Over the last 15 years, the superhero genre has done its best to dominate the world of live-action television and movies. With the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC’s Arrowverse defining The CW for almost a decade, there is a wide range of comic book shows on the market. There’s also plenty of tonal diversity in these shows. Outside of having comics as their source material, no one would ever say The Flash and The Boys are similar. Live-action superhero media has something for everyone, but the genre still hasn’t met its full potential.
Before Marvel Studios proved the MCU was viable, the large majority of superhero media in the 1990s and 2000s was animated and aimed at younger audiences. Outside of reading comics, the easiest way to get long-term stories about these characters was with shows like Batman: The Animated Series, Teen Titans, or X-Men: Evolution. The quality of all of these animated shows varies, but that’s true of any slightly related grouping of series, especially when they’re primarily made for the enjoyment of children first and diehard comic fans second. Still, these shows had a level of creative freedom with their characters and aesthetics that a lot of live-action series and movies don’t seem to. The push in the late 2000s and early 2010s to make superhero media feel grounded and real means that even the lighter productions were lacking the bright colors and some of the campy fun we all associate with comics. Those elements persevered in animated series like Young Justice and Ultimate Spider-Man, but those shows are still for kids.
Historically, animation has been seen as something “just for kids.” In truth, the medium is undeserving of that put-down; Netflix’s Arcane and Prime Video’s Invincible are enough proof that complex, adult stories work well when presented this way. Marvel and DC may have not had much depth in their kid’s content over the last decade or so, but Star Wars: The Clone Wars is proof enough that when a show for children is given room to breathe and grow, an animated series can be just as complex and compelling as a solid primetime drama.
Clone Wars is a prime example of how larger superhero franchises could be utilizing animation to round themselves out. The series takes place three years before the events of Revenge of the Sith, and while everyone knew what would eventually happen to the Galactic Republic because of the films, it adds another layer to the characters Star Wars fans knew and loved, and created new characters that have taken their place in the franchise to the next level. Disney+ series The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett feature characters from Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels alike, and some characters that have been introduced in the aforementioned live-action shows have made their way into The Bad Batch series.
There is a level of synergy between the animated and live-action Star Wars projects that could greatly benefit the DC and Marvel franchises. Marvel has taken a step towards that with the first season of What If…?, but the series is still largely disconnected from the larger MCU. That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its strengths. The cell-shaded animation style can be off-putting at first, but as the first season of the anthology series went on, the technical aspect of the animation got better and better. The writing also solidly set itself apart from classic children’s animation or a raunchier adult show. What If…? is far less extravagant than either of those ends of the spectrum, but it packs a punch when it needs to. As a semi-connected anthology, it’s harder to create characters that have as much depth as a traditional TV show, and while What If…? is far from perfect, it is proof that there can be animated projects within these franchises that aren’t overly childish or violent.
Again, it’s Marvel that seems to have gotten this message. X-Men: The Animated Series—more colloquially known as “X-Men ‘97”—is going to be revived on Disney+ in the near future, alongside a spinoff series that takes place in the Marvel Zombies reality that audiences were introduced to in What If…?. Both shows are a chance for there to be expansive stories with the larger budgets that all animated projects deserve. These upcoming series being set in alternate universes will also hopefully give them more room to use things from the comics that have been shut out of the mainstream of the MCU. What If…? may have stuck to utilizing characters that already have an established presence in the movie-verse, but animated shows have plenty of room for characters to show up without making a live-action debut. Not every fan of the MCU is a fan of the comics and vice versa, but as someone whose love of comics started with X-Men: Evolution and exploded after seeing Avengers, there is a good amount of us who just want to see all of these characters in something.
Moreover, animation deserves more attention and appreciation, full stop. In a time where general audiences can catch slightly imperfect CGI in a live-action production at a glance, working on an entirely animated project is more freeing. Nothing can look out of place when there is a cohesive style that doesn’t depend on live-action footage, and when the enhanced visuals of a show aren’t so distracting, it’s easier to take in all of the elements of a series and enjoy it holistically.
There may have been a lull in the amount of animated comic book shows in the last decade, but, when you really look at it, they’re a silent partner in keeping the superhero boom going strong. Pulling in the youngest members of any fanbase is easier with a serialized kids cartoon than it is with a movie, but it is possible to engage older fans like this as well—and that shouldn’t be ignored. If anything, Marvel, DC, and other comic publishers hold the key to further legitimizing animation as a medium that isn’t “just for kids.” These franchises have the source material (and in certain cases, the money) to produce animated shows that are on the same level as the prestige dramas we know and love. They just need to get back to the drawing board.
Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.
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