When it comes to cartoons, just like comics, we can’t get our fill! Over the years, especially in the ’80s and ’90s, we were blessed with so many epic shows that Saturday mornings will always be remembered as something which stood the test of time! Most fans would recall Fox, as well as Cartoon Network (namely Toonami) for also giving us delightful treats in the week. Among the franchises that belong in this elite group are “Transformers,” “ThunderCats” and “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.”
But with every awesome show came an eclectic mix of diverse and inspirational heroes leading from the front. As CBR takes you on a nostalgic trip down memory lane, we decided to look at 15 of the coolest heroes that made these shows stand tall and stand out!
15. OPTIMUS PRIME
Optimus Prime is one of the most iconic characters in cartoons. Now, he’s blowing it up on the big screen in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” flicks, and voiced by Peter Cullen (his signature voice in the ’80s). However, his popularity is firmly rooted in the old cartoon days where he led the Autobots against Megatron and the Decepticons.
Many cartoon series, and even the movies, prolonged this war of the robots in disguise with some even going as far back as detailing how Cybertron became extinct. In the cartoons specifically though, it was all about protecting humanity, as the Autobots were stranded on Earth. Optimus taught his soldiers how to be selfless, ensuring that no harm came to mankind under their watch, and he did so transforming from a trailer truck into a giant robot, canon in hand. All iterations of this franchise painted him as a stoic, colossal warrior and someone whose heart was as big as his canon blast. It just so happened he looked cool too for good measure.
14. SNAKE EYES
Snake Eyes, a covert-ops ninja, is one of the most well-known figures in the “G.I. Joe” franchise. While older fans remember that action-packed “Silent Interlude” issue which Larry Hama wrote at Marvel that contained no words, most of his awesomeness came from the cartoons. This cool factor was steeped in how he dispatched his opponents without ever saying a word, making big dents in Cobra Commander’s plans for world domination.
Everyone wanted to be Snake Eyes, who wasn’t just about looking the part, but about being deadly in the process. He honed his skills with the Arashikage clan and from there, he would also develop a heated rivalry with fellow ninja, Storm Shadow, who ended up joining Cobra’s side under duplicitous circumstances. In addition to his sword, he even rolled with a wolf, Timber, and this swagger even left the beautiful Scarlett pining for him at times. Ray Park played the hero in the movies but when we want to see Snake Eyes at his fearless best, it’s the cartoons we head to.
She-Ra was the Princess of Power that had little girls adoring her in the ’80s, giving them an icon to look up to in a time when boys had so many male characters to worship. She was very inspirational when wielding her Sword of Protection (a direct response to He-Man’s Sword of Power), transforming from Princess Adora, who was He-Man/Prince Adam’s twin sister. She was long lost after being kidnapped by Hordak and his minions, but once she arrived on the scene, She-Ra quickly garnered a following of her own.
Mattel were selling tons of toys in what appeared to be their version of Wonder Woman, as She-Ra oversaw Etheria while her brother protected Eternia. She was fast, acrobatic and super-strong but what made her kickass was how she fought in the name of honor, and not power. She was a diverse hero: one who was more empathic than the usual. She could communicate with animals as well as transform her sword into a hook, shield and other objects, upping her cool factor.
12. BUCKY O’HARE
“Bucky O’Hare” was the response Marvel Productions put out to counter the plethora of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” toys selling at the time. “G.I. Joe” writer, Larry Hama, and artist Michael Golden, created the character, and their vision was eventually brought to life in 13 cartoon episodes. Bucky garnered his cult following via this space saga, which had a “Star Wars” essence to it, focusing on his ragtag band of cosmic misfits fighting off the rule of the Toad Empire and an evil artificial intelligence called KOMPLEX.
Bucky led his team as part of S.P.A.C.E (Sentient Protoplasm Against Colonial Encroachment) and apart from being a great pilot, just watching him flip around, shooting lasers was pure fun! Comic writers like Doug Moench and Neal Adams actually wrote some episodes of the show, which was an outlandish galactic ride that never took itself too seriously. You may have loved him in video games and in the realm of toys, but Bucky on-screen was a hare-raising leader having to rally troops such as Deadeye Duck!
“Spider-Woman” lasted only 16 episodes in the late ’70s, but it’s one heck of an underrated gem. It revolved around Jessica Drew in an origin story that differed a lot from the comics and didn’t get into territory that was as dark. It dealt with Jessica as an editor who fought crime after being injected with a special serum to save her life after a spider-bite. She had powers similar to Spider-Man, such as webbing and a spider-sense, but also packed venom blasts, a sonic scream, flight and the ability to the communicate with spiders.
