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The best '90s animated heroes of all time

The '90s was a decade full of awesome animated series. There was a lot to love about Saturday morning shows back then — the action, the comedy, the melodrama. But perhaps the thing that has stuck most with us from this time period — apart from all the earwormy commercials for cereal that we'll surely never forget — are the heroes. Iconic animated figures who battle evil, in one form or another, and inspire us to face the problems that confront us in our own lives.

So today, we're here to run down the best '90s animated heroes of all time. Which characters, looking back with over two decades of hindsight, still resonate with us today? Some will be larger-than-life savior figures who never show an ounce of doubt or weakness. Others will be complex and conflicted, characters who must overcome their own inner doubts before they can save the day. Some will deal with world-ending threats, while others face more relatable, everyday villains.

To be clear, we aren't just going to be talking about who could beat up who in a fight or who's the coolest in the traditional sense. Sure, there might be some of that, but we're also going to be talking about characters whose can teach us something. After all, an episode of a cartoon only lasts 22 minutes, but a good lesson can last a lifetime. You won't want to miss a minute of this, so stay tuned, we'll be right back.

Sailor Moon proves that anyone can be a hero

Spacey, gluttonous, clumsy, and not that bright — these aren't the typical traits that most people would associate with a superhero, let alone the leader of an entire team of superheroes. Because of this, when Usagi Tsukino first heard that she was the reincarnation of a magical superhero princess from the moon named Sailor Moon, at first she assumed there was some sort of mistake.

To be honest, the rest of her new superhero team agreed, especially the fiery Rei Hino, aka Sailor Mars, who felt like she herself was far more suitable to the team's leader. However, as time went on, Usagi proved to the rest of her team, and to herself, that even though it was a bit harder for her, she could rise to any occasion, fueled by a deep burning love for her friends.

In a world full of perfect supermen, it's refreshing to see someone for whom being a superhero doesn't come easily. Someone who thinks of herself as a failure. Someone who would rather just stay in bed all day and eat snacks. After all, if everyone thought that Sailor Moon wasn't up to saving the world but she did so anyway, maybe we can find a similar reserve of strength buried deep within ourselves and rise to the occasion in our own stories, too.

Batman: The Animated Series features the very best version of the Dark Knight

If you're reading this, you know who Batman is. What you might not know, however, is that Batman: The Animated Series contains possibly the best version of the character to ever exist, a perfect synthesis of over 50 years of comics, distilled down into simple bold lines and vibrant inky blacks.

All incarnations of Batman are super cool and intimidating in their superhero persona, but what makes this version of the character surprisingly refreshing is that — bear with us here — he's actually a well-adjusted dude. Unlike in some portrayals of the Dark Knight, who treat their Bruce Wayne persona as an afterthought, this Batman understands the importance of work-life balance. The animated Wayne is genuinely kind and connected to those around him, a proper father figure to Robin, and a philanthropist who does as much good for Gotham during the day as he does at night.

You might think that this more hopeful tone would take some of the punch out of these stories, but if anything, it often makes them hit even harder, increasing the dichotomy between Batman's two separate lives. For instance, when you start off seeing Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent sharing a genuinely warm friendship, it makes the latter's inevitable transformation into Two-Face even more tragic. The noir is even noir-ier when you mix dark and light in equal measures, so for our money, the animated series Batman is as good as Batman gets.

Optimus Primal lives up to his Autobot predecessor

Ever since the 2007 Transformers film hit theaters, transforming robots have moved from the fringes of nerd culture firmly into the mainstream. But up until now, the focus all been on the original 1980s cartoon and not any of the later iterations of the franchise, and that's a shame. Beast Wars: Transformers — the '90s CGI sequel to the hand-drawn original — is worthy of just as much attention. It tells the story of two rival factions of robots, the Maximals and the Predacons, who crash-land on an uncharted planet. In classic Transformers fashion, these two warring teams continue their fighting after taking on the appearance of the locals, but this time, they opt for animals instead of machines.

