Live-action superhero efforts are a precarious balancing act. How does one translate what’s effective on a comic-book page to a world of flesh, blood, and Chris Hemsworth? In short, it’s a constant battle of: “Is this gonna look dumb?” Cartoons, on the other hand, might be the most natural format for the superhero adaptation, providing a more liberating canvas and allowing for all manner of fantastic derring-do without the limiting factor of having to stuff real people in the frame. And since 1992, with the one-two punch of the revolutionary Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, we’ve gotten a nice helping of them.
If you’re looking for an animated adventure to watch, here are the thirty best superhero cartoons of the last thirty years. These are series that make the translation from page to screen feel effortless, applying the grand cadence of the drama of a comic book to movement and sound. They honor the source material without feeling cold in their references, and even those based on original ideas are assured in their world-building. And when comic book plots have seemed labyrinthine and unassailable, these series have stripped them to their best and most indispensable aspects.
Beware the Batman
New Batman series have been the bread and butter of Warner Bros. animation for years, but not all of them are a hole-in-one. A victim of extremely poor marketing, Beware the Batman had an abbreviated lifespan, only lasting 26 episodes before being quietly canceled. Its take on the Dark Knight was hard-hitting and refreshing, especially as it attempted to turn C-list, movie-less foes like Anarky, Professor Pig, and Humpty Dumpty into bonafide stars. However its CG animation could leave it looking fairly empty, especially in its early episodes.
Wolverine and the X-Men
Serving as a sort of tie-in cartoon to the disaster that was X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine and the X-Men quickly lapped the film it was supposed to be advertising. A story full of alternate futures, deep-dive characters, and heavy stakes, WatX was a fun ride, especially when it gave the spotlight to Emma Frost, the antihero who’s torn between helping the X-Men and helping to annihilate them. Its single season is strong overall, but too many diversions into bland Wolverine side stores leave a chunk of it feeling needless.
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot
A relic of the Fox Kids era, Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot is based on a comic by industry luminary Frank Miller. Though certainly not treated well by its network (its schedule was pushed around as they attempted to fill every possible space with Digimon, and it went out with a whimper), Big Guy is great to look at with a story line that combines Silver Age comic-book wackiness with a likable cast in a way that belies its notoriety and feels tailor-made for the cartoon format.
Based on the character created by the late, great Dwayne McDuffie and his collaborators at Milestone Media, Static Shock was the fifth series in the expansive DC Animated Universe. A Black hero who would eventually make his way to the Justice League, Static’s prominence has only grown with time, even if the first season reveals a production still finding its footing. It would also launch McDuffie’s entrance into the world of animation, where his storytelling talent would prove to be a wonderful fit.
For those inspired by an original idea growing into a seemingly unstoppable mega franchise, all without a big-name hero or a live-action movie to serve as a central pillar, look no further than the science fiction/fantasy of Ben 10. The original series is the story of a 10-year-old boy who can transform into different alien monsters thanks to a cool wristwatch device and fight evil, and its sequels and spinoffs and reboots launched from there.
Blending toyetic characters with swiftly weaving story lines can leave Spider-Man feeling breakneck at times. However, while the comic-book industry suffered under the weight of its own hubris in the ’90s, Spider-Man reframed much of its complexities with breezy, galloping confidence. It’s a show that has a lot to accomplish, and though a satellite view of its narratives can leave viewers wondering where exactly it has time to fit in Spider-Man’s trademark pathos, watching it is a blast.
Teen Titans Go!
To fans of the beloved Teen Titans effort from the early aughts, Teen Titans Go! might disappoint. It combines action with heavy comedy and parody, a silly slice-of-life rendition of the adolescent heroes and their day-to-day activities rather than a Saturday morning adventure show or a grim live action TV series. That said, the voice actors from the original show all return for Go!, and their familiarity lends itself well to the rapid-fire goofiness.
Green Lantern: The Animated Series
Produced on the heels of the well-mocked Green Lantern film, Green Lantern: The Animated Series is all promise. Like Beware the Batman, a CG animated show from the same period, it was canceled unceremoniously, but unlike Batman, it doesn’t have to contend with any comparisons to solid live-action incarnations. Green Lantern has great and surprisingly empathetic core characters, with a galaxy-trotting plot that live action has yet to garner the confidence to recreate.
Few comic-book characters created in the last 30 years have managed to have as immediate of an impact or been as instantly beloved as Harley Quinn. Introduced in Batman: The Animated Series, Harley’s star power has risen to the point that she’s led multiple live action films and now headlines her own HBO Max show. Entering its third season in July 2022, Harley Quinn is raunch, sweetness, and violence all in one, partly thanks to its assured voice acting (Kaley Cuoco’s Harley is great, but Ron Funches’s King Shark is the heart of the series.)
The mid-’90s were a good time to be a superhero fan for Fox Kids viewers — Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men, Spider-Man, and … The Tick. A delightful superhero parody, The Tick is a justifiable cult classic and its placement beside more straight-faced crusaders meant that the jokes and references wouldn’t be lost on its audience. Two live-action adaptations would be good in their own right, but in cartoon form, The Tick is a madcap circus. Kickin’ theme song, too.
