Superheroes and cartoons are a match made in heaven and ever since the Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s, they’ve walked hand in hand for decades. There have been countless corny superhero cartoons, mostly in the name of selling toys, but there was a renaissance that began in the 1990s that defined not only animation techniques but these characters and the stories that were told about them. Sometimes the cartoons were so influential they’re still being used as standards for the characters to this day, and merchandise surrounding them is still being produced.
There is no discounting the influence of the likes of the Super Friends from the 1970s or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon of the 1980s, both of which forever changed the way those characters were seen and marketed, but here are our picks for the 10 best superhero cartoons.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995)
The motherload of superhero cartoons, the series was developed by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski and became a cornerstone of Batman stories and characters moving forward. Not only did fan-favorite characters like Harley Quinn make their debut on the series before appearing in comics but other characters, namely Mister Freeze, were radically altered for the cartoon with such success that it became comic book canon. “Batman: The Animated Series” took the Tim Burton films as a springboard for its visual style but quickly became a juggernaut in its own right, helped in part by the work of Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and The Joker, two absolute staples that defined those characters for a generation.
Best Superhero Cartoons: X-Men: The Animated Series (1992 – 1997)
Following the global success of Jim Lee’s rebooted X-Men comic books, the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters made its way to televisions in another influential cartoon. The “X-Men” cartoon wasn’t limited just to the visuals of the comics, it took a lot of its stories and plotlines directly from the comics, adapting year-long events into 20 minute episodes, some more successful than others. What is most interesting about the adaptation, given how early this was in the boom of superhero entertainment, was just how much of the X-Men lore made it onto the screen with characters like Emma Frost, Puck, Cable, Illyana Rasputin, The High Evolutionary, and Ka-Zar all making appearances.
Best Superhero Cartoons: The Tick: The Animated Series (1994 – 1996)
Based on Ben Edlund’s comic series, “The Tick” took some liberties in terms adapting the character but maintained the comedic tone at the heart of the character. What really kept the series apart from the other superhero cartoons of the era was its satirical send up of the genre, which made it a perfect fit for the Fox Kids programming block where it aired alongside Batman, X-Men, Spider-Man and many others. Funny enough, the series lampooned a number of characters that barely appeared in the shows airing before and after it such as Captain America, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, Nick Fury, The Hulk, and many more.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994 – 1998)
Without this cartoon series, Spider-Man may not have become the blockbuster meal ticket and cultural icon that he is now. The series is remembered for its largely faithful adaptation of comic book stories while also reinventing characters for the TV medium, plus its opening theme which can only be described as rock-techno. In true Marvel Comics fashion, the series brought in not only a ton of C-list villains but heroes from every corner, including Iron Man, Daredevil, The Punisher, Doctor Strange, Blade, The Fantastic Four, and even the voice cast from “X-Men: The Animated Series” reprising their roles!
Best Superhero Cartoons: Todd McFarlane’s Spawn (1997 – 1999)
If you don’t remember, Spawn was everywhere in the 1990s. Created by Todd McFarlane the character with a penchant for violent encounters wasn’t exactly suited for the same programming slot as X-Men or Batman, so it naturally only had one home at the time: HBO. The series only ran for three, six-episode seasons and brought many of the fan-favorite characters to life in its limited run. It was also awarded the Outstanding Animated Program Emmy for its final season.
Best Superhero Cartoons: The Powerpuff Girls (1998 – 2005)
What made “The Powerpuff Girls” such a great series was that every facet of it was in a league of its own. Not only was it a show about young superheroes doing the types of things we have to read about in comics, but they they also have homework and house chores. They’re regular kids that maintained their humanity behind those gigantic eyes. The series also featured some of the smartest writing by never looking down at its young audience but also writing jokes specifically for older viewers. There’s also the matter of its relentless pop culture parodies, ranging from The Beatles to The Big Lebowski, which were unending as they were sharp.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Batman Beyond (1999 – 2001)
Not satisfied with reinventing Batman once for a generation, Bruce Timm and Paul Dini concocted “Batman Beyond,” a cyberpunk infused version of the character, and rewrote the book on Batman…again. The series saw Bruce Wayne now old and retired lending training and guidance to a new Batman in Terry McGinnis. The series introduced its own futuristic version of some characters, such as a gang named The Jokerz but also revealed some of the original Batman villains survived, like Bane, Mr. Freeze, and (naturally) Ra’s Al Ghul. Despite being a cartoon geared toward a younger audience, and in true Timm & Dini fashion, the series found itself exploring deep subject matter and getting quite dark at times. The series is a fan favorite and still has a comic book named for it being published.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001 – 2006)
Where Batman redefined characters and concepts for a generation, JLU introduced them to the other sides of the DC Universe with the likes of Martian Manhunter, Hawkgirl, and even Wally West as The Flash. Countless other characters were brought to life as well like Aquaman, Darkseid, Brainiac and even more obscure characters, like Weather Wizard, Etrigan the Demon, and Metamorpho. The series also returned to the comic book roots of its source material, focusing on singular stories each episode, one notable example being the adaptation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ “For the Man Who Has Everything” Superman story.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008 – 2011)
With the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films in theaters, there wasn’t much for the younger Bat-fans to get into in the late ’00s, but “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” proved not only to be perfect for them but the kind of cartoon kickstart that the Dark Knight needed. Each episode of the series focused on a new team up of Batman and another DC hero, be it Blue Beetle, Plastic Man, Green Lantern, Aquaman, or even the Jack Kirby-created Kamandi, the last boy on Earth. Though short lived, the series ended on a perfect meta-high note with an episode involving #1 Batman fan, Batmite, trying to have the show cancelled to make way for a darker cartoon series and Batman reminding the audience he’ll always be around as the set he’s standing on is torn down.
Best Superhero Cartoons: Young Justice (2010 – 2013)
Though there have been a few cartoons about the younger characters in the DCU, none quite had the same panache as “Young Justice,” which saw its teenaged heroes hoping to gain respect in the world of superheroes and be seen as more than just sidekicks. Though it featured a younger cast, the series wasn’t afraid to be just as dark, mature, and complex as other animated DC fare with characters regularly dying on screen. Like “Batman: The Brave and the Bold,” the series was cancelled too early, but has quickly gained a cult following.