Superheroes in animation
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Superheroes have been portrayed in animation since the early 1940s. Up until the late '90s animated cartoons have been the most common venue, right after comics, to depict superheroic adventures. Contrary to live action productions, they do not require expensive sets and special effects, although animation production standards can vary widely in cost. As a result, cartoon shows featuring superheroes became a staple of children's entertainment with a few shows reaching adult audiences.
In late 1941, Superman became the first superhero to be depicted in animation, The Superman series of groundbreaking theatrical cartoons was produced by Fleischer/Famous Studios from 1941 to 1943 and featured the famous "It's a bird, it's a plane" introduction. One of the most successful imitations/parodies was Terrytoons' Mighty Mouse series, which became the flagship property of the studio.
With the rise of television in the 1960s, superheroes have found success in animated television series geared towards children, including Filmation's Superman-Batman Adventure Hour and Grantray-Lawrence Animation's Spider-Man, featuring the "does whatever a spider can" theme song.
In the 1970s, Japanese anime strove to emulate American superhero cartoons with their own creations. The most successful was Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman (Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) which became a television classic that created a template that many other anime series followed.
In the 1970s and 1980s American superhero animated series were constrained by the broadcasting restrictions that activist groups like Action for Children's Television lobbied for. The most popular series in this period, Super Friends, an adaptation of DC's Justice League of America, was designed to be as nonviolent and inoffensive as possible. The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show and Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends were similarly tame. Kagaku ninja tai Gatchaman aired in North America as the Battle of the Planets but it was so severely edited for violence that plots were incoherent although it still won many fans for its distinctive take on the genre.
In the 1980s, the Saturday morning cartoon Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends brought together Spider-Man, Iceman, and Firestar. The following decade, Batman: The Animated Series and X-Men, aimed at somewhat older audiences, found critical success in mainstream publications. Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said of the former, "The animation is first-rate, moving Batman across gray cotton clouds and against a backdrop of teetering Art Deco-style skyscrapers. ... In contrast to both the '60s show or [director] [Tim] Burton's movies, the new Batman features plots that actually make sense and an occasional bit of clever dialogue that never curdles into camp". Frank Lovece of Entertainment Weekly said of the latter, "[T]he art is miles above the pasteboard cutouts of the 1960s and '70s superhero 'toons, and the characters are more believably flawed. The dialogue still comes straight from drive-in movies, though...." Series that followed included Superman: The Animated Series (1996) and Cartoon Network's adaptation of DC's Justice League (2001) and Teen Titans. The animation style of Batman: the Animated Series was replicated in the sequels The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond and the spinoffs, Static Shock and Superman: The Animated Series and other shows.
In 1994, Phantom 2040 made its debut, loosely based on Lee Falk's legendary superhero The Phantom, and adapted into the screen by Aeon Flux-creator Peter Chung. The series followed the descendant of the Phantom of the original comic books in the year of 2040. Despite critical acclaim, the series was cancelled after two season, but remains a cult favorite. Similarly, Walt Disney Pictures produced the highly acclaimed television series Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman. This production presented the adventures of a clan of heroic night creatures in stories that owed as much to William Shakespeare and medieval history as they did to traditional superhero fiction.
In 1998, Cartoon Network began airing The Powerpuff Girls, a superhero parody designed to appeal to both children and adults. The show spoofed both specific superheroes (like Wonder Woman, Sailor Moon and Spawn, among many others) as well as general conventions of the genre (like how violence is often presented as the best/only solution to problems in superhero stories, for example). In the 2000s, the Nickelodeon series, Danny Phantom, earned its own appreciative following with its intelligent humor and appealing character story arc narrative structure. This was complemented in the Cartoon Network's ongoing Ben 10 franchise.
Although Warner Brothers Animation's DC animated universe was discontinued after the conclusion of Justice League Unlimited in 2006, the company continued with further series like The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold which took a lighter thematic tone to the DC Universe adaptations. Currently, WB has returned to the DCAU franchise's more sophisticated standards with Young Justice with Greg Weisman producing. Likewise, Marvel Comics have continued with more younger appealing productions like Iron Man: Armored Adventures, Ultimate Spider-Man and The Super Hero Squad Show and more sophisticated series such as The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes and The Spectacular Spider-Man
Concurrent to these broadcast productions, original animated video release series featuring the superhero characters of Marvel Comics and DC Comics respectively began with success in the 2000s, such as the DC Universe Animated Original Movies. Considering that DVD retail does not have to contend with network television audience demographics expectations, or government broadcast regulations from the Federal Communications Commission in the United States or the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in Canada, the format affords a level of content freedom for an older and more sophisticated audience.
In addition to the human superheroes found in comic books, animated superhero series have often featured comedic anthropomorphic animal superheroes. These series combine two timeless niches in children’s television: superheroes anfunny animals. The first such series was the Superman-inspired Mighty Mouse, which was the flagship series of the Terrytoons company in the 1940s. Underdog, ThunderCats, Darkwing Duck, Biker Mice from Mars, "Street Sharks" and Earthworm Jim (based on the video game series of the exact name) are popular examples from later decades, while Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles combined martial arts clichés and conventions with the more sci fi, fantastical, and outrageous elements of superhero stories. The most recent popular example of such series is Krypto the Superdog, which featured Superman's dog as well as Streaky the Supercat and Ace The Bathound, all more cartoony versions of original characters from the DC Universe.