9 essential anime superhero series to watch before the next Marvel or DC movie

Frustrated over Marvel Studios' lackadaisical release schedule? Are you itching to watch new superhero content while counting down the days until the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie? Are you still hoping that Wonder Woman and Justice League fare better than Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad? Still waiting for that Gambit solo film? These anime series are here to help bide your time before your next superhero movie outing. Anime fans, assemble!

If you enjoy epic battles with huge stakes and alternate versions of the same characters, check out Fate/Stay Night.

Fate/Stay Night - Saber

Mages summon the most legendary heroes of the past, both real and fictional, so that they can fight in a battle royale to win the most coveted relic of all time, the Holy Grail. Shirou Emiya, an ordinary teenager with questionable magical talent, is caught up in the fight after he accidentally calls up one of the most powerful warriors in history, Saber. Can a no-name mage and his mysterious protector survive long enough to gain the Grail?

The Fate series began life as a visual novel, kind of like one of those video games where the story changes depending on the choices the player makes. The game has been adapted into a handful of anime series for those who don't want to click through the story via computer. Fate/Stay Night follows the 'main route' of the game, and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works tells a slightly different version of the same story, depending on decisions the player makes for Shirou. 

Yep, this is why the anime is light years better than the visual novel: no skeevy dialogue trees to work through. 

Fate’s superhero roots dig way deep. The legendary heroes are considered Heroic Spirits and they come from the dawn of legend and mythology. Hercules. Medusa. Medea. King Arthur. Even Gilgamesh, the world's first hero, makes an appearance, and boy is he pissed off that there are these other so-called "heroes" stealing credit for all the cool stuff he did first. Essentially, it's a world of gods and heroes, of monsters and mages, and the MacGuffin they scrap over, the Holy Grail, can supposedly grant the winner of the Grail War any prize they wish. Marvel's giving us the war over the Infinity Stones soon enough, but Fate is available to watch right now.  

If you want a female main character who doesn't get hindered by a romantic subplot, there's A Certain Scientific Railgun.

A Certain Scientific Railgun - Mikoto Misaka

Meet Mikoto Misaka, one of only seven Level 5 espers known in the world, and a teenaged girl with electric powers that rival Thor's. Her nickname, Railgun, comes from her signature move: using electromagnetism to propel a tiny object with excessive force. She lives in Academy City, an alternate reality Tokyo where 80% of the population are students and a good number of them have psychic abilities. As a decidedly reluctant member of her school’s student council, she's tasked with battling espers whose powers are a danger to themselves and others.

Mikoto's story is rare among many anime heroines because she’s not saddled with a romantic subplot. She goes to an all-girls school, all her friends are girls, and because of this, male characters in the main cast are rare. One guy shows up who has the ability to negate any psychic power, but apart from Mikoto getting flustered that she never gets a chance to battle him (because, natch, he doesn't like fighting girls), male characters don't enter her circle of friends at all. Mikoto's got her hands full with investigating the sudden up-tick of espers running amok in the city. As she runs around rectifying disaster after disaster, she soon discovers the bizarre connection between herself and the attacks and sets out to right her devastating mistake on her own.

If you want a female superhero team with wildly unique powers, you'll like R.O.D. TV.

R.O.D. TV - Anita King

The Paper Sisters aren’t actually sisters. Their bond was forged through a shared ability to control and manipulate paper. Think Gambit's playing card skills but much cooler. Michelle shapes large sheets of newspaper into weapons like a longbow. Maggie is able to create bulletproof armor (!) out of paper to protect herself in battle. Youngest sister Anita is adept at the aforementioned Gambit style of fighting, where she turns small pieces of paper into a cloud of hurt. If you think one paper cut is painful, imagine getting caught up in a swarm of razor-sharp paper edges.

Yeah, paper manipulation isn't as weak as you thought, right? 

R.O.D. TV (short for Read or Die TV) follows the adventures of the Paper Sisters as they run a small detective agency in Hong Kong while trying to earn enough cash to feed their book addiction. That's right, the sisters not only control paper, but they're also voracious bookworms. Well, apart from Anita, who despises books and delights in destroying them while fighting off the baddies. While on a bodyguard job for famous author Nenene Sumiregawa, the sisters decide to tackle another mystery. Nenene's friend Yomiko Readman, perhaps the most powerful Paper Master of all, has gone missing, and Nenene wants the Paper Sisters to help find her. 

This is another show where romance takes a definite back seat to the action, and the only male characters are incidental or are set up as bad guys. Anita shows a passing interest in a boy she meets in school, not realizing that he's on the enemy side. The friendship turns sour once Anita discovers his true identity. The life of a young superhero is often a lonely one, but at least Anita has her sisters and Nenene to offer strength and support.

