Marvel wasn’t always as incapable of doing wrong as its current cinematic efforts would suggest, which was very evident in their slew of 90s cartoons.

Last week: Remembering some good cartoons Marvel put out in the 90s. This week? Quite the opposite…

FANTASTIC FOUR (1994)
Okay. Some background: From 1994 to 1996, Marvel put out a syndication package made up of this series and an Iron Man series. The first seasons of both were… pretty terrible, with cheap, ugly animation and dopey sitcom-style humor inserted over what might otherwise have been decent story-adaptations. Fantastic Four, in particular, was infamous for its ear-bleedingly awful theme song. Ugh…

Now, here’s the interesting part: Despite the near-universal pans from fans and critics, both this and Iron Man did well enough ratings-wise to get a second season. And, by what can only be termed a cosmic miracle, the people behind them decided to take the criticism to heart and go back to the drawing board — upending the creative teams and taking a different track for the next order of episodes.

And while it’s generally agreed that Iron Man was the more improved of the two (see below), Four was noticeably better as well: Superior animation, fewer bad jokes and a bigger investment in the “science adventure” side of the Marvel Universe. This also meant drawing elements from John Byrne’s much-lauded 80s run on the title including an appearance by Malice, Sue Storm’s hilariously Freudian leather-punk dominatrix “alt-persona.”

IRON MAN (1994)
Much like its Fantastic sibling-series (see above) Iron Man had a fairly abysmal first season characterized by a brutally poor intro-sequence, the inexplicable attention it throws to the presence of D-list villains like Living Laser, Dreadknight or Grey Gargoyle and an obvious emphasis on Tony Stark’s toyetic cache of alternate-armors.

But the second-season revamp brought with it a more serious techno-action flavor — including a kick-ass new metal-style theme song whose Black Sabbath lyrical-reference amusingly precedes the movie using the real thing. Actually, the whole production is eerily prescient of the movies to come, particularly how it quickly gives way to essentially being an Avengers show… mostly starring Iron Man.

ULTRAFORCE
Short version: Now-defunct comics publisher Malibu was the original publisher of the early Image Comics titles, and when Image struck out on their own Malibu filled their “extreme-for-the-90s superhero” void with a line called The Ultraverse — mainly characterized by using the word “Ultra” where other publishers would use “Super.”

UltraForce was their equivalent to the Justice League. Its animated series (which only lasted 13 episodes) wasn’t especially good, but it makes an interesting effort to transpose garish 90s comic art to animation. Plus, the presence of characters like Prime (aka “edgy Shazam”), The Ghoul, Hardcase and Topaz make it an entertaining time-capsule of absurd tropes that 90s comics considered really, really cool.

Eventually Malibu was bought by Marvel, who canceled The Ultraverse (they mostly wanted to own Malibu’s then-revolutionary digital-coloring and printing tech) and incorporated the Ultras into their universe during an event called Black September, hence its inclusion here.

THE INCREDIBLE HULK (1996)
There’s a lot to recommend in the 90s Hulk series mostly the return of Lou Ferrigno (as voice-actor) to the role and some animation debuts for characters and concepts introduced in the Peter David era… but I was never that into it, to be honest. To me it plays a little too much like a conventional superhero show without enough of the monster-movie angle that makes Hulk unique. Still, it certainly has its fans.

MEN IN BLACK: THE SERIES
Yes, technically Men In Black is part of the Marvel Universe — having originated as a relatively-obscure Malibu/Aircel series (see UltraForce, above) before being acquired by Marvel and used as the loose basis for the 1994 Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones blockbuster.

This series deserves better coverage elsewhere, later, particularly since its A.) Based on the movie, not the comic and B.) Actually good, but for completion’s sake here’s its mention. Moving on…

SILVER SURFER
I’m still kind of amazed this ever made it to air, to be honest.

It doesn’t exactly “work” (you can only watch Silver Surfer cruise across a deep-space vista mourning out loud about his own tragic existence so many times) but this ambitious attempt to adapt Marvel’s original cosmic hero — and the bulk of the Marvel Universe’s most outlandish sci-fi concepts and authentic-feeling Jack Kirby-inspired visuals — to animation is pretty impressive just as an undertaking.

The premise divorces Surfer’s origin story (Summary: To save his homeworld from the planet-devouring Galactus, Norrin Rad agrees to be transformed into Silver Surfer and serve as the monster’s herald only to later regain his memories and turn on his master) from his initial encounter with The Fantastic Four, but the rest of it was surprisingly faithful. Especially worth noting were rare (for the time) appearances by Thanos, Drax the Destroyer, Gamora, Ego the Living Planet and even Beta-Ray Bill.

SPIDER-MAN UNLIMITED
Hey, remember Batman Beyond? A sci-fi/alt-future upgrade of a classic superhero that respected its namesake legacy while forging an exciting new path of its own? Yeah… this is nothing like that.

Supposedly born of Saban (who’d produced the previous 90s Spidey cartoon) having to scuttle plans for a low-tech, comics-accurate adaptation of the early Lee/Ditko Spider-Man comics when Marvel’s deal with Sony for forthcoming shows based on the Sam Raimi movies robbed them (Saban) of the rights to use the traditional costume and many classic villains; this series aimed to set up a new futuristic, scifi-heavy premise that would allow for new enemies and excuse a new suit.

Their first idea: Peter Parker gets trapped on an alternate-universe Earth where Ben Parker never died, leading that world’s Spider-Man to never learn the power/responsibility lesson and thus become the evil Venom when opportunity arose; an admittedly interesting idea Marvel nixed, likely because a “Peter vs Peter” setup would violate their “don’t mention the much-hated Clone Saga rule of the time. Instead, Unlimited finds Spidey using a tech’d-up suit to rescue astronaut John Jameson from “Counter Earth,” where they battle an evil race of Beastials led by The High Evolutionary… and also Venom and Carnage, because 90s.

AVENGERS: UNITED THEY STAND
Yes, Marvel did an Avengers cartoon in the 90s and yes, it’s horrible — a fitting end to their era of throwing whatever they had at Fox Kids’ wall and seeing what stuck.

This series followed what we’re told is a second team of younger Avengers (borrowed from the lineup of the West Coast Avengers circa-1984: Ant-Man, Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Tigra, The Falcon, Hawkeye, and Vision) who’ve taken up the team mantle from retired (?) legendary founders Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. It’s best remembered (though not fondly) today for its infamously-embarassing attempt to glom onto the 90s Anime Boom by giving the heroes armored costumes they donned in an embarassing powering-up montage ala Sailor Moon or Ronin Warriors that remains to this day the stuff that Western comics-purist’s nightmares are made of.

The series did provide the first non-comics appearances for a slew of Avengers-centric foes and supporting characters (yes, Marvel actually does have a character unironically named Wonder Man and yes, he suuuuuuuucks); but apart from toy collectors glad to finally get a figure of this or that… yeah, this was pretty worthless overall.

Marvel ended off the 1990s animation-era limping to the finish line with a string of short-lived, uninspired series perpetually overshadowed by Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s ascendant DC Animated Universe. But at that same moment, they were just beginning to emerge as a cinematic powerhouse via the box-office triumphs of Blade, X-Men and Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man; which in turn triggered a whole new wave of Marvel-inspired cartoons.

Were they any good? Come back next week…

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Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.

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