While the September 1992 arrival of Batman: The Animated Series gets credit for ushering in what would become a golden age of comic book-inspired after-school animated series, X-Men: The Animated Series arrived shortly afterward. It debuted with a fateful Halloween premiere of an iteration that would serve as a mainstream coming out party for the then-29-year-old Marvel Comics mutant property. In fact, for certain generations, it still stands as the X-Men's definitive version: comic book, movie, TV or otherwise.
Interestingly enough, while X-Men would come to be known for its unassuming ability (at least for animated 21-minute episodes) to truncate complex classic comic book stories with astounding accuracy (including "The Dark Phoenix Saga," for which Fox is attempting a 2018 movie redo), the series kicked things off on October 31, 1992 with a two-part pilot called "Night of the Sentinels" that showcased a glaring anachronism: an X-Men team member named Morph!
Morph, whose birth name is never confirmed on the series, was a mutant shapeshifter, à la Mystique, voiced by Ron Rubin. He's depicted as the cackling, clowning comic relief of an X-Men team lineup otherwise composed of standard members, notably the heart-hardened Wolverine, with whom he is shown to have a special friendship.
It wasn’t a dynamic that readers of the X-Men comics were used to seeing and it initially sent the wrong signals to purists. However, it became clear during the pilot’s big battle with the giant, mutant-hunting robots, the Sentinels, that Morph may as well had been wearing a red Star Trek crewman shirt. He dies fast and hard, left behind on the battlefield; a sacrifice to the plot gods designed to drive home the extent of the dangers the real characters will face.
While the presence of this apparent throwaway character may have been mystifying for regular readers of the X-Men comics, Morph was, in actually, a fascinating tribute to the early years of the original comic series, serving as a platform for a long-dead character called Changeling.
The character, a shapeshifting villain, made his debut in X-Men #35, dated August 1967, as a teaser cameo in an issue dominated by a guest appearance by Spider-Man. Changeling (whose real name was later revealed to be Kevin Sydney,) regularly wore a light-blue jumpsuit, purple gloves and boots, along with a bizarre tri-corne purple space pirate helmet. More on him later.
As X-Men moved on to its second season of what would wind up being a five-year run, the memory of Morph had faded, mostly resigned to a punchline. However, 1993's two-part Season 2 premiere, "Til Death Do Us Part," had something sinister planned, with the return of Morph. However, this wasn't the jocular one-man SNL cast that we (barely) remembered. This was a version of Morph brought back to life by villain Mister Sinister, who had been using genetic manipulation to control him, while stoking subconscious anger of the formerly-deceased against the X-Men team who left him to die.
Consequently, Morph — bearing an arguably legitimate grudge — had instantly become the most intriguing villain on the series, sporting a haunting pallor with shadows under his eyes, using his shapeshifting abilities against his former friends and taking advantage of their emotional shock upon discovering his resurrection.
Yet, it became clear that the injection of evil had not fully converted Morph, with his good side resurfacing sporadically, questioning Sinister's global genetic tinkering plot, only to be suppressed by his power. Eventually, with help of Professor Xavier, he was able to defeat his dark side, though he declined to rejoin the team so that he could deal with the psychological trauma on his own. He would resurface throughout the series, notably aiding the X-Men in a battle that, once again, forced him to face the Sentinels, reopening the mental scars of his death. However, he overcame those fears and, in a marathon shapeshifting showcase of different X-Men characters, single-handedly stopped the Sentinels and destroyed Master Mold, avenging himself in the process.
On that note, let’s get back to Changeling, because through this obscure source character, we are able to realize just how poignant an adaptation Morph truly was. Changeling arrived on the X-Men scene as a villain, specifically the second-in-command of an organization called Factor Three. That group was run by the Mutant Master, a clandestine megalomaniacal mastermind who was attempting to hijack missiles and start World War III, purportedly so that mutants could emerge to rule after the fallout. Changeling was, at first, a loyal soldier in the ongoing fight (which lasted until X-Men #39, dated December 1967). However, after experiencing abuse when he started to ask questions about the group's goals, he turned against his master and used his shapeshifting abilities to sow dissent and eventually dissolve the collective. (FYI: Mutant Master turned out to be an alien in disguise and was never seen again.)
Yet, Changeling would not be long for the X-Men comic mythos and his death, at least, the way that it was handled, is the stuff of legend — and notoriety. That’s because it has to do with the death of Professor Xavier — that is, the (first) fake death of Professor Xavier. In X-Men #42, dated March 1968, much to the shock of the comic’s then-dwindling fanbase, Xavier was seemingly killed by an ancient warrior called Grotesk.
This death held for two years until Xavier reemerged in 1970, explaining that Changeling — claiming to be dying of cancer — offered to serve for a stint as a double for Xavier, who was targeted at the time by dangerous aliens, the Z'nox. Thus, it was retconned that Changeling had died in Xavier's place.
In hindsight, you can see how crucial elements of Changeling's mostly forgotten arc were transplanted onto Morph in a slow and surprisingly poignant manner across seasons. Changeling was a generic villain who had a change of heart and eventually achieved redemption by sacrificing himself for a worthy cause. While Morph didn't have a say in his initial sacrifice, his path of disillusionment, manipulation and confusion imported Changeling's story brilliantly.
In fact, Morph even fulfilled Changeling's comic book path by the close of the series in 1997. After Professor Xavier was attacked and left in a coma, Morph assumed his identity to make a poignant televised speech to quell an ensuing mutant riot. While the series ended on the sad note of a dying Xavier permanently leaving Earth with Lilandra for a cure, Morph – very much alive – is seen standing proudly with the X-Men team, bringing his story full circle.
Looking back on the 1990s X-Men animated series and all the great things that it managed to accomplish (just that theme song, alone), the inclusion of Morph was an Easter egg of sorts, identifiable only to OLD-old-school X-Men comic book readers (and people like me who grew up reading Marvel's Book of the Dead volumes), coming across at first as perplexing. However, it gave us the most engrossing arc and (semi) original character in the series. Indeed, Morph is proof of the kind of fan-servicing depth that went into the animated extravaganza.
In a testament to that fact, Marvel Comics would eventually revive different versions of Morph, first in 2001 as a member of dimension-crossing team Exiles (bearing Changeling’s retconned birth name of Kevin Sydney), and currently in the form of a young mutant named Benjamin Deeds on All-New X-Men.