Animated adaptations of superheroes are usually a bit different from what we see in the comics; the concepts are updated, the stories are streamlined and the designs are changed. The designs in particular are usually what change the most, since the heroes’ iconic costumes either need to be updated or simplified, becoming uniquely stylized in the process. Sometimes it’s because the superhero’s outfit hasn’t changed for decades, sometimes the art direction of the cartoon calls for something different, and sometimes it’s just to make it look cooler.
Whatever the reason, superhero cartoons redesign costumes and characters quite a bit, to both good and bad results. Sometimes the designs alone are enough to turn a superhero cartoon into an instant classic, and other times they can weigh down an otherwise fantastic cartoon. Animation is difficult, as is art direction and being in charge of redesigning what is usually a beloved character with fans that might not be happy with what is produced. This is to say that some superhero redesigns in cartoons might not go over how their designers expected. With that, we’ve decided to explore 8 times superhero redesigns worked in cartoons, and the 7 times they didn’t.
15. WORKED: NIGHTWING (BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES)
Make fun of the mullet all you want, you gotta admit this version of Nightwing is easily one of the greatest redesigns in superhero cartoon history. This design took notes from the feathery costumes Dick Grayson wore, as well as the classic black and blue suit. The BtAS suit has the simplicity of the black and blue suit, but with the bird and wing imagery of the earlier suits.
Even the mullet has its merits! It still works really well for the overall design and it’s hard to imagine any other kind of hairstyle going with this look. Heck, we saw a short-haired version of the design in Batman and Harley Quinn and it just didn’t have the same ring to it. Without a doubt, Nightwing’s appearance in The New Batman Adventures was one of the best costume overhauls in superhero cartoons.
14. DIDN’T WORK: SPIDER-MAN (SPIDER-MAN: UNLIMITED)
Remember how extreme the ’90s were? No? Well if you need a reminder, look no further than the short-lived Spider-Man cartoon from 1999, Spider-Man Unlimited. The concept alone was beyond strange: Spider-Man traveled to a second Earth where he fought human-animal hybrids and J. Jonah Jameson’s son. Even stranger than the plot was the weirdly updated suit Spidey wore.
There are some cool ideas going on here, but ultimately, Spider-Man’s original costume works so well that it really doesn’t need to be changed, which is why when it is changed, the result isn’t usually great. Spider-Man unlimited is a prime example of this, as the changes are too drastic and distracting, and all the gadgets that the suit had took away from Spider-Man’s own abilities and skills, making it feel unnecessary and absurdly ’90s.
13. WORKED: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2012 & 2018 SERIES)
When the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles first premiered, all the Turtles looked the same; they wore the same colored masks and the only way to tell them apart was their weapons. In the first TMNT cartoon, the turtles had identical designs with different colored masks. This was the same approach for the 2003 series, and the first big divergence from this formula wouldn’t come until the 2012 cartoon.
With the 2012 series, each Turtle was given a unique look, we could tell them apart by more than just their masks as weapons. The turtles had different builds and face shapes, each reflecting their personality. This seems to have been taken a step further for the designs of the upcoming Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which depict each brother as a different type of turtle, giving each of them a unique design that we can’t wait to see in action.
12. DIDN’T WORK: THE X-MEN (MARVEL ANIME)
Anime character designs tend to be a bit of a gamble, something that is especially true when the anime is adapting an American property. This can be seen in the Marvel anime series that came out in 2010, specifically the adaptations of the X-Men. Both the designs seen in the X-Men anime and solo Wolverine series leave a lot to be desired, especially with the latter.
Whoever designed the Wolverine seen in the solo anime didn’t seem to get the memo that Wolverine is a short, burly, muscular animal of a man, not a svelte anime pretty boy with a mullet. Seriously, what’s going on with that design? It doesn’t resemble Wolverine in the least! The X-Men designs aren’t much better, and though they have their merits (they have a good team aesthetic), they’re ultimately rather bland and the characters’ faces feel off in some way.
