This is not true for adventure cartoons today. Although my own kids have pretty much moved out of the window where they're looking for cartoons to watch (my youngest is finishing 8th grade) as I went through that with them, I found at least some shows that had high enough quality that I actually enjoyed them quite a bit, and consider them among the more entertaining shows on TV—in spite of the fact that they were animated. Now, granted, maybe I just happened to have seen the best ones and avoided the rest (in fact, I'm quite sure that this is so—I've seen other stuff going on in the background that my kids watched that was painful. Although this is mostly the comedy animation as opposed to the action/adventure animation.)
I wonder what has driven this massive shift in quality of animation, quality of screenplay, maturity of themes and characterizations, etc.? Is it competition with Japanese animation? (Probably plays at least some role.) Is it the change in the market where they at least to some degree are marketing to older audiences, and hoping to get cross-over appeal with sci-fi adult fans and whatnot? Probably also a role here; similar factors have influenced the market for comic books, for example—competition with manga and a shift to writing for older, even adult oftentimes, audiences.
So, of the cartoon shows of the last decade that I've enjoyed enough to recommend at least part of, I think I can maybe scrape up a half dozen or so recommendations, with some caveats. They focus heavily on superheroes and space opera, which is not surprising since I've just always been a fan of both of those trope-baskets. Let's go through them real quick:
- The Spectacular Spider-Man. This is actually probably the best representation of the character as he was originally meant to be seen. He's a bit nerdy, definitely a teenager, out of his depth, but with a kind of under-dog charisma that makes him a likable character. The screenplays are tense, the characters have chemistry with each other, the voice-acting is top-notch, the animation is simple yet very effective. Sadly, the show fell victim to corporate politics; it was licensed to Sony Pictures Television, and broadcast initially on the CW. Even moving to DisneyXD wasn't enough for Disney after they bought Marvel, though—they wanted in-house created shows, and this got the ax after only two seasons. The third season was in the works and would almost certainly have been even better than the second one. Highly recommended.
- Ultimate Spider-man. The show that Disney came up with to replace Spectacular was this one. It started off relatively well. It takes place in a pseudo-Ultimate setting (unsurprisingly) where Spider-man is being mentored by Nick Fury and given some gizmos and gadgets from Shield. It also offers lots of opportunities for crossovers and cameos of various Marvel characters—and Spidey is teamed up officially with Nova, Power-man, White Tiger and Iron Fist, also re-imagined as teenagers here. I was initially wary, but the first season sold me on it after a while.
Sadly, it has some serious structural issues. The character of Spider-man himself was grossly distorted and got more and moreso with time; from a wise-cracking guy with a lot of charisma (in spite of being nerdy) Peter became a bratty, entitled, arrogant jerk that became literally painful to watch at times—and it's clear that the writers didn't actually understand that they were doing this. They thought that Spidey was still likable, funny, and a good interpretation of the classic tropes of the character. Something is really wrong with those writers. I wonder how much success in actual social interactions with actual real people they have sometimes. Recommended with caveats—watch the first season or two, be very, very wary of the third and fourth seasons. In spite of the fact that it was covering more interesting storylines in the later seasons, I gave up on it because it was simply not fun at all to watch anymore. The show has just recently been cancelled and a new Spider-man show is slated to replace it, starting this summer. I don't know if this is because of falling viewership or reactions to this show, or not, but I'm even more wary of this new show than I was of this one when it launched.
- The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes. This, like Spectacular above, was contracted out (to Film Roman) and like that, it was absolutely great. Revisiting much of the classic Avengers storylines of the past, including sojourns to Asgard, clashes with Dr. Doom, the Skrull infiltration and invasion, and ending with the attack of Galactus on Earth at the end of Season 2, it had, again, a simple yet evocative animation style, great plots, great screenplays, and lots of callbacks for fans of the comic book runs. Sadly, it also only lasted two seasons, and was replaced with Avengers Assemble which was specifically designed to be more in harmony with the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than the original Marvel Universe. And as with Spider-man, it's better than the show that it's replaced with. But Avengers Assemble at least doesn't actively turn you off, as later Ultimate Spider-man does.
- Avengers Assemble. I've only seen the first two seasons of this, and they're actually pretty good. They do some interesting things; Red Skull gets a hold of an Iron Man armor suit, and with it, as Iron Skull, is a credible main villain, who organizes a number of other villains to be a recurring thorn in the side of the Avengers. There's some chemistry with the characters, as there needs to be on a team ensemble show. Thanos makes an appearance. Hyperion plays a significant role, which is kinda fun—and he's later joined by the rest of the Squadron Supreme in the third season. For whatever reason, I've always been fascinated with alt-Justice Leagues.
