meekly. “Til Death Do Us Part” expertly weaves the themes of love, hate, jealousy and revenge into its plot while simultaneously revealing new threats and issues that the X-Men will have to contend with for the rest of the show’s second season and beyond all with perfect pacing, making it essential viewing for any X-Fan.
2) Enter Magneto
Only the third episode of X-Men, “Enter Magneto” sets the stage for what’s to come so beautifully – both in terms of story telling elements and character development — that its relevance to the X-Men canon is impossible to overlook. The episode’s story surrounds the emergence of two soon-to-be key series figures, one being Sabertooth, who throws an animalistic tantrum after Beast is denied bail during his trial (fun fact: Beast’s lawyer is none other than the chameleonic soon-to-be X-villain Cameron Hodge), and the other being, of course, Magneto, who makes his grand entrance by blowing a hole in the side of Beast’s prison cell and offering him liberty, only to have Beast turn him down in order to give his terrific defining mutantized version of Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” speech in court from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Magneto’s reappearance prompts Xavier to explain their shared past to Jubilee, cluing viewers in on their history. The episode also delves into the intense nature of Wolverine’s hatred for Sabertooth (Cyclops: “Come on, they’re going to kill him!” Wolverine: “Good.”) in addition to his penchant for bucking authority, specifically when he refuses to help Cyclops save Sabertooth and questions Professor Xavier’s possible double standard. All of this rich tone setting goodness concludes in a decidedly ’80s Top Gun-style Magneto vs. the X-Men military nuclear missile silo showdown that is both awesome and satisfying, making the episode a must-see.
1) Time Fugitives
The perfect companion piece to the popular “Days of Future Past,” two-parter “Time Fugitives” ups the chrono-ante by adding Cable and series uber-baddy Apocalypse into the mix. Fittingly, “Time Fugitives” opens in a similar way to “DoFP,” with Cable fighting machines in future New York, but this time the ‘bots aren’t Sentinel-inspired, resembling Terminator‘s T-800’s with shoulder mounted rockets instead and in a way-out-there future — the year 3999. The action is interrupted by a temporal storm which begins to slowly devour Cable’s present — prompting him to use his know-it-all cube palm computer to try to piece together the cause of his world’s destruction. Meanwhile in the year 2055 Bishop has just returned to Forge, as he did at the end of “Days of Future Past” only to learn that the prevention of Senator Kelly’s assassination that he contributed to changed the future, but not in the way he planned, as Forge informs him that a plague virus has wreaked havoc on the mutants of the world and that he has never heard of the X-Men. After digesting this shocking news, Bishop orders Forge to send him back to the temporal coordinates of the plague’s first outbreak. Unsurprisingly, it is soon revealed that Graydon Creed is responsible for planting the virus around mutants in public areas, successfully stirring national hysteria against them, and when Bishop not-so-subtly intervenes during an impromptu anti-mutant rally around a building where some mutants are being held in quarantine, he is promptly reunited with the X-Men (Wolverine: “Bishop? What’s that time jockey doing back?”) After Creed attempts to spread the virus during a hearing and ends up infecting himself, the X-Men follow him to a mansion where it is revealed that Creed has been supplied the plague by a disguised Apocalypse, who, after having his lab destroyed by the team proceeds to grow into a giant version of himself and incinerate them with one blast from his energy beam in one of the grimmest scenes in Saturday morning cartoon history.
This opens the door for “Time Fugitives – Part Two” where, in kind of a Back to the Future inspired stroke of genius, the show has Cable, having learned of the X-Men’s would-be fate via his video cube, travel back in time to the events of “Time Fugitives — Part One,” first intercepting Bishop, and ultimately kidnapping Wolverine in order to infect him with the virus and use his advanced healing power to generate the antibodies necessary to stop the outbreak. Meanwhile the rest of the team initiates the same strike they engaged in during “TF — Part One” and with the help of Cable’s gadgetry contain Apocalypse long enough to escape. Bishop returns to a future without a plague, and Cable gets back the war torn world timeline he traveled from.
It’s hard to quite put your finger on it, but somewhere in midst of all the action and time hopping this episode really nailed the X-Men and what the show was all about — selfless sacrifice, teamwork, allegorical representations of prejudice and evils that can only be contained but never destroyed, all served chilled through intriguing slight of hand storytelling mixed with a dash of contemporary sci-fi and comic book magic, “Time Fugitives” manages to be as unforgettable as the series it’s part of, and that’s no small task.