When people think of the X-Men, they tend to think of it in cycles. The original Stan Lee and Jack Kirby series did not perform as well as the myriad of other properties the duo conceived. However, the X-Men’s fortunes changed with the arrival of Chris Claremont whose run is considered arguably the best the team has ever known (as those with collaborator John Byrne maybe viewed as the best of the best). The 1990s would see Claremont team with an upcoming superstar artist in Jim Lee who saw the group changed for a new generation. There existed animated versions for each of these generations, likely the best known and most popular in 1992’s X-Men. Adapting many stories from the comics but often earlier material tackled by the more modern team, X-Men was a huge hit for Fox when it premiered. Along with Batman: The Animated Series, X-Men formed the foundation of the Fox Kids line-up which expanded to include Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Spider-Man creating a juggernaut is children programming. Adapting such legendary tales as “The Dark Phoenix Saga”, “Days of Future Past”, “Phalanx Covenant”, and “Legacy Virus” and crossed over with Spider-Man, X-Men was used to tackle various social issues (its very premise reminiscent of the issue of race) and featured a cast of dozens (which both introduced children to characters in the comics as well as helped promoted an extremely popular toyline). X-Men was critically acclaimed and had high ratings, lasting five seasons with 76 episodes and is arguably the greatest representation of the X-Men outside of the comics to date. In a manner, the series would be resurrected last year for the comic book title X-Men ’92.
In 2002, Spider-Man would finally transition into live action film and a year later, an animated series emerged to try and capitalize upon its success. However, MTV’s Spider-Man: The New Animated Series was almost universally panned. Spider-Man would continue to perform well at the box office and eventually another animated series would find its way to television. Greg Weisman, the mind behind Disney Afternoon’s critically-acclaimed Gargoyles, alongside Victor Cook would be tasked with trying to resurrect Spider-Man in animation after two failed attempts resulting in Spectacular Spider-Man. Pulling elements from the original comics, the hero’s Ultimate version, and the films, Weisman and Cook created something like an ultimate-Ultimate Spider-Man fusing together some of the best elements of the character’s mythology in a modern day setting. Placing Spider-Man in his most familiar setting as a teenager in high school, the hero would become the target of organized crime who created new, bizarre threats in order to preoccupy the youth and get him out of their business. The initial season alone saw the emergence of characters like Vulture, Electro, Lizard, Sandman, Rhino, Green Goblin, Doctor Octopus, Venom, and the Sinister Six. Unfortunately, Disney would acquire Marvel before production started on the third season of Spectacular and all Marvel animated series prior to the Disney purchase were concluded. However, given to the popularity of the series, Warner Bros. would snap up Cook and Weisman as the former headed up the critically-acclaimed Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated and latter teamed with Brandon Vietti to produce the hit series Young Justice.
Following the end of The New Adventures of Batman, the Dark Knight was relegated to being a team player in the various incarnations of Super Friends. However, in 1989, Batman would hit movie theaters and renew interest in superheroes for the general public. A sequel in Batman Returns emerged and an animated series was developed to help promote it. Creators Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski based this series within the darker world of the two films while drawing inspiration from the Fleischer Studios Superman short animated films. The result was a phenomenon. Airing as part of the Fox Kids programming block, it would be joined the following month by X-Men forming arguably the most dominant children-aimed programming block of its time (which would only be reinforced with the addition of Power Rangers and Spider-Man). By this point, no external medium to the comics had so meticulously adapted the feel of the source material as Batman: The Animated Series. Characters like Batman, Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Riddler, Scarecrow, and Mad Hatter had never been so accurately portrayed before as the likes of Ra’s al Ghul, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Killer Croc, Hugo Strange, Ventriloquist, and Man-Bat made their first transition outside the comics. Even greater, Mr. Freeze was provided a depth to his character never seen before that was so elegant, it was adapted within the comics as Batman: TAS created a breakout star in Harley Quinn. The series would be a huge hit with fans. While the first season was still airing, a second season was ordered entitled The Adventures of Batman & Robin as a feature film was produced in Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993).
The success of Batman: The Animated Series saw the development of a series for the Man of Steel in Superman: The Animated Series which would include a crossover with Batman in the three-part “World’s Finest.” Largely a counter to the darkness of Gotham City with a light, more optimistic series, Superman: TAS nonetheless saw its protagonist constantly endangered against his many notable foes. The show also saw the appearance of various superheroes like the Flash, Doctor Fate, Orion, Legion of Super-Heroes, Green Lantern (Kyle Rayner), and Aquaman. The Adventures of Batman & Robin would transition into The New Batman Adventures which would inevitably merge with Superman to become The New Batman/Superman Adventures. The series formed the basis of a DC Animated Universe as Batman generated a spin-off in the futuristic series Batman Beyond (which itself spun-off The Zeta Project) and a new series set within the universe developed called Static Shock. This universe came to a head in 2001 with Justice League on Cartoon Network (one of the first original programs not affiliated with the Cartoon Cartoon brand for the channel). Teaming together Batman, Superman, and the Flash with new heroes in Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (John Stewart), Martian Manhunter, and Hawkgirl, the Justice League combated foes like the Manhunters, Injustice Gang, Felix Faust, Vandal Savage, Amazo, Doctor Destiny, Despero, Justice Lords (modeled after the Crime Syndicate), Eclipso, and the Royal Flush Gang. The series would be followed up with Justice League Unlimited which featured the League amass a virtual army of heroes as they faced an army of supervillains. Combined, the DCAU spanned nearly fifteen years (not counting 2010’s Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths which was adapted from an unused script). The DCAU is generally considered the greatest animated comic book set of series of all time and was condensed into a single entry for this list as it otherwise would have dominated it had it been broken up.