The greatest loss of the modern era might be the death of the Saturday morning children’s block. There was nothing quite like that first morning of your weekend, waking up late because you didn’t have school and sitting in front of the TV to watch cartoons until the afternoon. Many a kid spent a large chunk of their ives partaking of this ritual, chowing down on a huge bowl of cereal as their favorite cartoon characters ran across the screen. The ‘90s saw an interesting change, though. As the comic book industry began to boom, so too did comic book cartoons, and there were more animated superheroes on television than ever before.
Be it early Saturday morning or in the afternoon, superhero cartoons quickly became a mainstay of ‘90s animation and were praised for it. Comic books weren’t just flooding the television lineup with cartoons, they were redefining the game. Building on deep serialized stories and with art stepping up its game as the anime and manga craze took hold in America, these cartoons were unlike anything we’d ever seen before. So dig out your underoos and pour a fresh bowl of cereal, these are the 15 greatest superhero kids shows of the ‘90s.
15. SWAMP THING
Swamp Thing is a really interesting animated series because you probably remember it very fondly. It was everywhere when it first aired in 1991, one year into the simultaneous airing of USA’s Swamp Thing: The Series. Like most animated adaptations of the time, Swamp Thing was a very bombastic cartoon, featuring a lot of gimmicks and characters designed seemingly explicitly to sell toys.
And there were toys to spare. A huge wave of action figures and vehicles hit shelves tied in with the series, as did a video game. At the height of Swamp Thing fever, they were hot sellers. But the animated series itself was only a five-episode affair, despite regular and repeat airings. Intended to only be a miniseries, no further episodes ever went into production, though the animated series itself is fondly remembered today.
14. BIG GUY & RUSTY THE BOY ROBOT
When you think “adapted from a story by Frank Miller,” the last you follow that thought up with is “animated series.” But sure enough, the prolific writer of The Dark Knight Returns and Sin City managed to create one project that could be adapted relatively unscathed. Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot followed the titular Rusty, a young, emotional robot, and his mentor, The Big Guy.
The series only really underwent one major change in the adaptation from graphic novel to series. The Big Guy changed from an autonomous robot to a battle suit piloted by a military officer, a fact that was hidden from Rusty to play off his idolization of the fellow robot. Big Guy & Rusty The Boy Robot proved to be a success despite only having roughly two issues of source material, with a 26-episode run that carried FOX Kids into the new millennium.
13. V.R. TROOPERS
Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers found its greatest success in the addition of Jason David Frank to the team. With the success of the Green Ranger and the continuing success of Power Rangers, Saban decided to take a stab at a spin-off series. Dubbed Cybertron, Jason David Frank was to play Adam Steele, a hero trying to find his missing father.
Cybertron never picked up and was instead retooled as V.R. Troopers. Brad Hawkins replaced Frank and was cast as Ryan Steele, alongside two other Troopers. The show melded footage from multiple “metal hero” series, including Space Sheriff Shaider and Choujinki Metalder. The footage proved limiting, as the characters from the different series weren’t able to interact in suit despite being on a team. V.R. Troopers never found the success of Power Rangers, but still managed a memorable two season run.
12. FANTASTIC FOUR
With superhero cartoons at a premium, Marvel tried to branch out a bit more with the addition fo the Marvel Action Hour, a back to back block of cartoon series. Fantastic Four was one of the headliners here. Marvel’s First Family has always been a popular cartoon series, with versions existing in the ‘60s and ‘70s that are still beloved today.
The 1994 series started off with a fairly rough first season, with stories largely inspired by the 1960s era of the FF. The second season underwent a drastic shift. With a new animation studio taking charge, a reworked theme tune and stories drawing from more recent issues of the title, Fantastic Four turned around in the eyes of fans, but it still wasn’t enough. With ratings dropping and word of mouth still largely sour, Fantastic Four ended after its second season.
