Superhero movies are now some of Hollywood’s most profitable franchises and it’s easy to see why. The characters are icons of pop culture and the visual spectacle they provide is in a class of its own. However, the movies which populate that landscape right now are all live action with the only animation present in them being CGI. But what about those portrayals of superheroes that aired every week on television screens? Yup, I’m talking about superhero cartoon shows!
Objectively speaking, it should be easier to adopt superheroes into cartoon form than it is to put them into live action. With cartoons, you can have a wide and expressive colour palette, you can contort your characters into any position you can draw and only have to worry about casting voices and not appearances. Also, you have a lot more time to develop characters in a television series than you do with a movie.
Despite most of these shows being developed with children as the main audience, the ones that stand head and shoulders above the rest are the ones which treat their audiences with respect. The cartoons that aren’t afraid to explore mature themes and fully develop their characters are the ones that stick with us as we grow up. Ones with basic storytelling and paper thin characters may be fun for a goof but they don’t have enough meat on the bones to make them incredible. Even if it’s meant for children, it doesn’t mean that it has to suck.
So take a trip down memory lane with me as I rank the top 15 superhero cartoons of all time.
15. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (First Series)
It’s time to have a serious conversation with the people who grew up with the first TMNT cartoon… it’s not that good.
I understand that the show pushed the Ninja Turtles into the mainstream pop culture pantheon but judging the show free from any nostalgia, I can see it for what it is, warts and all. While there’s no denying that the show is entertaining and has many memorable characters, it suffers in my opinion from being too cheesy and aiming for too low of a demographic.
Sure all of these shows are technically kids shows, but as you’ll see later on with cartoons that came after, they could be so much more than that. Hell, even later TMNT cartoons knew this and explored more serious themes and better developed their characters.
14. The Tick
Most likely the least popular hero on this list, The Tick was at a huge disadvantage compared to other superhero cartoons due its satirical origins and not being owned by a major comics company, but that didn’t stop it from becoming a cult classic.
While a lot of superhero cartoons are focused on action with a bit of humor thrown in, The Tick takes the formula and reverses it. The show’s action bits serve as scenes where Tick’s obsession with justice and corny aspects of the superhero genre are fully satirized. If I had to describe Tick’s character so everybody could understand it, imagine the Adam West Batman cranked up to 11 give him super strength and durability, and throw in a dash of social ineptitude. He’s a goofy boy scout who wants to protect his city… which is called “The City.”
It doesn’t boast the expansive storylines or fully explored characters of the other entries on the list, but The Tick has carved out its own unique place in the history of superhero cartoons.
13. Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
Prior to the Marvel Cinematic Universe coming into the fray, the Avengers always seemed to be distantly behind their DC counterpart the Justice League in terms of mainstream popularity. Thanks to the MCU though, the Avengers are now mega popular and this cartoon capitalized on that new popularity.
This cartoon was surprisingly the first time that many notable Marvel characters had a prominent role in a cartoon form. Villains like Purple Man, Kang The Conquerer M.O.D.O.K and many others all make appearances throughout this series. The series has a pretty light-hearted tone, even for a superhero cartoon, and that makes it hard to take seriously at times, but it’s still an entertaining show that was cancelled too early.
12. Batman: The Brave And The Bold
While Batman way be one of the most serious and gritty comic book characters in history, the series that thrust him into mainstream popularity would undoubtedly be the totally cheesy and often mocked ’60s show. Some may find the idea repulsive, but Batman can work as a goofier and more light hearted show. The proof is right here with Batman: The Brave and The Bold.
Boasting a lighter tone and colour palette compared to the more popular Batman cartoons, The Brave and the Bold takes a different approach. Rather than focusing only on the Bat family of characters, the show highlights Batman teaming up with a different hero every episode and shows how they save the day. The show is almost a throwback in the way it keeps the plots simple, loose and fun.
11. Superman: The Animated Series
It would be very easy and lazy for a studio to take a character as popular as Superman and just do the bare minimum with the character while snatching up tons of money of merchandise that comes with it. However, Superman: The Animated Series took the Man of Steel and showed how good he could really be.
Unlike the god awful Man of Steel and Batman v Superman depictions of the Last Son of Krypton, this show’s portrayal of Clark Kent is startlingly accurate to the source material it’s based from. Superman is strong, he’s clever and yes he’s kind of a big blue boy scout. George Newbern’s voice is soft and caring but at the same time carries a commanding power behind it which lets you know that he is one to follow.
