There are a lot of cartoons out there based on DC and Marvel superheroes. Some of them are great, and some of them are not so great, but what are the cream of the crop for modern audiences? Let’s find out together and take a look at the best DC and Marvel superhero cartoons. Be sure to discuss these cartoons in the comics and chime in with any of your favorites that didn’t make the list! Also, I have a massive honorable mention on the last page of this article that shouldn't be missed!
You can’t talk about superhero cartoons without talking about the one that started them all. The Superman cartoons by Fleischer Studios were completely innovative for their time and still enjoyable to watch today. Their influence is undeniable- they were the inspiration for many of the later superhero cartoons on this list, including Batman: The Animated Series and are even referenced by animation greats like Hayao Miyazaki. You’ll find them mentioned in any History of Animation course as one of the greats of the Golden Age of Animation. Also, they’re the reason Superman can fly- the producers thought it would look silly to have him jump everywhere and they asked to change it- and the comics followed suit. They were also nominated for Academy Awards.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1999)
Including Batman: The Animated Series on this list was a no-brainer. It’s the gold standard to which all superhero cartoons tend to be held to. For many people, this series truly captured the essence of Batman. It streamlined the Dark Knight perfectly, offering the definitive take on many of his rogues. This series was so influential it had a huge impact on both the comics and cinematic version of the characters. It turned Mr. Freeze into the tragic, conflicted man we know today and created characters like Harley Quinn, who now stars in her own comic and is going to have an starring role in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie. Batman as a whole wouldn’t be nearly as strong as it is today without this series and it still offers one of the best takes on the character.
Superman: The Animated Series (1996-2000)
Superman: The Animated Series might not have been quite as definitive as its Batman counterpart, but it’s still arguably one of the best Superman stories. The Darkseid storylines of the series in particular were some of tensest cartoons ever and it introduced some great foes that were enduring enough that they made their way into both comics and live-action- including Livewire, Roxy Rocket and Lex Luthor’s henchwoman, Mercy Graves. The Lex Luthor of the series was a near perfect interepretation of the villain- intimidating, powerful and full of hate. The cast was overall pretty solid, with a smart, snarky Lois Lane, a very fun Supergirl and of course, our noble, resilient Man of Steel.
Batman Beyond (1999-2001)
Batman Beyond was a cool concept from the start. The show was set in a futuristic Gotham, where a juvenile delinquent named Terry McGinnis ends up taking up the mantle of Batman, mentored by a retired, grizzled old Bruce Wayne. The future version of Gotham was a lot of fun and the mentorship and banter between Terry and Old Man Bruce was great to watch. Terry had some great rogues as well, like the Royal Flush Gang. The series was also responsible for one of the greatest animated superhero movies, the chilling Return of the Joker. Terry ended up being such a popular character he made a transition to the comics, getting his own title.
X-Men Evolution (2000-2003)
X-Men Evolution featured quite a different take on the X-Men, turning many of the typically adult characters from the comics into teenagers to appeal to a younger audience. Thought comics purists sometimes griped about it, the show initiated a lot of fans into the comic-verse and also created some enduring characters. The most notable of these was X-23, the teenage female clone of Wolverine who became an incredibly popular character in the comics, even getting her own title.
Justice League (2001-2006)
The Justice League cartoon is what really created our first, cohesive DC Animated Universe and is definitely one of the greatest superhero team shows out there. Featuring fantastic fights and emotional storylines, this cartoon really sold the concept of powerhouse heroes working together and forming bonds. There are so many definitive moments from this series- some of the most memorable include Batman staying by the side of a dying girl even after she attacked everyone, perfectly showcasing his compassion. There’s also Superman’s super awesome speech about how careful he has to be with his superpowers, which is so memorable it even got it’s own trope on TV Tropes- "The World of Cardboard" speech.
The series also very strongly characterized Hawkgirl, turning character who was very underused in the comics into someone who was fun, snarky and kickass. More underused characters also got to shine in the later phase of the series, Justice League Unlimited. Many fans fondly remember the hilarious and super cool conspiracy theorist version of The Question on the show, for example.
