The 1990s gave kids some of the very best action-adventure cartoons ever. I say this not only as an action-figure-buying ’90s kid, but as a consumer of all manner of animated media. Sure, a lot of them were just lengthy toy adverts, but they were no less exciting and deep. While Warner Bros. Animation’s Batman: The Animated Series stands as the very best of this crop of shows, which ushered in the DC Animated Universe, Marvel had a whole bumper crop of cartoons in the decade. Without those, as Nerdist‘s Eric Diaz posits, we wouldn’t have the MCU as we know it.
But not all of the ’90s Marvel cartoons are created equal! And it’s up to me (according to me) to rank all of them, from worst to best. It’s a more varied list than you might expect. Luckily, if you want to watch any of these, they’re all on Disney+ now.
9. The Avengers: United They Stand (1999-2000)
You very well might be saying to yourself, “What is this show?” And that’s not unreasonable. By the time the show debuted on Fox Kids, interest in these kinds of animated shows had started to wain. I actually didn’t know The Avengers: United They Stand existed until very recently. It consists of only a single, 13-episode season and, uhh, there’s kind of a reason it didn’t last beyond that.
For the series, the makers used largely the roster from the ’80s West Coast Avengers: Ant-Man and the Wasp led the team, while other members included Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Vision, Falcon, Tigra, and Hawkeye. A solid lineup, certainly. However, the characterizations of most of these characters just feels very off, especially Hawkeye who is supremely self-serious and angry. In order to compete with WB’s Batman Beyond, the series takes place in a non-specific future and all of the Avengers have borderline sci-fi costumes. It also doesn’t help that the animation was not nearly on the level of other shows at the time. It looks cheap and feels it.
8. Fantastic Four Season One (1994-1995)
Just like how the Fox movies never quite nailed its take on Marvel’s First Family, so too did the syndicated animated series have trouble finding its tone. So much so that its two seasons may as well be two separate shows. And so that’s how I’ve delineated them!
Now, your mileage may absolutely vary on this choice, but the first season of the Fantastic Four animated series just really doesn’t work for me. Despite having a very respectable roster of villains and storylines, the tone is way too goofy. It feels at times much more like a sitcom than an action-adventure show, and that also holds for the animation style. Much swimmier and more elastic than the other “realistic” shows in the lineup. Hell, just watch the first episode where Gary Owens plays a talk show host interviewing the FF about how they got their powers. It’s just not great.
7. Spider-Man: Unlimited (1999-2001)
Remember what I was saying about the above Avengers series trying to be like Batman Beyond? Well that was the second attempt. The first attempt was much more overt, and more successful. In a particularly weird twist, Peter Parker from our present gets flung into a dystopian Counter-Earth and resumes his Spider-Manning with different versions of his villains while also aiding in the war between the humans and the Beastials.
This is a very weird cartoon, surely, and it felt like they were trying to do Spider-Man 2099 without doing anything that that comic did. The result is a radically different, while still at times painfully repetitive, take on the Spider-Man story. The designs are pretty good and Spider-Man having a nanotech suit is pretty neat, but it all feels a bit grimdark for no reason and was definitely trying too hard to ape Batman Beyond. This one also only lasted 13 episodes, but had a huge gap in the middle of airing.
6. The Incredible Hulk (1996-1997)
This is the just-okayest cartoon on the list, in my humble opinion. The Incredible Hulk might arguably have the best, smoothest animation of any of the shows, but its formula is a particularly tired one, even for only 21 episodes. It follows everything you’ve probably assumed; Dr. Bruce Banner is on the run from the U.S. military and General Thunderbolt Ross, his Hulk side too dangerous to be left alone. Along the way, as Banner/Hulk destroys millions of dollars worth of government property, he also helps people and fights some heavy hitting villains, such as Abomination, Doctor Doom, and the Leader. It’s all very bog standard.
The second season, which is only eight episodes, saw a full-time team-up with Jennifer Walters/She-Hulk and the plots became a bit sillier. While the quality of the series never really dipped during its run, it never quite hit the heights of series further down the list either. The best part of the whole thing was probably Lou Ferrigno, who played the Hulk in the ’70s live-action series, voicing the Hulk here. And we got some fun crossovers with other UPN series of the bunch. But yeah, it’s fine, nothing more.
5. Fantastic Four Season Two (1995-1996)
Both the Fantastic Four series and another one we’ll get to in a moment had drastic retooling in their second seasons. I’ve already said how much the overt comedy of the first season didn’t work for me. The second, however, I think is a legitimately good show. It still keeps the fun and exuberance you want from a Fantastic Four show, but it takes its topics, and characters, much more seriously.
