I’ve made no secret of the fact that I got into superheroes thanks to the gateway drug of Saturday morning cartoons. Even after I became a full-blown comic book addict, cartoons had a very special place in my heart.
I’ve assembled a list of my 12 favourite animated superhero TV shows, the ones that I still rewatch to this day despite most airing when I was a kid. If you’re looking for a good animated show to pick up, these are the ones to start with.
12. Darkwing Duck
Okay, even I’ll admit this one is only here purely for nostalgic reasons. I loved Darkwing when I was a kid, and he’ll always have a special place in my heart.
Of the core Disney characters, Donald was always my favourite. As a result, I love all of the Duck-verse cartoons – Ducktales, The Mighty Ducks, and of course Darkwing Duck. The idea of an incompetent superhero is pretty brilliant, and the show still makes me chuckle to this day.
11. Fantastic Four
One of my favourite moments is when Sue is kidnapped by Dr. Doom and he tells her his life story. The fact that it comes as part of a 3-part arc helps – yes, it’s not completely episodic. It’s a unique moment in children’s TV where the villain is humanised and made more empathetic. If nothing else, the show earns its place on this list for that episode itself.
And let’s not forget it’s the only kid’s show ever to use the phrase “belligerent troglodyte”.
10. Teen Titans
Let’s get one thing straight: I am NOT talking about Teen Titans GO, and frankly I never will.
The first Teen Titans cartoon was a lot of fun. While never reaching the level of maturity of its older brother Young Justice, it definitely gets close. While the violence itself remains cartoony, psychological thriller elements creep in at the edges. The inclusion of Deathstoke as a major villain and later Terra (in an adaptation of the Judas Contract storyline) was brilliant. I also loved the Red X storylines.
The main success for me in Teen Titans were the strength of the main characters. Even though they are always in costume (to the extent that we never now which Robin it’s meant to be), they are just as relatable as other teen heroes. Stargirl’s fish-out-of-water moments are usually clever and fun, and are a great example of how the series gives each character their own personality.
9. Iron Man: Armored Adventures
The first of three shows on this list to take an adult hero into a teenager, this one is probably the most jarring, which is part of the reason why it doesn’t score higher on this list. However, it does take the conceit of a high school age Tony Stark to startlingly enjoyable heights. In fact, the show would have been much less interesting if Tony had been older.
The show leaves some characters as adults and cleverly chooses which will be Tony’s contemporaries. The Mandarin is handled particularly well, with two characters taking on the identity. Similarly, keeping Obidiah Stane as an adult provides an interesting bit of tension – Obidiah runs the company in Tony’s stead until he inherits it at 18. Stane’s main motivation is keeping that control, even if it means killing Tony. This is much better than the film version’s rather forced and wavering motivations.
Another stand out element is the variety of villains. Almost all of them have technology based powers, from Madam Masque to Titanium Man and even the Mandarin’s rings. Tony also has several Iron Man suits that he uses throughout the series – my personal favourite being the stealth model. This creates an interesting dynamic and commentary on the technology industry, with situations where staying ahead of the competition literally becomes life or death.
8. Spectacular Spider-Man
Another high school hero – are we seeing a theme yet?
Despite being created by the talented Greg Weisman, Spectacular Spider-Man failed to grab my interest initially. The animation style and the voice of Peter Parker both annoyed me. Fortunately, I was convinced to give the show another chance and I’m very happy that I did (although I never did get over the huge eyes).
This show manages to find an excellent balance between the episodic stories and the overarching plotlines. It’s full of recurring characters and sets up twists and turns from the start (Eddie Brock being the best example). It also includes a lot more Peter Parker than some Spider-Man shows. Even more impressive, both sides of his life are equally interesting, a feat even my favourite Spider-Man show didn’t accomplish.
7. Static Shock
You guessed it – another high school hero! There’s something about them isn’t there? I think that they strike a chord with kids, allowing them to fantasize that one day they too could be dashing out of class to pull on their tights and cape. Or in this case, a long blue jacket.
