Our look at Marvel’s TV history comes to a close with their modern animated series.
Well, true believers, we’ve reached the end this summertime experiment. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will be back on the air next week, and through the miracle of pre-planning we’ve reached the endpoint in the history of Marvel’s previous television experiments just in time: We’ll finish things this week with The House of Ideas’ animated offerings from 2000 to the present.
These were the Marvel cartoons that came in the wake of Spider-Man and X-Men hitting huge in movie theaters, then continued to roll out as superheroes became the undisputed kings of the box-office and up through the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These cartoons were characterized by an ever-uneasy tug of war between trying to do their own thing and a need to reflect/endorse their now more-prominent movie counterparts.
This is also the point where we start hitting instances where I haven’t seen every single episode of every series, so if my assessment differs from yours, well… it’s entirely possible you’ve seen more of a show and have a more complete data set to work from. Also: For the sake expediency and fairness, I’ve elected to leave out the two recent/current Japan-only Marvel anime series and the three Western shows (Avengers Assemble, Ultimate Spider-Man and Hulk & The Agents of S.M.A.S.H.) that have not yet concluded their runs.
This was an ambitious series, attempting to both provide an X-Men cartoon that looked and felt closer to the then-recent Bryan Singer films and also retrofit the concept back into its original 1960s teen-angst melodrama focus… though the result occasionally feels more like a nod to Harry Potter than to pre-Claremont X-Men.
The main switch involves most of the main X-Men and Brotherhood members (the first two seasons are big on the two sides scrapping over would-be recruits) being teenagers and attending regular High School in addition to living at the Xavier Institute (in the X-Men’s case), which in turn sees much of the early action reworked to take place in and around that setting. Some fans cried foul at elements like “Goth Rogue” and Jean Grey seemingly “downgraded” into a more typical cheerleader-type who happened to have psychic powers, and I still think the 90s show nailed the “fun” of the franchise despite its cheesy flaws; but Evolution eventually developed a following for a reason.
SPIDER-MAN: THE NEW ANIMATED SERIES
Is this short-lived, largely-forgotten MTV production — a loose-continuation of the first Sam Raimi film — the worst Spider-Man cartoon ever?
Well, probably… but it’s honestly just too bland and unremarkable to hold much against it. That being said, its hideous cel-shaded animation is almost absurdly dated.
FANTASTIC FOUR: WORLD’S GREATEST HEROES
Aimed to draw on the (failed-to-materialize) box-office stature of the two live-action Fantastic Four films, World’s Greatest Heroes had slick anime-style animation and a license to dramatically reimagine the classic team’s stories… but it never quite amounted to much and audiences cared even less than they did about the non-started feature franchise. The series had 26 episodes, which were aired out of order across multiple networks over the course of four years.
THE SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN
People tell me this was the best Spider-Man cartoon ever. I’ve seen it and I just don’t get it. It’s perfectly serviceable, a slight but fun “young Spidey” series that does some novel things with the origins and relationships of the expected supporting cast. But Spider-Man’s equivalent to Batman: The Animated Series? Sorry, I’m not seeing it.
I’ve revisited it a few times since it was unceremoniously canceled so that Marvel could produce a cartoon of their own (Spectacular was a Sony production) and while I like it, I feel like a lot of the intense affection is aimed more at what the show might have become (its makers had big plans for future seasons) than what it actually was.
WOLVERINE AND THE X-MEN
It was supposed to be roughly based on the Astonishing X-Men comic series, but the final result read like a Marvel marketing-department memo made flesh: X-Men, but with Wolverine as the leader.
The premise? A year after a freak explosion leaves Professor X and Jean Grey unaccounted for, Wolverine and Beast aim to re-form the X-Men when yet another human-fronted anti-mutant outfit tries to bring the hammer down. It’s not a bad show, but it was nothing special — like too many other series, once it had gone about the business of introducing its cast and explaining what was and wasn’t “different” it didn’t have much of a place to go.
IRON MAN: ARMORED ADVENTURES
It’s no surprise that Marvel would fast-track a new Iron Man cartoon after the movie was such a runaway success, but color me among those (still) surprised that the cartoon they went with was effectively another Spider-Man series with Iron Man stuff swapped-in for the details.
In this version, Tony Stark is a teenager who builds the Iron Man armor to investigate the disappearance of his father. Along the way, he also has to balance the issues of being a “regular” teenager along with moonlighting as a superhero. Not the worst idea in the world, though also featuring a teenaged Mandarin was sort of pushing it.
THE SUPER HERO SQUAD SHOW
This is a weird one, folks…
Ostensibly, the point of Super Hero Squad was to push a line of younger-targeted “super-deformed” Marvel toys. But, for some reason, the show itself turned out to be an in-joke laden gagfest seemingly aimed (at least in the writing) at older long-time Marvel fans.
While the series looks like little more than “Marvel Babies” on the surface (the heroes defend “Super Hero City” from incursions by “Villainville”) episode after episode is packed with shout-outs and parodies that feel like they belong in a fan-published webcomic, not a mainstream cartoon aimed at the very young. Honestly? On balance, this is easily the show I like best out of this particular rundown — it’s goofy, but exceptionally amusing.
This should’ve been a lot better.
A BET production from Reginald Hudlin, this series aimed to be a modern-day version of the “animated comics” that first brought Marvel to TV in the 60s, adapting not just the story but the artwork of John Romita Jr’s then-recent Black Panther reimagining. It has an interesting look and inspired voice-casting with Djimon Honsou as T’Challa… but the whole production just doesn’t come together. Too often the series (which only lasted for six episodes, effectively ending a much-ballyhooed attempt by BET to get into the animation game) felt like an unintentional parody of its own premise, which one doubts was the plan.
AVENGERS: EARTH’S MIGHTIEST HEROES
Here’s another show that, like Spectacular Spider-Man, is mourned for ending too soon because it was nudged aside for a new series with closer ties to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Difference is, I can see why people were bummed about this one.
Earth’s Mightiest Heroes had some animation issues, but its the best Avengers cartoon anyone had managed up to that point, blending fun action with a decent sense of Marvel continuity to keep things interesting. I really do wish it had been allowed to continue, rather than being replaced with the decent but not-as-good Avengers Assemble.