Ah, the sacred tradition of the Saturday morning cartoon. Regardless of with whom you speak, almost everyone will have fond memories of watching their favorite cartoons with less-than-healthy breakfasts in hand. The Saturday morning cartoon phenomenon is where most children were introduced to superheroes. Before the technological prowess of CGI could really do them justice, the world of animation was the best and only place to catch solid superhero action. Sadly, the Saturday morning cartoon is no more. Instead, we've got 24-hour cartoon channels like Disney XD and Cartoon Network. But in tribute to the fallen Saturday morning block, which featured some of the best superhero cartoons ever made, we’ve hand-picked some of our favorites to help you binge watch and deny obtaining adult responsibility.
Running on FOX Kids from 1994 to 1998, Spider-Man is the foundation of many Spider-Man fans' understanding of the comic. The show follows Peter Parker (the eponymous Spider-Man) through his college years after he had already received his powers. During his various adventures in the 21-minute long episodes, Spider-Man encountered the vast majority of his rogue gallery, including Kingpin, Black Cat, Green Goblin, and Venom. These characters were featured in multiple series-long storylines, which would converge in spectacular and memorable finales. Sometimes the mark of the best superhero cartoons is how often it reruns. Spider-Man never seemed to be off the TV well through the mid 2000s, and although many other Spider-Man cartoons would come and go, this piece of animation history will remain in the hearts of many a Spidey fan.
The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes debuted on television and online during Fall 2010. This show preceded the widespread affection of The Avengers, which came after the 2012 film of the same name. As much as it was created to appeal to kids, it has found itself a fairly large adult audience. This mature fascination with the program is largely due to the show's continual nods to Avengers creators Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The respect for the original comic strip came in many forms, but most significantly, the show used the initial lineup of characters that was featured in the first Avengers comic books. This original lineup consisted of Iron-Man, Giant-Man, Hulk, Thor, and The Wasp. Later, the team was joined by Captain America, Black Panther, and Hawkeye, as well as Ms. Marvel and The Vision in the second season.
The Avengers are one half of the greatest teams in the comic book industry, but we needn’t forget what DC had to offer. In fact, the 90s were something of a golden period for DC animation, with the critically acclaimed Batman Animated Series and the Superman Animated Series blowing fans' expectations out of the water. Despite the terrible CGI opening sequence for this TV show, it is actually a high-quality program that features many popular superheroes. The show continued the storylines of the DC animated universe, bringing together some of DC’s greatest characters. The lineup is one of the most iconic of the best superhero cartoons, consisting of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter, Hawk Girl, and The Flash. This show proved to be an instant fan favorite.
The Tick was an adaptation of the New England Comics satirical superhero, The Tick. The series aired for three seasons from 1994 to 1996 on FOX Kids, which introduced the character to a mainstream audience. The Tick has been shuffled around on various networks, further increasing the show's cult following. It has since been released on both VHS and DVD. The Tick is not the most well known character, as he is not based upon a previously established comic book hero. However, The Tick and his satirical escapades through the perils of being a superhero has struck a chord with many viewers, and his cult following will likely remain for years to come.
Yeah, you know Iron Man from the 2008 movie, but before his box office hit, he was a little known character in the Marvel universe. This TV show, which aired from 1994 to 1996, is an antiquated but interesting look into what makes the character tick. Iron Man was originally part of a package deal, where the series would air alongside other Marvel superheroes such as The Fantastic Four. However, Iron Man would soon carve out its own spot in animated history. With a kickass opening theme and the unusual use of multiple production companies, Iron Man is a fascinating glimpse of how the superhero and comic book industries have changed over the last several decades.
Batman: The Animated Series
This program is what many would call the "granddaddy" of the animated world. Those who dismiss Batman: The Animated Series as a simple and kid-friendly show would be in for a surprise. Instead, viewers are left with a morally-complex look of the characters that make up Batman's life. Inspired by the gothic Burton aesthetic, the team behind this animated series created a wacky and abstract world specifically for the show. With legendary performances from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, this will surely be remembered as one of the best superhero cartoons of all time. There’s even a podcast that delves into the psychological issues of the villains. How crazy is that?
The Spectacular Spider-Man
The Spectacular Spider-Man was developed for television by Greg Weisman and Victor Cook. In terms of overall tone and style, the series is based principally on the original stories by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. However, it also utilized material from all eras of the comic's run, as well as the film series and the Ultimate Spider-Man comics. The high school setting would come to define this particular series, differentiating it from the original Spider-Man (1994). The Spectacular Spider-Man premiered on March 8, 2008 during the Kids' WB programming block of The CW, where it received positive acclaim. The show went on to have two seasons, but a third season was cancelled due to legal complications between Marvel and Sony (who technically own the rights of Spider-Man).
Set in a future Gotham, Batman Beyond focused on a teenage Batman who is under the tutorship of an elderly Bruce Wayne. The future tech came to define the series, and although it didn’t run for very long, the effects of the show’s original aesthetic and designs are still evident in Batman stories today. The show became known for its darkness and was, in many ways, not suitable for children. It dealt primarily with the damaged psychosis of Bruce Wayne and the public anxiousness about technology. The program also tackled the concept of vigilantism. How could I not list something with such deep thematic premises as one of the best superhero cartoons?
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Cowabunga, dudes! This show debuted in 1986 and ran well into the 90s with about 10 seasons' worth of turtle adventures. Who would have thought that combining ninjas and mutated turtles would make for a compelling TV show? This program actually started as a dark and gritty parody of old Frank Miller comics. The studio behind the turtles must still be counting stacks of cash, because people remain fascinated with their favorite crime-fighting, shell-doning characters. The series followed the adventures of Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, and Raphael. These turtles were trained by an elderly and sage-like rat named Splinter in the ways of the ninja. Each turtle has its own distinct personality, provoking both confrontation and friendship among the characters that made for great TV.
You’ll know the main theme music of X-Men before you see the actual animation. This show was crucial in reviving the X-Men franchise. In fact, the show was so successful that it may have boosted the X-Men to become one of Marvel’s most popular comic books of all time. Playing off the fact that each mutant could have an original and new power, the geniuses who made this show played out long and complex storylines through the eyes of characters we cared about. Dealing with heavy themes like intolerance and prejudice, X-Men managed to tackle some serious subject matter for a Saturday morning kids show. Each character did something to carve him or herself out a bit of TV history, and I know that I will never forget that damn amazing theme song.