Animation allowed superhero properties to be faithfully portrayed, often exploring them in ways that live-action films did not.
These classic shows, such as Spider-Man: The New Animated Series and X-Men: The Animated Series, remain popular and influential, with dedicated fan followings and demand for revivals.
The DC Universe and Marvel Cinematic Universe may include the most well-known superhero comic adaptations, but there are numerous classic Marvel and DC animated series that hold up to this day. Thanks to the MCU’s success, superhero adaptations are a major mainstream genre, but for much of their history before the MCU movie timeline kicked off, superhero adaptations were typically seen as a more niche concept. Still, successes were not unheard of, with several classic cartoons leaving their mark on pop culture before superhero fiction became such a dominant force in media.
In some cases, the superpowers and respective “worlds” of Marvel and DC properties could not easily be depicted in live-action, but animation allowed them to be portrayed faithfully. Additionally, superhero films would sometimes be marketed through animated shows, exploring their respective properties in ways that the films did not. 12 classic superhero shows, in particular, are popular or influential enough to hold up decades later. While we wait for Marvel’s upcoming MCU movies and DCU releases, they can fill the hole.
Related: Every MCU Movie Ranked Worst To Best
12 Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
Initially intended as a canonical follow-up to 2002’s Spider-Man, Spider-Man: The New Animated Series stars Peter Parker, Mary Jane Watson, and Harry Osborn as students at Empire State University as new threats emerge to threaten New York City after the Green Goblin’s death. The events of the series are, ultimately, contradicted by the following two Spider-Man movies and their respective spinoff materials, making The New Animated Series part of a branching timeline that only includes the first Raimi film. Thanks to Neil Patrick Harris’s endearing performance as Spider-Man, as well as the show’s proper balance of realistic and outlandish conflicts, the series remains a worthwhile Spider-Man adaptation.
11 Batman Beyond
A fan-favorite addition to the DC Animated Universe, Batman Beyond is set decades after the events of Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures. With Bruce Wayne too old to effectively fight crime as Batman, Terry McGinnis takes up the mantle (under Wayne’s tutelage) to protect a futuristic take on Gotham City. The show’s popularity has persisted over 20 years after its cancelation, with spinoff comics continuing the adventures of Terry McGinnis and many other DCAU heroes.
The critically acclaimed Static Shock was based on DC’s Static comics from the early 90s, starring the teenage Virgil Hawkins, who accidentally gained electrokinetic superpowers. The show stands on its own in its first season, but its following three seasons place it within the DCAU, making Static Shock a refreshingly down-to-Earth addition to the larger franchise. Static’s adventures excellently juxtapose the ordinary and the fantastic, and the character remains a popular DC superhero, thanks to both his comics and the animated series.
9 Spider-Man: The Animated Series
Spider-Man: The Animated Series debuted in the mid-90s and quickly gained a strong following among longtime readers of Marvel’s Spider-Man comics. The series is one of the first truly authentic adaptations of the Spider-Man mythos, faithfully portraying Spider-Man and his plethora of iconic supporting characters and villains as his superhero escapades clash with his ordinary life as college student Peter Parker. The Spider-Man Animated Series remains one of Marvel’s best animated shows, and there has even been demand for a revival of this deservedly beloved animated series.
8 The Batman
Although it took some liberties with the source material, 2004’s The Batman is a unique take on the Batman mythos that is worth the attention of any Batman viewer. Set in Batman’s early years, The Batman stars Rino Romano as a surprisingly down-to-Earth take on Bruce Wayne and Batman. The series also gradually builds the Batman Family by introducing Barbara Gordon and Dick Grayson as Batgirl and Robin, respectfully, as well as tying their adventures into a larger DC universe through guest stars like Superman, Green Arrow, and Hawkman.
7 Teen Titans
Based on the popular DC comic books of the same name, 2003’s Teen Titans brought the 80s lineup of the famous team to the realm of animation. The show notably used an anime-like style of animation and was often as comedic as it was dramatic. The series also eschewed its heroes’ secret identities, keeping them in their costumed personas at all times. Teen Titans remains a fan-favorite among DC’s many animated shows, having led to both the increased popularity of heroes like Cyborg (who became a founding member of the Justice League in its New 52 relaunch) and the entirely comedic Teen Titans Go! spinoff series.
6 Superman: The Animated Series
The DCAU’s Superman: The Animated Series had big shoes to fill as the franchise’s next show after the critically acclaimed Batman animated series. Largely inspired by John Byrne’s post-Crisis Superman comics, the Superman animated series depicted a relatable Clark Kent who had to struggle to perform his most impressive feats as Superman. Although the show did take liberties with Superman’s characterization, its phenomenal score, voice cast, and art style make its consensus as one of Superman’s best adaptations well-deserved.
5 Justice League
The already-beloved DCAU expanded further with Justice League, which saw its acclaimed iterations of Batman and Superman founding the famous superhero team alongside five other classic DC heroes. The series balanced its heroes excellently and provided them with worthy challenges to their combined might, including the Manhunters, Lex Luthor’s Secret Society, and even an alternate-universe version of the Justice League itself. Justice League remains one of DC’s best TV properties, to say nothing of being one of the best adaptations of the titular superhero team.
4 Justice League Unlimited
Justice League’s sequel series, Justice League Unlimited, retained the cast of its original 7 heroes but expanded its roster to include a plethora of DC characters, such as The Question, Huntress, Green Arrow, and Black Canary. While the show included far more heroes and villains, it also managed to go into even deeper and more character-driven territory than its predecessor, gradually having Hawkgirl regain the trust of her teammates following the Thanagarian invasion. The show’s first two seasons, which pit the Justice League against CADMUS, contain some of the best character and plot development in the DCAU, making it essential viewing for DC fans.
3 Batman: The Animated Series
Initially intended to market Batman Returns, Batman: The Animated Series – like 1989’s Batman – is a groundbreaking pop culture phenomenon that instantly became a defining Batman adaptation. With its iconic art style, phenomenal voiceover cast, memorable score, and mature approach to storytelling, Batman earned its reputation as one of the all-time greatest animated shows. Batman: The Animated Series even influenced the comics themselves, with its new backstory for Mr. Freeze and the introduction of Harley Quinn, a villain-turned-anti-heroine who is now one of DC’s most popular characters.
2 The New Batman Adventures
The critically acclaimed Batman animated series paved the way for its Superman successor and thus the DCAU franchise, but this also led to a sequel series to Batman. The New Batman Adventures saw the return of the DCAU’s Batman and the introduction of new heroes, such as Tim Drake (Dick Grayson’s successor as Robin in this universe). The series also included crossovers with other animated DC properties and the beloved episode “Mad Love,” which depicts the tragic origin of Harley Quinn. The New Batman Adventures matches the quality of the original series, making it equally essential viewing.
1 X-Men: The Animated Series
Although it is one of Marvel’s most popular properties, the X-Men have rarely had high-quality screen adaptations. X-Men: The Animated Series, however, perfectly captures the spirit of the comics, accurately depicting the iconic superhero team, stylistically and substantially. Even years later, in an age where the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC Universe have crafted their own animated series for the respective goliath on-screen franchises they represent, the series remains the gold standard of superhero animated shows and X-Men adaptations, and its fan following has led to multiple sequel properties, from the X-Men ’92 comics to the upcoming X-Men ’97 animated series.
Classics that still hold up. Read More