I only included shows which I’ve watched what I feel is a significant enough amount of and whose art style I have a clearly defined opinion of. Chances are, I’ll make another version of this tierlist in the future with more shows. But for now, here are some more detailed thoughts on each of the entries. In my interpretation, art style includes most visual aspects of the show, taking into account animation and character design. As I mentioned in the image itself, entries are not in quality order within tiers! In fact, they’re sorted alphabetically.
Batman: The Animated Series
I should clarify that to me, S tier doesn’t mean literally perfect – some episodes of this show are noticeably worse animated than others. But the overall art style always delivers, and when the animation is good, it’s really good. It all feels very lively and stylish. Most of the character designs are basically perfect, as in, basically the best designs these characters have had. It’s less blocky than later DCAU entries, and this is largely a good thing. It makes it feel a bit more lifelike while still being cartoony. The use of shading also works excellently – there’s plenty of darkness and shadows to set the mood, but it’s also sufficiently bright and colorful in the right places.
Superman: The Animated Series
I just said that I prefer Batman: TAS’ style to the blockier style of the later DCAU, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like that style – in fact, I think it’s usually quite nice, and Superman: TAS is possibly the best version of it. It’s an instantly recognizable style and it works perfectly for what the DCAU is: superhero cartoons which are accessible for kids but also enjoyable for adults. It’s cartoony and somewhat simplified, but still easy to take seriously. And at the end of the day, it just looks cool.
What makes Superman: TAS better than other implementations of this art style to me? Well, I have to admit I do have something of a bias considering my general love of Superman and the fact that this show was the first use of this style. But I think it’s also because the usage of color appeals to me greatly: colorful and varied, and not overly bright.
The character designs are also consistently great, capturing the essence of characters well while also forming a cohesive style with each other. Generally, the animation is quite good, but it does seem to be worse in Season 3.
For the rest of the DCAU shows, I’m going to be fairly brief since the shows aren’t that different from each other. Batman Beyond is certainly another good implementation of the DCAU style. Compared to Superman: TAS, I’d say the character designs don’t click with me quite as much (though they’re still good), and the use of color, while certainly helping to reinforce the show’s identity, also doesn’t excite me. It feels like there are a lot of dark and dull (sometimes even washed-out looking) colors with some splashes of bright colors, and I don’t love that.
Justice League / Justice League Unlimited
Yeah, I’m not going to even try making separate sections for these. The one thing I’m going to say that applies to one series and not the other is that I don’t like Superman’s design in Season 1 of Justice League. Making him look older simply doesn’t make sense. He isn’t actually supposed to be very old in-universe – remember, Batman started his hero career before him, and yet he looks younger than Supes in this show.
Other than that, it’s another good implementation of the DCAU art style, so once again, I’m going to talk about the usage of color. These shows use a lot of bright and bold colors with decent shading. Not bad, but I still prefer the more balanced and less bold approach of Superman: TAS.
The New Batman Adventures
The usage of color is good and fairly similar to its predecessor Batman: TAS. The biggest problem with this one is the character designs, which sadly are in most cases a major downgrade from Batman: TAS. The most egregious one to me is Bruce Wayne himself. In B:TAS, he had a lively and expressive face and a frisky hairstyle, both well-suited for a playboy-type character. In TNBA, he has a stiff face and boring short hair. In and of itself, ignoring the existence of B:TAS Bruce, it’s not a bad design…but it’s not a particularly good one either.
Overall, while I understand they wanted to make the designs cartoonier and blockier to match Superman: TAS, I think they went too far, and at any rate, I drastically prefer the flexibility and sense of life B:TAS offered. Plus, a handful of decisions are just weird to me, such as removing the Joker’s red lips and making Catwoman’s skin white.
The Spectacular Spider-Man
Though this show is deservedly widely praised for its writing, its art style is understandably more controversial. It’s very cartoony, simple, and cute. Personally, I really like it. I appreciate how unmistakable and unconventional it is. I wouldn’t call it amazing or anything, though – it can look a bit basic and sometimes the cuteness is just a bit weird. It doesn’t completely fit the writing of the show, really, considering it can be rather serious and dark, but I don’t consider that contrast to be an inherently bad thing.
Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
OK, this might be a controversial one. The show is completely 3D animated and uses cell shading. Many find it odd-looking, which is understandable for an old CGI show. But for me, once I got used to it, I eventually grew to really enjoy it. It just seems very stylish and unique. And as I just established, I appreciate a distinctive style. But, sure, it can look weird at times, I’ll give you that.
For the final DCAU show I’ll be discussing, I will again talk about the usage of color. One of the biggest differences between Static Shock and the rest of the DCAU shows I’m covering here is the lack of shading in the first two seasons. And in general, the colors used in this show tend to be quite bright, without as much usage of darker bold colors like in the Justice League shows. I actually think the brightness works very well with the show, as the tone of the show feels vibrant and full of positivity to me. The visuals aren’t on par with the best of the DCAU, but they’re nice.
Young Justice’s art style is fairly angular, but it’s a little more realistic than the DCAU’s and perhaps a bit more anime-influenced. It’s nice to look at and distinctive enough, and it fits well with the tone of the series: it’s often a very serious show and while the first two seasons were kid-friendly, it clearly has adults in mind too. These traits are true of the DCAU too, for the most part, but if anything Young Justice is a bit more serious, so it makes sense that it’s less cartoony than the DCAU. The animation of the first two seasons can be excellent at times, but the post-revival seasons tend to be a lot stiffer; however, this is more of an “in hindsight” problem because while watching them, I didn’t notice it that much.
The 90s Spider-Man cartoon art style is a decent one, but I have a hard time getting excited about it. There’s a certain sleekness and refinement that just isn’t present, unlike the previous entries on this list. And there’s something about the character designs and animation that feels just slightly off to me. This might be another controversial one since I know this show is beloved, but I just have a hard time getting invested in this art style. It doesn’t evoke much other than “Yep, that’s a superhero cartoon alright.”
This one-season, oft-forgotten Superman cartoon has an art style that is…well, very similar to Spider-Man’s art style. The biggest difference is a lack of shading and being a little less detailed in general. I also remember a few animation errors. So, overall it’s a decent art style, good but hard to get too enthusiastic about.
Ah, The Batman…alas, its art style sucks. I’m not normally that blunt about things, but it’s hard to ignore that it just…looks bad. I’ll give it credit for being distinctive and trying something new, but it also demonstrates that those two things aren’t inherently good. A few character designs are decent, but many are genuinely bad-looking – not just, “oh, this is a major step down” like many of the TNBA redesigns, but just bad to look at. Something about the art style has a cheap and non-cohesive quality. Stuff like the size of character’s eyes varies drastically from one character to another for no apparent reason. Many villains are massively redesigned just for the sake of being different, but the results are often pretty goofy. Possibly my least favorite of all the designs is Alfred. He just looks like some random free clip art of a butler found in a Google Images search. When he’s standing next to Bruce (which naturally happens a lot), they barely look like they belong in the same show. And I’m not a fan of how Batgirl and Robin have huge eye holes and tiny necks.
I won’t claim that The Batman is a total visual atrocity. I genuinely do give it credit for its creativity and it tends to be perfectly fine when it comes to color and animation. But overall, suffice it to say I’m not a fan of this shows’ visuals.
That’s all for now. Eventually, I’d like to make an updated version of this post with more shows. Hope you enjoyed, and feel free to share!