11. THE SECRET WORLD OF ALEX MACK
When Clarissa Explains It All wrapped up in 1994, Nickelodeon had an opening on its popular SNICK line-up. The Secret World of Alex Mack filled that slot and quickly became a fan favorite. Living in a small town, Alex Mack is doused with a mysterious chemical agent and gains a number of strange and bizarre powers. Only trusting her friend and sister, the series followed Alex trying to control her mysterious powers while also trying to keep them a secret.
With a quirky plot and strong writing, Alex Mack became a popular part of Nick’s line-up, becoming a mainstay of the afternoon line-up. The show’s legacy would carry on, inspiring similarly toned series such as The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo and The Journey of Allen Strange. The Secret World of Alex Mack itself enjoyed a resurgence on Nick in recent years and was finally released on DVD in 2017.
10. IRON MAN
Having not had an animated show since a series of cartoon shorts in the ‘60s, when Iron Man hit the small screen as part of 1994’s Marvel Action Hour, it was the first time many viewers had heard of the character. Iron Man leaned more into original stories with the first season featuring the popular Force Works team, leading to the first modern animated appearances of the likes of Hawkeye, Spider-Woman and War Machine.
For the second season, with ratings slipping and fans tuning out, the series was overhauled with better animation and more comics based stories, but it was too late. The series continued to suffer in the ratings, and planned toy tie-ins failed when kids showed little more than a passing interest in the dozens of versions of Iron Man warming pegs. Iron Man, along with the Marvel Action Hour, ended its run after two seasons.
9. THE INCREDIBLE HULK
The Incredible Hulk has always been a popular character for Marvel Comics and is perhaps the most successful on television. After the legendary ‘70s series starring Bill Bixby wrapped up, Marvel attempted to use the property to spearhead Daredevil and Thor live-action series, but to no avail. Instead, Marvel returned The Hulk to animation, where he hadn’t existed since the ‘60s.
The Incredible Hulk aired on the now long-dead UPN network starting in 1996. Bringing back ‘70s Hulk Lou Ferrigno to voice the character and future Arrow villain Neal McDonough to voice Bruce Banner, the series received a ton of hype but never really caught on in the ratings. Even the addition of She-Hulk and a more serialized story in season 2 failed to pick up, leading to the show’s cancellation.
8. DARKWING DUCK
Oh yes, it’s time to get dangerous. With Disney making all the money in the world thanks to its Disney Afternoon block of animation, it looked to make even more with another addition. Spinning slightly out of the immensely popular Duck Tales (which itself had wrapped up the year before), Darkwing Duck followed long-suffering Drake Mallard as he protected the city of St. Canard.
Darkwing Duck remained a memorable addition to The Disney Afternoon, running for a season of 65 episodes before shifting to ABC for two seasons of 13 episodes each. Darkwing Duck was beloved for the pastiches of golden age tropes and sensational action sequences. The series still has a strong fanbase today, which managed to get riled up about rumors of a television series reboot. This turned out to just be rumor, though the character was recently revived in comic book form.
7. SILVER SURFER
In 1998, with Batman: The Animated Series moved to The WB and X-Men and Spider-Man wrapping up their runs, Marvel and Fox were looking to fill empty slots in their respective animation line-ups. Making its debut in 1998, Silver Surfer proved to be almost an instant hit. Designed with the style of the original Kirby stories in mind, Silver Surfer blended traditional hand-drawn animation and 3D effects to create a visually striking series.
Notably, the show updated the Silver Surfer mythos to involve Thanos and remove the Fantastic Four from the character’s origin. The show was a hit thanks to its smart, deep storytelling and stylish appeal. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to last. Marvel’s looming bankruptcy and a legal dispute with production company Saban Entertainment put the brakes on a planned season 2, along with Marvel’s remaining planned new series.
6. MIGHTY MORPHIN’ POWER RANGERS
Few shows have accomplished the level of media blitz as Saban’s Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. Adapting the 16th instalment of Japan’s long-running Super Sentai franchise, the series repurposed the ancient dinosaur adventures of Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger into a flashy action series following a team of high school students. Combining high school drama with exciting monster battles proved a recipe for success as Power Rangers became a sensation.
