It’s a universal constant: For every quality flick based on a comic book franchise, there will always be two or three others that vary in levels of suck. And oddly enough, some of these rubbish super hero movies—and we use the term “movie” in the loosest sense of the word—have had cartoon series that, in comparison, actually serve to make the former look worse than it did before. Which animated shows had us waking up early on weekend mornings instead of racing to the theater? Read on for the tantalizing answer in 7 comic book-inspired cartoons better than the movies!
1) Swamp Thing
For all intents and purposes, the 1980s were the decade of the Swamp Thing franchise, with Alan Moore taking the writing reins of the comic series and the release of two films. The first film, directed by Wes Craven in 1982, is hailed as a cult classic while its 1989 low-budget sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, is, well, the kind of movie one would find at the bottom of the bargain bin. Though it lasted only five episodes—and had a horrendous intro parodying Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing”—the Swamp Thing animated series, on the other hand, was easier to stomach than the film sequel, even if the cartoon was a semi-ripoff of Captain Planet. Plus, it had a pretty nifty line of action figures too.
2) Phantom 2040
Remember the 1996 film The Phantom? Based on the King Features Syndicate comic strip hero? Don’t sweat it if you don’t, it didn’t leave much of an impression on audiences and critics at the time. Despite the movie failing to do the Phantom justice, the 1994 cartoon, Phantom 2040, did. Featuring an all-star voice cast and top writing talent, including industry legend Len Wein, the cartoon ran two seasons strong.
3) Fantastic Four
Why is it that when Marvel and 20th Century Fox are uttered in the same sentence it sends a chill down our collective spines? Maybe it’s because they churned out snoozefests like the Fantastic Four films. But if you’re looking to repress some bad movie memories, the Fantastic Four cartoon series from 1994 is just the ticket! Campy theme song aside, the first season pays homage to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s stories from the original comic, while the second draws inspiration from John Byrne’s iconic run during the ‘80s.
4) The Incredible Hulk
2003’s Hulk: A film so despised that it made Ang Lee consider retiring early from directing (no foolin’!). 1996’s The Incredible Hulk animated series: A cartoon praised for its dark, poignant storytelling and having Lou Ferrigno lend his voice for the show’s titular antihero. Now, given the option, what would you choose? Did we mention that She-Hulk appeared prominently in the cartoon’s second season? Yeah, there’s that, too.
5) Batman: The Animated Series
What the ‘80s were to Swamp Thing, the ‘90s were all about our favorite brooding Gotham vigilante: The one and only Batman! But, in similar fashion to Swampy, Batman Forever and the even more horrendous Batman and Robin did absolutely nothing for the hero’s image, garnering ridicule from basically everyone and their mother. Thankfully, we at least had the superb Batman: The Animated Series to fall back on. Dark, gritty, and rife with pathos, the cartoon effortlessly projected the same level of character complexity on Batman and his rogues gallery seen within the pages of the comic book.
6) Superman: The Animated Series
The moment Richard Pryor starred in a comedic capacity in the third installment of the Superman film franchise, all hope for the hero maintaining his dignity were lost. That is until geeks everywhere were gifted with Superman: The Animated Series. Following the formula that made Batman work, Superman presented the Last Son of Krypton as he was always meant to be portrayed, fighting an eclectic cast of super-powered ne’er-do-wells that made each episode more exciting than, dare we say, the movies. Honestly, Superman II was the only actual time he really fought villains with real super powers and not Gene Hackman in a cheap toupee.
The X-Men film franchise skates that fine line of being well-received and a source of bitter nerd vitriol. Their overall quality and whether or not they respect the original source material is debatable, but nearly all can agree that the X-Men cartoon series of the ‘90s is one of the greatest super hero cartoons in animation history, with stories pulled directly from the comics themselves. It ran for five years—that’s longer than any other series mentioned on this list!
Which animated series is your favorite?