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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘X-Men’ is back, but a key member is missing

An X-Men action figure of the character Storm is seen at a home in the West Hollywood neighborhood of Los Angeles on July 20, 2022. After three years in production, the original “X-Men: The Animated Series” has returned as “X-Men ’97,” a revival streaming on Disney+ that the studio is treating as a direct continuation of the 1990s show. (Carlos González/The New York Times)

By Calum Marsh

When voice actor Alison Sealy-Smith first received an email asking if she’d be interested in reprising her role as Storm, from “X-Men: The Animated Series,” she nearly marked the message as spam, shrugging it off as either a joke or a mistake. It had been three decades since she had worked on the action-adventure cartoon, which ran on Fox from 1992-97, and the idea that it would be returning, let alone returning with its original cast, seemed so unlikely that she could hardly entertain it.

“At first, it was strictly disbelief,” she said in a video interview. “It can’t be true. Disney is doing this again? It didn’t make any sense.”

Disney was indeed doing it again, and after three years in production, the original “X-Men: The Animated Series” has returned as “X-Men ’97,” a revival streaming on Disney+ that the studio is treating as a direct continuation of the ’90s show. The new series picks up where “The Animated Series” left off with its Season 5 finale in September 1997, with the loss of X-Men leader Professor X after an attack by anti-mutant lobbyist Henry Peter Gyrich. It is designed to look and feel, in essence, like Season 6, with the intervening 30-year gap hardly noticeable on screen.

“That was always the goal,” Jake Castorena, a supervising producer and director, said in an interview. “To go straight from the OG show to our show, and it feels connected.”

The level of fidelity is impressive, and early reviews have been effusive, with one critic describing it as “nostalgia handled perfectly.”

But the achievement has been slightly undermined by news that the showrunner, Beau DeMayo, had been fired by Marvel. The move was sudden: On March 11, publicists for Disney, Marvel’s corporate owner, canceled DeMayo’s planned interview for this article, saying his “scheduling has changed,” and the following day The Hollywood Reporter broke the news that he had been fired. Marvel and Disney did not provide an explanation for the move. DeMayo and his representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

DeMayo hasn’t publicly addressed his departure, and the lack of information has fueled speculation online about the reasons for his termination. His former co-workers say they’re as clueless as anyone about what happened and why.

“I have absolutely no details whatsoever about what’s going on — that’s a paygrade about 50,000 rungs above my head,” Sealy-Smith said the morning after the news about DeMayo came out. “But I thoroughly enjoyed working with Beau. I loved his meticulously plotted storytelling.”

Brad Winderbaum, an executive producer on “X-Men ’97” and the head of TV, streaming and animation at Marvel Studios, acknowledged that beginning the series under the cloud of this controversy has been difficult. He reiterated that “the show speaks for itself.”

Winderbaum and the rest of the “X-Men ’97” team seemed eager to redirect the focus to the show and to the hard work that went into re-creating the original. Emulating the look and feel of a 30-year-old animated series was “much harder than it seems,” Winderbaum said.

“It’s counterintuitive,” he said. “You would think, we’ve got the template in front of us, so let’s just do that. But it’s actually like running a controlled experiment.”

The original show’s hand-drawn animation was constrained by time and budgetary concerns; to achieve that look, the new team had to put technical limitations on itself, restricting the kinds of flourishes that are easy with computers.

“Here we are 30 years later, and we had to create these artificial parameters to inform the style,” Winderbaum said.

Getting the look exactly right also involved a lot of experimentation, including working with custom filters that could replicate the aesthetic of old-school VHS broadcasts.

“All of it was all meticulously planned out, frame by frame,” Castorena said. “From the color palettes we use to the atmosphere to the noise grain to the chromatic aberration on the sides of the screen just slightly.”

Before they even started producing episodes, he explained, they were hard at work tinkering with the style until it looked faithful to the original.

“It was a learning process,” he said. “It might look awesome but not quite right — too clean, too HD. It was a good challenge to find that sweet spot.”

DeMayo was the public face of “X-Men ’97” during its production. He was active on social media, frequently posting updates about the series on X, formerly Twitter, and Instagram, and often addressing questions and concerns from interested fans. He also maintained an OnlyFans account, though in a 2022 profile, Out magazine said that he was not “publishing any hard-core X-rated content.” (On his personal website, DeMayo described the OnlyFans account as “a place for me to continue growing and pushing my own boundaries when it comes to my body and sexuality.”)

Since his firing, the OnlyFans account has been removed, and DeMayo appeared to deactivate all of his social media accounts. His Instagram has since been reactivated, but most of the posts appear to have been deleted or archived.

Castorena, the supervising producer, said that he couldn’t speak for DeMayo, who had previously worked on the popular Netflix fantasy drama “The Witcher” and the Disney+ series “Moon Knight.”

“What I can say is that I absolutely appreciate and love the work that Beau gave the studio and the show and to the crew,” Castorena said. Calling this turn of events “bittersweet,” he said he hoped DeMayo’s departure wouldn’t overshadow the series itself.

“While, yes, this is big news, and while this has some sway for audiences, at the end of the day, the work is still the work,” he said. “The writing is still the writing, and the show is still the show.”

Winderbaum said that the second season was well on its way to completion and that a third season was currently in development. When asked if DeMayo’s departure would have any effect on the third season’s progress, he said that it’s “all still on track the same way.”

“Being Marvel — being a popular brand making stuff that hopefully people like — part of the cost of that is that the behind-the-scenes drama becomes a story as well,” he said. “All I can hope is that people are willing to just meet the show where it’s at.”

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