Her cool factor was also enhanced by her changing into costume via that Wonder Woman spin-move that Lynda Carter did, showing that she had a cheeky side to her. She teamed up with Spidey while taking on Dormammu, Kingpin and even Dracula, proving that she was a storied and fearless advocate for justice against villains from all walks of the universe.
If you love the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” then you’d know that Raphael was the rebel of the crew. Mutated and groomed into ninjas by Master Splinter, he was the one who rarely stuck to code, bending it to achieve justice. In the cartoons, he was even seen as a vigilante, but no matter what medium he was portrayed in, he was still viewed as senior and most importantly, someone who was deeply loyal to his family.
He was very protective, not just of his inner-circle, but of New York on the whole. He rarely held back when going after the Foot Clan and Shredder, and sometimes overstepped on the violent boundaries. Raphael used sais and was arguably the team’s best warrior apart from Leonardo. That said, some rules need to be broken to fix the system, and whether it was against fellow ninjas or mutant monsters, Raphael taught us that he may not have been a leader, scientist or goofball, but he definitely was the brash hothead from the sewers that got results!
“Birdman and the Galaxy Trio” graced NBC and Cartoon Network, cultivating yet another cult following in pop culture. He was an ordinary human (named Ray Randall) who was powered up by the Egyptian sun god, Ra, with the ability to shoot solar rays from his fists and create “solar shields” against his enemies such as Dr. Millenium, Morto and Nitron. His trademark battle cry of “Biiiiirdman!!” when going into battle was quirky and cheesy, yet made you feel like you could be a hero yourself every Saturday morning.
Birdman later joined a top-secret government agency, Inter-Nation Security, and fought crime full-time with his eagle sidekick, Avenger. What made him uber cool was that he also possessed the power of flight, due to giant wings sprouting from his back. Oddly enough, one major factor that made him cool also tied into the hilarious aspect of his character. This was his weakness where he needed to recharge via the sun or a comparable source of heat and light. This was exposed by villains in nearly every episode, showing the cartoon never took Birdman too seriously.
Sure, Voltron may be a sum of all his parts but when put together, who else would you have defending the universe? There have been numerous iterations of this character, and as seen with the current Netflix revamp, we can’t get enough. This cartoon hero was first adapted from the Japanese anime television series “Beast King GoLion” and dealt with five pilots from Earth who commandeered robot lions, which when combined, acted as a guardian of the galaxy against alien threats like Zarkon, his son Lotor, and the witch Haggar.
Voltron was usually seen as the last resort against these tyrants trying to enslave all the planets, packing a series of blasters, special moves and of course, that legendary sword! The individual robots and their pilots managed to do their jobs well but when the enemies got too big, Voltron was assembled a la the “Power Rangers” Megazord. To top it off, just have a look at that sleek, battle-ready design!
7. CAPTAIN PLANET
You know you’re cool when Leonardo DiCaprio wants to bring your movie to Hollywood and Don Cheadle takes pride in parodying you. “Captain Planet,” while a bit cheesy, has an altruistic message regarding preserving our Earth. His stories may be anti-pollution PSAs but they’re well done in terms of how they involve five teenagers from different walks of life using their powers of Earth, Wind, Fire, Water and Heart (via special rings) to summon Earth’s greatest protector.
Under the watchful eye of Gaia (a symbol of Mother Earth), and set to the backdrop of that oh-so-awesome theme song, we got a bunch of creepy villains looting and plundering, exploiting Earth for their own gains. However, despite being a tad preachy and campy, when Captain Planet came to the fore, we had a ball watching him clean things up, both literally and figuratively. The environmental messages were smartly mixed in with appealing action, and the cartoon was so loved that Sony considered bringing him into the live-action arena at one point.
6. SHANE GOOSEMAN
We only got 65 episodes of “Galaxy Rangers,” but they were more than enough to show us how a space western cartoon truly needed to be done. It packed in over-the-top sci-fi elements, but also had stellar character development that appealed to adults equally as it did to kids. Shane Gooseman was one of the most emblematic faces associated with this property, which revolved around aliens sharing hyperdrive technology with Earth in exchange for an army to police space, and guard against the invading Crown Empire.
Gooseman encapsulated everything that rebellion meant against such a dictatorship. In 1986, watching him ride his mechanical horse with the other Rangers, while blasting villains into oblivion, was so surreal. In addition to his powers of morphing into beasts and powering up, he oozed the kind of cool you’d expect of Clint Eastwood or John Wayne. His companions — Zachary Foxx, Niko and Doc Hartford — had more tact, but every team needs a wildcard like Gooseman, who fully embodied the cartoon’s theme-song of “No Guts. No Glory.”
