X-Men ’97 Director Explains the Animation Style and His Favorite Characters


X-Men ’97 has hit Disney+, and it has been a success. While some fans might have been skeptical when the series was first announced (the X-Men’s place in the Marvel Universe has been downplayed for almost two decades, after all), early word of mouth before the series premiered was glowing. It showed that Marvel had a big hit on their hands. Supervising producer and director Jake Castorena is certainly happy to hear all the positive reactions from the series. “On behalf of the whole team, it’s just really good to hear the positive reception.”




Castorena is living every fan’s dream. He has been a storyboard artist on beloved projects ranging from Young Justice and Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Star Trek: Prodigy. His directing credits include two of the coolest crossover films in recent years: 2018’s Scooby-Doo & Batman: Brave and the Bold and Batman vs. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, he not only gets to play in the X-Men sandbox, but he gets to do so with arguably the most famous incarnation of the characters: X-Men: The Animated Series. As he says:

I’m pretty grateful to be able to have all of my toys and play with them, too. I’m no stranger to working on IPs, and this is absolutely no different, but definitely, it’s not unbeknownst to me, nor the rest of the team, just how much responsibility we have to carry on and honor, leaning on the shoulders that came before us with the OG show.


X-Men ’97

4.5/5

Release Date
March 20, 2024

Cast
Jennifer Hale , Chris Potter , Ray Chase , George Buza , Catherine Disher , JP Karliak

Seasons
1

Studio
Marvel Studios

Franchise
Marvel

X-Men ’97 is a continuation of X-Men: The Animated Series and brings fans back to the decade when the X-Men were the most popular. It was a very different time that many younger audiences might not remember or have a frame of reference for. Interestingly, the 1990s are now as far away from today as X-Men: The Animated Series was from the 1960s when the X-Men first debuted. Castorena, like anyone who lived in the ’90s, jokingly acknowledged the passage of time. “I hate that it’s a period now. My bones hurt just talking about it”

Castorena sat down with MovieWeb to talk about X-Men ’97, including breaking down the show’s breathtaking animation, the series’ influence beyond the original series and comics, and also his personal favorite X-Men.



Same Animated X-Men, Bold New Look

When the first image of X-Men ’97 hit the web, many fans were excited, but some also raised concerns about the new animation style. After all, 3D animation has been on the rise, with even Marvel’s biggest animated series, What If…?, featuring 3D animation, so some were taken aback at the crisp new animation style of X-Men ’97. Many assumed it was some CGI made to look hand-drawn, and even when the trailer debuted, people started saying it was a mix of CGI and hand-drawn 2D animation, but nothing ever came from an official source. So we asked Castorena exactly about the animation:



I am happy to clarify this. This is a 2D hand-animated show.
Our overseas vendor, Studio Mirror, they are just that good and, you know, combined in tandem with our in-house animation team led by Jeremy Polgar with our effects lead led by Chris Graff down to our compositing lead, led by Ashley Phillips, and our production design led by Anthony Wu and all of their they’re encompassing teams that we all work together to bring you what we get is a unique style.”

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The animation is gorgeous, looking far more kinetic and vibrant than X-Men: The Animated Series. That series had plenty of great action, but most fans will admit there is a bit of a disconnect between the show’s opening scene and the finished product. X-Men ’97 had to appeal to both fans of the original series and attract a new audience, which led them to walk a very tight rope in terms of style. Castorena said:


“We do have to stay relevant, and at the end of the day, animation is just raising the bar so much with what you can do visually right now. Animation is getting a lot of respect for the medium that it is. It’s not just the children’s medium, it’s another form to tell stories, and it’s another form to push what can visually be done.”

“So, all of that being done right now, we need to stay relevant to that, but also stay in that ’90s sandbox that we know, love, and remember,” continued Castorena. “So, working in tandem with the team, it’s really about finding what’s been ingrained since Beau’s initial visions from day one and encompassing that visually and finding where those sandbox parameters lie.”

Because what we found out very quickly was, if we go too modern, too advanced, too many bells and whistles, it doesn’t feel like the OG show, but if we go to too old, audiences of today aren’t going to want to watch it. So there is a very meticulous, very planned balance by many, many people on this team to make it feel like the show you once remembered and also stay relevant.


The day the social media reaction for X-Men ’97 hit the web, the first official clip of the series debuted on Rotten Tomatoes showcasing the X-Men fighting off the Sentinels in a breathtaking showcase of animation. If the epic trailer didn’t get audiences excited, that sure was going to build hype. “Shout out to a board artist on that one. Jalen Harden absolutely killed it on that sequence with the Sentinel graveyard, so I’m just happy that the world gets to finally start watching what he did,” said Castorena.

Marvel Animation Returns to the ’90s


Much has changed since X-Men: The Animated Series aired on television, both in terms of the superhero stories and the X-Men specifically. The comics have undergone many changes and introduced many new stories, characters, and concepts into the franchise. There is also the extent to which television and cinema have changed since the series ended.

