Top 10 best superhero cartoons

From Bruce Timm’s Batman, to The Super Hero Squad and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a run through the 10 best catoons based on superhero comic books

The Super Hero Squad cartoon

For many of us poor dowdy Brits weaned on Bananaman and Penny Crayon, the high octane, cola-fuelled likes of the Nineties X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, and more the sober Batman: The Animated series, offered a first, tantalising peak into the exotic world of American comic-books.

These shows let flash before our disbelieving eyes a vibrant and vivid place of impossible science, incredible magic, gods, aliens, time travel and robots, where teenage boys could become heroes and a handful of exceptional people fought to save the whole of creation.

Putting the rose-tinted visor that unleashes our mutant eyebeams of nostalgia to one side, we threw open the voting to Twitter to put together the definitive list of superhero cartoons inspired by the comics.

So many great shows just missed out, but did we miss your favourites? Leave a comment and let us know!

10. Defenders Of The Earth

A real curio, one that’s easy to forget owes its origin story to the funnybooks, Defenders Of The Earth was a fairly stock series that shoehorned together the odd socks that were the King Features Syndicate characters – a selection of 1930s pulp heroes from newspaper strips turned into an ad-hoc superteam with their bland and unlikeable offspring to provide the hook for Johnny and Jenny Audience. For the sheer barrel-scraping unlikelihood of the show’s existence it’s worthy of inclusion, because in almost every other respect it’s another formulaic late Eighties toy-advert, full of overly earnest voice acting and heavy handed conservative moralising.

Future astronaut and adventurer Flash Gorden, by far the star power being as the movie hit the reels in 1980, a handful of years prior to Defenders Of The Earth‘s 1986-1987 run, leads The Phantom and Mandrake the Magician, plus Mandrake’s sidekick Lothar and some precocious brats, in combat against Flash nemesis and embarrassing ethnic stereotype Ming the Merciless. Not only does the theme tune tell you absolutely everything you need to know, but the lyrics were written by Stan Lee.

Yes, that Stan Lee.

You said: “I remember that cartoon. Be a great film.” @Blondebaby66

Batman Beyond cartoon9. Batman Beyond

A bold and original attempt to revitalise the Batman animated line as an standalone experience and not merely a distillation of some other medium, Terry McGinnis’ Batman of Neo-Gotham is a much more likeable Spider-Man type teen, freeing up the elderly Bruce Wayne to be his cranky mentor, with shades of his depiction in Kingdom Come being perhaps unintentional.

Somewhat pointlessly retitled Batman Of The Future in the UK, despite its initial mission to be beginner friendly with villains and situations self-contained and suitable for a Saturday morning audience hungry for Lucky Charms and jangling 20-minute light shows, Batman Beyond‘s three seasons gradually became darker and more heavily invested in the lore. The ‘Return Of The Joker’ story-arc especially being a emotional gruelling return to both the tone and the history of its predecessor, the much loved  Batman: The Animated Series, embedding Batman Beyond deeply within the DC Animated Universe to ensure McGinnis lived on well beyond the show’s 1999-2001 weekly war on future crime.

Hmmm, future crime… how good would a Judge Dredd/Batman Beyond crossover be?

You said: “HELL YES, sir! One of the finest DCAU projects!” @RIMBreaks

Batman The Brave And The Bold cartoon8. Batman: The Brave And The Bold

A pure hearted Silver Age delight, The Brave And The Bold plucked characters from the infamous team-up book and crafted new adventures for new audiences, resulting in some brilliantly obscure choices of characters for an audience who in all likelihood would never see them again.

Despite its obvious young audience and wafer light tone, infinitely powerful trickster imp Bat-Mite made a fourth wall puncturing appeal to comic-book veterans that furious Bat-fans would have done well to remember when Grant Morrison opened the silliness box on Batman Inc: “Batman’s rich history allows him to be interpreted in a multitude of ways. To be sure, this is a lighter incarnation, but it’s certainly no less valid and true to the character’s roots as the tortured avenger crying out for mommy and daddy.”

