Last week I took a look at The Top 5 Best And Worst Live Action Superhero shows and I have to admit, that was much easier to decide. There have been so many superhero cartoons over the years, both taken from comic books and original ideas; it took a maximum effort to really pare it down to five on either side.
My first problem was taking my personal favorites out of the mix to really focus on the ones I felt were the best and the worst. For example, I love the old Aquaman cartoon with Tadpole and the voice of Ted Knight narrating the stories. As much as I love the cartoon it’s really not one of the best. The episodes repeat, the scripts are pretty bad and the animators re-used a lot of footage over and over.
On the flipside there was He-Man And The Masters Of The Universe. As I kid I hated everything about that show. Orko was annoying, the terrified tiger sucked and I really hated how Skeletor, an evil entity of unlimited power, was portrayed as the slapstick moron. I realize it’s a cartoon but even at that young of an age I found it insufferable. However those were largely my problems and not indicative of it being one of the worst.
So with that mind I present you with my Top 5 Best And Worst Superhero Cartoons. Remember, these are put together based on my entirely too lengthy time in front of the TV and lifetime love of superheroes. I’m hoping people will agree, or disagree or come up with their own. Regardless I hope it gives everybody a reason to go back and re-discover some of these gems.
5. THE PLASTIC MAN COMEDY/ADVENTURE HOUR (1979-1981)
I realize some may cry foul at this choice but you have to look at the bigger picture. Sure it didn’t follow the comic book origin of Plastic Man but it did manage to retain the spirit of the character. Plastic Man was quick witted, charming and even darkly sarcastic in the most dangerous situations. The writing on the show was first rate; even smart which was a rarity back then. Especially in season two when Plastic Man and his sidekick Penny got hitched. There were real shades of sexual tension and even light references to Plastic Man’s…um…ability.
The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Hour was also one of the first cartoons to introduce multiple cartoon segments. When you watched the show you didn’t just get a Plastic Man adventure you also got Baby Plas (Plastic Man’s kid), Mighty Man and Yukk, Fangface And Fangpuss and Rickety Rocket. Through the mid-eighties this format was the preferred way for cartoon shows and The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Hour really led the charge.
On a personal note I was also addicted to Mighty Man & Yukk. The idea of a superhero that grows incredibly small with a canine sidekick whose face is so unbearably ugly he has to hide it under a small doghouse on his head is genius. When Yukk would be able to “scare” inanimate objects like guns and tanks into falling apart you had to laugh. That’s the kind of drop in logic that made cartoons great.
4. SPIDER-MAN (1967-1970)
There are so many things that kicked ass about this cartoon it’s hard to categorize them all. The stylized art, the theme song, the weird and ominous stories, Spider-Man had it all. One of the main aspects that made it great was how smartly it was written, almost as if it was trying to bring in the college students who loved the comics at the time.
In the late sixties the country was immersed in some of it’s darkest history so cartoons tried to be light and fun. Spider-Man instead was very serious and very realistic which was a real anomaly. These days cartoons that attract adult attention are a dime a dozen but in the late sixties it was a real accomplishment. In the last two seasons this trippy and serious vibe got a shot in the arm when underground cartoonist Ralph Bakshi took over. Bakshi added darkness and shadow to the cartoon backgrounds and even bizarre camera movements in an attempt to make Spider-Man’s world even more tilted.
On a lighter not it was also the first time people saw some of their favorite villains come to life. The Green Goblin, Rhino, Doc Ock, Electro, all of them were on board as well as thugs, gangsters and general bad guys. Then there was the theme song which is arguably the greatest cartoon theme song ever written, so much so it was even covered by the Ramones. Spider-Man was incredibly ahead of its time and laid the groundwork for the more adult animated features we have today.
3. BATTLE OF THE PLANETS (1978-1985)
OK, I realize that Battle Of The Planets is a dubbed and edited version of the original Japanese cartoon Kagaku Ninja Tai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) but that doesn’t mean the American series was any less awesome. Sure the R2-D2 style robot 7-Zark-7 was annoying and mainly used to cover up gaps left in editing for the American version but so what? These episodes are way closer in plot and character than most purists give them credit for and it was also one of the smartest shows on TV.