Superman villains like Metallo, Darkseid and Lex Luthor all appear in this series and are treated with as much care as Kal-El himself. While the show doesn’t have many flaws, there are other shows which are better at the same strengths of Superman: TAS. Still, this remains the most faithful version of Superman from outside the comics.
10. Static Shock
I still remember seeing the ads for this show when I was a little lad watching cartoons on Saturday mornings. After being bombarded by those ads enough times I finally watched a couple of episodes and I have to say it was pretty damn good.
Breaking ground as the first superhero television series to star a black person as the main character, Virgil Hawkins is a teen who, after a science experiment, (what else would it be in a comic book origin story) gains the power of electricity and magnetism. Naturally, Hawkins becomes a superhero while trying to balance his normal life as 14-year-old teen.
Considering its audience was children, Static Shock dealt with some pretty heavy themes and subject matter. There are episodes about mental illness, homelessness, gun violence and other real life issues. The show did this without feeling preachy or out of place. It was all natural and felt at home.
9. The Spectacular Spider-Man
What could have been… Cancelled after only two seasons, The Spectacular Spider-Man had a chance to be the best Spider-Man show ever, but it had the rug pulled out from under it before it could fully realize its full potential.
As it stands though, The Spectacular Spider-Man still has plenty to be proud of. Playing a Peter Parker that is in high school, Josh Keaton pulled off a “spectacular” job. He’s funny, awkward and also angry when he has to turn up the heat.
While I can get pretty frustrated with Spider-Man always being seen as a teenager by some fans, I will say that this show had the best depiction of a young Spidey I’ve ever seen. The main problems I had with the series were that some of the villain redesigns kind of sucked in my opinion and the overemphasis on bit players like Tombstone and Hammerhead seem out of place to a longtime Spidey fan like myself.
8. Batman Beyond
Living up to the legacy of a legendary predecessor is difficult enough. Now imagine that your predecessor is the highly acclaimed Batman: The Animated Series (we’ll get to that one later) and you’ll start feeling the pressure that DC must have been feeling when Batman Beyond was made.
Set in a future where Bruce Wayne is sickly old man, long retired from the Batman role, he finds a successor to his legacy and selects young Terry McGinnis as the new Batman. Unlike the original, this Batman is kind of a smartass punk who doesn’t take everything Bruce says as gospel (unlike his sidekicks from years past). This gives the series a unique flavor that you usually don’t see from a Batman cartoon.
While the villains weren’t as memorable as the ones in the series which came before it, the show still rocked with the dark themes and deep storylines which made the first show so great. Much like Terry McGinnis is a strong symbol of Bruce Wayne’s legacy, Batman Beyond holds up the Batman franchise pretty damn well.
7. Young Justice
Maybe it’s because we live in the digital age now where shows are very accessible to watch and binge on, but I’ve never seen quite the devoted following for a cancelled comic book show like I have with Young Justice.
Spawned from the same creative that made the acclaimed Spectacular Spider-Man series I mentioned earlier, Young Justice takes that idea of superheroes just starting out their careers and develops it further by throwing in the “adult” versions of those characters as well. Is there a Superboy to match a Superman? Yup. Aquaman to Aqualad and so on.
But why has it amassed such a strong following so quickly? Well that would be because of its strong character development, mature storylines and some great action scenes. The show might have been cancelled after two seasons, but a third season is possible according to producer Brandon Vietti and Greg Weisman if the show continues to do well on Netflix. Keep it up fans and you’ll get your season 3!
6. Spider-Man: The Animated Series
While Spidey had several other television series before this 90s cartoon aired, none of them really captured who Peter Parker really was. This all changed when Marvel teamed up with FOX Kids to give us the definitive Spider-Man cartoon.
This was the first Spider-Man series to faithfully capture many of the classic Spider-Man stories and adapt them into cartoon form. Classic plot threads like “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”, “The Sinister Six” and “The Night Gwen Stacy Died” (the last one subbing Stacy for Mary Jane) serve as the inspiration for many of the great episodes in this series.
That isn’t to say the show didn’t have problems. Firstly, the show goes too deep on unnecessary guest appearances, like Blade and Captain America, with multi-parters focusing on them. Also, FOX’s insistence on using laser guns and a no punching policy kind of saps the show from the maturity of other acclaimed series like Batman: The Animated Series.
5. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2nd Series)
Where the original 80s cartoon might have failed at being a serious show with fleshed out characters, the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series demonstrates how to do the heroes in half shells right.
Co-produced by Mirage Studios (owned by TMNT creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman), this show felt much more accurate to its original comics in terms of tone than the 80s show did. While it was light-hearted at times, it mostly played the material straight and a result we got turtles that all felt unique from one another and action scenes that crush anything seen in its predecessor.
Not only were the turtles great, but this show has the best version of the Shredder bar none. His look is menacing without being over-thought and his voice sends chills down your spine. He destroys all other Shredders, and it’s not even close.
The later seasons of the show are what drop it out of the higher spots. While the earlier seasons were complex but still easy to follow, the later season become way too out there and just asinine (I’m looking at you, Fast Forward). Also, I’m really not a fan of Shredder’s true origin in the show.
4. Justice League / Justice League Unlimited
While some people (although I question their taste in cinema) might eagerly anticipating the live action Justice League movie, it’s my duty to tell them that the Justice League cartoons from the early 2000s are leagues better than anything Zack Snyder can crap out.
Following both the Batman and Superman Animated Series, the next logical step was to introduce the rest of DC’s all stars in a Justice League show. This series showed us threats that couldn’t have been handled by any one hero (yes, even Superman). Nearly every episode of the show felt epic in its scope and had its characters bouncing off of each other’s personalities so well that it made us forget that Marvel is supposed to be the company with relatable characters.
While the voice acting and animation are top notch for the series, a problem that I personally have with it is that episodes are too self-contained. While it isn’t a major problem (I did put it at number four, didn’t I?), it was a little disappointing that most stories wrapped up after two episodes. Still, if you want to see all of your DC favourites in one place, this is your best option.
3. Teen Titans
If anyone is confused about why everyone thinks that Teen Titans Go! sucks (aside from the fact that it’s a steaming pile of garbage), watch an episode of this show and you’ll see exactly why people wanted more of this and less of that.
Premiering on the Cartoon Network back in 2003, the series took a big risk by using (aside from Robin) characters that were fairly unknown to the general public. Starfire, Raven, Beast Boy and Cyborg didn’t exactly have the weight and recognition of the Justice League, but they more than made up for that. Every character is relateable, fleshed out and most important of all, likeable. Even sourpuss emo Raven is tons of fun. Also, Slade is a hell of an intimidating presence on the show and serves as a great counter-point to the light-hearted Titans.
The animation style of the show also separated it from the pack as it had more of an anime style to it compared to other superhero cartoons. Let’s celebrate this show with delicious pudding and forget Teen Titans Go! exists.
2. X-Men: The Animated Series
While I may be a Spider-Man fan more than an X-Men fan, even I must bow down and accept the fact that the 90s X-Men cartoon is the best cartoon Marvel has ever done.
Unlike some other comic book cartoons that seem hesitant to adapt storylines straight from their source material, X-Men dove right into iconic storylines like “Days of Future Past” and “The Dark Phoenix Saga” being adapted into Saturday morning cartoon form. The voice acting, while cheesy on some lines, was for the most part excellently cast with Cathal J. Dodd still being the definitive voice for Wolverine to an entire generation. It treated its young audience with respect and in return it soared with great financial and critical success.
Despite ending over 15 years ago, this show’s legacy still lives on in our memories and in the numerous video games that spun off from it. X-Men vs. Street Fighter anyone?
1. Batman: The Animated Series / The New Batman Adventures
These two Batman cartoons have a lot of the same strengths as I mentioned previously for the X-Men cartoon. It took its audience seriously, the storylines were deep and complex for a children’s show and it perfectly nailed the voices for all of its characters. But these Batman cartoons had something that the X-Men show lacked; edge.
While X-Men was popping with colour from every angle, Batman: TAS and its follow up were bathed in darkness and shadows without seeming boring. Batman was intimidating, the villains seemed dangerous and the world seemed fantastic but not totally implausible. The art style made the show feel gritty but never to the point where it was dull, it knew when to have fun where it was supposed to.
And I haven’t even gotten to the voice acting yet. Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill‘s Joker are so iconic that they would voice the characters in countless other cartoons, video games and movies that were released years after these shows ended. The legacy of these two shows will never die and that’s why they’re the best superhero cartoons of all time.