Sadly though the series ended in 2011 after three seasons with the promise that the next Bat-toon would have a more serious tone. As if there aren’t already enough grimacing depictions of the Dark Knight out there.

You said: “I’ve become very fond of Batman: The Brave And The Bold. Smart, funny, beautifully designed. Great music too!” @Squeezegutalley

7. The Super Hero Squad Show

A great example of how even a cartoon with the youngest possible target demographic can satisfy all age-groups, The Super Hero Squad Show is ostensibly about The Avengers, but happily covered every corner of the Marvel universe in its two season run from 2009 to 2011.

With beautiful, toy-friendly rounded edges and inoffensive, family friendly storylines and characterisations, The Super Hero Show was brilliantly self-aware and lovingly mocked its source material – if not for the parents or older siblings watching along with Jimmy or Sally, how else can you explain away the somewhat intense inclusion of The Punisher ( “We’re nothing but white blood cells, fighting the infection called crime…”) and jokes about non-canon member of the All Captains Squad, alongside America and Britain, Captain Lichtenstein (“Small but economically prosperous!”).

The theme tune also demands to be covered by a smug So-Cal pop-punk band of 30-somethings pretending to be 13 year olds, so if you know one – give them a nudge.

You said: “Seen ’em all with my three year old niece and I don’t know which of of us likes the show better. Tons of appearances by obscure characters.” Thomas Spaulding, via Facebook

teenage mutant ninja turtles cartoon6. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Famously re-badged Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles in the UK and about as faithful to the cult indie source material as Space Jam was to the 1992 NBA final, this bloody tale of martial arts, vengeance and anthropomorphic animal men was rewritten as a daft toy-sale of Nineties knuckle-dragging clichés, pratfalls and catch-phrases. It almost certainly doesn’t hold up to the rest of this list in any other capacity than its sheer cultural weight, being fondly recalled by almost everyone in their mid-20s to mid-30s.

In the playground I was always Leonardo. By ‘playground’ I mean ‘housing development near my dad’s house’, and for some reason I stopped playing there roughly about the time I was hit in the head with a brick thrown at me by Raphael. Not sure which episode that happened in now I think about it.

You said: “Do you mean Teenage Mutant ‘Hero’ Turtles? :p But yes, it was a classic Nineties cartoon up there with Rude Dawg And The Dweebs!” @ecossefilmmaker

wolverine and the x-men cartoon5. Wolverine And The X-Men

The name’s a sad testament to the rising stock of Mama and Papa Howlett’s little fur ball, and it’s a tough call between this and X-Men: Evolution, which reinvented classic characters and storylines for a sort of quasi-Buffy: The Vampire Slayer audience hungry for High School supernatural drama. Wolverine And The X-Men, which ran for an all too brief single season in 2009, was a return of sorts to the core X-values after three increasingly mediocre movies.

Wolverine And The X-Men covered much the same ground as the Nineties X-Men cartoon in terms of adapting the classics, albeit with superior animation and that all important understanding that the only way classic convoluted comic-book storylines will ever work when adapted for a casual audience, is if you do something about it. Also, it effectively led into the Hulk Vs Wolverine animated movie, an act of pure fangasm that revisited the Wolverine’s debut story way back in Incredible Hulk #180.

You said: “I’m tempted to say Wolverine And The X-Men, simply because Nightcrawler isn’t ‘hiding’ and I ain’t seen X-Men  Evolution in years.” @UnravThreads

Justice League Unlimited cartoon4. Justice League Unlimited

The fanboy favourite, almost every character to touch the page seemed to put in an appearence in Justice League Unlimited, making it the show to watch if you harboured a burning, all-consuming desire to witness The Question having a conversation with Huntress, or Stargirl getting a telling off from the John Stewart Green Lantern. Although if you harboured a burning, all-consuming desire to witness The Question having a conversation with Huntress, or Stargirl getting a telling off from the John Stewart Green Lantern, you urgently need to go and find yourself some real problems.