Battle Of The Planets was one of the first shows to really explore group dynamics and create separate personalities for the characters. Cartoons, even group themed cartoons, were usually one note before Battle Of The Planets. Usually the group always got along or their differences were minimal and things were kept light and airy.
Not so with Battle Of The Planets, in fact the vast differences between team leaders Mark and Jason were fraught with as much peril and tension as any live action drama. You also had the story of Princess and where she fit in being the only girl on the team, which brought feminism into cartoons before it was cool to. Keyop had to face his feelings of being smaller and maybe less of a threat than his team members as well as his interesting vocal tick. Only Tiny served mainly as comic relief but after all that drama you needed it.
There was also a truly evil Villain in Zoltar. Though the idea of Zoltar being both man and woman was edited out in the American version he/she was definitely an evil presence. So many bad guys at that point had been more slapstick or inept. You never felt the true weight of what a villain was trying to do but Zoltar changed a lot of that. Smartly written, well-animated and consistently exciting Battle Of The Planets raised the bar for what was possible in the world of cartoons.
2. BATMAN THE ANIMATED SERIES (1992-1995)
I believe this to be penultimate meeting of smart writing, great animation, character development and genius execution. Batman The Animated Series was so good, so compelling that it transcended genre to become something bigger than just a cartoon. It was so well written and understood the character of Batman so completely that a lot of the cartoon was worked into the lore of the comic books, which never happens. In fact show creator Paul Dini still writes Batman comics to this day.
In my opinion Batman was the catalyst for most of the high content animated work we see today. DC’s animated movies, Marvel’s “Ultimate” films, all of it can be traced back to the incredibly brave work done by the people behind Batman The Animated Series. The show was masterful at creating dark tones and really viable story arcs in a world largely bogged down by one-episode arcs. You also had cliffhanger season finales, which was a brand new concept to cartoons during that era.
Look at what all was gleaned from the Batman series as well. This was the birthplace of Harley Quinn a character so beloved these days it’s hard to think of The Joker without her. The show also launched the Superman series, JLA and JLA Unlimited. All four of these shows were tied together through events and story arcs and all of that started with Batman The Animated Series.
I also have to take my hat off to Kevin Conroy, the best Batman there has ever been. Sure Christian Bale was great as the flesh and blood version but he was no more the Batman than Conroy was. In fact I think all of us wish Bale had studied Kevin Conroy’s voice instead of that Cancer ridden Clint Eastwood he attempted. Then there was Mark Hamill’s Joker who was evil and sinister but still OK for kids to watch. I’m still in the dark on how he managed to pull that off. Batman The Animated Series is as good as episodic television gets, no matter if it’s animated or live action.
1. MAX FLEISCHER’S SUPERMAN (1941-1943)
So why after calling Batman The Animated Series the absolute best is it second to the Fleischer Superman cartoons? Easy, without these cartoons there would be nothing at all in the way of superior animation. In fact there is still nothing today, with all of the technology out there that even comes close to the look of these cartoons. Every single thing going on in animation today owes a debt to Max Fleischer’s Superman.
Some will point out that historically Max Fleischer and his brother Dave only produced nine of the shorts before being ousted by Paramount Pictures due to ongoing inner conflicts. The fact of the matter is that the look and style of these cartoons didn’t change when the producers did, mainly only the themes changed. The Fleischer brothers original nine leaned more towards science fiction while the Paramount eight delved into World War II storylines.
The Fleischer’s used Rotoscoping to give the Superman shorts their very specific look. In Rotoscoping animators trace live action to bring the realism of the movements to bare. From that they fill in the backgrounds and create the world. Imagine that, hand tracing each frame of live movement to apply to a simple short. Then take into account that Fleischer relied on assistant animators with little to no idea on how to draw a man flying or running at super speed and a picture of how important these shorts were begins to develop.
Saying that the Superman shorts were ahead of their time is an understatement, they actually created their time and the future of animation. Fleischer did the same thing that Siegel and Shuster did when they created Superman, they brought a sense of awe and excitement to a young medium. Granted the storylines were simple but that doesn’t take away from the importance because without these shorts something like Batman The Animated Series never would have happened.
