Superheroes and cartoons have been inseparable since the day Max Fleischer first created his interpretation of the Man of Steel in his Superman cartoon in 1941. Both cartoons and superheroes have a serial nature that allow them to mesh together perfectly, and though it certainly costs money for quality animation, the budgetary concerns are nowhere near the issue they are when it comes to making a big screen film. But while people of all ages tend to love a good superhero cartoon, not every cartoon goes on to be a success. Many of them in fact…fail. Sometimes due to quality, sometimes ratings or toy sales…but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give them a chance!
So we here at CBR has compiled a list of 15 failed superhero cartoons that deserve a second watch, either because they’re excellent shows that fans didn’t give a fair shake, or because they were canceled before their time, or in a couple cases just for the purposes of being a completist. With one exception, failed on this list means a series that simply didn’t manage to reach the full run action series are known for, stopping well short of the 52 or 65 episodes a series needs for syndication.
15. IRON MAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
In the ’90s, Marvel was on a roll when they put Spider-Man and X-Men on Fox Kids back to back. But they didn’t stop there — they put even more content onto UPN in the mid-’90s, giving them an Incredible Hulk, a Fantastic Four, and yes, an Iron Man series. If you’re a super-fan you probably knew this, but it’s entirely possible you didn’t because most people didn’t even have UPN, and the show was basically canceled by the time it aired in syndication on FOX a few years later.
Admittedly though, the first season of this is rather poor — featuring Iron Man and the ’90s super-team Force Works going up against Mandarin and an assortment of Iron Man’s rogues gallery. The second season is considerably better however, boasting superior plotting, art design, and storytelling — feeling like the perfect version of the late ’80s Iron Man brought to the small screen.
Just before cartoons had their explosion of popularity in the early ’90s, the Man of Steel got a solo cartoon courtesy of the good people at Ruby-Spears that aired on CBS in honor of his 50th anniversary. The series was noteworthy for its solid animation as well as having legendary comic scribe Marv Wolfman as the head storyteller, while the incomparable Gil Kane did the designs.
This series is also the first time Superman appeared on television in the aftermath of “Crisis on Infinite Earths”, and this series reflected that. No longer did Lex play the mad scientist, but instead the untouchable billionaire that could be a thorn in Superman’s side at any moment. Unfortunately, the series only ran a very short 13 episodes, but there’s still a lot to love with this cartoon — including cool flashbacks to Supes’ life back in Smallville.
13. SWAT KATS: THE RADICAL SQUADRON
Created by the good people at Hanna-Barbera, SWAT Kats went against the grain of that studio a lot of ways. It had surprisingly great animation for a studio that for decades was known for its assembly line-esque production, and it was a really sharp turn into action adventure where the vast majority of its series had been comedy or comedy-action for years.
The series followed the adventures of two former cops who’d been fired for not following the orders of their incompetent captain. The two were forced to work in a salvage yard to pay back the city for damages they caused during their last mission, and while there they built their own jet to help fight against the rampant crime in Megakat City. Featuring wildly creative villains and a beautifully dark animation style for the early ’90s, SWAT Kats is a gem everyone should watch at least once.
If you’ve never heard of Ultraforce don’t worry, you’re not alone. As the popularity of comics continued to swell in the early ’90s thanks to Image and stunts like the “Death of Superman” and “Knightfall”, comic book companies began creating their own superhero universe for people to get invested in. One of those universes was Malibu Comics’ Ultraverse, which featured the original Exiles, Night Man, and…Ultraforce, a special team of superheroes that were something like DC’s Justice League.
Managing to make its way onto the USA Network as a DiC-produced cartoon, Ultraforce lasted all of 13 episodes before coming to an end. In truth, a large part of that is because it wasn’t very good. But it was a very rare example of a super-team that didn’t come from DC or Marvel making its way onto cable television, so it’s worth a look for posterity’s sake alone.
11. MEGAS XLR
Megas XLR was an action-comedy series that got its start as a pilot on a Cartoon Cartoon variety series that was searching for the next big thing. Its popularity resulted in the series going from pilot to full production, and it found its way to Toonami in 2004. The series followed a mechanic named Coop and his best friend Jamie as they used their cool new giant robot from the future to battle against an alien invasion called the Glorft with the help of Kiva, the original pilot of the Megas robot.
The series ran for less than a year on Toonami before winding up canceled due to low ratings, but the quality of the show was always tops. The series remained a cult classic long after its cancellation, and even had a few (unfortunately failed) movements to revive it from fans.
10. WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN
Wolverine’s decades-long spot as the most popular X-Men finally paid off when Marvel gave him top billing in their 2009 X-Men cartoon, Wolverine and the X-Men. Taking place in a universe where the X-Men have been ripped apart after a mysterious explosion, the series features Wolverine putting the team together again after receiving some troubling messages from a version of Professor Xavier in the future.
Wolverine and the X-Men featured superb plotting, as the series jumped back and forth between the future and the present as the X-Men work to keep the present safe. The series didn’t even have bad ratings, it just found itself canceled as a side effect of Disney buying Marvel. This was the last X-Men cartoon we’ve gotten since then, too. At least the X-Men went off on a high note.
In 2011, the rampant ’80s nostalgia finally resulted in a new series for the fifth most popular ’80s cartoon series behind Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, and Voltron. A total reboot of the original series, Warner Bros relied on animation from Japanese company Studio 4°C as they created new versions of Thundera and Third Earth alike. This reboot focused heavily on characterization, and emphasized the sheer strangeness of this world of anthropomorphized animals with mystical abilities, allowing the show to be enjoyed by both newcomers and long-time fans alike.
