Marvel 90s cartoons Spider-Man and X-Men

Make Mine Marvel Animated: Ranking the ’90s Marvel Cartoons

As a kid, I was a huge Marvel nut. Admittedly, I still am today, but I really had it bad as a youngster. I collected all the toys, the play sets, the video games, you name it. Comics, too, of course. Marvel was nothing without the source material and I was definitely a comic-loving kid. But as much as I loved the comics, my love of most of these titles could be directly traced back to their respective cartoons. Each of the series had their respective toy lines and I absolutely devoured them. I wanted all the toys and probably had too many because of that, because I just wanted to recreate and continue those stories with as many options as possible. It was honestly an introduction to storytelling, for me, making up adventures with my action figures. 

It was also capitalism in action, of course. The cartoons were made to sell the toys, which introduced me to so many characters whose backstories I would then see on the shows, and consumer though I was, it was honestly a great way to get me invested in such a wide variety of characters as a kid. Most of my friends just loved the way certain toys looked, and I certainly did too, but that wasn’t it for me. Watching these cartoons, I became so invested in character relationships, and I tried to adhere to those every time I played, much to my friends’ annoyance. These animated shows were an easy and digestible introduction to so many of Marvel’s best stories across their entire history. 

The 1990s Marvel cartoons also served as an early introduction to just how connected the Marvel Universe truly is. Years before the MCU, these shows crossed over with a good bit of regularity. When the Fantastic Four appeared on The Incredible Hulk, they referenced when Hulk appeared on Fantastic Four. The two-part crossover between Spider-Man and X-Men felt like one of the biggest events of my young childhood. I’d read the comics and see the same thing, and it was great even as a kid to recognize how well these shows presented that shared world.

Naturally, not every cartoon is created equal. Thankfully, I’m able to relive my childhood now that all of these cartoons are on Disney Plus. All of them are dated, of course, that’s unavoidable. But a lot of them hold up better than I remember, and some of them, well, don’t. So in this list we’re going to really dive into these shows to come up with a definitive (read: extremely subjective) ranking. 

8. Iron Man

Let’s get this out of the way. Iron Man is pretty bad. I thought it was absolutely rad, as a kid, and there might something great about the way it just unapologetically leans into whatever it is that it’s doing, but it really doesn’t hold a candle to any of the other Marvel shows of the era. Part of the problem is that it feels like a decades-older cartoon than it actually is. When Shane Black complained about not wanting to use Mandarin in Iron Man 3 because the character was a racist stereotype, this is the Mandarin he was talking about. There’s a whole Defenders of the Earth vibe to this show in general (and even if that’s what it’s going for, it doesn’t quite get there) but this Mandarin makes Ming the Merciless look modern in comparison. 

The animation quality is also easily the cheapest of any of these series, and I hate to say it, but it looks a little lazy, too. There’s a lot of fighting in open deserts or large, empty compounds. There’s also an infamously bad clip of Scarlet Witch doing a, uh, spell that I only found by watching the episode itself and then immediately heading to the Internet to make sure other people had seen it, too. The opening intro kicks ass, though, and it’s not like every episode is terrible. There are a few that shine in particular when they focus on M.O.D.O.K. and his struggles both with subservience to the Mandarin and with his condition in general.

7. Avengers: United They Stand 

I went into this list thinking for sure that it would rank dead last on the list, but I’m pleasantly surprised to see that it doesn’t. It’s still weird, I think, to do an Avengers cartoon without the widely considered flagship Avengers. No Captain America, no Iron Man, no Thor. Weirder still is the fact that those characters were featured prominently in the marketing, even in the accompanying action figure series, but simply did not appear in the show itself. This was the last of the ‘90s Marvel cartoons and the animation, as a result, is very different from everything that had come before. Almost to the point that it is alienating. This show does get some credit for embracing some of the weirder Avengers storylines and concepts, but ultimately, it never really felt like the show anybody wanted, especially with the way the other Marvel shows faithfully embraced and adapted the source material. 

6. Spider-Man Unlimited 

Spider-Man: The Animated Series was everything to me and naturally I was crushed when it ended. I was a very excited child to learn that there would be a new show to pick up the pieces, even though I was entering fifth grade by the time it aired. As an adult, I respect the decision to go weird with it, do something different with Spider-Man, especially considering how many Spidey cartoons we had already seen by that point. I certainly respect the take now much more than I did as a kid. Even still, Spider-Man Unlimited is pretty jarring in being a show that is fundamentally about a future planet of animal/human hybrids. In an age of cartoons like Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century and Phantom 2040, this absolutely felt like it was trying to do exactly that, but for Island of Dr. Moreau. If someone told me this was pitched as Planet of Dr. Moreau before someone suggested adding Spider-Man to it, I’d believe it. 

What it actually is, of course, is an attempt by Marvel Animation to cash in on the huge success that WB saw with Batman Beyond. There’s a lot of the same approach, except that it’s still Peter Parker in the suit, and while there are some new legacy takes on classic villains, old guys like Venom and Carnage are still around and causing plenty of trouble. This isn’t one I get the urge to revisit often, but this one definitely has its fans and I can understand why.