I think one of the reasons I like Static as a hero is that he doesn’t have that classic tragedy in his life – no Uncle Ben moment. His mother is dead, but that happens well before the show begins and never really plays into it. He’s a superhero because obviously that’s what you do when you get super powers, right? Even Peter Parker tried to use them selfishly before becoming a hero. Static doesn’t even consider it.
Richie, on the other hand, definitely does. Virgil’s best friend and eventual partner in crimefighting, Richie is easily one of the best parts of the show. His transformation into Gear builds well, starting with his early jealousy of Static and later his disappointment in not getting “cooler powers”. The subtle hints that Richie may have feelings for Virgil also play well throughout the series, and make it the most diverse show on this list.
6. Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
Easily the shortest of the shows on this list at a measly 13 episodes, it still stands as one of my favourites (and probably the one I’ve watched the most times). Featuring Neil Patrick Harris as Spider-Man, the series was ostensibly meant to bridge the gap between Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. It also included Michael Clarke Duncan reprising his role as the Kingpin from Daredevil, an early attempt at connecting the Marvel franchises. The cast featured loads more recognisable names, my favourite being James Marsters as a Russian thief.
The show is a bit more mature, as is the character of Peter (being in college instead of high school). The show is also aimed at an older audience, with PG-13 violence and even an implied sex scene. However, the show suffered due to its early CGI animation style, which put off many viewers (although personally I prefer this style to Spectacular Spider-Man. Go figure).
The series is also noteworthy for introducing a new love interest for Peter: Indira “Indy” Daimonji. Indy is a video journalism student, playing a kind of Vicki Vale-esque role. She is also the girl that Peter ultimately sleeps with (again, only implied) – not Mary Jane. While I liked Indy and her storyline, the controversy around her likely led to the show’s early cancellation.
5. X-Men: Evolution
The second in the trilogy of “adult characters turned teen.” X-Men: Evolution took a lot of its cues from the X-Men movies, including the portrayals of Rogue, Wolverine, Storm, and Magneto. And it turned nearly every character into a teen.
Like Iron Man: Armoured Adventures, Evolution chose which characters to keep adult wisely, with the core X-Men and Brotherhood members as teens and their mentors as adults. In addition, the fact that the students are not all the same age or in the same grade creates a more interesting dynamic than the 90s X-Men show, which you may have noticed is conspicuously missing from this list.
I never got into the 90s cartoon for some reason, although I won’t deny it’s high quality. I simply preferred the stories and characters in Evolution. Evolution is a bit less out there, and definitely less 90s, and benefits for it. I also like that there are a lot of different teams of X-Men, like the Bayville Sirens or the later expansion with the trainees.
There are a lot of interesting family dynamics going on, with Mystique revealed as Nightcrawler’s mother and Rogue’s foster mother, Magneto and his twins, and the introduction of Storm’s nephew Spyke (one of my favourite characters). While fans of the comics wouldn’t be surprised by these twists, the show slow-played the reveals so they still had impact. Add in the fact that characters regularly shifted allegiances and you’ve got yourself a heck of a fun show.
4. Batman Beyond
And finally we come to the best of the teenified heroes. Unlike the other two on this list, Batman Beyond actually created a brand new character to take on the mantle of Batman rather than feature a young Bruce Wayne. Clearly the creators could predict the future: Gotham has proven that no one cares about Bruce Wayne as a kid.
Terry McGinnis, on the other hand, is an incredibly interesting character. Blending the best traits of the first three Robins, Terry kicks ass and takes names as the new Batman in the distant future of 2019. Bruce is still around – he’s just, to quote another ageing crimefighter, “too old for this shit”.
What kid wouldn’t want to be Batman? And not just Batman, but a Batman with super strength who can fly and turn invisible and has a flying car? I can tell you 12-year-old David definitely did.
