X-Men ’97’s Morph actor wants the shapeshifter to find love — just not with Wolverine

X-Men ’97’s Morph actor wants the shapeshifter to find love — just not with Wolverine

Voice performance has become isolating work over the years — these days, for an actor like JP Karliak, a day “on set” is completed from a home studio, and notes come in over Zoom calls. But the goals are the same: find the perfect sound to match a character, and relentlessly chase the perfect take. Karliak has done voice work across the animation and video game spectrum, and is no stranger to IP demands. He’s been in everything from The Boss Baby: Back in Business to Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League, where he played Batman’s nemesis, Joker. Taking over the role of Morph in Marvel Animation’s X-Men ’97, voiced in the original series by actor Ron Rubin, put him under high pressure from nostalgic fans. Still, alone in the room, he found it: his own pure voice.

“My natural speaking voice doesn’t sound all that different from Ron’s original portrayal,” Karliak tells Polygon, “[and Morph] has a new look, he’s changing. And all these characters are going through all of this plot. For me, it was just sort of like, Why don’t we just sit him in this grounded space, and not slap a character voice on top of it?

Along with giving Morph a character redesign, the X-Men ’97 writers evolved them into the animated property’s first non-binary character. Karliak, who identifies as genderqueer, was pleased at the change. In the 1990s, using he/they pronouns was less commonplace, but having Rogue make a point of properly addressing Morph in 1997 fits right into the show’s approach to doing whatever feels emotionally right, continuity and era be damned.

“We didn’t fly around and shoot lightning out of our fingers [in 1997 either], so whatever!” Karliak says. “I think the representation is still incredible. And I don’t think it takes away anything from who Morph is. Morph is on a gender journey that will unfold as time passes and he goes through the eras of terminology that we’ve lived through already.”

Morph leans an elbow on Wolverine’s shoulder in X-Men ‘97 Image: Marvel Animation

With such a stacked cast, the show doesn’t give Morph a ton of airtime, but their history in the series is deeply felt and considered in each line-reading. X-Men ’97 remains in continuity with X-Men: The Animated Series, which saw Sentinels kill Morph in the first episode, only to have Mister Sinister resurrect the shapeshifter as a brainwashed X-adversary. When his friends rescue him, he disappears from the show again to deal with that trauma.

Morph returns in X-Men ’97 as a goofy but troubled soul finding a place in the world. Karliak says that even if Morph has three lines in an episode, he found himself running through every variation — pure fury, wisecracking, bawling his eyes out, near-deadpan — with voice director Meredith Layne (Castlevania), to give the director and writers what they need to connect the past with present. “As the comic relief of the show, I think he’s burying a lot of things,” Karliak says. “Having him say less was actually the smarter way to go for somebody who’s internalizing a lot.”

Along with voiceover work, Karliak runs the LGBTQIA+ nonprofit Queer Vox, which strives to train aspiring queer VO artists and educate the industry about working with queer talent. He says one quirk of current Hollywood casting is that the group often encounters auditions asking for “non-binary voices,” which he finds funny, despite the attempt at allyship. “It’s like, What does that mean? There’s a lot of conflation of ‘non-binary means androgynous,’ which is not the case,” he says.

And what makes Morph enjoyable for Karliak to bring to life isn’t how the character fits a specific identity slot — it’s how his identity fits into the day-to-day drama at the X-mansion, and the greater global drama of X-Men ’97.

“He’s a superhero who’s got some trauma, he’s got friends, he’s showing up, he’s doing the thing,” Karliak says. “He probably would like to have a significant other at some point — you know, hint, hint, nudge, nudge — and there’s all of that stuff happening. But there’s never a very special Jesse Spano episode of, like, This is the non-binary episode. Because we don’t need it.”

Many fans have wondered whether Morph’s friendship with Wolverine could blossom into something more romantic in future seasons of X-Men ’97. But Karliak hopes it doesn’t, as much as he wants his character to find love.

“As somebody who’s consumed a ton of queer media over the years — what coded things we had in the ’90s — I think there have been so many stories told about the queer person that’s pining over the straight best friend. Meh!” he says. “It’s kind of meh to me! I think it’s so much more interesting that they love each other like they’re Frodo and Samwise, and that’s great. It doesn’t need to be more than that. And they can support each other. It makes Morph razzing Wolverine by turning into Jean Grey so much less about like, Oh, I’m jealous, so I’m gonna, like, razz you about your girlfriend who I hate, and more about, Hey, buddy, I think this is harmful for you, and I just want to point this out, that maybe you need to move on.”

Karliak lauds the X-Men ’97 writers room for breaking from obvious stereotypes and traditions to do its own thing. And the work is standing up to all kinds of scrutiny. When the news broke that Karliak would voice Morph as a non-binary character, the usual corners of the internet erupted with vitriol and found their way into his mentions. But now, with the season wrapped up, he’s hearing little pushback.

“There are properties, movies, IPs that have tried to do queer representation and done it more as checking a box, and it was received badly when it was announced, and continued to be received badly when the thing bombed,” he says. “And I think what’s great about this is that it’s done authentically, not only from the portrayal, but from the writing, like Beau [DeMayo], but also Charley [Feldman] and all of the other writers. There is a queer pedigree that’s going into this to make this right. So the people that shouted about it before it came out — once everybody saw it, and it’s just so universally lauded, it really silenced everything. You can’t argue with excellence.”