I'm a lifelong fan of both comic book superheroes, and the cartoons that feature them. When I was young we didn't have a television in our home, so I would stay at my grandmother's every Friday night just so I could wake up on Saturday mornings and watch the 90's Spider-Man and The Adventures of Batman and Robin. Being the oldest of many cousins who were mostly boys who had to babysit those cousins, I continued to watch the animated shows that would follow in the later 90's and 2000's with them because they were generally better than most programing aimed at their age group.
However, it appears a lot has changed in the world of animated superhero shows. So here are (IMHO) the top ten superhero TV shows of the past 14 years and the implications for its future. They are in no particular order.
1. Young Justice (2010-2013)
Main Characters: Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, Superboy, Miss Martian, Artemis, Zatanna, and Speedy/Red Arrow
What it's about: I'm going to be honest here, we've only seen the first season of this since only the first is available for streaming and no reruns seem to be airing, but I still love that single season enough to rank it on this list. In the first episode we see the 'sidekicks' Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Speedy with their mentors allowed for the first time into the Justice League's Hall of Justice. When they realize they get a glorified version of a press tour the young heroes realize they feel like they deserve to be taken more seriously, despite their mentors telling them they aren't ready, so they form their own team under the Justice League and take on new members.
Why it's Awesome: The storylines were captivating, with a great mix of a season-long arc, arcs that spanned several episodes, and the classic "villain of the week" episodes. However, what makes the show is that the characters are interesting in their own right, avoiding common tropes usually seen in teenaged shows, and showing more character development in a few episodes than I've seen shows do in multiple seasons. Plus, I love the take on Robin being more light-hearted than we've been seeing in other incarnations.
In 2011 the show won an Emmy Award for outstanding Individual in Animation to Phillip Bourassa for the episode "Independence Day" and in 2013 won an Online Film and Television Association award for Best Animated Series.
Why It Was Cancelled: Because too many girls watched it and they wanted an audience that was primarily boys who they believed would be more inclined to buy toys. (Aside: Maybe if they made more than a single toy with Artemis, and any at all with Miss Martian and Zatana then girls would buy more toys, just a thought)
2. Justice League/Justice League Unlimited (2001-2005)
Main Characters: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, The Flash, and Hawkgirl
What it's about: After a failed alien invasion forced Martian Manhunter to assemble the heroes to protect the earth, Superman convinces them to form a team to fight threats no man or woman could fight alone. They then set up their headquarters at the orbiting space station known as the Watchtower.
Why It's Awesome: If the name Justice League and the roster itself don't interest you, then I'm not sure this is the right show for you. It has some of the best versions of these characters I've seen depicted in any show or movie and the writers are excellent at showing their 'human' side as much as their superhero persona, and we occasionally get to see them at the mercy of their emotions. While filled with action the show itself remains fun and we see quite a bit of humor (especially from Flash).
Why It Was Cancelled: Although it's the longest running show on the list, it was rumored to be because it didn't sell enough toys and/or DC didn't want to have the big names in TV shows when they were getting ready to release big live action movies featuring them. (Batman Begins came out in 2005 and Superman Returns came out in 2006)
3. Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes (2010-2013)
Main Characters: Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hank Pym, and Wasp in the beginning, but the roster changes just like in the comics. (Additional Members include Captain America, Black Panther, Hawkeye, The Vision and Miss Marvel.
What It's About: Following massive jailbreaks from several SHIELD prisons, the superheroes Iron Man, Giant Man, Wasp, Thor and the Hulk work together to defeat the mastermind being the breakouts. Iron Man convinces them to for the team The Avengers instead of joining SHIELD.
Why It's Awesome: First off, the animation is great and the attention to detail that the artist puts in is really noticeable. Best of all it handles it's "Big Bads" the way it should. Every episode in which we see all (or most) our heroes team-up really feel like they're all needed as a team to defeat the threat. It's grounded in a way that makes sense, but still keeps the larger than life superhero vibe viewers love. It also brings in other familiar faces, both heroes and villains, throughout the series.
Why It Was Cancelled: To start a new (IMHO: far inferior) series entitled Avengers Assemble, likely to have the Avengers roster in the animated series resemble that of the team in the cinematic universe.
4. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2012-Present)
Main Characters: Leonardo, Donatello, Raphael, Michelangelo, Master Splinter
What It's About: It's about turtles who were mutated intro anthropomorphic turtles and taught ninja skills who fight crime through their teenaged years.
Why It's Awesome: If you want to get the bad taste that the recent TMNT movie left in your mouth, the current series is a good way to go. Each of the characters stays true to the personalities many of us grew up with, although in a less cheesy way, and the humor is front and center throughout the series as it should be.