Created for a generation that was well-versed in the pleasures of Dragon Ball Z and Naruto, The Batman wears its anime influence on its sleeve. Its fight scenes and climactic set pieces are dynamic and well-choreographed, presenting a World’s Greatest Detective that’s more likely to deliver a spinning roundhouse kick than moody introspection. This makes it a fine alternative to the hit-or-miss martial arts of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films from the same time period, and its status as an origin story gives us the widest spectrum of Batman’s career — from scowling loner to Justice League co-captain.
Butch Hartman’s follow-up to the Nickelodeon smash success of The Fairly Oddparents was Danny Phantom, a supernatural hero show with a rabid fanbase. It wouldn’t have the longevity of Oddparents, but it made up for it with great design work, fun action sequences, and a stellar cast. In a genre bursting at the seams with young heroes finding themselves, Danny’s youthful transformation feels surprisingly authentic.
Superman: The Animated Series
Any follow-up to Batman: The Animated Series would have huge boots to fill, but Superman: The Animated Series doesn’t really try. Opting for a design style that favors simplicity and angular edges over BTAS’s moody detail, STAS latched onto Superman’s finest qualities in a way that has seemed to elude filmmakers since 1978. He’s smart, strong, and always ready to protect the innocent, proving that sometimes you don’t need to reinvent the wheel when you’re dealing with the Man of Steel. The classics still work.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
A darker interpretation that better reflected the original comics than the lighthearted late ’80s series, the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a major hit. Like The Batman and Teen Titans, its anime influence is obvious, but it combines it here with a sense of angst that drove its first few seasons to be fan favorites. And it would likely be much higher on the list if that had continued, but a lightening of tone and a seeming narrative exhaustion leads to a disappointing final two seasons.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold
Debuting the same year as The Dark Knight, Batman: The Brave and the Bold is a far cry from Chris Nolan’s grim and grounded stylings. Instead, it’s an open embrace of not just a more chummy Batman but everything that makes the DC Universe a ridiculous place. A team-up show that borrows its name and concept from a comic series, it throws Batman into all manner of partnerships, some of which he works well in and some of which he comically despises. The standout here is Aquaman, portrayed as a prideful lord of Atlantis that just wants to be liked.
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes
The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would face an early cancellation, but that in no way lessens the quality of the 52 installments it produced. Serving almost as a tribute to the Marvel comics world, Avengers: EMH carefully weaves together familiar stories with newly structured plots to create the finest onscreen interpretation of Marvel’s most famous band of heroes ever seen. It balances a constantly expanding cast with aplomb, and its replacement by the underwhelming Avengers Assemble series is quite the misstep.
Todd McFarlane’s SPAWN
If you can get past the live action introductions by Todd McFarlane himself, sitting in a hokily “spooky” room and waxing philosophically about the nature of good and evil or life and death, you’ll find SPAWN to be a troubling and effective adaptation. A violent show that delivers treatises on race, classism, and religion, SPAWN is much better than the clumsy 1997 live action film. Its more horrifying episodes also tend to lend it a “How in the hell did this get past the censors?” atmosphere and Keith David’s portrayal of the lead character balances anguish and menace in underrated fashion.
Premiering a little after the 2000 film, X-Men: Evolution didn’t have the same narrative worries. (There’s no self-aware “yellow spandex” jokes to be found here.) Instead, its origin story about a growing team of teenagers and their mentors would become ripe for a dedicated online fan base and to this day, it remains a favorite of shippers and fan-fiction aficionados. Like The Batman, it builds to grander, fantastic adventures, and its willingness to let its characters grow and, um, evolve makes it perhaps the best rendition of the X-Men’s early days out there.
Batman Beyond shouldn’t necessarily work. A high-school Batman with all of the gadgets he could ask for being mentored by a grumpy Bruce Wayne sounds like a recipe for quick toy sales and not much else. But Beyond mixes a technologically focused world with a consistent motif of disturbing body horror that few other series can rival (a live-action version has been the stuff of rumors for over 20 years now, with no one pulling the trigger). And the times that it does dip into Batman’s past makes for a kind of anti-nostalgia, with the return of Mr. Freeze proving to be a miserable look into the effects of immortality.
Few cartoons are as recognized for their mature storytelling as Gargoyles, a prime example of not talking down to a young audience. Thoughtful plot lines and characterization amid a Gothic metropolis backdrop means Gargoyles is kind of a sibling cartoon to Batman: The Animated Series. But where BTAS tended to focus on the episodic “every episode is a movie” approach, the constant serialization of Gargoyles provides a surprisingly rewarding experience to rewatch as an adult.
Regarded as one of the greatest cartoons of recent years, Steven Universe’s sense of broad empathy and its intricate portrayals of LGBTQ characters makes for a pleasant watch. Its lead character, the eponymous Steven, is also allowed to be affected by the stakes and dangers of the narrative, and his psychological trauma takes a forefront as the series goes on. Its follow-up, Steven Universe Future, is a rare treat, giving fans a chance to say good-bye while also looking back on the original series with both scrutiny and care.
Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
If Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is anything, it’s gorgeous to behold. The characterization of each turtle is unique and its plotlines ride the line between silly and sincere, but the feather in its cap is action sequences so kinetic that they could not have been done anywhere else but in animation. Victim to sudden cancellation, Rise of the TMNT is getting a very welcome feature-film follow-up on Netflix in August 2022.
Teen Titans has often been lumped in with the similarly spectacular Avatar: The Last Airbender as simply a Western attempt at recapturing the magic of anime, and it’s certainly inspired by the Japanese medium. But whereas the DC Animated Universe opted for square jaws and a roster of serious adults, Teen Titans crafted much of its fun out of its rambunctious, hormonal cast of young adults and an art style that allowed for easy exaggeration. To this day, it remains the high point of the team’s history in comics, live action or otherwise, and the team would eventually meet the Teen Titans Go! crew in a straight-to-home-video movie that was a cute reminder of its potency.
Justice League Unlimited
The biggest problem with the first Justice League cartoon is that it’s just not as fun as a Justice League cartoon should be. Its follow-up, Unlimited, would rectify that with a greater emphasis on long-form storytelling and a team that its creators managed to balance in a way that’s damn near a miracle. Serving as a victory lap of sorts for the DC Animated Universe, it all builds to an immensely gratifying fight between Darkseid, Lex Luthor, Batman, and Superman. Superman’s monologue about finally being able to let loose with his full strength on interplanetary conqueror Darkseid feels like what the story had been building to since 1992 — a franchise with universal stakes and the unique ability to hone in on what makes this expansive roster specifically tick.
While the development of a live-action film languished in the background, the release of the animated adaptation of the Invincible comic was met with almost universal acclaim. It’s an epic, blood-splattered approach with dynamic storytelling and relationships that one can’t help but be drawn into, even if its gritty nature means that they’re destined to fall apart at some point. With only one season under its belt, Invincible is the shortest series on this list, but it’s a hell of an eight-episode run, and if it can continue its streak of quality, it might be higher up one day.
Canceled after two wonderful seasons and then reborn thanks to the tireless efforts of a huge fan campaign, Young Justice presents perhaps the fullest realization of the DC Universe ever seen in animation. Its storylines and character connections form an intricate and constantly growing web, absconding from any live action idea that one must slowly introduce characters and concepts or else they’ll lose their audience. Young Justice is proof of the opposite, with co-developer Greg Weisman bringing the same attitude that he brought to Gargoyles and The Spectacular Spider-Man: If you deliver good work, it doesn’t matter how new or detailed it feels, fans will latch on and they’ll stay latched on. And, having recently finished the show’s fourth season, it appears that fans of Young Justice definitely have.
The Powerpuff Girls
Though the mark of a good superhero cartoon is often “more mature takes on what could easily be a collection of action figures thrown together,” The Powerpuff Girls is pure pop art. An outrageous success for Cartoon Network in an era that produced Dexter’s Laboratory, Johnny Bravo, Courage the Cowardly Dog, and Ed, Edd n Eddy, The Powerpuff Girls is a triumph of a unique vision and clever writing. It would be rebooted in lackluster fashion and a live-action series would receive a huge social-media backlash, forcing its producers to go back to the drawing board. At this point, there’s a second reboot series in the works, but time will tell if it’s able to recapture the same magic.
With an introductory theme full of colorful characters and Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers–esque musical radness, X-Men wasn’t introduced so much as it was unleashed on the world. Before then, there had never been a Marvel cartoon this good and all of their live-action efforts had been low-budget disappointments. As such, X-Men served as the introduction of an entire comics brand to a generation of kids who may not have read the source material but would really dig the tale of mutant outsiders and their quest to protect humanity (and themselves.) With long-running plotlines and a varied cast, X-Men became a success that spawned an entire Marvel animated universe, and it’s set to be continued with a Disney+ series next year.
The Spectacular Spider-Man
The phrase “canceled too early” appears quite a few times in this list (studios are just as eager to leave behind or reboot their cartoons as they are their live-action film properties) and the greatest shame of this circumstance remains The Spectacular Spider-Man. There is no better coagulation of the decades of comic-book history and Peter Parker characterization than this 2008 cartoon, one that over the span of 26 episodes made its mark as an almost untouchable series with distinctly fluid animation. While also taking cues from the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy, Spectacular is a one-stop shop of everything that makes the character and his gallery of rogues and friends worthwhile.
Batman: The Animated Series
It all begins with Batman: The Animated Series. Never before had a comic-book adaptation like this been concocted, distilling the narrative of the Caped Crusader down to his most iconic elements and presenting him with befitting adventures that still leave fans in awe to this day. Unlike the singular take of Tim Burton and his decidedly anti-heroic Batman, the central figure of B:TAS is action ready and compassionate, and his villains are tragic and monstrously disturbed. Such was its immediate and unparalleled success that Fox even put it on Sunday night prime time for a few months, challenging CBS’s 60 Minutes in its time slot. It would spawn not just an entire DC Animated Universe but scores of prospective creators, all looking to see if they, too, could take animation and superheroes to the next level. However, to this day, very few have achieved the heights of this show. There is still only one Batman: The Animated Series.