11. WORKED: ROBIN AND KID FLASH (YOUNG JUSTICE)
Young Justice is a fantastic example of great writing and striking visuals, the designs of the characters in Season 1 being some of the best superhero designs in recent history. Specifically, the designs of Robin and Kid Flash were in a class of their own, each taking the elements form their classic designs and throwing in a mix of practicality and modern sensibility.
Robin’s bright costume has just the right amount of stealth, and the ninja boots are a nice touch. The big hacker gloves are also great, as is the uniquely shaped utility belt. Kid Flash’s redesign adds some athletic fashion design elements to the costume, as well as some snazzy goggles. The practicality of Kid Flash’s costume is where it really strikes hard, including shoulder pads for sudden stops, running shoe soles and containers in his gloves that house protein bars to feed his crazy metabolism.
10. DIDN’T WORK: “THE TEAM” (YOUNG JUSTICE SEASON 3)
As great as the designs are in the first two seasons of Young Justice, some of the stuff that has been released for the much-awaited third season is not quite as strong. Though it’s great that fan support led to a revival of the series, and we can’t wait to see where it leads, the above designs seem to have taken the “black ops” concept of The Team a bit too far. Actually, the concept might have even been taken a bit too far in the second season, but we’re talking about the designs, not the story.
The other designs we’ve seen look great, the younger members of the team have exhibited some great revamped costumes that are a cool divergence from the norm. But these designs? They’re just so boring and bland and they make the characters unrecognizable. Stealth is cool and all, but we hope these are only part-time outfits.
9. WORKED: BIG HERO 6
The point of this list is not to say that the designs that “worked” are better than the originals, just that they work for the chances they took and the vision they had. One of the best examples of this idea is Big Hero 6. The original comic had some really cool Japanese-inspired designs, and Disney took the basic concepts those designs laid out and added its own touch.
All the characters feel like they’re part of the same team and the slight variations in the costumes adhere to each hero’s personality as well as the field of science they research. The designs in the film were fantastic reimaginings that built on the comics, and the versions seen in the upcoming TV series made the transition from 3D to 2D animation appear seamless, giving everything a nice solid, streamlined look.
8. DIDN’T WORK: THE AVENGERS (AVENGERS: UNITED THEY STAND)
Before we get started on a low-level roast of the short-lived Avengers: United They Stand cartoon, we’d like to give credit where credit is due. Though the series was rather disliked and made a lot of strange choices, United They Stand deserves praise for trying something new and taking things in a direction that had not been done before, presenting a lineup of the Avengers that was fresh and had a lot of potential. All that said, the designs were… not great.
The costumes that the Avengers wear in the series have far too many details and added armor and gadgets that make it seem like the character designers started designing and then never stopped. Pretty much all of the heroes in the series are unrecognizable from their original comics designs; the strange color combinations and lack of design flow make for some hard-to-look-at costumes.
7. WORKED: TEEN TITANS
Do we need to even sing the praises of the original Teen Titans animated series at this point? Let’s save ourselves some time and get straight to the designs of the show. Ingeniously, they took the classic costumes and boiled them down to their most basic elements so they could be built into something fresh and new with a touch of anime influence.
Robin’s costume hits all the right beats of the boy wonder’s classic look, but the spiky hair, large-eyed mask and metal boots give it a striking flair. Starfire’s costume is a bit more sensible, but still feels like the wardrobe of an alien warrior, plus the effect done with her eyes is subtle and fantastic. Cyborg was completely overhauled to create a look that is still used as the base for modern designs. Lastly, Raven’s costume is kept simple and subtle, much like the character herself.
6. DIDN’T WORK: THE SUPERHERO SQUAD SHOW
As we have mentioned already, we have no ill-will towards any of the animated series mentioned in the list. As such, we’re gonna take the time to say that The Superhero Squad Show might not have been a favorite of older audiences and hardcore Marvel fans. However, the series did incredibly well with its target audience and told some smart stories with the limitations it had.
