Adapting superhero comic books into animated TV shows seems like a no-brainer. Before the abundance of live action superhero movies, animated shows were some of the only ways fans could get to see Iron Man or Green Lantern on the small screen. Studios pumped out a lot of animated superhero shows starting as far back as the ’60s. Many of these shows ranged in quality but kids ate up most of the good ones and even some of the bad ones too.
Some of these animated shows have represented certain characters more faithfully than any movie has. Many fans will even argue that the movies aren’t as good as their animated versions. Some of these shows have manged to become legendary. A certain Gotham resident’s show comes to mind. On the flip side, many other superhero shows were there merely to sell toys to kids or insult their intelligence, or both.
It seems easy to remember all the great animated superhero shows that we’ve had over the years but when it comes to the bad ones? Make no mistake. There was a lot of mediocrity out there – so much that it becomes a daunting task to separate the mediocre from the truly terrible.
To help you sort through the clutter, we present the 8 Best (And 7 Worst) Superhero Cartoons.
15. Best: X-Men (1992)
It seemed like every kid in the ’90s was watching X-Men. You could find kids pretending to be Storm and Wolverine while humming that super-catchy opening intro. Marvel threw a lot of shows out in the ’90s hoping something would stick and X-Men was their first show to come out back in 1992. The animation resembled the current comics at the time, which immediately caught the eye of many young comic fans. They added a few new characters but, they mostly stuck to already existing characters in the X-Men universe.
Now, Marvel did not have a good track record when it came to voice casting for their shows but, X-Men was one of the exceptions. The voices for characters like Wolverine, Magneto, Beast, Professor Xavier, Rogue, and Apocalypse seem forever attached to their prospective actors.
The show was pulling plot lines right from the pages of the comic and hell, it was fun. It’s not perfect by any means, though. There are many cheesy and unintentionally funny moments on the show that prevent it from being any higher on this list. Still, X-Men is a fun walk down memory lane.
14. Worst: Teen Titans Go
The cutesy animation should make it clear that the targeted age demographic for this show is fairly young. Still, this in no way excuses the annoyingly infantile Teen Titans Go. As bad as many shows were in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, at least they tried to have some sort of plot. Teen Titans Go seems to be purposefully nonsensical. Instead, its focus is on mind-numbing silliness.
After all, they’re just kids right? It’s even more shocking that this show debuted in 2013! You’d think that shows like this would’ve learned from the mistakes of the past. Couple that with the fact that there was a far better Teen Titans show in 2003, and it’s a real head-scratcher. Please, do yourself a favor and show your kids 2003’s Teen Titans instead of this face-palming doppelganger.
13. Best: Spider-Man (1994)
Spidey actually made a quick cameo in X-Men a few months before Spider-Man went on the air in ’94. Marvel took careful steps to have Spider-Man measure up to the successful X-Men series. In many ways, it improved upon nearly everything. The animation looked sleeker, without sacrificing any of the style made popular by X-Men.
The voice casting was spot on, especially for Spider-Man himself. Actor Christopher Daniel Barnes nailed the role, and for many fans remains the voice actor for Spider-Man. Barnes went on to lend his voice to a number of Spider-Man video games after the end of Spider-Man.
Spider-Man followed X-Men‘s lead and plucked most of its plots from the comics themselves. Its execution was not perfect but, it was a step up from X-Men. It was also given the rare opportunity of having a series finale that featured a cameo by Stan Lee! Spider-Man balanced the perfect amount of humor, drama and action better than any other Spider-Man series that came before or after it.
12. Worst: Avengers: United They Stand (1999)
It’s hard to believe that the first animated series to feature The Avengers didn’t include many of the original members. Iron Man and Captain America were only in a handful of episodes while Thor and Hulk were never in it at all. In this version, Hank Pym (Ant-Man) was the leader of the Avengers. The rest of the cast included Wonder Man, Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, Vision, and Wasp.
The animation wasn’t great but the costumes were even worse. The show was developed by the same studio responsible for Power Rangers and this showed in the costume designs. The characters were almost unrecognizable. The voice acting was laughable, with Scarlet Witch having the most ridiculous stereotypical Russian accent. The plot lines were a mess. The series could never seem to figure out what it really wanted to say.