The series enjoyed decent ratings and strong reviews while it was on-air, but ultimately Cartoon Network decided they no longer wanted to engage in heavily action-oriented cartoons and decided to cancel the show after only a single season.
8. IRON MAN: ARMORED ADVENTURES
Iron Man: Armored Adventures is a cheat for this list. By most measures of a show it absolutely did not fail, as it ran for the full 52 episodes before coming to an understandable end after running for three years from 2009 to 2012. But most fans had a pretty poor opinion of the series when it first came out, and that feels unfair.
The developers of the series, Craig Kyle and Chris Yost, are both supremely talented writers that have turned out several great comics and their love for the medium shines in this series. We get custom versions of the “Armor Wars”, and get to watch Tony face off against several of his classic rogues alongside both Rhodey and Pepper, wearing the War Machine and Rescue armors. Sure, the 3D animation is still pretty annoying, but given the story that’s forgivable right?
7. FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES
To be Marvel’s “First Family”, the Fantastic Four doesn’t get as much focus as one might believe — they might get a cartoon once a decade, and few of them ever last very long. World’s Greatest Heroes was Marvel’s attempt for the ’00s, relying on a peculiar mix of traditional 2D art and 3D animation by French company MoonScoop, best known for their work on Code Lyoko at the time.
The show barely even got a decent shake, appearing on the weekend incarnation of Toonami for a total of eight weeks before being suddenly yanked from the airwaves and only returning in time for the second Fantastic Four film the following year. Even that only lasted a few more weeks until the show was shuffled over to Nicktoons two years later, so most of us didn’t even get a chance to see the full season in the first place.
6. SILVER SURFER
In 1998, Marvel continued its dominance in animation by bringing a more experimental, less popular hero to FOX Kids: the Silver Surfer. The cartoon used a combination of classic and computer animation to emulate the classic art style of Surfer’s creator Jack Kirby, while hewing as close to Surfer lore as possible without including Marvel’s Fantastic Four team. Still, it contained several other Marvel Cosmic characters, including several well-known Guardians like Drax and Adam Warlock.
The show was a well-done approach to the Surfer’s usual stories of politics and societal problems, but found itself canceled after only 13 episodes. Well-received both critically and in terms of ratings, the only reason the show even got canceled was a legal issue between Silver Surfer’s owners in Marvel, and the animation production company Saban.
5. GREEN LANTERN: THE ANIMATED SERIES
Green Lantern: TAS was a part of an action block airing on Cartoon Network known as “DC Nation”. It ran for a single year and one season for 26 episodes before the show was canceled due to poor toy sales and a negative reaction to that awful Ryan Reynolds GL film.
Still, that’s got nothing to do with the overall quality of this series. Green Lantern: TAS is Bruce Timm at his best, tapping into a lesser-used character in the DC Universe and doing him justice. He taps into a lot of different aspects to Green Lantern mythology (and much of what Geoff Johns had done before the series started) to give GL a fleshed out, developed universe. If you don’t have a problem with CG animation, this is a fantastic show.
4. LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES
After a solid decade of stories set inside the “Timm/Dini-verse”, Warner Bros. finally decided to branch out in the mid-’00s, first with The Batman and Teen Titans, then eventually with DC’s 30th century super-team Legion of Super-Heroes. The series took its inspiration from several different eras of Legion continuity to create its own standalone series, even going so far as to add a young version of Superman pulled from the past to fight alongside the group.
The series only lasted two seasons and 26 episodes, running from late 2006 to early 2008 before coming to an abrupt end. It really isn’t that often that DC or Marvel even give their less famous franchises a try outside of the realm of comics — they tend to get relegated to guest appearances. For that reason alone this series is worth a try.
3. BEWARE THE BATMAN
Beware the Batman had a bit of trouble when it was first announced for a couple of reasons: it’s 3D animation, and the fact that it’s initial promotional art featured Bruce Wayne’s faithful butler Alfred holding a pair of large guns. Such a major departure from usual canon upset quite a few fans, but ultimately was Beware the Batman really that bad? As Warner Bros’ premiere superhero, Batman’s had more cartoons than any other superhero at DC, and as a result they can often cover some of the same ground again and again.
But this series’ experimental nature gave things quite the shake-up. Katana became his Robin, and everyone’s favorite superhero got to go up against some of his newer, less famous villains like Professor Pyg. After all, how many times do you need to see Robin join Batman?
2. SUPER POWERS TEAM: GALACTIC GUARDIANS
This one is primarily for the old heads and the completists. The vast majority of pop culture knowledge people have about DC Comics comes from The Super Friends, a Hanna-Barbera series that ran from the early ’70s until the mid-’80s. They reinvented it time and again, introducing such “great” characters as Marvin, Wendy, as well as The Wonder Twins.
Most of the time the series was pap, but the last version of the series was pretty good! They introduced Darkseid and the planet of Apokolips, replaced the usual useless kids with teen heroes Firestorm and Cyborg, and improved the quality of the animation and storytelling. Unfortunately by then the popularity was starting to cede, and it was canceled after only a short ten episode run.
1. SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED
Spider-Man Unlimited was meant to be something of a pseudo-sequel to the mega-popular previous show Spider-Man: The Animated Series. It picked up after the cliffhanger of Peter following Madame Web to save his true love Mary Jane, who’d been lost in space-time during a battle against the Green Goblin. It should have been a slam dunk, since the original was so beloved that it ran for five years and 65 episodes. Unfortunately, it had to go head to head with Pokemon and Digimon and got canceled only a few episodes into its run.
Still, despite only managing to go 13 episodes this series was pretty fun! It featured a cool new outfit for Peter and one of the few times Counter-Earth got to be explored and focused on outside of the comics.