5. THE BATMAN (2004-2008)
I’m not sure how we fell from Batman The Animated series to the wholly unwatchable The Batman. This moronic attempt to uber-cool Batman fails on so many levels you begin to think it could be performance art. Everything and I mean everything that made Batman The Animated Series so wonderful is stripped away so we can essentially watch a video game being played with commercials in it.
The dark and inventive animation of the first series is replaced with this weird American hybrid of Anime and computer graphics. Batman’s eyes are fucking huge, like weirdly enormous. He looks more like bugman than anything else. I was also all set with the crackling pop culture dialog between hipster Robin and the dry-witted Batgirl. Pepper in the ironic wit of Batman and you feel more like you’re watching an indie band show in Hipster Hell USA than a superhero cartoon.
Let’s not forget either that they gave The Joker dreads or that he was turned into this lumbering buffoon. In fact all of the villains were given spiffy new makeovers and wacky new origins just to make sure they didn’t go too fast for the kiddies.
Even the creators knew this show was a failure because they tried each season to change it around and make it different. Essentially they were polishing a turd and not matter how many new characters, new styles and voices they crammed into it the show continued sucking until it was mercifully yanked off the air.
4. BRAVESTARR (1987-1988)
It’s amazing how in only one year Bravestarr became one of the worst superhero cartoons ever made. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the giant bin of cocaine and LSD was passed around during the production meetings. I say that because only incredibly powerful narcotics could have led these people to green light this hunk of steaming shit.
Picture this if you can. It’s the 24th Century and in deep space is a place called New Texas. How scary is it that the only city allowed to colonize space is Texas. Great, alien rednecks, just what we need. So on this new planet are these humanoid settlers being terrorized by a bad guy named…get this…Tex Hex. Good ole’ Tex Hex looks like an unused villain from Scooby Doo given a cowboy makeover. He deals in “space drugs” and commits “space crimes”.
Enter Bravestarr a superhuman elemental superhero sheriff (say that fast three times). What makes Bravestarr a step above the average lawman is his connection to the natural world around him. When he needs to he can call on the Speed Of A Puma, Strength Of A Bear, Eyes Of A Hawk and Ears Of A Wolf. The problem is that none of his powers have anything to do with their animals. I’ve never seen a Puma outrun a rocket powered motorcycle or a Bear that can lift up a tank. Basically they gave this guy lame powers then tried to make them deep by coupling them with “nature”.
My favorite part of Bravestarr was his cybernetic horse named Thirty/Thirty. See if this works for you: the last of an ancient race of cybernetic equestrians this horse can talk and go from four legs to two. He also carries around a giant energy rifle he calls “Sarah Jane” and has super strength.
Like I said, it has to be drugs.
In order to hide the sloppy writing the creators stick in a moral lesson at the end of every show. This way the writers can say they dumbed down the dialog in order for kids to get the message. Hey I’m all for heavy narcotics but not to decide the future of animation or television.
3. CAPTAIN PLANET AND THE PLANETEERS (1990-1992)
Way before Al Gore was scaring us with the end of the world Captain Planet And The Planeteers were fighting for the environment in this stupid cartoon designed by Ted Turner. Let’s forget for a minute that a corporate giant whose company moves in co-ops everything then colorizes it is preaching about the ills of the world that way we can focus on how bad the show is all on its own. You think the drugs were powerful for Bravestarr, you ain’t seen nothing it.
Essentially a spirit of the Earth sends five rings down that have the ability to control five elements. This spirit, named Gaia, does this so there can be a human defense system against those out to destroy the environment. Obviously the best qualified for such a gigantic responsibility is a group of teenagers. Gaia uses her “planet vision” to find the worst of the polluters and the kids go off to do battle. When the Planeteers individual control of the elements isn’t powerful enough they combine their strengths and become Captain Planet, kind of a tree hugger Superman.
If put into the hands of somebody trying to do something other than shill a product this might have worked but under Turner’s watchful eye it fails miserably. The scripts try and deal with serious issues in way too simplistic except when they’re smashing the moral lessons into your face. I was also scratching my head at why a superhuman being that was expressly designed to battle polluters loses his powers when he gets near pollution. It would seem that could make the villains job way, way easier.
