While scanning my news feed yesterday, I came across a TV spot for Toy Biz's 1991 line of X-Men action figures. The ad featured Wolverine (forever bearing a constipated, plastic rictus grimace) stopping Magneto from conquering a toll bridge.
Sure, most retro toy ads were seemingly written by Madison Avenue brain trusts flying high on child-like wonderment and prescription painkillers, but this ad was particularly noteworthy. Why? It's a time capsule from an era when pop culture had no idea what the hell to do with the X-Men. Let's get into the anatomy (and ineptitude) of mutant marketing.
Here's the commercial. You better reinforce your skull with some adamantium stanchions, because your mind is about to be blown.
Fun stuff, no? What intrigues me about this commercial is that it's an artifact that predates the X-Men's cultural ubiquity. Sure, X-Men #1 — the best-selling comic book of all time and key catalyst for the 1990s collecting boom — would come out later that year, and FOX's X-Men series and Konami's arcade game would debut in 1992, but no one had effectively monetized Marvel's mutants (the unplayable Nintendo game doesn't count). At the time, the only model for success was the go-nowhere 1989 Pryde of the X-Men TV pilot.
The X-Men had meandered around in obscurity since the 1960s, so they dodged the low-budget campiness of other superhero projects. This, plus the whole mutations = minorities metaphor gave the team a sexy, iconoclastic appeal. Plus Storm rocked a mohawk and (a decade before Hugh Jackman) the Canadian Wolverine sported a masculine Australian brogue (which itself was a clear sign the heroes weren't A-listers).
So when it came time for Toy Biz to create this commercial, I'm certain the only memo they received was akin to "The X-Men are exactly like the Justice League, but y'know, without Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Just Aquaman's seahorse and the Wonder Twins' alien bonobo."
Here are 10 key moments from an X-Men commercial that was clearly made by people who had no idea who the X-Men were.
1.) Juggernaut's power bra
The Juggernaut is not a hard character to figure out. He's somewhat illiterate and dresses as an angry cranberry. Still, his powers were seemingly indecipherable to everyone in the 1990s (he wielded an RPG in the 1992 Konami game), so of course the toy Juggernaut drew his power from the Crimson Brassiere of Cyttorak.
2.) Magneto "reveals his magnetic force!"
Magneto — the X-Men's oldest, most famous, most dangerous arch-nemesis — does nothing but affix a muffler to his sternum and wanly get punched out by Archangel. It's depressing.
3 & 4.) Wolverine's costume
In this ad, Wolverine sports
STEEL claws and an Adam West Batman mask he repainted in Princeton University colors. I think this is the most compelling evidence of Logan's alma mater. But is it canon?
5.) Cyclops' "laser power!"
Note that the commercial never specifies that Cyclops can fire optic blasts. For all we know, his head is a jack-o'-lantern. Is he a lighter for Wolverine's cigars? A police siren the X-Men turn on when they all pile into the X-Econoline? A space heater for cold days? We honestly cannot say.
6 & 7.) Apocalypse and Colossus
Here too we have no sense of what these characters do. Apocalypse dresses like a Juggalo Kojak and Colossus is a colloidal silver addict who likes to impersonate the Fonz. Ehhh, comrade!
8.) The bongo soundtrack
Why is this ad fueled by bongos? Does genetic mutation make one think of bongo solos? Imagine how great the world would be if the X-Men were synonymous with Tito Puente.
9.) The X-Men are awful superheroes
The X-Men aren't proactive superheroes; they placidly stand in place until the Juggernaut breaks through a wall. Did they even know the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants was on the bridge?
And if not, what are three grown men dressed in spandex doing on a deserted bridge in the middle of the night? This raises a whole host of questions.
10.) This deranged pasta commercial
I wasn't sure where to put this, so I'll just leave it here. Chef Boyardee has teamed up with Mr. Sinister to turn the X-Men into sentient pasta. I'm not sure how consuming them rescues them, but I never went to business school.
[Ad via Reddit]