Before Capes Were Cool #6: Generation X (1996)

It might seem odd that an X-Men spinoff got a movie before the X-Men proper, but if you look at the time and the place, it makes a certain amount of sense. It was the ’90s, dude, and you’ve got a superhero property called “Generation X.” It was the zeitgeist, baby! If the Fox network had a hit for kids with the X-Men Saturday morning cartoon show, maybe they could get their older siblings hooked on a similar concept by adding some Beverly Hills, 90210 teen-angst flavor. And so, the Generation X TV movie aired on Fox on February 20, 1996, and a young Great Boos Up dutifully taped it and edited out the commercials for subsequent viewings.

Screenwriter Eric Blakeney (formerly a writer for the original, non-ironic TV version of 21 Jump Street), was a fan of the comics and keen to adapt them. And for the most part, I think the film is nicely written. The movie leaps right into the idea of mutants as second-class citizens with the following on-screen text:

Mutationn. 1. The act of being altered or changed. 2. The illegal genetic condition [US Statute 5504178], first apparent in puberty, caused by the X factor located in the pineal gland of the brain.

We continue on this theme by opening on the film’s villain, government researcher Doctor Russell Tresh (Matt Frewer), about to perform brain surgery on a conscious and unwilling mutant with flippers for hands. His colleague, Emma Frost (Finola Hughes), brings in the feds to stop him, but they don’t bother to arrest Tresh, and the unregistered mutant is taken into custody for being in violation of the Mutant Control Act, which prompts Frost to quit in disgust.

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From there, we jump five years forward to meet the stretchable Angelo/Skin (Agustin Rodriguez) and firework-generating Jubilee (Heather McComb), who are recruited to Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngers by Frost and Sean Cassidy/Banshee (Jeremy Ratchford) and act as our entry points to the world of the movie. Jubilee’s introduction hews pretty close to her introduction in the X-Men cartoon, down to her powers causing trouble at a video arcade.1 At the academy, they meet classmates Monet St. Croix/M (Amarillis), Mondo (Bumper Robinson), Arlee/Buff (Suzanne Davis), and Kurt/Refrax (Randall Slavin). The new recruits get razzed but eventually are accepted. They go out to a carnival and get into a fight with some townies over a girl, and two of them make out in a car, and they all generally do 1990s network-TV television teenager stuff. It’s not groundbreaking or edgy, but it’s generally amusing and sensitively handled.

The main plot concerns Tresh, who now uses his expertise in psychic phenomena to create subliminal messages in advertisements (which Jubilee’s “latent psychic ability” can apparently see through) because it’s the ‘90s and all us hip anticorporate youngsters know advertising is the enemy. (Tresh targets kids in cigarette ads.)  But what he really wants is to gain access to the “dream dimension,” which all mutants can access.2 Tresh manages to infiltrate Skin’s dreams using his dream machine and eventually captures him, with the intent of extracting the X factor from Skin’s brain and implanting it in himself. So, in the climax, Frost and Banshee have to lead their inexperienced team into a confrontation in the dream dimension with Tresh (who apparently has already mutated without needing a mutant brain; don’t worry about it too much). It’s all solid if unspectacular superhero business.

Blakeney writes it pretty straight. Appropriate considering he was a fan of the source material, his script doesn’t feel too self-conscious or embarrassed about being a superhero movie…although it plays through a joke about superhero costumes to allow a skeptical audience a moment to feel superior to the nerds (anticipating the “yellow spandex” line in X-Men four years later):

FROST: At the academy, you’ll be required to follow a course of training suited to your mutant abilities and interests.

JUBILEE: I’m interested in body piercing.

BANSHEE: Well, your priorities are shiftin’, darlin’. We’re trainin’ you to be a superhero.

JUBILEE: Will I have to wear one of those, uh, goofy superhero costumes?

FROST (after a beat): When you’ve graduated and able to fight crime, you’ll be given a uniform.