It is worth noting that when X-Men: The Animated Series concluded in 1996, series like Pokémon and Dragonball Z had not yet premiered in the United States, and both those series would introduce anime to a new generation and redefine animation and action for years. Films like The Matrix had not come out when X-Men: The Animated Series ended, and it is worth noting the black leather outfits of the X-Men had a big impact on the franchise, as the 2000 feature film ditched the colorful costumes from the animated series in favor of The Matrix aesthetic.


X-Men characters play Basketball
Marvel Animation

Jake Castorena discussed how the time period of X-Men ’97 and what media had a great impact on the series. “The cool thing when you’re dealing with a show like X-Men ’97 being a spiritual successor, being a revival…you’re already put into a sandbox of parameters that you need to be in, so we’re essentially doing a period piece, right? I hate that it’s a ‘period’ now. My bones hurt just talking about it,” explained Castorena. He went on:

When you’re creating a period piece, there’s automatically a realm of what not to do, not for the sake of whatever the reason may be, but because stuff just didn’t exist yet. We weren’t time travelers. So, to have it genuinely feel of a vibe and be of an era is to adhere to what was the inspiration for that era.

Related: Essential X-Men: The Animated Series Episodes to Catch Up With ’97


Castorena continued to explain how the influences of X-Men ’97 were dependent upon the genre. “For example, what I can speak to is the visual aspect of it. When I was initially brought on board, my initial philosophy was like, ‘Alright, let’s look at stuff between ’96 and ’98. What was considered cinematic at the time? What kind of lenses were being used at the time? How are things being directed at the time? What was being done in TV animation, anime, feature animation, and live-action? Taking all of those parameters, finding out what those commonalities were, and figuring out, ‘Oh, that’s our place to start.'”

It’s so easy to do something retro and just go, ‘Oh, filter done. It looks old. That’s fine, right?’ What the team and I really wanted to do was just go a step beyond that and truly understand why things look the way they look. To understand the process.


“Just a case in point: no matter what you did on a show back in that era of broadcasting, it all went through a VHS broadcast channel. At the end of the day, it all went through broadcast on VHS, so that’s automatically going to put some sort of, you know, some sort of jeujing all over the lens, over the video. And it’s just finding out why that happened, not just understanding the appearance, but also learning,” said Castorena. “That’s why it feels genuine. It feels like the show you remember, but it doesn’t hit you over the head, and it leans in also to the high-octane action when we get a little modern on you.”

Favorite X-Men Characters and Marvel Universe


X-Men: The Animated Series had a big impact on fans. While X-Men comics were some of the biggest sellers in the industry, the series reached a wider audience and introduced the characters to millions who had never picked up a comic book. The series was a crash course for many in Marvel Comics, as fans not only met the core X-Men team but various other fan-favorite mutants like Nightcrawler, Colossus, Angel, and Psylocke, in addition to teams like X-Force, the Starjammers, and the Shi’ar Royal Guard. Meanwhile, future MCU heroes like Doctor Strange, Thor, and Spider-Man made brief voiceless cameos, while Captain America, Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver were featured in core episodes, giving a sense of the wider Marvel Universe.

“You know, in order to be a spiritual successor, a revival, a continuation, you need to follow core fundamentals of the DNA that made the show that came before you. And in this show that came before us, X-Men, they were the MCU before the MCU became the MCU, right?” said Castorena.


They are a big reason why, at least for me, I found out about derivatives of the team like X-Force or X-Factor just based on the characters being in the animated series. For that to be so true for the original show, in order for us to follow suit, pay real tribute, and do justice to continuing storytelling, we should follow suit.

Related: Prediction: Why Avengers 5 Will Be Changed to Avengers vs. X-Men

Characters like Thor and Spider-Man made brief cameos that the creators had to be clever about due to rights issues, but now X-Men ’97 is not only made under Marvel Studios’ Marvel Animation department, they have the entire Marvel Universe essentially at their disposal. The trailer already teased Spider-Man and Venom in The Daily Bugle headline, while various mutants like Dust, Maggot, Stacy X, Nature Girl, and Loa also appeared in the paper. Should fans be keeping an eye out for other Marvel heroes or other famous mutants to appear? “I just encourage you and others to watch this show and keep an eye out,” said Castorena.


Finally, with a team like X-Men that features many incredible characters, everyone is bound to have a favorite. Legendary comic book writer Gail Simone, who was just recently announced as the writer on the upcoming relaunch of Uncanny X-Men, tweeted out a question to fans: who was their favorite X-Men? Not who they think is the best or the most important, but their personal favorite. With Simone tweeting this question just a few days before this interview, we had to ask Castorena who his favorite X-Men was. He didn’t just have one, but three:

That’s hard because it’s a loaded question, and they change based on the day of the week, what’s going on and what character I’m working on, and what’s seen in what episode. But my core fundamental childhood three are Storm, Gambit, and Wolverine.”


We’re about to get more favorites with Castorena’s great new show. X-Men ’97 is currently airing on Disney+, with two episodes released March 20th and new episodes released weekly. You can watch it below:

Watch X-Men ’97





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