Marvel owns the movies, and DC’s domain is TV and animation. That’s the popular consensus among comic book adaptation junkies, and it’s a hard theory to argue against; the box office bonanza and effusive critical adulation bestowed upon Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest in a long line of celebrated cinematic endeavours for Marvel Studios, while excitement for The Flash, Gotham and Constantine is reaching critical mass. The DC animation division defined by Bruce Timm and company is also bringing a parade of colourful costumed crusaders to the screen at an ever-increasing volume, admittedly with something of an ongoing Bat-bias.
Despite all this, while it’s their live-action adventures that really stick in the memory, it’s fair to say that residents of The House of Ideas have also enjoyed some Marvel-ous animated antics of their own over the years – even if many of them are remembered more fondly for their theme tunes than their content. Ever since the The Marvel Super Heroes in 1966, when Captain America first threw his mighty shield, The Avengers, X-Men and assorted waifs and strays have rarely been off our Saturday morning screens in one capacity or another – and with Marvel characters now enjoying an unprecedented level of brand awareness, it’s harder than ever to miss them.
Sony have recently unleashed the latest full-length animated venture, Avengers Confidential: Black Widow and Punisher; a cutting edge anime division has delivered new takes on the likes of Blade and Iron Man; and modern children are enthralled by a number of ongoing adventures in the shape of Ultimate Spider-Man, Avengers Assemble, Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H and The Super Hero Squad. Let’s take a look at some of the finest cel-shaped superheroics from the house that Stan built.
X-Men (Fox TV Series, 1992 – 1997)
Batman: The Animated Series changed the face of fights-and-tights toonage back in the early 90s, with its gritty tone and unique dark deco aesthetic. Marvel’s merry mutants had a cracking go at matching the Dark Knight blow-for-blow with their own animated escapades though, with this five-season run of Saturday morning cartoons introducing a whole new generation to the Marvel U. This traditional timeslot meant that X-Men doesn’t quite scale the mature heights of B:TAS, with handguns swapped out for laser cannons, an absence of mortality and a conventional hand-drawn animation style that will leave a cynical segment of the target audience cold. All the same, this is frequently a dark and daring show, produced while the source material’s popularity was at an all-time high thanks to the phenomenally successful comic book reboot from Chris Claremont and Jim Lee. Classic comic storylines such as Days of Future Past, the Age of Apocalypse and The Dark Phoenix Saga are skilfully adapted, while X-Men never shies away from displaying Wolverine’s violent nature or the essential ongoing soap opera dynamics of this most dysfunctional of families; indeed, the Wolverine/Cyclops/Jean Grey love triangle dominates the opening season. Interestingly, X-Men also provided an early credit for Avi Arad – the Israeli uber-producer who would go on to shepherd countless Marvel properties to the silver screen.
Ultimate Avengers (original animated movie, 2006)
Long before some bright spark gave Joss Whedon the keys of the Avengers kingdom and free reign to blow our minds, Marvel exploded into the full-length original animated movie market with a statement of intent. Launching the in-house animation studio, Ultimate Avengers (and its sequel, released later the same year) embraces the widescreen pyrotechnics of Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s phenomenally successful comic book re-imagining of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes whole-heartedly, bringing the entire gang to the screen without fuss – and no shortage of action set pieces. For many viewers, these flicks were the first opportunity to see the likes of Black Widow (voiced by erstwhile Bond girl Olivia d’Abo) and Black Panther on screen, while the original flick was also noteworthy for finally providing a rampaging screen Hulk that satisfied four-colour aficionados. Character development is somewhat thin on the ground considering the number of speaking parts (and unsurprisingly the screenplay is several rungs below Whedon’s unique brand of charming snark), but the obligatory sub-plot of Captain America coming to terms with his status as a man out of time provides a flirtation with three-dimensional storytelling, as does the family-friendly pinch of sexual tension between Cap and Black Widow. An aesthetically-pleasing animation blend of Eastern and Western styles, the Ultimate Avengers flicks may not be strictly necessary in the post-MCU world but they remain an enjoyable pair of superhero smackdowns.
