The best part of being a kid in the ’80s and ’90s was after school and Saturday morning cartoons. Between Fox Kids, WB, ABC Kids and even UPN Kids, there was something for everybody. The shows were mostly comedies, superheroes, science fiction and some mystery/crime shows (kids aren’t big on drama or medical procedurals), but within those genres was a wide variety of options. These shows weren’t just entertaining, they helped define kids during these eras. There were shows for cool kids, smart kids and even class clowns. There was nothing worse than missing a new episode and going to school the next day and not knowing what everyone was talking about.
A lot of adults look back fondly on these cartoons, but that’s because they remember them through a kid’s perspective. For a while, many of these shows had been lost to time, but over the last decade or so, with the rise of DVD and then online streaming, almost all of these shows are easily accessible again. It turns out, not all of them were as great as we remember. There are also plenty that still hold up. Here are 10 that aged terribly and 10 that have proven themselves to be timeless.
20. AGED TERRIBLY: SPIDER-MAN AND HIS AMAZING FRIENDS
When people think of classic Spider-Man cartoons, Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends is one of the first shows to come to mind. The show aired from 1981 through 1983, and featured Spidey teaming up with Iceman (from the X-Men) and Firestar, an original character created for the series. To be honest, Firestar is probably the main reason why this show is still remembered, since she eventually became a fairly popular character in the 616 Marvel Universe.
Other than that, this show is just cheesy. Pairing Spidey up with these two characters feels incredibly random, and they don’t have great chemistry. The series never strived to be anything more than just a children’s cartoon, and often times relied on dumb humor. There’s a reason why Spidey stayed mostly solo in the comics.
19. AGED TERRIBLY: TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES
Back in the ’80s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles took the world by storm. Based on a decidedly not “kid friendly” comic book, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles debuted in 1987 and offered a family friendly take on the mutated heroes. It ran until 1996, and along with a mega popular toy line, it seemed like every kid loved the heroes in a half shell.
So, how does the cartoon hold up? Not well. The humor is very immature, and the turtles often times come across as annoying. Shredder is surrounded by villains that are either dumb or annoying (sometimes both). The show was clearly made just to sell toys, and doesn’t hold a candle to the many superior cartoons and movies that have been made since.
18. AGED TERRIBLY: G.I.JOE: A REAL AMERICAN HERO
Based on the original ACTION figure, G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero was based on the 1982 revamp of the toy line. No longer based on traditional military characters, A Real American Hero featured a colorful cast of characters, who fought to prevent the terrorist organization Cobra from taking over the world. The cartoon ran from 1983 until 1986, and saw a brief resurgence in 1989.
The toys were amazing. The show? Not so much. First of all, being meant for kids meant the action had to be toned down. Everyone fired lasers, and nobody ever got shot (lots of stuff exploded, however). The show was notorious for showing planes exploding, only to have the pilot parachute to safety every single time. On top of that, Cobra Commander’s annoying voice is enough to make any adult turn this thing off.
17. AGED TERRIBLY: SUPERMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Developed to run alongside the current Batman cartoon, Superman: The Animated Series debuted in 1996. It ran for three seasons, during which it crossed over with “Batman: The Animated Series” and helped launch the highly successful Justice League (2001) cartoon.
The show had some bright spots, mainly with its depiction of Lex Luthor as a cold, calculating businessman. Still, compared to the rest of the DC Animated Universe, Superman just doesn’t have much charm. The animation style felt like a downgrade from Batman, and it failed to combine the classic styling with modern technology. Unlike its counterpart, Superman just looks awkward. Lastly, many of the show’s villains just weren’t as memorable as Batman’s. The show featured a lot of great cameos (Green Lantern, Flash and Lobo), which was great, but it’s not a good sign when the cameos are more interesting than the main star.