I guess I just have a problem getting moral lessons from Ted Turner or maybe the fact that the showed worked entirely too hard to be politically correct. Whatever it was the show irritated me to no end.
2. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (1987-1996)
I feel pretty comfortable listing this as one of the worst cartoons ever because both TMNT creators Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman can’t stand it either. This is a prime example of what happens when a corporate structure takes a great property and dumbs it down to the point that it is unwatchable. The worst part is this is what people think of when they hear the name Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
When the Turtles comic book originally hit stores in the mid-eighties it was incredible. The Turtles were violent, gruff and always brutal. They all looked the same save for their weapons and when they had to stop crime they would bash bad guys into bloody pulps. Seeing the potential for a series Murakami-Wolf-Swenson Film Productions snatched it up and then promptly ruined it.
Instead of four brooding, dark characters the TMNT were turned into kooky wisecracking teens that love pizza and burgers. They rode skateboards and screamed things like “Kawabunga Dude” when they attacked their endless stream of insipid enemies. The worst was the twisting of Shredder from truly evil into this slapstick idiot who presided over a robot army because violence against human bad guys was a no-no.
I hated the voices the Turtles were given which had them sounding like those teenage mall kids that can’t land any skateboard tricks and talk in some kind of wanna be southern California drawl. Every time one of the Turtles speaks you start partying for Shredder’s men to stab them through the throat. See, it does promote violence to children!
Everything about this show failed but nothing as spectacularly as the scripts. Literally it was the same adventure, the same bad guys, the same one-liners week in and week out. Nothing changed, at all, ever. It felt like the writers banged out one script a year and then animated the season around it. Sure cartoon scripts don’t have to be Shakespeare but these were a whole new dawn of stupid.
Badly animated, badly written and hugely popular this series single handedly led to the Turtles being seen in pop culture as the three stooges with weapons. People don’t even know there was a comic book or how good it was. Nope, instead people are screaming KOAWBUNGA DUDE and eating Turtles Frozen Pizzas
I hate the world.
1. The Super Friends (1973-1974)
How much did the Super Friends suck, oh let me count the ways.
1. Imagine a show written so poorly that Scooby Doo seems edgy.
2. This was the show that solidified Batman as everybody’s awesome step-dad. A goofy buffoon version of the Dark Knight that took years of work by Neal Adams ands Denis O’Neal to overcome. Can you imagine a post Dark Knight movie Batman saying “Good point chum”? Nope, neither can I.
3. Superman was so annoying you started rooting for Lex Luthor.
4. You think the Wonder Twins were annoying? Try the original sidekicks Wendy, Marvin White and Wonderdog. Marvin whined a lot and looked like Shaggy with a cape while Wendy made snappy little comments that had you wishing she’d be run over by the bat mobile. Wonderdog barked a lot and wore a cape to. BRILLIANT!!
5. Though advertised Aquaman was hardly ever in it.
6. The giant group laugh thing that ended every show made me want to put my foot the screen at age 4.
7. The bad animation, which featured maybe two new scenes an episode, the rest was rehashed from last episode.
8. We were forced to learn about Apache Chief who could grow REALLY TALL. Wow, if there’s ever a heroes vs. villains basketball game we’re all SET!!
9. It launched all the subsequent Super Friends show, which sucked just as badly but never wanted to end.
10. It helped reinforce that comics are silly kids material, a stigma us fans still battle today.
So there you have it, my 5 best and worst Superhero cartoon shows. I’m sure I missed some or you may simply think I’m insane, either way it’ll be something to talk about. I must give a few shout outs to the honorable mention category. Though not technically the “best” I did love Thundarr The Barbarian (Ukla, Ariel we RIDE) and I was also a loyal Gigantor fan.
On the worst side the only one I struggled with was Thundercats. I hated that show, hated it. It felt to me like somebody had written a hybrid of the play Cats and the X-Men. Every time they won a battle I kept waiting for the Thundercats to break into the song “Memories”. I also couldn’t stand the cat head insignia that was everywhere during the shows popularity.
Until next time!!