All that said, the designs definitely rub us the wrong way. Again, they work for the intended younger audience, but through an adult lens, the style of The Superhero Squad Show seems like toys come to life. While that might sound cool, it just means that every hero has the same build with the only differences being the costumes. At the same time, the whole four fingers thing doesn’t work as well in action cartoons as it does more classic animation.
5. WORKED: SPIDER-MAN (SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN)
At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be that much of a difference between the Spider-Man of the comics and the Spider-Man of Spectacular Spider-Man. The suit Spider-Man wears is pretty standard (again, the classic look just works), but a costume is not all that makes up character design in animation. This is to say that the art style of the cartoon brings a lot to the character, and we have Sean “Cheeks” Galloway to thank for the awesome character designs.
The stylization in Spectacular Spider-Man is beyond brilliant, as Galloway’s Spidey design fits perfectly with the character’s powers, fighting style and the overall action of superhero fights. Spider-Man is lean and spindly, fitting to his motif, and the subtle changes to the costume make for one of the coolest superhero cartoon redesigns out there.
4. DIDN’T WORK: JUSTICE LEAGUE ACTION
Now, this one is sort of a mixed bag, since we love almost all of the designs we’ve seen from Justice League Action, but there are a few that could have been better. Take Superman for example, we admire that the show tried to move past the red trunks, but the yellow belt feels like a glaring and unbalanced substitution. He’s not the only character whose design appears unbalanced, as Stargirl’s costume also evokes the same feeling.
Other designs like Supergirl and Firestorm simplify their comics counterparts, but otherwise feel slightly outdated. The same could be said of characters like Plastic Man, The Flash and Zatanna, which don’t seem to verge very far from the standard look of the characters. All that said, the cartoony/action-y art style does give everything a nice polish, which makes up for some of the less-than-stellar designs.
3. WORKED: FANTASTIC FOUR (WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES)
We know what you’re thinking, Fantastic Four: World’s Greatest Heroes wasn’t exactly anyone’s favorite superhero cartoon, but hear us out. The show’s writing and animation left something to be desired, leaving us with no question as to why it was cancelled so quickly, but take a look at those character designs: they are brilliant!
The simple idea of adding orange to the uniforms brings everyone together, since it means The Thing’s orange rock body is included in the team colors. And speaking of Ben Grimm, the shapes used in his overall design are a brilliant combination of animation sensibility and Jack Kirby influence. The rest of the team all have balanced costumes in both color and style, and the slight anime influence provides a fresh take. Plus, all the little details make everything flow together, like the “4” painted on Thing’s chest and Reed’s “scientist that’s too busy for grooming” hairstyle.
2. DIDN’T WORK: KILOWOG (JUSTICE LEAGUE)
Kilowog’s design has always sort of been up to the artist that is drawing him, and though there are elements that peak through each interpretation, each version of the Green Lantern drill sergeant is pretty unique. We love versions like those seen in Green Lantern: First Flight and Green Lantern: The Animated Series, but the one in the DCAU really needs some work.
Bruce Timm’s art style is great, but there are times when it doesn’t quite work, espeically with aliens like Kilowog. If you look at his design in Justice League, he has the same basic human body of every other male character, which is what makes the alien head seem so off. In other versions, Kilowog has proportions that are more exagerated, thus more alien looking. The head design could be fine on its own, but there is definitely some disconnect between the head and body.
1. WORKED: DOCTOR FATE (YOUNG JUSTICE)
Last but not least we have yet another one from Young Justice, Doctor Fate. In most interpretations, Fate has a pretty simple costume, blue spandex, yellow briefs, a cape and of course the helmet of Fate. This look hasn’t changed much since it first premiered and most modern versions of it just add a bit more detail to the whole outfit. Young Justice, on the other hand, gave Fate a much needed sorcerer upgrade.
By substituting the briefs for a large, ornate, mystical-looking belt, the costume still has the color balance of the original, but with much more wizard-like qualities. The patterns and designs of the belt’s details are echoed on the chest piece, boots and gauntlets, making Doctor Fate feel like an ancient magical knight with the power of the mystic arts on his side. These changes are rather simple, but they revamp Doctor Fate’s whole look.
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