Currently Running: This is the only show on the list that is currently still airing, and has been picked up for at least one more season.
5. Spectacular Spider-Man (2008-2009)
Main Characters: Peter Parker, Spiderman*, Gwen Stacy, Aunt Mae
What It's About: This story focuses on Peter at the age of 16 shortly after he becomes Spider-Man. Balancing high school, a social life, money problems and crime fighting is always a challenge; however, this is still the idealistic, joking Spiderman that we want to see.
Why It's Awesome: The pacing of the overall storyline is pretty well planned, as in not every episode has or needs a big name villain, and when they do come the occurrences are remarkable. While some of the villains were given a slight twist to their character, it was done in a way that keeps them fresh while staying true to the essence of the persona. Also, all the action sequences are visually striking and the acrobatics themselves are well done.
Why It Was Cancelled: Reason unknown, but it happened shortly after Disney acquired Marvel Entertainment, and not long after that we got another animated series based on the web-slinger in his Ultimate incarnation.
6. Batman Beyond (1999**-2001)
Main Characters: Terry McGinnis, Bruce Wayne, Batman*
What It's About: In the year 2019, after suffering health problems Bruce Wayne decides to hang up his cowl and shut down the Batcave. In the year 2039, we see Bruce alone, no longer in connection with those we come to associate him with, the older ones having passed, and the younger ones having moved on and severing ties with him, and Bruce himself having resigned from the Justice League. When a teenaged boy named Terry McGinnis is attacked by members of the Jokerz gang and chased onto the Wayne property, Bruce helps fight them off causing his condition to weaken him again. When helping him inside to recover Terry stumbles onto the Batcave, which angers Bruce. After Terry's father is murdered he steals the Batsuit and eventually Bruce reluctantly relents and agrees to help Terry, since they both lost their parents to violence.
Why It's Awesome: While most of Batman's recent incarnations are 'dark and gritty' to fan's growing dismay, Batman Beyond is dark, but nails exactly how it should be done. It dealt with fears, emotions, and personal relations in a way that you rarely find in children's programming, and it was handled in a way that it is still acceptable for children. It is also the only version we have of Batman teaching another to be Batman which creates an exceptional dynamic between Terry and Bruce.
Why It Was Cancelled: In preparation of the Justice League, one episode "The Call" can almost be considered a proof of concept for the show.
7. X-Men Evolution (2000-2003)
Main Characters: Professor X, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Nightcrawler, Storm, Beast and Rogue
What It's About: This show was targeted at a younger audience, therefore the characters were all aged down to teenagers. We still see them at Xavier's Institute, with Prof X, Wolverine, Storm, and Beast as teachers. As the series progresses we see many of the New Mutants, and throughout the series we see the dynamic between the X-Men and Magneto's Brotherhood and later Magneto's Acolytes
Why It's Awesome: Now, this show had a lot of diverse characters to introduce, which they took most of the first season to do. Therefore, it didn't really find its stride until the second, but when it did it was fantastic. The show is at its best showcasing everyone's abilities and the way they interact with each other, in and out of physical combat. This was another show that was able to take on complex issues such as prejudices, but in a way that children could still comprehend.
Why It Was Cancelled: Reasons unknown, but it was rumored to be based on financing, despite the fact that at the time it was the highest rated show on the network, and one of the most popular television series aimed at children at the time.
8. Teen Titans (2003-2006)
Main Characters: Robin, Starfire, Cyborg, Raven, and Beast Boy
What It's About: Five teenaged superheroes live together in their command center the Titan Tower, on an island just off the coast of West Cost City. They handle all threats in their area, especially those from their archenemy Slade (Deathstroke) all while dealing with their personal struggles with adolescence, friendship and teamwork, and the limits of their abilities.
Why It's Awesome: While this show obviously had a strong anime influence, it was not overly ridiculous like the current Teen Titans Go is. While some episodes are sillier in concept, we see a lot of depth, especially when exploring the characters themselves, as some episodes were very character centric.
Why It Was Cancelled: According to Wil Wheaton's Radio Free Burrito Episode Four it was cancelled based on the pitch of the sixth season, about the Titans setting up towers internationally and branching out, because all shows that were now under WB were under scrutiny by their new execs. WB denied there was ever a plan for a sixth season and the cancellation was Cartoon Network's decision. Shortly after fan outcry, a feature length movie Teen Titans: Trouble in Tokyo was announced and released on the WB in late 2006.
