Who doesn’t love animation? It’s a powerful tool that can defy the limitations of live-action, giving us visuals and stories that could only be done with this medium. Same can be said for the world of superheroes, and by combining the two we’ve seen some pretty unique stuff over the years. With the recent buzz of comic book movies and Netflix shows, I feel some might forget that some of our fondest memories of superheroes came from animation. So let’s fix that by honoring the amazing, the mighty, and the fantastic, as we look at the 10 greatest superhero cartoon shows!
The Tick (1994-1997)
Probably the goofiest entry on this list, The Tick is a hilarious parody of superheroes and the tropes that come with them. The show follows the heroic (but bumbling) Tick and his sidekick Arthur as they battle evil in the city called…The City…which seems to have as many heroes as it does villains. In fact, maybe too many. What made this show truly unique was how it poked fun at superhero clichés and superheroes themselves (which, if you’re a comic book buff, you could probably point out who’s a parody of who). While the cartoon was a bit short-lived, the Tick made an appearance in live-action and is even getting a reboot on Amazon. I guess it just goes to show that even though the Tick may not be the most popular superhero, both he and the world he lives in is remembered for being weird, clever, and really funny. What else can you say, except…SPOON!!
X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997)
Fighting to defend a world that hates and fears them, the mutants of the X-Men stand together against any threat facing mankind! This one is just a classic, a definite must-watch for any fan of the X-Men. Some of our favorite mutants get the spotlight and a ton of classic X-Men stories are brought to life in this fondly remembered series. For its time it was even groundbreaking, covering issues of prejudice in a kids’ show. So why is it only at number nine? That’s because there are a few things that didn’t age well, like the animation and even some 90s slang that’s painfully cheesy and outdated. But despite all that, many still find this show to be the best out of all X-Men cartoons. So, if you can get past that, you should definitely give it a watch. (P.S.- the theme song is AWESOME!!)
Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
In the year 2039, Bruce Wayne is too old to keep fighting criminals and has officially retired his alter-ego. With crime still rampant, the new Gotham will need a new Batman.
Batman Beyond stands out in this list for being something completely original, and it pays off big time. Terry McGinnis is a much different kind of Batman; he does things his own way while still getting help from Bruce, which helps the show’s interesting theme of legacy.
The setting of a future Gotham is also fascinating, leaving room for some cool new tools and gadgets for Batman to use, as well as new villains (such as Shriek, Inque, and Blight); they make for a pretty entertaining rogues gallery for Batman to fight. What’s even cooler is, after the show ended the story continued in the comics and still runs to this day. With a lot of creativity, a visually stunning setting and new characters alongside some old ones, Batman Beyond adds a unique new flavor to an old formula.
Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2012-2013)
The fearless Hal Jordan is a member of the Green Lantern Corps and protects his sector of space from diabolical threats, but when there’s trouble in the farther reaches of space he and his allies will stand together to protect the universe from evil!
Green Lantern is a show unlike the others on this list by being the only one animated completely by CGI, which makes for some great visuals and action scenes that could only be possible in three dimensions. The story is also a delight, featuring many elements from the lore of the comics (such as the differently colored Lantern Corps) while introducing some compelling new characters in the form of Aya, a Green Lantern android, and Razer, a rogue Red Lantern. With all this combined, we get a compelling story as we see Hal fight off the Red Lanterns and the Anti-Monitor.
There are even some pretty sad deaths in this show, which is surprising since a lot of shows like this tend to shy away from death; to me, it just shows that the writers took their audience seriously. Sadly, it all only lasted one season, which is a shame because it seemed they were building up possible storylines for a season two. Still, they made the most out of what they had and that level of effort is why Green Lantern: The Animated Series has a spot on this list.
Teen Titans (2003-2006)
When there’s trouble, you know who to call. Together Robin, Cyborg, Starfire, Raven and Beast Boy protect their city as the Teen Titans!
When people think of the Teen Titans, most think of this particular series since it’s truly unlike any other. The show takes the ingredients of the classic Marv Wolfman and George Pérez run on The New Teen Titans, and mixes it with some anime flavor and an amazing voice cast including Tara Strong, Greg Cipes, Hynden Walch and even Ron Perlman as Slade (Deathstroke). All of this adds up to a show with its own unique style.
There are some great character-driven episodes (sometimes even carrying through certain seasons) and a lot of hilarious humor that only these characters could deliver. Though the series ended on a cliffhanger, there were still five seasons of great action, memorable characters, some unique animation, and plenty of fun moments. Oh, and Teen Titans is definitely a great show to watch while snacking on pizza (which makes Teen Titans GO! all the more disappointing).
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009)
With great power, comes great responsibility.
Spider-Man’s had his share of animated shows in the past, but in my book none of them have ever gotten close to capturing the real essence of the character like this show did. While this show does give us the wise-cracking wall-crawler we all know and love, the show truly shines on the part that is often overlooked: Peter Parker. We not only see how being Spider-Man directly affects him and his loved ones, but we also get to see how hard Peter’s life is outside of his crime-fighting persona.