Despite the success, there were plenty of controversies. The show’s constant violence made it a target for complaints from parent groups, and the production was hampered by the limited amount of Sentai footage available. Still, the series proved popular enough to continue on, going to adapt new Sentai and remain a powerhouse property over the years. Despite changing production companies several times, Power Rangers still continues today as the series prepares to enter its 24th season.
5. BATMAN BEYOND
Batman Beyond sounds like such a stupid, gimmicky idea on paper. Set roughly 40 years in the future, Bruce Wayne has retired the cowl after breaking one of his strongest codes. But when his father is killed, young Terry McGinnis breaks into the Batcave to steal a futuristic Batsuit and become the new Batman, with Wayne begrudgingly serving as his mentor.
Batman Beyond made it work, though. The series featured a top-notch voice cast, headlined by Boy Meets World alum Will Friedle and a returning Kevin Conroy. With a stylistic look and intro, dark plots and engaging characters, Batman Beyond was built on the foundation of its predecessors, but always forged its own path. Today, Beyond is regarded as one of the best entries of DC’s animated library, and the character has proven popular enough to survive even the transition of The New 52.
There have been very few characters with as many shots at an animated series as Spider-Man has had. With at least one iteration every decade, the ‘90s was one of the biggest. The comics counterpart was at a high point as well, coming off white hot runs by the likes of Todd McFarlane, J.M. DeMatteis, and others. The animated series took many of those stories, as well as classic Spider-Man tales of yesteryear, and updated them for the new era.
Spider-Man was considered a high bar at the time. Airing alongside Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, it seemed to fit right in. The series had ambitious story arcs that sometimes lasted for multiple seasons, and played with the status quo regularly. The series is still highly regarded by fans, though later seasons are marred with reused footage and gimmicky storylines.
With Batman: The Animated Series taking off, it only made sense for Superman to follow. Superman took a different tone to B:TAS, though. Perhaps a reflection of the character, Superman had a simpler art style, something with less flash but just as much character. The stories were more character driven. Things actually happened from week to week that could affect the status quo.
More impressive than this, though, was witnessing the proper birth of the DC Animated Universe. While Batman had kept to himself for years, Superman stepped out to feature crossovers. The series featured animated debuts aplenty, with Kyle Rayner, Doctor Fate and others showing up for the first time while fan favorites like The Flash were reworked. Batman: The Animated Series may have changed the game, but Superman redefined the rules and created a decade worth of cartoons in the process.
In an era where superhero cartoons were few and far between, X-Men was a revelation. It only made sense that such a series got made. Comic books themselves were undergoing a resurgence at the time, and Jim Lee’s run on X-Men had brought mainstream attention to Marvel’s long-suffering merry mutants. The animated series capitalized on this and created something truly unique.
The story featured season-long arcs, something cartoons didn’t often do at the time. The characters didn’t just have needs and motivations, they sometimes did the wrong thing because they needed to. Rewatching it as an adult, the level of sexual tension that slipped past you as a kid is incredibly present. X-Men was, and still is, a gorgeous cartoon, and no X-Men series since has really captured the lightning in a bottle it had.
1. BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
We were lucky to grow up with a show as well made as Batman: The Animated Series. You could just stop right there and say nothing else, and nobody would disagree with you. B:TAS was a revelation for its time. A Batman cartoon not geared at being a cartoon. Batman didn’t don stupid gadgets to sell toys. The stories were dark, moody and at times downright adult.
Even among adults, Batman: The Animated Series was shocking. A scene in the episode “On Leather Wings” shocked a crowd for depicting Batman with blood on his face, something unheard of in a children’s cartoon. Even into its more kid-friendly WB era as Batman: Gotham Knights, the series remained a fan favorite. There’s likely never going to be another cartoon like Batman: The Animated Series again, but to be fair, there doesn’t need to be. The original still holds up today.
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