The leader of the Maximals, Optimus Primal, becomes a gorilla, a disguise which fits his personality well, as he's strong, intelligent, and imposing. In his heart, though, Primal is a peaceful, troubled soul. He does his best to live up to the legacy of Optimus Prime, the legendary Autobot from whom he inherited his name, but he always feels destined to live in his shadow. However, Primal eventually becomes just as much of a legend in his own right. Whereas his predecessor was idealistic and traditional, Primal realizes the benefits of being practical and creative. Also, did we mention that he eventually gets a flying surfboard? A gorilla with a flying surfboard! Clearly, Optimus Primal deserves to be remembered as the icon he is, right alongside our favorite truck dad.

Daria is a '90s character with a lot of nuance

Although she started off as a side character on Beavis and Butthead, the misanthropic bespectacled teen Daria Morgendorffer got her own spin-off in 1997, and by the end of the decade, she had grown into a pop culture sensation in her own right, just as famous as her two buffoonish former co-stars. Daria's solo series, simply called Daria, tells the story of her family moving to the fictional town of Lawndale, where she attempts to assimilate into a new high school populated by a vast array of foolish teenagers and equally foolish adults. Because of Daria's inability to hold her tongue in the face of the fakery that surrounds her, over the course of the show's five seasons, she clashes with pretty much every single institution, social structure, and cultural norm that exists in high school life

If you haven't watched Daria before, you're probably at least familiar with the popular conception of her — a gothy, emotionless sourpuss who hates everyone. But if that's all you think that she is, we urge you to give it a watch and discover just how much depth and nuance the character and the series have to offer. Though its roots as a Beavis and Butthead spinoff means that her show is never fully able to divorce itself from the zeitgeist of '90s toilet humor it was created in, at times the show is transcendent, with Daria's nihilistic monologuing every bit as beautifully tragic as the poetic musings of Holden Caulfield or Don Draper.

T.K. was the true hero of Digimon

In Digimon: Digital Monsters, seven friends get transported to an alternate reality known as the Digital World. After arriving, they befriend a group of friendly monsters called Digimon, and working together, they try to find their way back home. All seven kids are great characters, but today, we're giving the smallest and youngest of the original crew, T.K., a chance in the spotlight.

T.K. is a sweet little boy, and he has an equally sweet partner Digimon, a cuddly ball of fluff named Patamon. Unlike the rest of the Digimon, who can "Digivolve" into more powerful forms, Patamon seemingly can't Digivolve and has no real combat abilities. Throughout the show's first plot arc, T.K.'s older companions think of him the same way that they think of his monster — adorable but useless. However, when the team finally confronts Devimon, the evil ruler of the Digital World, even working together, our heroes can't defeat him. Devimon stands triumphant, until T.K. and Patamon step forward. Powered by T.K.'s pure heart, Patamon Digivolves for the first time into Angemon, a giant hunky angel with six wings. Needless to say, Angemon defeats Devimon in short order.

When we think back on Digimon, there's no shortage of awesome heroes, but the one we remember most is T.K., a proto-Steven Universe who taught his older friends, and us, that empathy is a truly powerful force, and that just because you're soft, that doesn't mean you are weak.

The Tick has been inspiring audiences since the '90s

Not all cartoons from the '90s have aged particularly well. But somehow, with each passing year, The Tick just seems to be getting better. In part, this is due to its hilarious and enigmatic lead, the Tick himself. We never get much backstory on exactly who the Tick is under his mask, but there are three things about him that we can say with certainty. He dresses like a blue bug, he's ridiculously strong, and he's completely clueless. But despite all this, he has a good heart, and he does his best to be a good role model for his anxious sidekick, Arthur. The Tick is such an appealing character that, even though his animated series got cancelled, he's come back in live-action twice.

After all these years, something about the Tick still resonates with us, even if we can't exactly articulate why. Maybe it's the unique combination of his selfless nature, his vast unearned confidence, and his penchant for spouting nonsensical aphorisms. We all feel like Arthur from time to time and wish we had a Tick in our lives to remind us that even if you have no idea what's going on, you can still save the day. Lord, grant us all the confidence, compassion, and zest for life of the Tick.