16. AGED TERRIBLY: FANTASTIC FOUR AND IRON MAN
These two shows were aired together, and they both failed together. During the early ’90s, Marvel was riding high with the success of X-Men (1992), so it attempted to expand its roster in 1994 with Fantastic Four and Iron Man. Unfortunately, the first season of each series was panned for poor animation quality and cheesy writing.
The second seasons of both shows were revamped, and are often considered improvements. They’re still not very good. Cheesy storylines were replaced with overly dramatic ones. Both shows seemed to rely on random cameos (Ghost Rider literally rides into a scene in Fantastic Four to knock out Galactus and then drive away). Lastly, nothing will ever make Tony Stark’s mullet in the Iron Man season 2 intro cool (or even acceptable).
15. AGED TERRIBLY: THE SUPER MARIO BROS. SUPER SHOW!
He might be the most famous video game character ever, so it made sense to make a Super Mario cartoon. The only problem is figuring out a way to turn the videogame into a cartoon (that isn’t just Mario and Luigi running across the screen and jumping on top of turtles). The Super Mario Bros. Super Show! aired in 1989 and made a valiant attempt at adapting the source material.
The show was broken up into two segments: a live action intro and outro, and then a cartoon in the middle. Mario and Luigi were depicted as Italian stereotypes, and were often obsessed with pasta and pizza. The cartoons often parodied popular movies of the time, making the jokes extremely dated. Lastly, the show’s producers seemed obsessed with giving everyone the most annoying voice possible.
14. AGED TERRIBLY: X-MEN EVOLUTION
After the massive success of X-Men (1992), Marvel decided to try a completely different approach. X-Men: Evolution (2000) reimagined the X-Men as highschool students, save for some characters like Wolverine, Beast and Storm. The idea wasn’t entirely far fetched, as Professor X does run a school. The series ran for four seasons, and remains notable for creating X-23, Wolverine’s cloned daughter (who would later debut in the comics).
Aside from X-23, this is great for fans interested in watching the X-Men struggle with cheating on a test. For most X-fans, however, that might not do the trick. While the show eventually transitioned into more traditional X-Men storylines during the later seasons, this just resulted in a very disjointed tone. The worst part is the show’s attempt to use characters like Wolverine, Gambit and Apocalypse, that just don’t fit the younger tone of the show, which ultimately neutered them.
13. AGED TERRIBLY: SPIDER-MAN THE ANIMATED SERIES
While it’s often considered a classic, Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994) is actually a huge mess. At the time, the show was stood out for several reasons. First, unlike most cartoons of the time, it featured season long story arcs. Also, it combined traditional animation with CGI backgrounds, giving the show a unique look. Like most CGI from that time period, however, it hasn’t aged well and now looks pretty terrible. The show also had to re-use a lot of animation due to budget issues, which clearly stands out on a rewatch.
Aside from that, Spider-Man itself wasn’t very good. It often adapted classic comic storylines, but in incredibly strange ways (the Green Goblin knocks Mary Jane off a bridge, but into an interdimensional portal). The acting is also pretty cheesy, and many characters featured needlessly complicated redesigns (like Dr Octopus’ super bulky armor).
12. AGED TERRIBLY: MORTAL KOMBAT: DEFENDERS OF THE REALM
In the ’90s, Mortal Kombat dominated arcades. The brutal and gory fighting game took the world by storm, and the success led to movies, toys and a short lived cartoon. Defenders of the Realm (1996) took its storyline from Mortal Kombat 3 (1995), and dealt with the Earthrealm warriors fighting off an Outworld invasion on Earth.
While the show might’ve been exciting for young fans at the time, it’s a terrible adaptation of the game. First off, the violence and gore of the series had to be toned down for kids, meaning fatalities couldn’t be shown in their full glory. Worst of all, the cast was based off of Mortal Kombat 3, which left out several popular characters. Seriously, Stryker was more important of a character than Scorpion, which is a truly unforgivable sin.
