What DID Work about 90s Marvel Cartoons?
As you may know, animation is a common topic of conversation around my house. So when my husband comes across an article like this one about the Marvel animated TV shows of the 90s, he shares it with me. And conversation ensues.
I’ve read and agreed with a lot of the points the article makes before. As much as I loved both X-Men and Spider-Man when they first aired, I see a lot of their flaws in hindsight. The struggle to deal with massive casts of characters and often unwieldy “inspired by the comics” storylines didn’t always bother young Cartoon Sara, but they’re tough to ignore today. Time is seldom kind to computer graphics of the past and Spider-Man’s CG cityscapes haven’t aged well. Some of the worst animation caught my attention even back then and it’s even harder to watch today, ranging from passable to “This downshot of two characters walking is making my eyeballs scream” with some scattered moments of quality along the way. It didn’t help that Batman: The Animated Series came out around the same time, making X-Men and Spider-Man look all the more like textbook examples of the hard-to-animate character designs that Batman was rebelling against. The single episodes I saw of Iron Man and Fantastic Four from the syndicated Marvel Action Hour didn’t even pass the relatively low bar of my 90s TV watching standards.
I can’t vouch for the accuracy of all the article’s historical information - such as exactly who made the arguments to the network censors that spared Batman: TAS from some of the restrictions that plagued Fox’s other superhero shows. And I find the distinction between an “animated series” and a mere “cartoon” to be ridiculous splitting of hairs. But the main arguments for why these cartoons don’t work are ones I’m on board with.
And yet, there is something that I feel this and most critical pieces about Marvel’s 90s animation are missing. Why, in spite of all their flaws, were these cartoons as successful as they were? Why are they still remembered, often fondly? The title of the article suggests part of the reason - nostalgia and its tendency to boost people’s affection for reminders of their past regardless of quality. I do think that’s an answer, and there’s nothing wrong with feeling affection for something just because it mattered to you when you were younger. But I also believe there is more going on here. The thing that this article and many others don’t do with the 90s Marvel cartoons is look at them in the context of the times.
Back in the 90s, many of the Marvel superheroes weren’t exactly household names. It can be hard to imagine or remember in these days when Marvel movies dominate the box office. But Tim Burton’s Batman had just come out in 1989 and it would be years before Marvel had anything that could compete. Aside from Pryde of the X-Men, a pilot for the late 80s animated series that didn’t happen, the merry mutants only had two guests appearances to their TV credits - an episode of 1966s The Marvel Super Heroes where the original lineup of the team showed up as “The Allies for Peace” and multiple episodes of the early 80s Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends that brought in some of the more modern additions to the team. (Fun Fact: The first words ever spoken by Wolverine in television or film were “How you doin’? Want a piece of fruit?” in an inexplicable Australian accent.) May Parker’s favorite nephew was a bit more well known thanks to a live-action TV series, three animated shows, a newspaper strip, and a regular spot on The Electric Company. But Spidey’s last animated outing - the aforementioned Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends - had ceased airing new episodes in 1983. The Marvel super heroes were still around, but their screen presence was small to nonexistent.
All of this meant that the 90s Marvel shows were a generation’s introduction to these characters and the Marvel universe just as Batman: TAS and the shows that followed would shape so many fans’ understanding of DC’s characters. The X-Men and Spider-Man were coming into homes on a regular basis with new stories. It made the characters more accessible than ever before and drove some curious viewers to check out the source material. Having a soft spot for a show because it was your first introduction to characters who exist in other media is at least nostalgia related, but it’s not exactly the same thing as just recognizing something as part of your childhood.
X-Men and Spider-Man were also attempting to tell stories in a way that superhero cartoons hadn’t really done before. Story continuity in any cartoons at the time was rare. You might have a character who appears in one episode and then shows up again later for another single episode story or a pilot that explains the characters’ origins, but most series told self-contained stories that reset everything to status quo in the space of half an hour. Superhero cartoons in particular tended to focus on a single hero or a small team of heroes facing off against a villain of the week. That was starting to change as the anime boom approached and helped to make continuing storylines the rule rather than the exception. But at this time, the idea was seen as too risky. Syndication was still a major goal for most TV shows and having a series that needed to be seen in a particular order to be understood was considered a downside rather than a selling point.
Neither X-Men nor Spider-Man took full advantage of continuity the way later shows like Gargoyles and Avatar: The Last Airbender would. Spider-Man in particular suffered from unwieldy multipart stories - some running as long as an entire season. X-Men was sometimes rebroadcast out of order and - in a scenario that seemed tailor made to demonstrate the pitfalls of the continuing narrative format - a season one episode ran late, forcing the ending of the previous episode showing the team discovering the ruins of the X-Mansion to be out from the first airing. While members of the huge casts of both series came and went, the examples of character growth and status quo shakeups were few.
What the continuing stories did allow the 90s Marvel series to do was to take greater advantage of the source material. Those huge casts of characters and the multi-issue stories of the original comics worked far better win the longer storyline format than with stand alone single episodes. Both fan favorites and obscure side characters like Gambit’s ex Bella Donna and portable hole-wielding Spider-Man foe The Spot made appearances, many for the first time in animation or outside of comics. And beyond just showing up for an episode or two, these characters could actually play out arcs based on their stories from the comics. Viewers could see characters fall in love, fall out of love, develop rivalries, change sides, and occasionally even die (sometimes temporarily). X-Men’s adaptations often had trouble balancing the themes of the original comics wit the demands of the network, leading to some watered down versions of classic stories. But just seeing moments like Kraven returning to help Spider-Man after previously hunting him or the grim possible world to come of “Days of Future Past” was still exciting, even when the execution was flawed.
If there is one thing that accounts for the success of the two main Marvel animated shows of the 90s, I think it is the newness of what they were doing. For viewers who had never visited the world of Marvel before, it was the newness of these characters and the large interconnected worlds they inhabited. For fans who already knew the heroes, it was the newness of seeing the characters portrayed in a way that was more faithful to the comics and their stories than what had come before. In a decade when geek culture wasn’t yet seen as having value as storytelling, art, or a moneymaking opportunity, just having shows that treated characters and ideas from the comics as important was a big deal. And for animation viewers in general, it was the newness of seeing an animated show where the events of one episode had repercussions in the next on a regular basis. It didn’t always work. At times it failed completely. But for their time, X-Men and Spider-Man were like nothing else on television.