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 depic superheroistic adventures. Contrary to movie features and television series they did not require expensive sets and special effects; cartoon shows featuring superheroes became a staple of children's entertainment with a few shows reaching adult audiences.
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.
Starting with Batman: The Animated Series, which debuted on the Fox Network in 1992, superhero animated series gained a new maturity and respect for the comic books on which they were based. This continued with Fox's X-Men, and Spider-Man and the original series Gargoyles, which, like Batman, were geared towards older audiences but accessible to kids.
The widely successful Batman: the Animated Series also had a significant influence on American animation. The show featured simple graphics but lavish animation, a style that was replicated in the sequels The New Batman Adventures and Batman Beyond and the spinoffs, Static Shock and Superman: The Animated Series and Cartoon Network’s successful adaptations of DC's Justice League and Teen Titans.
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.
HBO's Spawn, originally aired from 1997 through 1999, was one of the few animated superhero series to be amied exclusively at an adult audience, as the show featured a considerable amount of gore and sexuality.
In 1998, Cartoon Network began airing The Powerpuff Girls (originally The Whoopass 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, amongst 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.