11. AGED TERRIBLY: TODD MCFARLANE’S SPAWN
When it was announced that HBO was doing a cartoon based on Image’s Spawn comics, it was amazing news. Being on a premium network meant that the show would be free from censors. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn ran from 1997 to 1999 and remained faithful to the comic’s dark tone. For example, the first season dealt with Billy Kincaid, a notorious child killer from the comics. Unlike most cartoons, the storyline wasn’t toned down for cartoon form.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that the show is any good. To be honest, Spawn hasn’t aged well in general, and this cartoon is no exception. The novelty of an “adult” cartoon has worn off, and what’s left is a poorly paced and awkwardly written superhero story that values being edgy over providing quality content.
10. TIMELESS: X-MEN
On paper, X-Men (1992) never should have survived the ’90s. Based on Jim Lee’s designs which were then appearing in the comics, the show looks incredibly dated now. Characters’ costumes are covered in random buckles, every gun is huge and almost nobody is wearing real clothes. The storylines are heavily inspired by the comics of the time as well, with characters like Cable, Bishop and Apocalypse playing prominent roles.
Despite all of that, X-Men remains great. As silly as it can be, the show is well written, and is as much about the characters as it is the action. Despite all of the aliens, extra dimensional beings and other monsters, the story is ultimately about discrimination. This message is never heavy-handed, which allows the show to still be fun and exciting when it needs to be.
9. TIMELESS: BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
After the massive success of Batman (1989), Fox ordered a Batman cartoon. Set to premiere the same year as Batman Returns (1992), the show was created by Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski. It took inspiration from the Burton movies, but also the classic cartoons from the ’40s. This gave the show a unique style, making it look both modern and classic at the same time. So already, it’s timeless!
BTAS also updated many of Batman’s classic villains, most notably giving Mr Freeze a heartbreaking origin and introducing the now ubiquitous Harley Quinn. While the Batman films struggled throughout the ’90s, the animated series remained popular. Thanks to its unique style and thoughtful writing, Batman: The Animated Series remains well regarded even to this day, and ultimately led to the creation of the DC Animated Universe.
8. TIMELESS: GARGOYLES
Not being based on an existing comic or toy line, Gargoyles shouldn’t have been a success. It premiered in 1994, and faced steep competition. The premise of the show revolved around a group of gargoyles from medieval times that permanently turn to stone after most of their brethren are killed. They’re brought back to life in modern times, and have to navigate living in New York City.
The show’s big gimmick was basically that the main characters would turn to stone whenever the sun came up. Most episodes revolved around characters getting caught in weird or public spots with the sun about to rise. The series had a fantastic cast, including Jonathan Frakes and Marina Sirtis (famous for their roles in Star Trek: The Next Generation). That, along with solid writing, has turned this series into a cult favorite to this day.
7. TIMELESS: TRANSFORMERS
After the success of G.I.Joe: A Real American Hero (1983), Hasbro approached Marvel about a new potential toy/cartoon/comic franchise. Based on a new line of transforming toys, Jim Shooter developed a story about two warring factions of robots: the Autobots and the Decepticons. The franchise was titled The Transformers, and the first episode aired in 1984.
While the series definitely has its silly and weird moments, it’s still remarkably entertaining (especially considering it’s essentially just an animated commercial). Yes, the stories are somewhat simplistic, but that doesn’t make them bad. To be honest, it might seem better than it actually is because the recent live action Transformers movies are clearly inferior. Regardless, there’s a reason why this franchise has continued to thrive for over three decades.
6. TIMELESS: THE REAL GHOSTBUSTERS
In 1986, the Ghostbusters successfully transitioned from being movie stars to television mainstays. The Real Ghostbusters was loosely based on the hit 1984 film, although it was changed to be more kid friendly. The biggest difference was changing Slimer from a regular ghost to a companion and friend to the team. The series, of course, was connected to a toy line, and each week the Ghostbusters would face off against another group of spectres and other types of monsters.