If you really dig the idea of a superhero school, check out My Hero Academia.

My Hero Academia - Tsuyu Asui & Izuku Midoriya

Izuku Midoriya lives in a world where superheroes exist and people with powers, called 'Quirks,' are the norm. Even his mom has a Quirk that lets her levitate objects with a flick of her hand. But Izuku, despite his intense love of heroes, doesn't have a Quirk himself. That doesn't stop him from enrolling in U.A. High School, the premiere superhero academy for young people with Quirks to hone their abilities. After Izuku demonstrates true hero grit by selflessly protecting his friend Katsuki Bakugou from danger, world famous superdude All Might decides to bestow Izuku with his own Quirk, the One For All. From there on out, All Might trains Izuku in the ways of heroism while keeping their shared Quirk a secret.

My Hero Academia works because of Izuku's can-do attitude. He's as dedicated to earning his superhero cred as any of his fellow students and he does more to encourage his friends than anyone else. This is a superhero fan who, as a reward for his selfless deed, gets to live his ultimate childhood fantasy. One For All is a Quirk which bestows the user with super strength, and every time it is shared, its power level increases exponentially. This means the Quirk's even deadlier in Izuku's hands than in All Might's. It's often difficult to watch Izuku train. If he's careless, the force of his power can shatter his bones like glass. He endures through whole episodes with a bruised arm or broken leg, and yet he keeps going. Izuku triumphs because he's relatable. He's living the dream, and despite his battered body, he's grateful for every moment.

If you want to watch the struggles of an ordinary guy who wants to be a superhero in an uncaring world, there's Samurai Flamenco.

Samurai Flamenco

Male model Masayoshi Hazama decides to forsake the fashion runway and photoshoots to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a superhero. The only problem: superheroes don’t exist in this world, and he doesn't have superpowers. Can he successfully switch careers and protect Tokyo from bad guys while trying to keep one step ahead of the police, who see him as nothing more than a whacked-out vigilante?

Masayoshi and My Hero Academia’s Izuku have a lot in common. They’ve both loved superheroes since they were kids. They're willing to give up everything in their normal life in order to become one. They both believe that they have the spirit needed to become a dispenser of justice in an unjust world. Unfortunately, while Izuku gets to live out his childhood fantasy, Masayoshi struggles to be taken seriously, particularly with his childhood friend Hidenori Gotou. Hidenori's a police officer who accidentally discovers that he knows the weirdo who's running around Tokyo in a Power Rangers outfit. 

Samurai Flamenco works as a deconstruction of the superhero genre as well as a cautionary tale of what might happen if someone decided to forsake their own lives to become a hero of justice. Despite numerous obstacles, Masayoshi continues on his one-man crusade. Hidenori soon becomes a reluctant Sancho Panza to Masayoshi's Don Quixote, but without spoiling too much of the show, circumstances push the two friends to the brink when they discover that pretending to be a superhero isn't just child's play.


If you want to watch teens with superpowers, but with oddly specific limitations, check out Charlotte.

Charlotte - Yuu Otosoka

What if you could become invisible, but only to a single person at a time? What if you had super speed but couldn't control where you're going so you kept crashing into things and injuring yourself? What if you had the power to possess others and control their actions, but only for five seconds at a time? What if these powers only manifested themselves on the onset of puberty and disappeared just as swiftly when you reached adulthood?

Charlotte posits an Earth where those born after an orbital visit from a comet known as Charlotte (hey, we have a title!) have a slight chance of developing superpowers. Yuu Otosaka, now a teenager, was one of these gifted infants, but he's decided to keep his burgeoning power a secret. Why? Because he's a teenager. And a jerk. He's able to possess other people for five seconds at a time, and he's used this ability for his own selfish purposes, causing hilarity in his wake. Thankfully, his odd propensity to laugh at absolutely nothing every five seconds catches the eye of another powered teen, Nao Tomori, who can make herself invisible to a single person. Nao convinces Yuu to enroll in the prestigious Hoshinoumi Academy so she can keep an eye on his antics and make sure he's using his power for good.

Charlotte probably contains the biggest tonal shift within a season of any anime in this list. Watching Yuu's smugness at getting into other classmates' heads during an exam so he can cheat makes you want to slap him. By the end of the season, Yuu's desperately trying to save his sister's life while simultaneously struggling to prevent widespread destruction. He goes from being a selfish dirtbag to humanity's savior, and he suffers greatly for it.