Like the original Batman, one of the main successes of this show came in its villains. With unique powers and well-formed backgrounds, Terry’s rogues gallery was full of great, memorable characters. Shriek and Inque are still two of my favourite villains, while Derek Powers breaks out of the maniacal businessman mould in rather explosive fashion.
3. Spider-Man: The Animated Series
These top three were the most difficult to rank, and if I’m honest it’s really a bit of a three-way tie. The deciding factor for putting Spider-Man here is the fact that the show’s fast pacing is definitely meant for kids. Sadly, this means it doesn’t hold up quite as well on rewatch.
That said, the show as a whole is still amazing. Each season features an overarching plot, with Season 4’s “Partners in Danger” as my favourite. This is when Black Cat appears in Spidey’s life and makes life very difficult. I also love “The Alien Costume” three parter, which introduces the Venom symbiote. It’s probably one of the best versions of that storyline, and my personal favourite.
This show featured a huge range of characters from all parts of Marvel: Blade, Doctor Strange, Daredevil, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Captain America, and even a crossover with the X-Men series. The huge number of awesome villains that Spidey faced displayed the true greatness of his rogues gallery. With so many great characters and storylines, it’s no wonder Spider-Man was my favourite hero as a kid. This show is the reason why Spidey is the only hero to have three different solo shows on this list.
2. Young Justice
If I need to explain to you why I love Young Justice, you clearly haven’t watched it. Do yourself a favour, jump on Netflix and start bingeing immediately.
Seriously, stop reading this and go watch it.
Young Justice isn’t just one of my favourite superhero shows, or even just one of my favourite animated shows. It’s one of my favourite TV shows, period. It’s brilliant. The characters are great, and the fact that they’re not all introduced at once but rather are added organically over time makes them even better. The time jump between seasons 1 and 2 allowed us to see the characters grow and change, as well as expanding The Team in fun and exciting ways.
And let’s not forget that it’s one of only two kids’ shows to ever genuinely surprise me with a twist – and it did it twice in the same episode!
Seriously though, the writing alone on this show makes it worth watching. I’ve already mentioned my love for showrunner Greg Wiesman and this show is easily my favourite of his work.
The best part about Young Justice? It’s the only show on this whole list that we’re getting more of! Season 3 baby!
1. Batman: The Animated Series
As I said before, ranking the top three shows on this list was tough, and deciding between the top two was nearly impossible. But ultimately, Batman won out.
Like Young Justice, Batman is one of my all-time favourite TV shows. The team of Paul Dini and Bruce Timm is just perfect, and much has been written lauding the pair. But for my money though, the show wouldn’t have been nearly as good without its brilliant voice and casting director Andrea Romano. She’s the one who decided to cast Kevin Conroy as Batman and Mark Hamill as the Joker, two of the most iconic versions of those characters. Romano actually worked on at least four of the shows on this list, and I haven’t seen her make a misstep yet.
If you’re reading this list, you don’t need me to tell you why Batman was such a great show. You’ve seen it. You already know that Batman wasn’t the main character of every episode, but rather the whole of Gotham is given a chance to shine. And obviously you know that the award-winning “Heart of Ice” is responsible for the new origin of Mr. Freeze. And no one can forget that it gave us Harley Quinn. And do I even have to mention that it spawned the DC Animated Universe that included Superman: The Animated Series, Justice League, Justice League: Unlimited, Static Shock, Batman Beyond, and even the highly underrated Zeta Project?
So why did I fall in love Batman? Honestly? I was 5 when it came out and it was probably one of the first superhero shows I ever watched. And when you’re 5 and you see a guy being a badass in a cape for the first time, well, let’s just say it had an impression.
Well, there you have it. My favourite superhero shows. I’m gonna go tweet at Greg Weisman about Young Justice Season 3, but if you want to tweet at me about your favourite superhero shows, you can find me at @A2HYC_David.