BANSHEE: The uniforms are…quite tasteful.

We do see one costume at the end (as shown in the header) and it’s decently made for its time; it probably helps that they only had to make one.

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In an interview, director Jack Sholder (who has largely directed horror movies like Alone in the Dark and the infamous Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge) basically says that Generation X was just a job, but one he took seriously and professionally. There was no real precedent for how to make a superhero team movie at the time, but Sholder is able to really lean on the straightforward ’90s Fox teen drama style for much of it. For the superhero business, however, the movie seems quite indebted to Batman Forever, which had come out the previous summer and—given how quickly TV movies were turned around back then—it seems possible they’d seen it before making Generation X. There’s a lot of canted angles and neon colors against dark backgrounds. Not camp, exactly, but definitely in the school of “It’s a comic book movie! We need bright colors!” If Sholder wasn’t influenced by Joel Schumacher’s approach to live-action comics, it’s a pretty strong coincidence.

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Where the comparison to Batman Forever seems most conspicuous, however, is in Matt Frewer’s Russell Tresh. Frewer is one of my favorite character actors—the kind of guy I always say, “Hey, nice!” when I see him in the credits of something—but here he really does seem to be doing kind of a poor man’s Jim Carrey Riddler shtick. He’s over-the-top and arrogant and cracking jokes to himself; he does funny voices (including a really grating Southern accent) and a goofy dance. I enjoy it to a point, but all the things that annoyed you about Carrey’s Riddler will probably annoy you about Frewer’s Tresh. There’s also an uncomfortable air of sexual menace about him. When he sees or talks about one of the female mutants, he often flicks out his tongue and makes some kind of suggestive joke, and he gets Skin to do what he wants by threatening to “mind rape” his sister in her dreams. It’s “mature” in the immature way ’90s comics often were.

The guy playing Banshee is a highlight, funny and tough but with a real warmth underneath; interestingly enough, it’s the same actor who voiced Banshee on the cartoon. Emma Frost is decent, although the director says he auditioned or at least considered Sandra Oh, and that is something I think would have been interesting to see. Skin is kind of a one-dimensional stereotype. M is pretty much right off the page, but she doesn’t have much to do. Mondo is solid comic relief as the Big Man on Campus.

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One of the central internal conflicts is between Refrax and Buff, and I think they’re the best part of the movie. You won’t recognize these two from the comics; to keep the special effects budget down, Chamber’s explosive energy blasts and half-destroyed face have been toned down to Refrax’s vision powers, and Husk’s skin-shedding is replaced with Buff’s superstrength. Refrax is an archetypical ’90s rebellious joker dude with his shades and his flannel and his bleach-blond hair. Buff is introverted and self-conscious about her physique—unlike Supergirl, whose strength isn’t reflected in her musculature, she has bodybuilder muscles—and hides it under baggy sweatshirts. They bicker and fight, and it comes out that Refrax actually has a crush on her and is basically a good egg. Again, standards ’90s teen TV stuff, but it works.

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Heather McComb is pretty good as troubled teen Jubilee, but…well, you’ll notice she’s played by a white actress. Director Sholder insists there was nothing in the script identifying her as Chinese-American, and he didn’t read much of the source material, so it does seem quite plausible that he just didn’t know rather than this being a deliberate whitewashing. You’d think someone would’ve said something, but…well, it’s a conversation we still sometimes have today, isn’t it?

Generation X is a little rough in places and is never brilliant, but it’s endearing and sincere. Despite the common assumption that this was meant as a pilot for a series, Sholder says it was meant as a one-off, with the possibility that they might do a sequel movie at some point. I would have liked to see at least another one of these, imperfect as it was.


NEXT WEEK: DC took a crack at a superhero team on TV around the same time with 1997’s Justice League of America. If you hated the “bwa-ha-ha” League, you’ll hate this; if you liked it…you’ll still hate it!