Although Justice League Unlimited only ran for 39 episodes between 2004 and 2006, it crammed in nearly as many geektastic gueststars as it did obscure DC Universe bitplayers, with highlights being Michael Ironside’s Darkseid, Clancy Brown’s Lex Luthor, John Rhys-Davies’ Hades, Michael York’s Ares, Ron Perlman’s Orion and so many more, touching on the likes of Smallville, Farscape, Buffy, Angel, Stargate and Star Trek in the process of ringing up every voice actor available to take on the constantly booming roster.

You said: “Justice League used just about every hero DC had to offer.” @Replicant_five

teen titans cartoon3. Teen Titans

A reto-style pop-art triumph, the Teen Titans cartoon ran for five seasons from 2003 to 2006 relied on a thrilling and idiosyncratic blend of chunky, imitable art, Anime inserts and classic Marv Wolfman New Teen Titans storylines, all packaged up in a pulpy style faintly reminiscant of the Sixties Batman serial and even the absurdist spy-fi likes of The Avengers. Highlights include the theme tune, performed by Japanese pop-rock unit Puffy AmiYumi, and apt guest stars like Malcolm McDowell as the Mad Mod and Henry Rollins as nefarious punk rocker Johnny Rancid.

Its attitude to continuity (ie, it ignored it, aside from the a few nods to Batman in Robin’s story) upset a lot of the neckbeards, but once it was cancelled and the turgid industrial overspill that is Young Justice filled the vacuum, they soon learnt the error of their ways.

You said:Teen Titans was inspired. Especially all its manga and anime influences.” @robrichardson

2. X-Men

For a whole generation, the second (after 1989’s forgotten/forgettable Pryde Of The X-MenX-Men animated series which ran for five seasons from 1992 to 1997, was a thrilling introduction to the inner core of Marvel canon. Heavily based on classic Claremont storylines such as the heavily allegorical Rise Of The Sentinels, the grand space opera of the Phoenix Saga, the harrowing Days Of Future Past, and utilising the Nineties depictions of the X-Men universe that would become definitive, the opening credits and bombastic theme tune was a pure audio-visual sugar rush that was definitely the last things parents needed visited upon their offspring on a Saturday morning.

Given that 1992’s seven to eleven year olds would be 15 to 19 when Bryan Singer’s first X-Men movie came out, there’s a huge case to be made for the entire Marvel movie revolution hinging on this particular mix of iconic storytelling and constant, relentless disco lasers.

You said: “The Nineties animated series of X-Men and Spider-Man was my introduction to the Marvel world. I’m still not over their abrupt endings.” @leyla_Kai

1. Batman: The Animated Series

Inspired by the Tim Burton films, 1989’s Batman and 1991’s Batman Returns, both of which the target audience would probably been unable to actually watch, and treading the sort of dark, oppressive ground as the comic-book, Batman: The Animated Series should have been a colossus, stinking failure. Instead it’s the progenitor of the entire DC Animated Universe, curated by producer Bruce Timm who lent his square-jawed, Art Deco art style to much of the series which followed, and can boast a genuine impact on the comic-book, changing the potrayal of characters as fundamental to the canon as Tim Drake’s Robin and Mr Freeze, as well as creating the most high profile cartoon-to-comic immigrant to date – the free-wheeling Harley Quinn.

While the core series itself only ran from 1992 to 1995, it not only led into a number of successor Bat-series, most notably Batman Beyond, but is still proudly serving as the template from which animated Bat-movies, such as the classic Batman: Mask Of The Phantasm and the recent Batman: Year One, are based. For many Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are the ultimate Batman and Joker, both returning the role numerous times across various media, including this year’s Batman: Arkham City and 2009’s Batman: Arkham Asylum videogames.

You said: “They nailed everything about the Gotham universe. To me, Kevin Conroy is THE voice of Batman.” @ClaviusK