We get a great supporting cast for Peter including the recent fan-favorite Gwen Stacey, but a hero is only as good as his villains. His rogues gallery includes the popular ones (like Green Goblin, Doc Ock, and Venom) and some lesser known baddies that really shine in this series (such as Hammerhead and Tombstone); they all bring some additional craziness to Peter’s complicated little life. While this was another short-lived show, it will always be remembered as a love-letter to classic Spider-Man comics with plenty of web-swinging fun.
Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2006)
When the world faces its greatest threats, only our greatest heroes united can save us. Together, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and many others form the Justice League!
Taking place in the beloved DC Animated Universe, this series has no shortage of DC heroes and villains. While the first show revolves around the core members (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkgirl, and Martian Manhunter), Unlimited shared the spotlight with other members in the expanded roster (like Green Arrow, the Question, and Stargirl). Seeing all these different personalities work off each other is entertaining on its own.
Villains like Lex Luthor and Gorilla Grodd really stand out in this series as being a threat to the League, especially when they start working together which makes for some great big fight scenes between heroes and villains. Some of these characters we’ve seen in other DC animated shows, so it feels like a continuing story for those characters. There are also some great episodes, multi-parts and stand alone, that focus a great deal on character relationships, and what being a superhero means to each of them amidst all the great action (I highly recommend watching “Patriot Act” and the entire “Starcrossed” special for the best examples of this). So with great stand-out episodes, compelling drama and plenty of great characters, Justice League and Justice League Unlimited make up a giant superhero party you should definitely see for yourself.
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (2010-2012)
And there came a day unlike any other, when Earth’s mightiest heroes assembled to face threats no superhero could face alone. They became…the Avengers!
Though this show was released to promote the now successful movie, the showrunners put their all into making this the best it could be. What we got was a retelling of many classic Avengers stories (such as the team’s origin, the birth of Ultron and the Secret Invasion), making this a unique take on Marvel’s rich history. But a superhero team is only as good as its members. Thankfully, the Avengers are great characters to follow; they really jell together as a team and have their own unique character arcs. From the Hulk not turning back into Bruce Banner, to Captain America trying to adjust to the new world around him, and to Ant-Man’s struggle with practicing a nonviolent approach to being a superhero, the series works well to make the Avengers as human as we are. This approach to storytelling makes the drama very compelling to watch.
Of course, the real icing on the cake is all the Marvel guest stars. Spider-Man, Wolverine, Luke Cage, and the Fantastic Four all make appearances throughout the course of the series (some even come together in my favorite episode, “New Avengers”), and just seeing them alongside the main cast is a treat for any Marvel fan. Unfortunately, this only had two seasons, even though they were building up a “Civil War” event for the show (with all the characters they had, it would have been awesome!). If you search for it, you can even see some concept art for what season three could have been, which makes things all the more sad. Still, what we did get is a great homage to Marvel while being fresh and new. A series as epic as the team itself: AVENGERS ASSEMBLE!!
Young Justice (2010-2013)
Working together in secret, the young heroes of the DC Universe take on threats that could become global catastrophes. Together they will become as great as their mentors in the Justice League and become the heroes they were meant to be!
While the title of this show might be a bit misleading (seeing that the show is more of a retelling of the Teen Titans, not Young Justice), the show has definitely had an impact since its premiere. Much like other entries on this list, it was given a level of seriousness which made audiences take it seriously, too. The villains of this series also give us an intriguing mystery to follow that always keeps you guessing, since they always seem one step ahead of everyone. The heroes are the main attraction of this one though; the team interacting with each other is just fun to see, and the best part is that when the team expands in season two (including fan favorites Blue Beetle and Impulse), no character seems lost or pointless to the series.
Legacy is also a theme is this show too, but using the idea of stepping out of someone’s shadow and seeing each character come to terms with that in their own way makes for interesting drama. The action is a visual splendor to watch, thanks to the beautiful animation, and the writing for each season is fantastic and gripping. While this is another show that was cancelled with a cliffhanger, there is still hope. There has been expressed interest by showrunners to continue the series on Netflix, so if there was ever a time to take a look at this amazing show it would be now. With strongly developed characters, stunning action, great drama and tons of DC lore, it’s easy to see why Young Justice has such a big fan-following.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1999)
He is vengeance; he is the night; he is BATMAN!!
Let’s be honest, you all knew this one was going to be on here. This show has topped many top 10 lists as the best superhero show of all time, and this particular list is no exception. In previous entries I mentioned how some of these shows had a level of seriousness. Well, I feel none of those shows would have it if not for Batman: The Animated Series. For many, this was their first exposure to the Caped Crusader, which is why it’s their favorite version of the character. There were so many great and memorable episodes that we would actually need a separate list to name them all.
We also have an amazing voice cast, including Kevin Conroy as the Dark Knight himself and the legendary Mark Hamill as the Joker. They deliver amazingly entertaining performances in each episode and have become the quintessential voices of these characters. This series also had some impact outside of TV. For example, Harley Quinn was actually created in this show and became so popular that she transcended the show and became a big part of the Batman comics and other media. While there’s been good superhero shows to come out after this, none of them have ever reached the same popularity and legacy that this classic left behind. Having good animation for its time, timeless characters and stories, great voice actors, and leaving an impact on DC as well as superhero shows that followed, Batman: The Animated Series stands as the greatest animated superhero show of all time.
What’s your favorite superhero show, did I miss one? Let me know below!