5. Fantastic Four 

The Fantastic Four cartoon that shared the “Marvel Action Hour” with Iron Man kind of gets a bad rap, but I was a big fan of it as a kid and was kind of delighted to see how enjoyable it remained as an adult. This was my introduction to a lot of classic Fantastic Four storylines, from the whole Silver Surfer/Galactus arc to Johnny’s relationship with Crystal and the introduction of the Inhumans. Every great Marvel animated series felt like it was playing in a different corner of that universe than any of the others, and Fantastic Four definitely did that well. It was campier and sillier than the other shows most of the time, maybe the one that felt most pointedly aimed toward children, but it tackled classic stories and exposed me as a young fan to some major Marvel mythology that the other shows never really dealt with. I also liked that it embraced the celebrity aspect of the FF, especially the pilot, which is framed by the group explaining their origin on a telethon. Plus, it features Keith David as Black Panther, and that’s just fantastic.

4. The Incredible Hulk 

Now we’re starting to get into the really underrated territory. Revisiting each of these cartoons when they hit Disney Plus, this was the one that surprised me the most. I remember watching and loving it as a kid, but I wasn’t expecting how much I’d love it as an adult. It’s really good. From the surreal opening credits to the moody tone, there’s a real sense of specific style about the Hulk cartoon that helps to separate it from the others. It’s heavily inspired by Peter David’s long, defining run on the character and features an impeccable voice cast including Neal McDonough as Banner and Lou Ferrigno voicing the Hulk, not to mention Mark Hamill as the subservient Gargoyle. Matt Frewer shines in particular, though, as the Leader. With its own style and the fact that it aired on UPN and not Fox Kids, this almost felt like a different world when I was younger, but it really does do a great job establishing itself in the same universe as the other shows.

3. Silver Surfer 

More than any of the other shows on this list, Silver Surfer really got the short end of the stick. It barely lasted one season, never really found an audience, and honestly, it’s not that hard to see why even as great as it is. Stan Lee always said that Silver Surfer was him at his most philosophical, posing existential questions about morality and the nature of good and evil and why all of the great Marvel shows have subtexts, that’s a little harder to sell than a guy who swings from webs and punches goblins. The toy line failed and the show didn’t fare any better. Kids, by and large, just weren’t into it. But I was. Even if it has no shortage of dated, Windows 95 era 3D animation, Silver Surfer is great. It introduced me to characters like Drax, Gamora and Nebula years before Guardians of the Galaxy and really embraced Thanos as a truly whacked-out villain. It was the series that introduced me to the whole entire cosmic side of Marvel. Plus, it’s the closest any cartoon has come to actually looking like a Jack Kirby drawing, and that’s something. 

2. Spider-Man 

Spider-Man’s reputation as a cartoon has fallen over the years, largely thanks to the fact that Spectacular Spider-Man was so good that everything that came before it kind of got buried. This show also gets made fun of quite a bit for its crazy network restrictions. No one could die. In fact, it couldn’t even really mention. death, which meant that it constantly had to tiptoe around what happened to Uncle Ben. Most famously, Spider-Man couldn’t punch anyone, period. And throughout the whole series, he almost never does. This might be controversial, but I actually think that’s awesome. Spidey’s webs are based inherently in restraint. He’s never about beating up or taking down the bad guys, he just wants them to stop hurting people, including themselves. That’s what makes him the best. 

Like X-Men, this tackled a ton of the most famous comic book storylines and was also great for the fact that each season had its own arc. That was really impressive for the time, when cartoons didn’t really do that. Plus, it had a wild voice cast with so many unconventional choices, like John Vernon as Dr. Strange and Martin Landau as The Scorpion. 

  1. X-Men 

This was, truly, the best there was at what it did. X-Men was a revolutionary Marvel cartoon, especially compared to what had come before it. While the costume designs and character roster were changed to reflect the then-current ‘90s, this faithfully adapted so many iconic X-Men stories. It never lost sight of the fact that the character relationships were the most important thing, and always put them at the forefront. It managed full-season storylines before Spider-Man and never shied away from tackling any of the toughest X-Men themes. Racism, bigotry, hatred, genocide, these things were all dealt with in a way that kids could understand but was still sometimes blunt as hell. 

In one of the series’ most powerful moments, the hate group called the Friends of Humanity (clearly the mutant KKK) after staging a series of attacks to make the public afraid of mutants again, they literally bring Jubilee on stage at a rally to kill her in front of an audience of cheering bigots. When she tearfully asks what she ever did to them to warrant this godawful treatment, FOH leader Graydon Creed looks her directly in the eye and says simply, “You were born.” The fact that it never pulled back from this subject matter, coupled with the characterization and world building and all of the great heroes and villains scattered across its five seasons truly made X-Men the perfect Marvel cartoon of its era.

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