Season three just ended, so I'm looking for it to show up on Netflix shortly. Season four has some worrying signs (anytime Thor-girl makes any appearance for any reason whatsoever, I see that as a major red flag). I fully expect that this will eventually go the way of Ultimate Spider-man because I think the structural flaws are related to the people in place at Disney. But as I last saw it, it hadn't done so quite yet. Recommended. At least the first two seasons.
- Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Of all of the cartoons I've watched over the last ten years, this is clearly head and shoulders above any other. Completely CGI, with graphics that improve as the show goes on, it really feels like exactly the kinds of stories that the old Republic serials would have told—except modernized in terms of technology and graphics. The plots are good, the characters are good, there's a lot of chemistry between them (for the most part) and it is a significant and substantial addition to the Star Wars canon. This is the benchmark that all action/adventure sci-fi TV shows should aspire to, whether animated or not. But because it's animated, it's doable—a think as live-action it would have been way too expensive to ever actually have been made. There's actually relatively little about it that is kid-focused. That doesn't mean that it isn't kid-friendly, but that it isn't any more kid-focused than the original Star Wars movies were (in spite of the fact that George Lucas has retroactively said that the show was always aimed at kids, that's very obviously not true. It later became more focused on kids—to its detriment. And it was popular with kids, without being aimed specifically at them to the exclusion of adults.)
Still on Netflix, and should be watched by everyone. Sadly, it also fell victim to corporate politics, although we did end up getting an abbreviated "6th season" with some of what would have come out had the show continued. Highly, highly recommended.
- Star Wars Rebels. Although it's largely the same team as Clone Wars, this show has not grabbed me as much. The animation is arguably better, but there are other problems. The structure has become much more episodic, which is much less engaging. We don't have quite the same degree of character chemistry and charisma. There aren't really any heroes; there's the liberal-feminist earth-mother figure in Hera the twi-lek ship captain, there's the reluctant Jedi with self-esteem issues, which makes him much less admirable and likable as a hero than even Luke or Anakin were. There's the smart-aleck, arrogant, bratty apprentice who is a lot like the distorted and unlikable version of Peter Parker noted above from Ultimate Spider-man. All in all, it feels like it's been partly developed by committee, and the committee has a lot more SJWs on it than the team that made Clone Wars. (Plus, Kathleen Kennedy is a raging feminist-narcissist—a seriously worrying sign for the future of the franchise overall.) All in all, the decline from Clone Wars to Rebels as well as the disappointing Force Awakens has made me fearful of the direction the Star Wars franchise is headed. But luckily, there are enough people on the teams that aren't terrible that the decline will be (hopefully) slow and punctuated by moments of brilliance here and there (like Rogue One). Recommended, but not until you've seen all of Clone Wars first, which is far superior.
- Young Justice. This is what superhero TV shows really should be like. Absolutely brilliant. Great animation, great characters, lots of chemistry, a mostly serious attitude, and a great deal of respect for both the audience and the source material. The only thing that's odd is that it comes in two seasons, and the two seasons are separated by about five years, making for a surprisingly incongruous break. But the show is quite serious and well-done, with tight screenplays, a lot of chemistry, and very mature themes and concepts (and by "mature" I don't mean "adult", of course.)
This can be seen as a re-imagining of the Teen Titans show, maybe—certainly it's based on the same Wolfman/Perez 80s run of the New Teen Titans comic book where the characters are young (but not high school young) and which competed credibly with the classic X-men run led by John Byrne and Chris Claremont.
That said, although the older Teen Titans show which ran from 2003 to 2006 or so, although not always serious, was a pretty good run too. Both are highly recommended.
I haven't watched more than an episode or two of Hulk and the Agents of S.M.A.S.H. which has Hulk and a bunch of other Hulky characters stranded on a space ship and traveling through the galaxy as a kind of superheroic space opera. You'd think it'd be right up my alley, but I didn't find the characters or their chemistry very engaging, and like I alluded to earlier, I'm not super sold on the really episodic type shows. It also has a lot of really kind of dumb stuff; I have to think that some committee decided that it needed to be more overtly targeted towards kids rather than making intelligent shows and trusting that kids can keep up, even as older audiences are also entertained. You'd also think that the Guardians of the Galaxy show would be right up my alley, but I haven't watched it at all. If they ever put it on Netflix, I'll probably give it a try.
Given that both come out of the same movement that gave us greatly reduced efforts; mediocre shows that replaced good or even great shows, I'm not really expecting too much, though.