This week’s Guest Star Sara Century is a horror writer, podcast host, and a critic. You can find out more at www.saracentury.com
Jean Grey isn’t always an easy character to nail down, and while she has plenty of A+ appearances over the years, it’s also true that not every writer clicks with her character. This can lead to an overall inconsistent narrative that tends to default to flashbacks of the Phoenix’s greatest hits. Perhaps no realm does Jean so dirty as that of animation and film, with a number of uninspired takes on the character in the X-Men’s best-known franchises leading to many fans to find her a bit dull.
Yet, not every take on Jean Grey is rocky, and some are genuinely great, even when dated in their own ways. X-Men: Evolution is a cartoon very much of its time, but its version of Jean Grey maintained without a glimpse of The Phoenix for four seasons, allowing the writers to build her character on its own merits. While not without its own issues, this was a Jean with unwavering faith in herself, and it made for pretty great TV. Put on your hiphuggers, folks, we’re going back to the year 2000.
SANDALS AND KHAKIS JEAN
Taking the X-Men back to their origins as a school for mutants, Evolution leaned heavily into the interactions between its teen characters, positing Storm, Wolverine, and Xavier as the adults in the room. As was often seen in the comics, Jean is in the generally uncomfortable position of having more in common with the adults than with most of the people her age. This allows her to step into a mentor role for people that are only slightly younger than her, but puts a significant amount of pressure on her and leaves her feeling ultimately quite lonely.
Evolution’s Jean had a sparsely detailed backstory compared to the comics, so if she had any kind of a similarly traumatic inciting incident that sparked her awareness of her powers, we don’t know much about it. However, we know that she and Scott were the first students at Xavier’s, which is why their bond seems to supersede their connections with their other friends and peers. When Nightcrawler and Shadowcat join the team, it is Jean who is expected to reach out and comfort them.
This is particularly noticeable in “The X-Impulse,” in which Xavier barely speaks to Kitty and instead sends Jean not only to befriend her, but to save her life at the end of the episode. Likewise, in “Mutant Crush,” Jean sees that Fred Duncan is being treated badly, and reaches out to him. When he mistakes this kindness as a crush, she is mature and reasonable, talking him down but never condescending to him. When it comes to people skills, this version of Jean might be the most personable. Still, as many gifted children are prone to, she suffers from the pressures that come at her from all angles.
JEAN GETS AN ALMOST NORMAL HIGH SCHOOL EXPERIENCE
One thing that doesn’t make a ton of sense in Evolution is Jean dating the bigoted teen jock Duncan for the first couple of seasons. Her deferral to this character is strange, because she doesn’t even seem to particularly like him, but then again, teenagers are going to teenage. Still, even at that, Jean is shown explicitly standing up for herself a number of times through the series, calling to some of her most important character beats in the comics. In the hilarious Girl Power episode of the series, “Walk On The Wild Side,” the story takes its foundation from Jean becoming understandably frustrated with Scott interfering with her training sessions and treating her like a damsel in distress. When she continues to feel disrespected, she joins a literal girl gang that forms to put aggressive boys in their places.
Though Jean doesn’t get a lot of screentime overall in the series, it can’t be said that it doesn’t count when it happens. Her relationship with Scott is important, but so are her friendships with the others. She is able to treat a scared Kitty Pryde with the utmost consideration and patience early on, and the bond that forms between them lasts throughout the series. Likewise, though Rogue attempts to feud with Jean and derisively refers to her as “Ms. Perfect,” Jean is able to see that her aggression stems from feelings of inadequacy, and she reaches out in friendship to her. It took Jean literal decades to get to that place with Emma Frost in the comics, so this is worthy of note.
WHAT THE FUTURE MIGHT HAVE HELD
Boyd Kirkland, the executive producer of Evolution, has said in interviews that if the series had continued into a fifth season, they would have likely tapped into The Dark Phoenix Saga as a source for stories. This might have given us a better fleshed-out view of Jean’s backstory before she came to the Xavier Institute, but beyond that, the series is all the better for not having tried its hand at a Phoenix story. Indeed, in Jean’s best moments in Evolution, it’s easy to feel that the Phoenix was a plot device that kept us from getting to know the real Jean for far too long. This version of her shines because we get to see her function on her own terms, and the Phoenix would have taken that from her in ways that writers after Chris Claremont have generally been a little too flippant about already.
Evolution’s Jean clicks with some of the most underrated aspects of her personality by never forgetting that despite her popularity and seeming perfection, she never seems to quite fit in anywhere. With her peers, she’s too mature, with the adults, she’s the teacher’s pet, with her family, she’s scary. Even with Scott, the very nature of her powers places her in the difficult position of never being fully present. Evolution succeeded in making Jean a character that seemed somehow both perfect and inherently quite flawed due to her inability to ever fully trust or depend on anyone. By showing us the foundation where Phoenix might have grown without ever going through the motions of having it actually occur, it told a better Jean Grey story than most.
Sara Century is a horror writer, podcast host, and a critic. See what she’s up to at www.saracentury.com