We are living, for better or worse, within a golden age (adaptation-wise) of comic-book superhero deconstruction. There’s a lot of retread going on, and somewhere along the way, “gritty” takes happened, and it’s all quite dizzying. So, it’s easy to think, “Been there, done that” about a new Amazon Prime TV series that very clearly aims to dismantle the superhero on the heels of The Boys, which does so commandingly and with the air of having the last word. It’s true that Invincible takes a similar approach to ultra-violence, and it explores similar themes; yet it’s worth pointing out that The Boys (Garth Ennis’ comic launched years after Robert Kirkman’s Invincible) just happened to have landed first on Amazon. It swung big and succeeded mightily, too, with multiple spinoffs already in development, all while being proudly ostentatious. The Boys landed at the right time in 2019, and it skewered superheroes after the DCEU lost its tonal footing, and as the MCU played things safe throughout the Infinity Saga. So, one might wonder if The Boys could overshadow the quieter merits of Invincible from being recognized since it is, overall, a more contemplative series (aside from the intense action and violence).
However, a groundswell of anticipation exists. An Invincible adaptation — based upon the comic (which ran for 15 freaking years, concluding in 2018) written by The Walking Dead creator (Kirkman, alongside artist Cory Walker) — really has been a long time coming. A live-action movie should eventually arrive and co-exist with this animated show. Both projects can boast Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg as executive producers, so that should tell everyone (even those unfamiliar with the comic) about this show’s sensibilities (or glorious lack thereof), since they’re onboard with The Boys, too. As with The Boys, there’s a lot of DC and Marvel easter eggs and references, and Invincible has a ball with those elements, at least in the first three episodes screened for critics. It’s a good time, even if the show slowly paces itself while introducing this world, which is a lot like a tweaked-up, vibrantly visual version of our own world.
Also tellingly, though, is the fact that this is a Kirkman project, and since he’s the guy who made zombie fare compelling again, one would hope that this show would put a fresh spin on, well, lighting the asses of superheroes on fire. Not only that, but several TWD universe cast members (including Lauren Cohan, Lennie James, Ross Marquand, Chad Coleman, and Michael Cudlitz) are onboard as supporting characters, and the ace in the hole would be leading man Steven Yeun. Add in J.K. Simmons and Sandra Oh in the other leading roles (alongside the likes of Seth Rogen, Walton Goggins, Jason Mantzoukas, Zazie Beetz, Zachary Quinto, and Mark Hamill), and this series is making the case (to me, at least, since I’m sometimes a skeptic in this department) that piling on famous voices can be the right approach for an animated action series.
Those famous vocals likely represent a lot of where the Invincible budget went — hey, I’m not saying that in a bad way. The animation style is very 1990s and filled with blocky shapes and pops of color, including gore and vomit and all that. It’s still fascinating to gawk at, perhaps because we’re so used to unreal-looking CGI these days. We meet Mark Grayson (Yeun, who is consistently great), a 17-year old who only wants to follow in the footsteps of his dad, Omni-Man/Nolan Grayson (Simmons), who’s the greatest superhero on Earth and also rocks an impressive mustache. Mark’s mom, Deborah (Oh) is human, and she’s doing most of the upbringing while dad is off superhero-ing. When Mark comes into his powers, we’ve obviously got a coming-of-age story and the attempted bridging of a gulf between father and son. Mark’s also grappling with a whole new set of moral dilemmas (and there’s more than a suggestion that dad is not all-heroic), which are dealt with in a surprisingly methodical manner.
In that way, Invincible is a more grounded series than expected for an animated comic-book adaptation. There’s also less satire than Kirkman’s source material, and overall, the subject matter is quite graphic when it comes to ultra-violence, but there’s no superhero sex club in the wings (like with The Boys) or a Superman/Captain America-type character ejaculating all over a city. Despite the frequent spattering of blood, Invincible doesn’t otherwise aim to be lurid for the sake of it. Instead, it’s got a story with nuance and heart, including a Peter Parker-like character who doesn’t get to have as much fun coming into his powers as Shazam! does. Instead, Mark’s juggling newfound abilities while attempting to also do the teenage thing.
With that said, Invincible still makes a lot of time, maybe even too much (the episodes each clock in at over 40 minutes and have credits scenes), to toss javelins at existing superhero archetypes and tropes that are relied upon by the MCU and DCEU. Within the wide array of characters who enter the mayhem, fans will easily be able to point out Justice League and Teen Titans and Young Avengers counterparts. The show also smartly sets up a mystery while taking great pain to flesh out the central trio and several supporting characters with richly textured personalities. I especially enjoyed Sandra Oh’s no-nonsense, badass lady. In the show, she’s written to take no garbage from her son or husband, and that’s not the only way the show shakes up the usual superheroes-and-the-women-who-love-them tropes.
For sure, there’s no getting around how Invincible will be mentioned in the same breath as The Boys. Comparisons are unavoidable, yet this is not a zero-sum game. There’s plenty of room in nerd hearts to accept more quality superhero TV shows, after HBO’s Watchmen and The Boys stood out as recent, superior examples — and TV, as a medium, is doing so much better lately at deconstructing superheroes while big-screen attempts can falter. Sometimes, the results can be stunning, like when Damon Lindelof completely retooled Alan Moore’s graphic novel to unite the present with a past that’s never been reconciled (and taking down Zack Snyder’s film version in the process). Meanwhile, The Boys clung closer to the comics and drenched itself in cynicism, along with buckets of blood and other bodily fluids, and now, we’re getting a slightly quieter and (emotionally) more gentle story from Invincible. It’s admittedly an adjustment to reconcile the story’s violence and the softer side of the show. The juxtaposition can be jarring, but this Robert Kirkman adaptation makes a promising start.
Amazon Prime’s ‘Invincible’ will debut three episodes on March 26 with followups arriving weekly until the April 30 finale.