You can immediately feel the work that went into making Amazon’s new animated Invincible series feel like a tonally-accurate adaptation of the source material that highlights the show’s stellar cast. But the show arrives at a time when stories like the original comic and other narratives it drew inspiration from have essentially become the default in superhero media.
When Image’s Invincible — from writer Robert Kirkman, and artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley — was first released back in 2002, comics about teenagers longing to become heroes like the superhumans famous for saving the day were a genre standard, as were stories in which those same teens learned that the world isn’t what it seems. What made Invincible shine at the time was the way the creative team’s obvious love for Golden Age comics optimism (and bright colours) was the beating heart of a surprisingly brutal, and at times gory, story about the difficult, ugly realities that come with the superhero lifestyle.
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As the only child of Omni-Man/Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons), the last scion of the doomed Viltrumite race who became one of Earth’s empowered protectors after his home planet was destroyed, Mark Grayson (Steven Yuen) grew up with the hopeful expectation of one day coming into the same kinds of powers that make his father indestructible. Though Mark’s a generally level-headed and chill 17-year-old as Invincible opens, both Nolan and his wife Debbie (Sandra Oh) know that their son’s anxieties about his future run deeper than he lets on. They make it clear to him that they’ll always love him regardless of whether he develops powers or not, but it’s difficult for Mark not to compare himself to his father and feel that he’ll never measure up because that’s how most everyone in the world feels about Omni-Man
Were Omni-Man the world’s only proper superhero, you can imagine how some of Mark’s anxieties might stem from his belief that he had a responsibility to defend Earth in ways no one else could were his father to one day fall in battle. But because the hero works along with the Guardians of the Globe, a Justice League-like supergroup, Invincible establishes early on that Mark’s worries are a bit more personal. They’re also relatable in the sense that he’s just a kid who thinks it’d be cool as hell to be super.
Even though this is a world where aliens and crimefighting robots are rather common occurrences, Invincible still leads with the idea of its Earth being a relatively “normal” place for regular people on the ground whose lives only occasionally ever come close to involving superheroes. The range of Yuen’s expressiveness begins to make itself quite obvious from the jump as you see Mark going through the motions of his everyday life that take him from home to school, where he and his best friend William Clockwell (Andrew Rannells) do their best to get through classes and navigate the social jungle. Thankfully, the show doesn’t play coy about whether Mark will get his powers for very long because the series is really about him getting his first taste of the action-packed life he’s always dreamed of. So the story really picks up when he accidentally hurls a garbage bag miles away while at his part-job job.
Simmons’ Omni-Man is very much a Superman analogue and the definition of a father figure who looms large not only in his son’s life but in the public’s consciousness as society’s ultimate protector. The complicated blend of excitement and concern that crackles between Omni-Man and Mark is one of Invincible’s bright lights that could bog the show down were it not for the way it balances out its emotional arcs with more than a few useful cuts to action sequences that break up tense moments.
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The charged familial drama crackling in the Grayson household contrasts the fast-paced, dynamic sequences that actually introduce the Guardians: War Woman (Lauren Cohan), Green Ghost (Sonequa Martin-Green), Martian Man (Chad L. Coleman), Red Rush (Michael Cudlitz), Darkwing (Lennie James), and Aquarius and the Immortal (both voiced by Ross Marquand). Invincible further emphasises how the world’s gotten along just fine without another flying brick hero by introducing the imaginatively-named Teen Team composed of people like Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow), Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), and Robot (Zachary Quinto) who spend their days dealing with interdimensional invasions and other sundry situations that call for superhuman intervention.
It isn’t until Mark puts on his first proto-costume and begins to call himself “Invincible” — after a few sessions trying out his powers have him confident that his invulnerability is limitless — that the adaptation properly settles into what sort of show it wants to be. That’s also the point when Invincible’s many inspirations all come together to emphasise how much of this story feels very old hat in 2021 when we’ve already been through multiple cycles of fans debating about the rise of grimdarkness in cape media.
As bright and joyful as Invincible often feels, it also attempts to translate the comics’ signature penchant for gore and depictions of bloody viscera to the small screen — much in the same way The Boys and Harley Quinn have before it. During one of the series’ first significant plot twists, you witness multiple people being murdered with a brutal ferocity meant to convey that there’s a danger lurking out there that the public hasn’t really been primed to reckon with properly. While Invincible’s beats elicit dramatic responses from its characters, the show’s first episodes might not impact viewers the same way because every episode obviously assumes that you can’t see clearly telegraphed plot pivots from a mile away.
Though Invincible’s one of the first modern cape shows to revolve around a Korean-American hero, the story has a way of flattening its characters into relatively static, familiar American archetypes. That would be fine, again, were it not for the rather surprising level of predictability that becomes more present as the series continues. Mark, like everyone, would do well with having more difficult heart-to-hearts with his father about who and what they are. But he, like most comic book heroes, can’t see how much he needs that until Invincible’s story about the world’s heroes being in crisis is well underway.
While the first three episodes made available for review don’t quite sell the idea that Invincible has much new to bring to the genre, they will certainly speak to longstanding fans who’ve been waiting for this adaptation for years. But whether the show can pull ahead of its peers is something we’ll have to wait to find out.
Invincible also stars the voices of Seth Rogen, Mark Hamill, Zazie Beetz, Mae Whitman, Khary Payton, Kevin Michael Richardson, Grey Griffin, Mahershala Ali, Nicole Byer, Jonathan Groff, and Ezra Miller. The show will begin streaming on Amazon Prime on March 26.