It's actually kind of satisfying to watch. 

If you’re interested in an honestly affectionate superhero parody, you can't do better than One-Punch Man.

One-Punch Man

One-Punch Man is the story of a superhero who grows too powerful. If you've ever wanted to watch a hero wallow in ennui, look no further.  

Saitama used to be an ordinary office worker with a penchant for protecting the helpless. After saving a child from a monster, Saitama decides to give up his office job and begin training to become the strongest superhero ever. His daily regimen of one-hundred sit-ups, one-hundred pull-ups, one-hundred squats and a 10k run soon tones his body to be nearly indestructible. His intense workout also causes his hair to fall out. He then buys a cheap superhero costume and cape, and he's off to defeat bad guys.

Except he finds the battles frustratingly easy. He's able to defeat enemies with a single punch, hence the title, but he finds very little satisfaction in becoming a hero of justice. Hoping that becoming a fully licensed superhero will get him more fulfilling fights with worthy opponents, he signs up to take the grueling superhero exam. While he passes the physical tests with flying colors, he struggles in the written test and ends up with a middling grade and a crappy hero rank. Relegated to clean-up jobs and mundane things like rescuing kittens from trees, Saitama strives to find relevance in an environment that he's much too powerful for.

If you enjoy banter between reluctant teammates who eventually become besties, you’ll enjoy Tiger & Bunny.

Tiger & Bunny

The most watched TV show in Stern Bild City is a competitive reality show called King of Heroes, airing on the Heroes TV Network. Each season is filled with the exploits of a group of superheroes who battle for points in a bid to be the number-one superhero of the year. The heroes make a lucrative living with advertising as well, and their super suits are, like NASCAR vehicles, dotted with logos for the cameras to capture. Kotetsu Kaburagi is a superhero publically known as Wild Tiger. With his popularity slipping in the polls, Kotetsu suddenly gets teamed up with young up-and-comer Barnaby Edwards as the first ever hero tag team. 

Tiger & Bunny excels with the Buddy Cop trope. Kotetsu and Barnaby are exact opposites. Kotetsu adheres to older hero rules like keeping his true identity a secret, much to the chagrin of his daughter. She's kept in the dark about the real reason why Dad never comes home from working in the big city until she begins to develop powers of her own. Barnaby's more like one of those celebrities who are famous, but you're not quite sure what they're famous for. He appears on magazine covers and TV interviews and makes a point of always showing off his unmasked face to the camera. Kotetsu believes in protecting everyone; Barnaby joined the show in order to find out why his parents were killed. They're practically Superman and Batman, and while they initially hate each other's guts, Barnaby eventually warms up to Kotetsu's old-school heroics.

And they didn't need to bond over their mothers' first names, either.

If you're cool with heroes like Blade, or Buffy, or anyone who has to partly become that which they battle, check out Claymore.

Claymore

Humans cower behind locked doors at night, fearful that the ravenous yoma, shape-shifting demons with a taste for flesh, might come to eat them alive. The only solace humanity has are the young women known as the Claymores. These silver-eyed witches are half-yoma, half-human hybrids. But when both yoma and Claymores possess the same strength and speed, what really separates one from the other? 

Claymore follows the exploits of Clare, the newest and lowest ranked member of her group, as she travels from town to town fighting demons while trying to uncover the vast conspiracy which keeps sending Claymores to certain death. Clare is perhaps the most reluctant of the heroes on this list. She only became a Claymore in order to find out why Teresa, her Claymore mentor, was killed. Becoming a Claymore is a horrific process. All Claymores are female. In order to become one, young women are cut open and implanted with either the flesh of another Claymore or the flesh of a yoma. This imparts the young woman with the same 'yoki,' or spiritual energy, of a yoma, but she retains her human mind. However, there's always a chance that the yoki will attempt to take over the body and transform the Claymore into an Awakened Being: a monster with the ravenous appetite of a yoma and the innate cunning of a human. Once a Claymore has Awakened, she can't return to her previous state and must be killed before she lays waste to every living thing in existence.

As Clare uncovers more and more of the mystery behind the workings of the Organization, she grows less enamored with her lot in life. She is fated to either be killed by the yoma or live long enough to become Awakened and be killed by her fellow Claymores. Clare discovers that there's a third choice for her future, but will it also cost her what’s left of her humanity? 


Honorable mention: Heroman

Heroman - Stan Lee cameo

Heroman, an anime partly developed by Stan Lee, is unique among anime shows because it contains a cameo from the Generalissimo himself. Otherwise, it’s a largely forgettable show with cookie cutter characters. But hey! Stan Lee! In anime form!

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