When I first heard about the adult animated series, Invincible, coming to Amazon Prime, I was curious but unconvinced that what the world really needed was yet another superhero entry. Early positive buzz had me hopeful, but this was still a genre that seemed overly bloated. Could an animated iteration really add something compelling enough to hold its own against everything Marvel and DC have been throwing at us?
The answer is yes.
This show is good. And not only because it opened with a John Hamm-voiced character delivering a heartfelt speech about his troubled son right before the world explodes around him. The voice acting cast of Robert Kirkman’s latest venture is literally spilling over with eyebrow-raising talent. Headlined by Steven Yuen, Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, and just about every actor who’s uttered a line in The Walking Dead, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
Michael Cudlitz with a Russian accent? Check. Sonequa Martin-Green as Green Ghost. Oh boy! Zachary Quinto as Robot. What?! Clancy Brown as Damien Darkblood and Mahershala Ali as Titan. Good god. Ross Marquand as just about everyone else. Yup. Mark Hamill is easy to miss for the uninitiated ear but, as is expected, is wonderful as Art.
Beyond the star-studded cast, there’s a retro look to the show that’s drawn me in. Not only is it a pretty faithful-looking representation of imagery from the printed source material, the quaint animation just takes me back. I can squint my eyes and almost see some of the beloved animated shows of my youth. Robotech, Voltron, Transformers. It’s an element of nostalgia I didn’t know I needed.
But this is not ThunderCats. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Amazon’s Invincible is most definitely a Kirkman enterprise and it isn’t long before the writer’s signature brand of visceral brutality is on display.
A quick introduction of the Guardians of the Globe propels you into the twisted world of Invincible, one super goody after another, including an overpowered Omni-Man, waging battle against the evil Mauler Twins.
There are some serious The Boys vibes on display here. Red Rush messily losing his lunch after a quick save of some civilians could have just as well been A-Train overly-amped on Compound V. Later, the parallels of J.K. Simmon’s Omni-Man to Antony Starr’s Homelander are inescapable.
Early on, we understand that this is not going to be another run-of-the-mill superhero origin story set within a bizarro DC Comics universe. By the time Yuen’s Mark Grayson begins to gain his Viltrumite abilities, his super-powered father, Nolan, is less than enthusiastic. A few minutes later, the hammer-blow punch to Mark’s gut seems a bit more than just the tough-love lesson about the realities of the hero profession Nolan claims.
Omni-Man’s irritability and impatience betray the fact that there’s something sinister going on beneath the surface with this Superman analog. Of course, by the end of the premiere episode, what’s coming is far worse than whatever suspicions non-comic book readers might have been harboring.
That end to episode 1 is fairly unprecedented in this genre, animated or otherwise. But it’s the long, careful lead-up, introducing every individual doomed Guardian, that really makes it pop and shock. The hook is enormously compelling and had me ready to jump right into the second episode to find out exactly what I just witnessed. From there, momentum took over and Thursday nights can’t come soon enough.
For all the focus on the big twist and what comes after, for me, it’s Oscar nominee Steven Yeun who’s driving the success of Invincible. His voice performance as Mark hits all the right notes, capturing the range from unearned confidence all the way through deep, teenage awkwardness and crippling self-doubt. The world of Invincible might trace its roots to DC, but there’s no mistaking that Mark’s modeled after Peter Parker. Yeun is bringing that aspect to life in spades and it’s a lot of fun to watch.
Much of what we’ve observed from those opening sequences of Mark learning to fly and throughout the next several episodes has been the journey of Invincible the boy becoming a hero. After a series of adventures and the thread of the ongoing investigation, including the web of suspicions it spawns, episode 5 brings us to a critical turning point. The fleeting image of Nolan floating overhead, gazing down at the sight of his broken, grievously injured son was as ominous as anything we’ve seen thus far.
It’s a stark contrast from the second episode when Omni-Man comes to the aid of his overmatched son as he’s being beaten down by Djimon Hounsou’s Martian Emperor. With only a handful of episodes left, the sense of urgency is becoming palpable and I’m eager to find out where all this is heading.
I don’t know if the appeal of this show lasts more than a couple of seasons. Having come from Kirkman, it’s hard not to look at this series through the prism of The Walking Dead. The contempt that that show has aimed at its audience over the last half-decade is hard to shake. Perhaps that’s unfair given where we are in the TWD lifespan, but the way that Cudlitz’s Red Rush goes out definitely had me remembering the PTSD I felt after we lost Abraham and Glenn to Negan’s Lucille. It’s a grisly sequence, even in this animated implementation.
One thing’s for certain, between Invincible and The Boys, Amazon owns a monopoly on over-the-top superhero violence. But Invincible isn’t merely the animated version of The Boys. Sure, there’s some shared connective tissue between Kirkman’s affinity for centering stories around flawed anti-heroes much like what we see from Eric Kripke. And the satirical edge is obvious throughout. But the writers of this newer series have styled it with a compelling family drama and coming-of-age story at its core.
And unlike The Boys, watching an episode of Invincible isn’t an exercise in enduring a constant, vague sense of dread. I enjoy The Boys. But where it’s mostly concerned with laying waste to the idealized fiction of superheroes as inherently good and benevolent within a backdrop of near-constant cruelty and carnage, Invincible chiefly stays rooted in the tropes of the classic DC Comics stories it’s modeled after. There’s a comfort in that. And as disturbing as some parts of it can be, there’s a decided element of joy in watching Invincible that’s often lacking from The Boys.
Coming on the heels of Zach Snyder’s 4-hour behemoth, the timing of Invincible feels right. The long-feared superhero media oversaturation and audience fatigue might come someday, but between what Marvel’s doing on Disney+ and shows like Invincible, I think we’re still a ways off from driving over that proverbial cliff. Invincible’s all-star cast, snappy dialog, and compelling subplots are driving this bus forward in unique ways and I’m looking forward to where this delightfully irreverent show takes us.