By the admission of Executive Producer and Head Writer, Beau DeMayo, everything the audience sees in X-MEN ’97 is intentional. The team at Disney+ and Marvel Animation clearly crafted a series that is both reminiscent of the original cartoon seasons and simultaneously a long-awaited sequel for the comics community. Despite the gorgeous modern animation, there are likely viewers of the show who are not aware of the distinct references to the decade in which this story originally started. What follows is a brief nineties (and some eighties) cheat sheet for those who wish to exclaim, “I understood that reference”.

Style & Fashion

After a brief takedown of some minions, the action in Episode 1 re-introduces the viewer to Remy LeBeau (aka Gambit) and (more importantly) his shirt. Despite being appropriate for edgy fashion back in the nineties, the depiction of the kinetic energy manipulator caused a social media meltdown. Everyone should remember that alternative fashion retailer Hot Topic opened in this era. Furthermore, the hairstyles complemented these fashion trends; take Ororo Munroe (aka Storm) as an example. Her iconic mohawk, seen in Episodes 4 and 6, is inspired by her late eighties appearances. Similarly, portions of the casual outfit of Jubilation Lee (aka Jubilee) are taken from this timeframe, including oversized earrings and fuchsia vizor-like sunglasses.

Entertainment Systems

Despite the pyrotechnic queen’s questionable fashion, Jubilee and Roberto Da Costa (aka Sunspot) bond over another staple of the nineties: video games. In their Episode 4 adventure, the arcade cabinet hardware is derived from the early eighties, while the home console is a fixture of the decade after. Classics such as Final Fight and Street Fighter are reimagined using pixelated art and boss fight mechanics. Details are stunningly accurate, including the character selection screen, the level introductions, and the health bars. The original X-Men arcade cabinet makes a cameo at the end of this sequence.

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Within the same episode, there are a few movie callbacks too; namely Tron (1982) and The Matrix (1999). One transition between two video game genres is accomplished by Roberto picking up a street payphone and disappearing in a glitched-out effect. This mimics Trinity escaping Agent Smith in the introduction of the nineties film. Later, a futuristic Jubliee variant is revealed inside the digital Motendo world, where the retro villain has trapped her. This plot point is lifted from the eighties film, where ENCOM’s Master Control Program digitizes a human being to maintain control of a cyberspace environment.

Analog Devices

Back in the real world of 1997, the X-Mansion showcases the “current” technology upgrades since the command line terminals of the eighties. Restart Episode 4 and fast-forward to the argument in Jubilee’s room; the retro technology that appears on top of her furniture is a cartridge-based console next to a Cathode-Ray Tube (CRT) monitor. The aspect ratio is a generous 4:3 and the thickness is equal to four or more flat-screens from modern times. Nearby are an early version of a digital alarm clock and a stereo speaker “boombox”, because the technology that replaced these (such as the cellphone) was not yet distributed en masse. 

Pop Culture & Shade

One can only guess at the music emitted from Jubliee’s devices, but listen carefully in Episodes 1 and 5 for a sample of a popular track from 1992. The song “Happy Nation” by the group Ace Of Base is used to set the tone for the events surrounding the mutant nation of Genosha. It is a haunting, yet appropriate theme for what follows next. The arrival of techno-virus-infused Cable and the premonition by psychic / telekinesis user Madelyne Pryor (aka The Goblin Queen) is the last bit of nostalgic comfort. 

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Before discussing that, rewind to the first appearance of Cyclops for a glimpse at the wry humor of the decade. While the laser-eyed mutant is saving the underground-dwelling Morloks, he delivers a two-part response to the Friends of Humanity minion. First, he says “No. Don’t. I surrender.“; he pauses and follows with the single-word retort, “Not”. This was an era-appropriate way of rescinding one’s previous statement or saying the equally snarky word “psyche” to win a verbal debate.

Aside from cringy ways of throwing shade, all of the references and icons of the eighties and nineties enhanced the setting of the events unfolding in X-Men ’97. Unfortunately, those decades did end abruptly with September 11th, drastically changing the world. The production team elaborates on this in social media spaces, but this is why the old-school references trail off after Episode 5. The three-part finale will remain unspoiled, but it builds off the Genosha event as a critical transition into the coming decades.

Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97 and Marvel X-Men (1992) are both available now on Disney+.

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Jonathan Outlaw

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