While the first season had introduced the big FF villains Doctor Doom and Galactus in multi-episode arcs, the second season did much more with both of them, plus introduced Daredevil, Black Panther, and the Inhumans. I was fully prepared to put both seasons of this show pretty low on my list, but after my recent rewatch, I have to bump this one up. It’s a good season. Not perfect, but it does justice to the characters which, again, seems very hard to do for some reason.
4. Iron Man (1994-1996)
I would argue—and I might not even need to do it that emphatically—that when the Iron Man movie came out in 2008, an entire generation only really knew him from this two-season cartoon. Despite him being one of the most important Marvel Universe figures, he’d not really gotten much push outside of comics since the mid-’60s with the terrible “animated” series. It’s certainly how I knew about Tony Stark, Rhodey, Hawkeye, Mandarin, and a dozen or so other Marvel heroes and villains.
This is another series that got a drastic revision between its first and second season, but while the second season is better than the first (which I’ll get to in a minute), I actually like both seasons well enough to put them comfortably here on the list as a whole. The first season is a bright kind of villain-of-the-week series, with Tony, Rhodey, and a number of other heroes working together to fight bad guys. Each episode is standalone and the resolutions are neat and tidy. The second season sees Tony dealing with a season-long injury, upgraded armor, and serialized storytelling. It’s much more serious and has a darker look to boot.
Definitely personal biases showing, but I thought this show was incredible when I was a kid, and it’s the reason I like War Machine as a character so much. Sure, Iron Man was the main character, but War Machine was the real badass.
3. Silver Surfer (1998)
I knew this show existed at the time, but I never watched it as a kid. It wasn’t until the early days of quarantine back in 2020, when I was looking for something to watch to take my mind off of everything, that I finally watched the 13-episode Silver Surfer cartoon. Boy, do I both wish I’d watched this at the time, and that I’d been millions of people so that they could have kept making it. I was so impressed by this series—which followed Norrin Radd from family man on the planet Zenn-La to Herald of Galactus to galaxy-roaming cosmic hero. The cel-shading look really made the space adventures pop, even if it retained the limited mobility of some other series of the time.
Not only that, but in only 13 episodes we got a bevy of other Marvel Cosmic characters. Galactus, of course, but also Thanos, Adam Warlock, Gamora, Drax, Nebula, Pip the Troll, Beta Ray Bill, Ego the Living Planet, and Uatu the Watcher. Legitimately the only negative thing I can say about it, other than its abbreviated length, is its CGI is a bit dated. Big whoop.
2. Spider-Man: The Animated Series (1994-1998)
The top two are pretty much no-brainers; the only real question is the order. It’s definitely down to a question of preference, but in either case, no one can dispute the quality and influence of Spider-Man on future superhero shows. This series, especially on rewatch, feels so packed with story, character, and action that you could easily double the seasons just to fit in everything. The story of college student Peter Parker and his never-ending fight against New York City’s billion villains made a major impression on me as a young and burgeoning comic fan, and this series gives you just about everything you could hope for, with a couple of network-mandated caveats.
Spider-Man wasn’t allowed to punch anyone, for fear kids would emulate it. Instead, he only kicks or swing-kicks, or throws things using his webbing. I never noticed as a kid. Another weird mandate was that Morbius (you know, the Living Vampire) was not allowed to drink blood. He instead sucked “plasma” out of people using a lamprey-like sucker in the palm of his hand. It’s weird more than anything. Also what’s Blade doing if he’s not hunting vampires? I dunno, man.
At any rate, the Spider-Man series followed its villain-of-the-week first season with a series of very lengthy serialized adventures. By the end of the show’s surprisingly consistent five-season run, we got everything from Secret Wars to Spider-Verse precursors, and all the villains you could imagine. It’s a great show, just great.
1. X-Men: The Animated Series (1992-1997)
Come on, did you think it could be anything else?! The first, the best, the reason the rest of the ’90s cartoons got a chance. X-Men may not have the animation quality of some of the other shows on the list—and heaven knows the last season looks pretty darn bad—but not a more iconic show exists in the canon. Utilizing the then-mega-popular Jim Lee redesigns and adapting a ton of Chris Claremont’s classic comics arcs, X-Men gave us mature stories and characters dealing with heavy, real-world allegories and a complex, unfolding narrative.
Honestly, I’m not sure what more I can say that hasn’t already been said by a million other people. I’ll just say, the same way Kevin Conroy’s voice rings in my head when I read a Batman comic, the Canadian voice cast of X-Men: TAS rings when I read any X-title. Especially Lenore Zann as Rogue, Cal Dodd as Wolverine, Cedric Smith as Professor X, and John Colicos as Apocalypse. For whatever reason, those are the ones that remain unchanged in 30 years.
It’s not perfect, but it’s perfect, ya know?