Teen Titans (2003-2006)
I would have never gotten into comics if it were for the Teen Titans cartoon. Many deride the series for being “anime-esque” and whatnot, but it was a fun, compelling series with surprisingly intense storylines and a lot of humor that drew a young girl like me in instantly. The team really felt like a family in a way the comics never ended up quite selling me on (mostly, I guess, because the comics tend to mention “we’re a family” every five seconds, while the show was more sparing).
Slade was one of the most chilling villains ever on a kids cartoon, partly thanks to Ron Pearlman’s fantastic voice performance, and the show had a perfect balance of teenage struggles and over-the-top action. It dared to be different than the other superhero shows at the time, embracing the exaggerated cartoony style and doing away with secret identity drama.
I remember that I was particularly enamored with Raven- the arc in the fourth season where she had to battle her demon father for the fate of the world was so high-stakes and intense I couldn’t help but be sucked in.
Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)
Batman: The Brave andthe Bold is a far more cheesy, comedic take on the superhero genre than these other shows, but it was kind of great to see a show that just totally went all out about all the ridiculousness of the genre. The show was very inspired by the Silver Age- an era of comics where the silliness was high and anything went. So we get episodes where Batman is suddenly sporting a pink outfit thanks to mind control, or an entire (oddly innuendo-filled) musical number with the Birds of Prey. A huge highlight of the show was the take on Aquaman- many called him an underwater Gilderoy Lockheart. However, he was an incredibly hammy but ultimately goodhearted hero that was a delight to watch.
You can check out this clip for a good example of the humor of the show:
The Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009)
The Spectacular Spider-Man had a very short run, but was much beloved. Fans praised it for great voice acting, cool fight scenes and a compelling season-long storyline involving the Green Goblin that meant every episode was important. It put a new twist on classic characters that worked well for the most part.
Young Justice (2010-2013)
Though Young Justice only lasted two seasons, it gathered a devoted fanbase indeed. The series has slick and detailed animation and it showed a bunch of young heroes struggling to come together. The second season expanded the cast a lot, giving a lot of fan-favorite comics characters like Blue Beetle and Impulse time to shine. The plotline was also pretty exciting, with the team struggling against an Alien invasion and also a betrayal within their ranks.
Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (2010-2013)
Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes was critically acclaimed despite its short run and it’s easy to see why. The first season featured a sprawling, multi-episode storyline featuring Loki as a villain, as well as a lot of great of stand-alone episodes. The show managed to stay true to the comics while giving everything a fresh twist, featuring a cast of great rogues and fun interactions between all the heroes.
Green Lantern: The Animated Series (2012-2013)
Green Lantern: The Animated Series was canceled far too soon thanks to the bombing of the Green Lantern movie, but it was an incredibly solid show for the one season that it lasted. It showed the adventures of Hal Jordan and his space-faring crew in a way that was tightly written and often surprisingly heartfelt and tragic. The supporting characters Razer and Aya were highlights of the show- Razer had a very nice villain-to-hero redemption arc and Aya’s tale was that of an AI learning about humanity and emotions. Both characters had a pretty neat star-crossed romance going too, but thanks to the shows demise, we didn’t quite get a happy conclusion.
Honorary Mention: : Spider-Man (1967-1970), Super Friends (1973-1986) and X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997)
Spider-Man, Super Friends and X-Men: The Animated Series are not cartoons that have aged terribly well, so I probably wouldn’t recommend them to superhero cartoon newbie. A modern viewer is more likely to bust a gut laughing at the weird animation and cheese galore than genuinely follow these shows. But they are undeniably all influential media that had a lot to do with these characters' current popularity.
To this day, most people know the theme song of the 1960’s Spider-Man show (Is he strong? Listen, bud, he’s got radioactive blood!) That’s staying power! And the Super Friends are instantly recognizable. X-Men: The Animated Series is definitely responsible for getting tons of people into the comics as well.
So while today these shows are more suited for hilarious memes, they were all important and innovative.
Those memes are great though. I definitely encourage you to check out this compilation of unintentionally hilarious moments from the X-Men show:
And you should definitely look into the 60’s Spider-Man memes.