Hulk vs. Thor (original animated movie, 2009)
As intimated in the previous recap, Bruce Banner has endured a number of screen outings considered far from Incredible (DragonDark will defend Ang Lee’s 2003 incarnation until our dying day, but that’s another article for another day). The green goliath has enjoyed no shortage of animated ongoings though, smashing his way through the schedules throughout the 60s, 80s, 90s and current times. One of DragonDark’s favourites is this one-off short film from 2009, produced in-house by Marvel and bundled on a single DVD alongside Hulk vs. Wolverine. The tangle with Weapon X is an enjoyable enough (and surprisingly bloody) diversion, albeit one that barely features the Hulk with the spotlight of that show shining brighter on Deadpool than any other character. Hulk vs. Thor was something new, introducing viewers to the richly imaginative world of Asgard when Chris Hemsworth was still just A. N. Other blonde lunk from Home and Away and nobody could have imagined that setting Hulk against Loki could create cinema gold. Pairing two popular Avengers with brand recognition (Thor had enjoyed his own animated stint in the 60s) but floundering book sales proved to be a masterstroke, as Hulk vs. Thor matches its disc-mate for violence whilst adding a welcome sense of glee to the raging jade giant’s rampages through the beautifully-sketched Asgardian landscapes – all written by comic book veterans Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.
Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends (NBC TV Series, 1981 – 1983)
Picking just one web-spinning property for this list was agonising. Leaving aside the popularity of current animated incarnation Ultimate Spider-Man, the wall-crawler’s original adventures from 1967 taught us how he does whatever a spider can, while the 90s provided a proud stablemate to X-Men. Spider-Man Unlimited was a short-lived but curious experiment at an alternative take on the character, and the post-Raimi New Animated Series was criminally underrated. While 2008-09’s Spectacular Spider-Man is probably the pick of the bunch, nostalgia is a powerful thing; we haven’t watched Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends since the mid-80s lest the cold, cynical light of 2014 shatter cherished memories, but this show was a phenomenon. Featuring narration from Stan the Man himself and pairing the web-head with original X-Man Iceman and new character Firestar (a replacement for The Human Torch, the rights of whom could not be acquired), Amazing Friends saw cameos from countless classic heroes and showdowns with villains old and new – including the introduction of the so-80s-it-hurts Videoman. The legacy of this classic toon lives on through Firestar, who has since been established as an integral member of the printed universe through stints in New Warriors and Amazing X-Men, and while Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends is a comparatively primitive take on Marvel’s flagship character, for a generation it’s the only one that matters.
Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme (original animated movie, 2007)
The success of Ultimate Avengers opened doors for Marvel’s animation house, but The Invincible Iron Man failed to capitalise; Tony Stark’s solo adventure is an overlong slice of hokum that wastes its promising premise of western tech vs. eastern mysticism. We’re more enchanted by the spiritual shenanigans of Stephen Strange as we await the Phase 3 MCU adap, thanks to a change in tack that offers something unique in the Marvel animated canon. Darker and slower-burning than most of its stablemates, Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme is an origin story that provides plenty of twist in the tale – not least making the lead protagonist something of a douche. A gifted surgeon that finds his hands useless after a car accident, Strange undergoes a quest to Tibet in the mistaken belief that his physical wounds can be healed. Instead it’s a spiritual soothing that the Doc encounters, commencing a new life of magic and mystery. Doctor Strange is born for the field of animation thanks to the rich and varied psychedelic concepts that emerged from the unique mind of Steve Ditko, and while this movie fails to fully embrace the hallucinogenic potential of Strange’s 60s adventures it gets a damn sight closer than the woeful 1978 TV pilot.
Planet Hulk (original animated movie, 2010)
Yet another Hulk-centric entry, although now it’s time for something completely different; Planet Hulk sees the gamma-irradiated galoot go full Gladiator. An ongoing storyline from Greg Pak that ran in the in the pages of The Incredible Hulk ongoing over 2006 and 2007, Planet Hulk sees Marvel’s very own illuminati deciding to solve Bruce Banner’s impulse control problem by banishing him to outer space, allowing Hulk to his oft-expressed wish to be left alone. Naturally nothing is ever that simple and instead the avocado anger-merchant finds himself on the planet Sakaar, a dictatorship ruled by a cruel king that forces his latest unwilling subject into gladiatorial combat. Insurgency, action and insurrection follow, and everyone gets to have a lovely time watching Hulk battle his way through a raft of alien antagonists – including Beta Ray Bill (switched from the comic book’s Silver Surfer due to licensing issues) – on his way to earning his freedom. Often rumoured to be Marvel’s next proposed standalone Hulk movie (alongside it’s printed follow-up, World War Hulk), we’re not sure how well Planet Hulk would stand up as a slice of live action entertainment. As an animated movie, however, it’s every bit as derivative, daft and downright fun as it sounds.