X-Men 97 jabs at ‘black leather’ costumes, despite Marvel approving


There is no end to the X-Men ’97’s nostalgia streak: If simply reviving a Saturday morning favorite from the 1990s wasn’t enough, the creative team behind the Disney Plus series has littered each episode with even more in-jokes, from retro side-scroller references to connections to other Marvel animated properties. This week’s episode, “Tolerance Is Extinction – Part 2” contains a whopper for those around in 2000 for the release of the first-ever X-Men movie – a perfect dig that also works as a pithy callback.

Halfway through the episode, as the X-Men prepare for a split mission to Asteroid M and Muir Island, Scott Summers gives an old-fashioned dad pep talk to his Large Adult Son, Cable. After reminding him that Jean Grey and her clone Madelyne (Cable’s real mom) are two of the strongest women he’s ever met — nothing weird about any of this, by the way — he throws Cable a classic blue-and-gold X-Men suit.

“Am I going to war or a circus?” Cable quips.

To which Scott replies, “What did you expect, black leather?”

Image: Disney Plus

This is an act of sweet revenge episode from X-Men ’97 writer Anthony Sellitti, who has clearly been online long enough to understand the infamy of the 2000 X-Men movie costume choices. Not only does Sellitti knock the monochrome too-cool-for-comics design choices from Bryan Singer’s film, but he does so with an inversion of a wink-wink line from the movie. In X-Men, Scott (James Marsden) prepares Logan (Hugh Jackman) for their big faceoff with Magneto (Ian McKellen) by gifting him his own team uniform. But while riding the X-Jet to the Statue of Liberty, Wolverine is feeling a bit… stiff. Or as the screenplay puts it, “Logan seems very uncomfortable in the too-small uniform” — a perfect opportunity for him to be a rebel and make room for his bulging muscles by ripping the sleeves. Logan ends his tailor job with a joke.

“You guys really go out in these things?” Wolverine quips.

To which Scott replies, “What would you prefer, yellow spandex?”

According to X-Men producer Ralph Winter in a 2020 interview with SyFy Wire, the yellow spandex line was added to the movie to playfully respond to public outcry over early looks at the costumes. And the outcry was real — scoop-hustling web 1.0 sites like Ain’t It Cool News made it a mission to get early looks at the film, even while shooting was in progress. Studios had never dealt with the level of scrutiny brought by the eager nerd internet in 1999, and as the leaks poured in, so did the sour reactions.

At the time, the concept of a superhero movie was so foreign, and its box-office fate so unpredictable, that not even the team at Marvel believed they could preserve the look of their characters on the big screen. In a behind-the-scenes feature from the 2003 X2 DVD release, longtime X-Men writer Chris Claremont admitted that not even he could imagine a way in which the colorful beauty of the comics could be faithfully rendered in live-action. “You have a whole different set of opportunities and you have to redefine it in terms that make sense for the movie,” he said. “Brightly colored spandex skin-tight costumes look great in a comic because they’re pictures! You put them on real people and it’s like… [shudders]”

Cyclops, Storm, and Jean Grey in X-Men 2000 standing at alert

Photo: 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection

“The trick,” Winter explained, “is always to bullseye the hardcore Marvel/X-Men fan, but do it in a way that doesn’t alienate an average moviegoer that might enjoy, or start to enjoy, these types of stories.” The anxiety of catering to four quadrants clearly got to Singer, who went to great lengths to make a Serious Film out of the Marvel Comics. Not only did Singer and the team choose to go with drabber, of-the-moment costuming, but no one was even allowed to talk about the source material. According to Hugh Jackman, comic books were banned on the set of X-Men.

“Bryan Singer had this thing that people would think he really wanted to take comic book characters seriously, as real three-dimensional characters,” Jackman told MTV News in 2018, “He said: People who don’t understand these comics might think they’re two-dimensional, so no one was allowed [comics] — it was like contraband. I’d never read X-Men, so people were slipping them under my door!”

The black leather X-Men costumes were such a dark mark on the team’s on-screen legacy that when Singer returned to the franchise with 2014’s Days of Future Past – and rehired costume designer Louise Mingenbach to reimagine her original looks – his first big behind-the-scenes look at the film immediately cleared the air. In a now-deleted tweet from November 2012, Singer wrote, “For those of you wondering…no leather suits. #xmen.”

Were the geeks too hard on the black leather costumes at the time? The esteemed and fashionable Ian McKellan thought so. In 1999, McKellen was one of the great famous-person bloggers, and was more than happy to push back on people overly invested in the leaks. As he wrote that December:

The vituperation against the modernity of Louise Mingenbach’s designs is misdirected. She is following the vision of the director and the producers with, of course, the enthusiastic approval of Marvel Comics. I challenge any of the fanboys to name a living actor who possesses the cartoon torso of the original comic strip character. It obviously can’t be stressed too often for those unfamiliar with the problems of adapting material for the cinema, that what works on the page (novels and plays included) has to be adapted (which means changed) to work on the screen.

I break no confidence in telling you that the spirit of the movie will accord with Marvel but the look will be different. I have been through all this before, when translating Shakespeare’s play of Richard III into a movie.

In defense of (the completely owned) Ain’t It Cool-type commenters, McKellen got off a little easier with his Magneto costume, which at least had a red hue and comics-appropriate helmet. The actor wrote that his costume was “a tight fit, inspired by the comic strip design but influenced by the latest catwalk fashion,” and he hoped “it looks as good as it feels to wear.” Still, he was right to defend the need for people to wait and see the finished product, and urged online Marvel buffs to direct their energy toward supporting Rebecca Romijn, who deserved their love for undergoing four hours of Mystique makeup each day, an outfit that left her naked and freezing on set. “Never a word of complaint, though,” McKellen wrote. “In comparison I am molly-coddled, with warming tights under my outfit of grey sweater, black pants and knee-length boots.”

X-Men ’97’s joke at the expense of those who made X-Men is the best kind of dig: Playful, yet aware that the meme of it all is probably more fun than whatever “faithful” costumes would have wrought in 2000. As we learned over the subsequent 24 years following the release of X-Men, the hyper-serious alternate costumes did not sink the franchise — and if anything, make Jackman’s yellow-and-blue look in this year’s Deadpool & Wolverine a much bigger deal. And as a survivor of the Nu Metal era, I personally appreciate the sartorial choices in X-Men as a relic of a certain style moment. Let’s just… never do that again. Even X-Men ‘97 knows when to let some nostalgia pass.


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