Miss Frizzle is the greatest teacher of all time

One of the roles of a hero is to inspire people, and there are few cartoon characters who inspired young audiences during the '90s quite like Miss Frizzle from The Magic School Bus. Played to perfection by Lily Tomlin, Valerie Frizzle is a fourth grade science teacher, known for her jovial attitude, adventurous spirit, and colorful wardrobe. Whenever she wants to teach her students a lesson, Frizzle takes them on a reality-building field trip aboard the titular shape-changing bus. Across four seasons, her class visits places such as the Amazon rainforest, inside the human body, and to the farthest reaches of the solar system.

There's so much to love about Miss Frizzle. She's fearless, encouraging, and she always helps guide her students to discovering the solutions to problems on their own, rather than giving them all the answers. Or, as she would put it, "Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!" The Frizz is the teacher we all wish we had, and it's not just because she has inexplicable magic powers. Although, if you want to go deep down the well of trying to figure out exactly what is going on with Miss Frizzle and her strange abilities, there's a fairly popular theory among Doctor Who fans that Miss Frizzle is a Time Lord, and her school bus is a Tardis.

Tommy Pickles was the bravest baby of the '90s

Not all heroes wear capes. Some wear diapers. And pound for pound, you don't get more heroic than Tommy Pickles from Rugrats. First premiering in 1991, Rugrats showed us that the world can be a scary place through the eyes of a baby. Phil, Lil, and Chuckie may run and hide from bath time, haircuts, and potty training, but Tommy Pickles is unafraid, because there are important mysteries to be solved. Like, could his dad be a robot? Are there really monsters under the bed? And most importantly, what does dog food taste like?

Creative, rebellious, and brave, Tommy always stands up for what's right. When the towering three-year-old Angelica starts pushing his friends around, Tommy is the only one brave enough to push back. When he and his friends are wrongly imprisoned in time out for crimes they didn't commit, there's no playpen in the world that Tommy can't find a way out of. Heck, he once even organized a jailbreak at a maximum security daycare. No matter how scary things get, Tommy Pickles is always here to remind his fellow Rugrats that "a baby's gotta do what a baby's gotta do."

Captain Planet was seriously trying to save the world

Not only is Captain Planet one of the most iconic, instantly recognizable superheroes of all time, he's also arguably one of the most important. In Captain Planet and the Planeteers, whenever pollution threatens to destroy the world, the five Planeteers combine the powers of their five magic rings to summon Captain Planet, who will, on behalf of the Earth, fight back. Not only is he one of the most powerful superheroes of all time, he's also a great role model, as he's optimistic, empathetic, and funny no matter the circumstances. Before we had All-Might from My Hero Academia defeating evil with a smile on his face, '90s kids had Captain Planet. Sure he's a bit of a deus ex machina, but he's so rad that we just don't care.

As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, we long for the days when a cartoon like Captain Planet and the Planeteers would just outright state, over and over again, that pollution is killing the planet. We miss the era when the fight to save the globe from greed and industry wasn't just the subtext but the actual text. Sure, it dealt with them in fairly simplistic terms, but at least it was dealing with them. It's a new decade, subtlety is dead. To be honest, some days we just want to see a blue man with a green mullet beating up all the greedy capitalist tyrants who are trying to kill the Earth.

Goliath is a truly tragic hero

Though only moderately popular during its initial airing, the moody action fantasy series Gargoyles has stood the test of time better than most of its '90s cartoon contemporaries. The aesthetics are sharp, the worldbuilding is deep, but most impressive of all are the characters. Pretty much every member of the principal cast is rock solid — some of them literally — but today, we're going to talk about the dark and tortured heart of the show, Goliath.

The wise and honorable leader of the Manhattan Clan, Goliath is a winged stone warrior who was cursed to sleep for a thousand years, along with the rest of his clan, before awakening in the modern world. Though unparalleled in battle, Goliath's big heart also means that he tends to trust people whenever he can afford to, and even sometimes when he can't. Thus, some of the more cynical denizens of our modern age, such as the amoral businessman David Xanatos, are often able to take advantage of this big lunk's good nature.

As his story progresses, Goliath becomes an increasingly angry character, but those who think that he's some sort of violent brute misunderstand him. Goliath's rage always comes from his tragic idealism, his disappointment that yet another person who seemed to be his friend ended up being just another well-spoken liar. It's not often that you get to describe a cartoon character as "Byronic," but Goliath certainly fits the bill.