11. Best: Batman Beyond (1999)
Batman Beyond is an interesting paradox because it was another show created just to sell toys. However, thanks to creators Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, and Alan Burnett, this show was actually really good. Warner Bros. came up with the idea to do a show about Batman in the future and they were going to move forward with the project regardless of Dini’s or Timm’s involvement. Even though Dini and Timm were not too enamored with the idea, they decided that they couldn’t let someone else do it.
Batman Beyond is set in the future when Bruce Wayne has become too old to continue donning the cape and cowl. He takes the young Terry McGinnis under his wing and resumes his war on crime. The show really managed to build on the mythology of Batman and honor the stories before it.
Watching an older, grumpier Bruce Wayne mentor a new Batman was a lot of fun for many fans especially because he was voiced by Kevin Conroy from Batman: The Animated Series. The show had a great first season, a mediocre second season, and a satisfying final third season.
10. Worst: Superhero Squad (2009)
Marvel’s Superhero Squad is almost like the equivalent of DC’s Teen Titan’s Go. It’s aimed for young children and it doesn’t have a lot of substance. The animation is light and cutesy. For some reason, every character has a bulbous head and small frame. Even Wolverine looks way too cute to harm a fly. The villains aren’t very villainous either. They, along with everybody else, seem to have the attention span of a gnat.
When there’s a scene featuring Warlock and Thanos annoying each other while lying in bunk-beds like kids from a family sitcom, you know something’s wrong. The one thing that this show had going for it, was that it would introduce a lot of random Marvel characters that you typically wouldn’t see in other Marvel shows.
9. Best: Spawn (1997)
Spawn is the only show not from the Marvel or DC universes to crack this list. MTV’s The Maxx was pretty good and worthy of an honorable mention but Spawn made history by being HBO’s first animated superhero series. It was dark, gritty, and as grimy as the alleyway in which Spawn lurked. It was most definitely not for kids.
Nevertheless, it received critical acclaim and won two Emmy awards: One for “Outstanding Animated Program” and one for “Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation”. HBO did not cheap out on this project. They hired an impressive cast of voice actors, led by Keith David as Spawn.
Still, as good as the acting, story and animation was, some could argue that it was just too dark. Sometimes it tried so hard to be dour and depressing that it verged on cliché. Regardless, Spawn remains influential and is a big step up from the horrible 1997 live-action movie.
8. Worst: New Fantastic Four (1978)
Poor Fantastic Four. They’re one of the most iconic superhero teams in all of comics but you’d never know it based the quality of the movies and cartoons based on them. The New Fantastic Four is no exception; in fact, it’s rather infamous for one reason.
All you need to do is watch the intro to the show and you’ll notice that Johnny Storm/Human Torch is noticeably absent. Instead, a quirky robot named H.E.R.B.I.E in his place. The “official” reason for this is said to be because Universal studios had the rights to the Human Torch character and wanted to make a film featuring him. The rumored reason was that the show runners were concerned that kids would want to light themselves on fire to in an attempt to emulate their hero. You can decide which one is the real story. Aside from the dumb H.E.R.B.I.E character, the show was boring and only lasted one season.
7. Best: Young Justice (2010)
What a pleasant surprise Young Justice turned out to be. It’s the first truly great DC animated show that wasn’t run by Bruce Timm, Alan Burnett, or Paul Dini. Greg Weisman was one of the main showrunners and writers for Young Justice. Weisman made his mark creating, running and writing the outstanding Gargoyles TV series.
Young Justice was a show that focused on the sidekicks rather than the icons like Wonder Woman, Superman etc. The premise of the show is that the Justice League recruits the young sidekicks on a tryout basis to join the team. The hope is that they get to stay on the “big” squad.
Who would’ve thought that characters nobody really cared about could be so interesting and entertaining? The stories were rich with complexity and emotional drama and yet never lost the fun. The voice acting was top notch, particularly actor’s Nolan North’s portrayal of Superboy.
Young Justice only lasted two seasons and was abruptly canceled. Dismayed fans campaigned for its return and the studios caved in to the pressure. Young Justice makes its return in 2018.
6. Worst: Wild C.A.T.s (1995)
Wild C.A.T.s was based on the Image comic series created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi. Those names you just read are pretty much the only good things about this series. It’s likely that Wild C.A.T.s tried to capitalize on the popularity of the X-Men but failed horribly.
The characters look like the characters from the comic but the animation is clunky and weird. There were also several changes made from the comic that made no sense. The plot was convoluted and explained badly. And the voice acting was a whole new level of bad.