5. DARKWING DUCK
20 years have passed but we still love seeing “Darkwing Duck” get dangerous! Drake Mallard started off as a parody of “Batman” and “The Shadow” but he quickly evolved into a cult favorite, balancing crimefighting with being a single father in the day. His purple suit and all those gadgets made for a fun time, especially when it came to seeing him interact with that infamous sidekick that all Disney fans love in Launchpad McQuack.
Darkwing was so intriguing that this cartoon raked in Emmy nominations, comic book runs and commercial tie-ins, emphasizing how much it resonated with audiences, who built on their affinity for the “DuckTales” series. Darkwing’s slate of puns and goofy one-liners quacked us up, and hopefully someday we’ll get resolution as to how it’s set in a separate universe from “DuckTales.” With the latter rebooted on Disney XD though, maybe Darkwing could be brought back, because he really was the hero that the DuckVerse deserved.
Firestar a.k.a. Angelica Jones was created for “Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends” in the ’80s when the cartoon couldn’t get access from Marvel for Johnny Storm. They needed a fire-powered hero to accompany Spidey and Iceman, so they came up with her. She was a key member of the Spider-Friends (as they were affectionately known), linking up with the likes of Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, Sunfire, and the X-Men. In doing so, Firestar brought the heat against villains such as Magneto and Doom, assuring that fans took her seriously.
The lighter side to her was seen in her civilian life, as all three moved into Aunt May’s home, and even adopted a dog. She was such a hit that she would later enter the comic arena, joining the likes of the New Warriors, X-Men and eventually, the Avengers. Firestar was cute, feisty and stamped her hot mark on everyone who stood for injustice. Despite Spidey being the one in all these memes at present, she deserves much more credit for show’s popularity, in a time where young girls needed more female heroes to admire.
Prince Adam of Eternia was found worthy of the power of Grayskull and through its Sword of Power, he could turn into He-Man, defending innocents from the likes of Skeletor. This despot and his army wanted to harness said power for evil, but He-Man learned wisdom and strength via the Sorceress of Grayskull to repel such threats. He also grew through the people of Eternia, such as Man-At-Arms, who taught him about unity and perseverance. Thusly, in his quest, the prince found that whether he was Adam or He-Man, he was still a hero, which flowed throughout the cartoons.
Anyone could be a hero — was more or less the theme and it registered with all fans, despite those quirky internet memes! Just look at his cool outfits and that epic hairstyle! Jokes aside, whether it was the ’80s cartoon or the grittier reboot from Cartoon Network, He-Man epitomized cool (as seen with Cringer who also powered up into Battle Cat) and that’s why he may well be set to return to the big screen. He’s more a heroic cool than badass cool, but at the end of the day, when Skeletor comes knocking, he’s the first person people look out for.
“Gargoyles” lasted from 1995 to 1997 but what it made so successful was its dark, mature themes. “Young Justice” creator Greg Weisman engineered this and, in doing so, he carved out one of the most virtuous leaders in cartoons, Goliath. Amid all the Shakespearean drama, in just 78 episodes, we were impressed by him leading his cursed group of monsters from medieval times to their resurgence from the shadows in the present to protect Manhattan.
Goliath trained his clan against threats such as former lover Demona, the vile Xanatos (played by “Star Trek’s” Jonathan Frakes) robotic dopplegangers, and the genetically enhanced hunters known as The Pack. Goliath taught his fellow gargoyles acceptance and how to be selfless when protecting a world that feared and hated them, similar to Professor Xavier and his X-Men. Keith David lent his voice as the clan leader, who navigated a series full of deep, complex stories that mixed mysticism with science. Goliath’s love for Elisa Maza, a cop, also added a human element to things, but it’s how he swept down from the skies at night with compassion and strength that left us in awe.
Lion-O is one of the biggest faces in cartoon history as everyone loves the Lord of the “ThunderCats.” After arriving on Third Earth when his home, Thundera, perished, he was a boy trapped in a man’s body who quickly had to rally with his companions, such as Panthro and Cheetara, to stave off the evil wizard known as Mumm-Ra. He rose to the challenge, moving past the death of his family and people, and tried to bring a new light to innocents who needed help.
Using his spiritual guide, Jaga, and the Sword of Omens, Lion-O matured and began spreading the message of humility and love with his team as they kept setting Mumm-Ra’s armies back. The Sword wasn’t just powered up but it gave the agile warrior “sight beyond sight” which saw him connect on an emotional level to both friends and enemies. Lion-O was a wise leader in the truest sense of the word and his rallying cry is still yelled by ’80s kids to this very day, even by those who partook in the Cartoon Network reboot in 2011.
Let us know in the comments who else you think was cool enough to make the cut!