It’s been said that success breeds imitation and there’s no better example than television. Just look at how many shows about good-looking single people in the big city were generated in the ‘90s after Friends became a runaway hit. Now in wake of the domination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on our cultural landscape, it’s no surprise that studios are hoping to replicate MCU’s popularity with their own comic book superhero properties. The animated series Invincible arriving today on Amazon Prime Video is just the latest offering.
Based on the comic by writer Robert Kirkman (now a major Hollywood player thanks to the smash hit that is The Walking Dead) and artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, Invincible follows the titular adolescent hero better known as Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) as he adjusts to his powers and tries to follow in the footsteps of his father Omni-Man, a Superman pastiche (J.K. Simmons). Though the original comic garnered a considerable fanbase during its publication, it’s safe to say that the majority of viewers will be diving into the Invincible animated series for the first time with no intimate familiarity with the source material.
It’s rare that the first episode of a series completely knocks it out of the park and wins over an audience. I liken it to the pilot for The Office that was criticized for playing it safe by slavishly imitating the first episode of the British version. Eventually, the producers of The Office were able to find their own path and create one of the most acclaimed shows of all-time. The majority of the first episode of Invincible entitled “It’s About Time” likewise falls victim to following the tried and true beats we’ve seen done to death a million times in other superhero stories. Scenes of Mark Grayson dealing with the trials and tribulations of high school and superheroes as a metaphor for puberty are straight out of the Peter Parker/Spider-Man playbook.
It definitely drags, not helped by the fact that the main character doesn’t appear until almost nine minutes into the first episode. You can’t help but feel like Milhouse Van Houten wondering, “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” While it seems slow and clichéd, playing it as a straight superhero show at first, this merely belies the true strength of the Invincible franchise which is subverting traditional superhero tropes. So from the last scene of the first episode onward, things go off the rails and you’re ironically on board for the rest of the ride to see where it goes next.
Even when the series sticks close to well-worn traditions of the superhero genre, it still manages to find ways to innovate. The first episode, which was actually penned by creator Robert Kirkman himself, for instance, features two scenes of Mark standing up to Todd, the school bully. The first time it’s out of chivalry to protect love interest Amber Bennett (Zazie Beetz). Unsurprisingly, Mark gets his ass kicked only to be saved by Amber herself in a modern reversal of roles. The second confrontation occurs after Mark discovers his powers, so you’re likely expecting Mark to get his payback only to get reprimanded about power and responsibility à la the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie. That’s pretty much how it plays out in the first issue of the comics. However, Kirkman deftly deviates from expectations and has Mark let Todd wail on him to no avail until Todd finally relents once he realizes his punches have no effect in the slightest.
A hallmark of the Invincible comics is its Tarantino-esque level of cartoony gore and violence. Fans will be delighted to know that the series earns its TV-MA rating and then some. Perhaps I’ve just become too desensitized to violence at this point, especially after the last two seasons of Amazon’s other superhero show The Boys, but the blood and guts in Invincible seem mundane by comparison.
Unlike the dark and desaturated color palette that’s all the rage for dark superhero stories (I’m looking at you Snyder Cut) Invincible replicates the bright and effervescent aesthetics of the comic. That’s no surprise since the principal Invincible artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley are involved in the animated series as lead character designer and creative consultant respectively. If there’s any shortcoming in the animation it’s in the extensive use of CG for the backgrounds, vehicles, and even characters. CG as a shortcut in television animation isn’t anything new given the time and financial constraints of the medium. At best, it’s just barely passable but is tolerable as long as it’s for brief moments. Such is the case with Invincible where for the most part it’s easy to overlook a few rough CG sequences. The only exception is the second episode “Here Goes Nothing” which features a Flaxan alien invasion with shots that resemble something out of a ‘90s PC game.
That said, the real draw and achievement of Invincible isn’t the action but rather the characters and relationships. Yeun brings the same level of talent that earned him an Oscar nomination to Invincible/Mark Grayson. You truly feel the love and admiration for his larger-than-life father and Simmons emanates paternity in his performance. It’s made all the more tragic once you realize the inevitable discovery and confrontation that’s coming down the line. Additionally, Sandra Oh who voices Debbie Grayson could just as easily been regulated as merely the wife of Omini-Man and Mark’s mother. Instead, she’s given her own agency and a much more active role with a sassy wit to boot. There’s one specifically poignant scene in the first episode between mother and son where Debbie proves that she may not have superpowers, she is anything but ordinary.
In addition to the aforementioned lead characters, the rest of the voice cast is made up of some of the best in the business. Seriously, just look at that full cast list. It’s not at all that surprising considering that Linda Lamontagne is the casting director for the show. Lamontagne, whose resume as a casting director for animation boasts amazing credentials such as Robot Chicken and Family Guy, casts for animation voiceover on the same level as someone like Allison Jones for live-action.
In all honestly, there’s not a single instance of miscasting. Jason Mantzoukas, who is no stranger to voiceover and has mastered playing douchey a-hole characters into an art form, is a particular highlight as Mark’s fellow superhero colleague Rex Splode. He’s the perfect heel for Invincible and practically owns every scene he’s in. Rex Splode is the superhero you love to hate.
Overall, Invincible the animated series is a perfect reflection of the superhero himself. A bit rough around the edges at first but shows immense potential to stand among the greats in the superhero game if given time to properly develop.
The first 3 episodes of Invincible are available now on Prime Video.