Wild C.A.T.s also has the unfortunate honor of having some of the worst dialogue in the history of animated superhero TV. With lines like “I’m large and in charge!“, it’s easy to see why. Wild C.A.T.s lasted only one season. What a shock.
5. Best: Superman the Animated Series (1996)
Superman the Animated Series is possibly the most underrated TV show on this list. It was helmed by practically the same team that worked on Batman T.A.S. & Batman Beyond. Superman the Animated Series ended up having more continuity than Batman Beyond, and a lot more than Batman T.A.S. It felt like a well written on-going comic series. T
he voice cast for this show rivals any of the best voice casts out there. Tim Daly, Dana Delany, and Corey Burton (Superman, Lois Lane and Brainiac) all nail their roles. It could even be argued that Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor is one of the best versions of the character ever done on TV or film.
The writing was as fantastic as the animation – more subtle you’d expect. The writers could really show some of the big budget superhero movies how it’s done. Superman the Animated Series also has the distinction of having the most satisfying series finale of any other animated superhero series. Watch the the first three episodes and you’ll be hooked.
4. Worst: Swamp Thing (1991)
Swamp Thing is another comic character that has never had good treatment on TV or in film. The Swamp Thing animated series is as bad as it gets. The studio’s desire to sell toys is so painfully obvious here. They did not give a damn about doing justice to the character or the comics.
Instead, more one dimensional characters were added for some reason. The characters Tomahawk and Bayou Jack were nothing more than painful stereotypes of Native and African Americans. Swamp Thing himself was nothing more than a friendly dumb monster. The villains were lame but, not as lame as the show’s theme song.
The show took Jimi Hendrix’s classic “Wild Thing” and switched the lyrics to “swamp thing.” It’s like nails on a chalkboard. Swamp Thing only lasted a paltry five episodes. Leave this show in the swamp.
3. Best: Justice League / Justice League Unlimited (2001)
It’s not hyperbole to argue that Justice League/Justice league Unlimited is the greatest superhero team-up show of all time. When you analyze the series, it’s hard to find many flaws. It’s faithful to the source material without being constrained to it. The characters look and feel authentic, and the voice cast is practically perfect.
Justice League told stories in various unique ways throughout the series. The first two seasons focused on telling longer stories that consisted of 2 parters, and sometimes longer. Season 1 and 2 dealt almost exclusively with the seven core members of the Justice League. One of the characters that benefited most from the series was John Stewart. He remains the definitive Green lantern for many fans who grew up with the series.
Justice League Unlimited was essentially the same show, except with many more characters. They also focused more on standalone episodes. Both forms of storytelling were done expertly. The shows boasts some of the finest dialogue and storytelling you’ll see. If the upcoming Justice League movie is half as good as this show, we’ll be lucky.
2. Worst: Pryde of the X-Men (1989)
It’s hard to jump to this after reflecting on the magnificent Justice League/Justice League Unlimited series but, here we are. At first glance, you might look at the animation for this series and think that it might be good but you’d be wrong. This ’80s version of the X-Men was very bad; so bad that it only last one episode.
The acting isn’t that bad (though it isn’t that great either; it’s just that the voices are miscast. Everyone sounds off with the exception of maybe, Storm but, no one sounds more off than Wolverine.For some reason, the studios gave Wolverine an Australian accent. It just seemed that the studio thought that Canadians must sound like Australians.
The whole episode plods along and has a strange and unsatisfying conclusion. Pryde of the X-Men is perhaps best known for its mishandling of Wolverine but, the show goes down as one of the biggest animated superhero failures of all time.
1. Best: Batman the Animated Series (1992)
What else is there left to say about this legendary TV show that hasn’t already been said. It just seems to get better with age. It was the first show to transcend the animated superhero formula and appeal to adults and kids. Its noir Gothic style looked both, beautiful and unique. Each episode had great scripts, music and acting. Bruce Timm and co. treated every episode like a mini movie. The villains were as good as Batman himself, and thanks to the show and Paul Dini, fans got Harley Quinn.
Batman: The Animated Series has won awards and accolades from fans and critics. Comic creators often gush about how good Batman: The Animated Series was, even calling it the finest portrayal of Batman ever. We could go on and on. The theme, the intro, even the title cards were great!
What is your favorite animated superhero show? What’s your least favorite? Let us know in the comments!
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