Inside ‘X-Men ’97’: EP Brad Winderbaum Talks Shocking Deaths, Marvel Cameos and Bringing ‘Human Desire’ to the Show

SPOILER WARNING: This story discusses major plot developments across the entire first season of “X-Men ’97,” currently streaming on Disney+.

To say Marvel fans have enjoyed the first season “X-Men ’97” — the continuation of the beloved animated series from the 1990s, widely credited for laying the foundation for the explosion of superhero cinema in the 2000s and 2010s — is a bit like saying Wolverine has a bit of an anger issue. The show has enthralled viewers with a dizzying narrative tapestry that’s been unflinching in its capacity to make bold choices. First among them was Episode 5, “Remember It,” in which an army of robot Sentinels slaughters thousands of mutants who had been celebrating in their island nation of Genosha, a truly shocking development that vividly — and trenchantly — evokes similar tragedies, from 9/11 to the Pulse nightclub shooting to the attacks in Israel on Oct. 7 and the ongoing siege of Gaza in response. (The show’s creator and showrunner, Beau DeMayo, was fired prior to the Season 1 premiere, but after “Remember It” first aired, he posted to X, formally Twitter, about how Pulse especially was an inspiration for the episode.)

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That episode ends with the death of the beloved mutant Gambit and launches the show into its second half, when the X-Men must prevent their extinction while also keeping their fellow mutant Magneto from declaring war on humanity in retaliation for Genosha. By the season finale, the X-Men are able to save the world again, before the core team is sent into what will be one of the key storylines for Season 2, involving the all-powerful mutant Apocalypse.

Variety spoke with executive producer Brad Winderbaum, who also oversees all of Marvel Animation, about how the team behind the series approached making so many daring creative decisions, what fans can expect in Season 2, and why the X-Men actually have sex.

When did you realize that the show was really resonating with fans?

When we dropped the first trailer. People knew about it, but we really crafted that piece of the marketing to bring us back into the ’90s, and the reaction was a huge sigh of relief that what the fans were seeing was the same thing that we were trying to make.

Was there any aspect of the show that you were anxious or nervous about how it might be received?

Yeah, the death of Gambit was something that kept us all up at night. Once we made the decision to do it, we knew it would be devastating. We knew it was on us to have to earn it, in the writing, in the directing, in the long setup of four episodes before it aired. You know, I don’t think there was a screening of that episode that didn’t bring me to tears watching it. So we were waiting with bated breath about what would happen when we when unleashed it on the culture.

The whole episode is so intense and bracing. “X-Men” comic readers have lived through the massacre of Genosha, but to see it rendered so vividly on the show is something that many fans thought Marvel never would do. Was that part of why you wanted to do it?

Yeah. Beau and I talked a lot about the loss of innocence that happened on 9/11. I was in New York on 9/11. I was on the street. When we’re developing it with [supervising director] Jake [Castorena], the idea that we would stay at ground level during the attack was new. In the comics, what I think what Grant Morrison did really well was that’s the epicenter, and you could feel that ripple just change the world around everyone for so many issues. The attack itself is actually pretty brief, which added to the tragedy in the comics. Something we were trying to capture in the cartoon was that feeling of just everything shifting in an instant, and being on the ground with people during that attack. That’s one of the reasons why I think it feels so visceral and devastating, and had the impact that it did.

Obviously, there’s a degree of scope and spectacle on this show that would be prohibitively expensive, even for Marvel, but what do you think animation affords the show that would be harder to get away with in live action? 

I think this is true for television in general, but certainly true in “X-Men 97” when it’s at its best, when you invest in those longer relationships that simmer over time from episode to episode, even season over season, when tragedy strikes, when the stakes become very dangerous, it packs more of an emotional punch — because you know what’s going to be lost. It’s not just that person, that hero. It’s also all the time and the investment in the relationship. When you have a romance between Rogue and Gambit, it ends up being unrequited, part of this complicated love triangle. With his sacrifice, so much potential is lost — for that character, for the relationships. You could feel viscerally the shock wave it will set off through the other characters.

Speaking of relationships, not to put too fine a point on this, but the X-Men have sex, and that is not something that Marvel Studios in general has explored a lot. I see you’re nodding — was that also something you discussed?

Part of the ethos of the show is to emulate our memory of the original cartoon, and honor the source material. In every page of “X-Men” is human desire, and how it leads to romance, to complications, to people’s awakenings in various ways over the years, and how it leads to conflict and tragedy and how friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Part of that is about human desire and passion. Even though a lot of it is implied, you’re right to say it’s very present in “X-Men.”

Magneto’s line in Episode 5 that “so many allow their leaders to be terrorists” — a lot of viewers have singled that out as particularly powerful, given the vehement feelings about Gaza and Israel right now. How did you feel about it?

It was, to me, confirmation that we were making the right show at the right time. It also has a certain meta-tragedy to it. We’re emulating a show from 30 years ago, and that original show was made 30 years after Jack [Kirby] and Stan [Lee] launched the original comic book. So we’re looking at this in a 60-year timeframe. That just shined a spotlight on the tragedy of the human race, and the fact that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

We saw several other Marvel superheroes appear, in the finale especially. Should fans expect more of that in Season 2?

It’s such a big part of the original show. Larry Houston, the original EP and series director, is famous for hiding characters in that original series. We’re honoring that, and also trying to conjure that feeling we had as kids when you’d see Deadpool or Ghost Rider for one second. All the artists, directors and writers have their favorite characters that they wanted to see. We were also able to show that the X-Men still exist in a ’90s version of the Marvel Universe. It’s not like an island that’s just X-Men. The Avengers are there, Spider-Man is there. The X-Men are as Marvel as Spider-Man and Captain America.

How far along are you with Season 2? Do you think it’ll be ready for next year?

Release date is very TBD. We are in the middle of the animatic phase — there’s still a lot of work that that goes into it from a storytelling perspective, before you ship to animation. There’s still heavy lifting. But it is well on its way to, I hope, meeting audiences’ expectations. I feel very similarly to as I did making Season 1, where I’m like, “Man, I hope it’s as good as we think it is.” But release dates across the board are still a little bit in flux.

The season finale ended with a teaser introducing the villain Apocalypse. Should people expect that to be the storytelling spine of Season 2?

I think it is it safe to say that based on that tag, we will continue that story. If I go beyond that, I’m going too far into spoiler territory.

Will the show be still be “X-Men ’97,” or “X-Men ’98”?

It’ll be “X-Men ’97.”

Finally, “X-Men ’97” is in its own timeline, but what have you learned making this show that you think could translate to how Marvel moves forward with mutants in live-action?

Everything we make at the studio informs everything else. We have a very collaborative environment here. I’ve never worked anywhere else, so I don’t know what it’s like other places, really, but we’re a tight- knit group. We’re always looking at each other’s materials, and talking about each other’s projects. Something like “X-Men ’97,” it influences not just plans for the X-Men, but our studio overall. Just like everything else we make, it sends a ripple through the other creative projects. We’re always trying to learn and have that conversation with the culture, and try to create stuff that we love that hopefully other people love, too.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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