9. Wolverine and the X-Men (2008-2009)
Main Characters: Wolverine, Rogue, Storm, Shadowcat, Angel, Iceman, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Beast, Emma Frost, Jean Grey, Professor X
What It's About: Professor X and Jean Grey are suffering from headaches, and shortly after disappear amongst an explosion. Distraught at losing their leader, the X-Men disband. A year later the government agency known as the Mutant Response Division is detaining and forming a registration of all known mutants in response to the public outcry of the safety of mutants being about. Wolverine and Beast team up to bring the X-Men together again to prevent a full out war against mutants from breaking out.
Why It's Awesome: Despite being action packed, the violence was less than you would expect. The show is great at showcasing lesser known mutants on both the X-Men roster and members of the Brotherhood. Unlike the Evolution series, X-Men featured here are adults and both the storyline and character development are more mature. The show also assumes fans are already familiar with the basic knowledge of the X-Men universe so it can focus mostly on the storyline.
Why It Was Cancelled: Like Spectacular Spiderman, this show was cancelled after Disney Purchased Marvel Entertainment, despite rumors that production of season 2 was already underway and several leaked scripts that appeared online.
10. Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2008-2011)
Main Characters: Batman, Whoever Batman Wants
What It's About: Like the Brave and the Bold comics which feature the team up of at least two DC Superheroes, this show features Batman teaming up with another superhero (often lesser known ones) to defeat villains or to solve crimes.
Why It's Awesome: While the show didn't focus a lot on any season long arc other than the main recurring villain, the standalone episode style worked well with the show. While Batman: TAS was more mature, and Adam West's Batman was outright ridiculous, this series struck the perfect balance with Batman himself being shown as witty and more lighthearted, but still having the heartbreakingly tragic stories fans are familiar with and it didn't shirk the subject of death. The show also featured creative takes on more obscure characters, and even fan favorites like Aquaman.
Why It Was Cancelled: Both the show and the more children-friendly comic book of the same name were announced to be cancelled at the 2010 Comic-Con. It is believed to be cancelled so that a darker show featuring the Caped Crusader, Beware the Batman, could be broadcasted instead.
*Yes, their alter ego counts as a second character.
** Yes, it launched in the 90's technically, but most of the show was in the 00's so I'm counting it.
It appears that the average lifespan for animated superhero shows is about 3 seasons, with only three shows on this list getting past that point.
Moreover, it seems that executives still hold to the notion that these shows cannot stand on their own right, but serve as a channel to sell toys. While that may have been true in the 80's this model seems dated today, and is often made fun of, such as in the Simpson's Episode "The Front" in which the show "How to Buy Action Figure Man" was nominated for Best Writing in a Cartoon Series.
What I find the most jarring is that despite being aimed at different audience demographics than the live action films creators are fearful of creating animated shows with characters that conflict with the current ones depicted in live action films. Marvel releases an Avenger series featuring their current roster in the cinematic universe, and a series featuring the Ultimate incarnation of Spiderman that ties him with SHIELD to show audiences that he is part of the Marvel universe despite not having the rights for theatrical movies featuring him. Meanwhile, DC doesn't currently have any animated shows featuring those in their upcoming cinematic universe. It was announced, however, that we will be getting a three-part animated Justice League series to be broadcasted on the online network Machinima, which Warner Bros. invested $18 million in 2014. I actually find this train of thought flawed. While Marvel movies are more family friendly than other superhero live action movies, they still have a PG-13 label on all of them. Likewise Nolan's Batman Trilogy and Snyder's Man of Steel are very obviously movies you won't be taking your children to see. So why aren't these companies launching animated shows that target these younger children? Do they expect the superhero phenomena in pop culture to be enough to capture the next generation of audiences?
With children's programing growing since the days when kids would wake up early on Saturday mornings, pour themselves a bowl of sugar-filled cereal with milk, and plop themselves in front of the TV until their parents forced them to play outside, you would think that the genre of Superheroes would have boomed over the years instead of dwindling. Now we have whole channels devoted to children's programming. Instead they are focusing on live action superhero TV shows that are also targeted towards older audiences with the darker tone of Green Arrow in the CW's Arrow, or the more complex themes seen in ABS's Agents of SHIELD.
While I can stream many of these shows online via Netflix or Hulu, it's sad to think that my son (who is currently four) will possibly grow up without getting to experience growing up with amazing superhero shows throughout his childhood like I did.
So what are your thoughts? Do you think we will eventually see a return of Superheroes to children's animation, or will Superheroes hereafter be targeted only towards adults?
If you disagree with any of these shows being on the top ten you also have to contribute what show you would list in its place and why it belongs there.