Interestingly, the show drew a lot of inspiration from actual mythology, and featured villains like Samhain, the Sandman and a surprisingly terrifying take on the Boogieman. Despite being a children’s show, it wasn’t afraid to be scary, and the villains juggle between being ridiculous and genuinely creepy. It’s a very silly show, but that doesn’t mean the producers didn’t take it seriously.
5. TIMELESS: BATMAN BEYOND
In 1999, Warner Brothers launched a Batman spinoff that never should’ve worked. Set in a cyberpunk-themed future, Batman Beyond didn’t look anything like a Batman cartoon. It starred a teenager named Terry McGinnis, with an aged Bruce Wayne becoming his grumpy mentor. Instead of classic villains, the series created brand new ones (with only a few being updates of traditional Batman characters).
Despite all of this, the show was actually very good. The younger Batman wasn’t anything like Bruce Wayne, but the show was still undeniably a Batman cartoon. A big theme of the show was the corporate takeover of the world, which was slightly more sophisticated than most kids’ shows were at the time. Most of all, the series was just cool, and sometimes that’s all a cartoon needs to be.
4. TIMELESS: THE TICK
During the ’90s, when superhero cartoons were incredibly popular, Fox Kids decided to take a chance on an indie comic called The Tick. Created by Ben Edlund, the comic was a bizarre satire of superhero books, particularly at the time. While the content had to be slightly toned down for kids, the cartoon, which premiered in 1994, remained basically true to the tone of the comic.
The Tick is a giant, super powered buffoon who protects “The City,” which is home to several other heroes and villains. Amazingly, the show combined silly humor with an absurdist style, making it enjoyable for kids and adults for entirely different reasons. The Tick may not have been as successful as more serious shows, but it still holds up today as a weird and hilarious send up of superhero cartoons.
3. TIMELESS: SILVER SURFER
Despite only lasting one season, Silver Surfer (1998) had a lasting impact on the cartoon world. While the character had appeared several times on The Fantastic Four (1994), this series wasn’t connected to that show in any way. It told the story of Norrin Radd, an alien who discovered that a world-devouring entity named Galactus was headed towards his home planet. He pledged to serve Galactus as his herald, finding worlds for him to eat, as long as he spared Radd’s home planet.
The show was heavily inspired by Jack Kirby’s style, and the plots often dealt with social and political issues. Unfortunately, Marvel was going through legal and financial troubles at the time, and Silver Surfer was cancelled before it could reach its full potential.
2. TIMELESS: THE INCREDIBLE HULK
While X-Men (1992) and Spider-Man (1994) were killing it on Fox Kids, The Incredible Hulk (1996) was quietly stomping its way through UPN. The series ran for two seasons, and actually crossed over with both Iron Man and Fantastic Four, which aired during the same time period but on different networks.
The plot revolved around Bruce Banner trying to find a cure for the Hulk, while also avoiding both the military and various villains. After the first season, She-Hulk was added to the main cast and the show was retitled The Incredible Hulk and She-Hulk. It also took on a more comedic tone, which wasn’t as popular. Still The Incredible Hulk was one of the higher quality Marvel cartoons of the era, especially the more serious first season.
1. TIMELESS: JUSTICE LEAGUE/JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED
Long before WB underwhelmed movie audiences with Justice League (2017), they were wowing TV audiences with one of the best superhero cartoons ever. Spinning off from Superman (1996) and Batman (1992), Justice League (2001) took what those shows introduced and expanded it to include as much of the DC Universe as possible. Aside from Superman and Batman, the roster included Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl.
The show was eventually retitled Justice League Unlimited, and the roster was incredibly expanded. Despite having an incredibly large cast, Justice League never felt unbalanced. It was able to incorporate even minor DC characters without ever losing focus on the larger plot. If the live action movie had just been recreations of this show’s plot, it would’ve been much better received.
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