Voice work from Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, Mahershala Ali, Seth Rogen, J.K. Simmons, Zazie Beetz and Jason Mantzoukas highlights the new animated series from Robert Kirkman
When it comes to new stories and depictions of superheroes in media, there’s often a tug of war between two key approaches, with very little room in between. The Marvel formula of earnest, awe-inspiring melodrama derived from (ironically) the George Miller Superman films of the 70s and 80s continues to be endlessly compared by critics and fans to the more cynical, grimly dark exercises in nihilism found in many DC movies and even Amazon’s two-season, live-action superhero series The Boys. This week, Amazon is attempting to capture an equal amount of both tonal approaches with their next superhero show, Invincible, an exciting animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s hit comic book series, which began in 2003.
Fans of The Walking Dead will certainly recognize Kirkman’s adoration of gore-infused violence, here — he is the show’s creator, as well — but even hardcore loyalists of the material might find these bloody asides oddly placed in what is essentially an R-rated Sky High, somehow oozing with Saturday morning cartoon energy. “Walking Dead” fans may also recognize the voice of Steven Yeun as Mark Grayson, the teenage son of Earth’s mightiest hero, Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). Upon realizing his own inherited superpowers, Mark begins to train as “Invincible,” often facing the more realistic traumas of doing battle with serious criminals and even armies of aliens who really are trying to kill him.
It isn’t long before this high-octane delight of a show makes it clear to its perhaps unsuspecting audience that Invincible goes by the same story-bending kill ratio of something like Attack on Titan or (fittingly) The Walking Dead, where you really don’t know who might just die at any second. For example, while trying to step in heroically to stop an alien invasion, using all of the dialogue and bravado he’s gleaned from his in-universe comic book obsession, Mark finds himself utterly frozen as dozens of people are brutally slaughtered by laser fire right in front him — yes, for once the lasers actually do serious damage.
What doesn’t hit quite as hard is the interpersonal drama, at least in the first three episodes of Invincible. Mark’s angst is rooted in a believable insecurity over how strong and capable he can really become, as he can’t even imagine living up to his father’s almost mythic legacy. But the show tends to snip these more interesting developments with a few brief and implausibly nice (and I mean Ted Lasso nice) resolutions, particularly between Mark and his mother, Debbie (Sandra Oh), who go from a tense standoff one moment to a painfully trite heart-to-heart the next. The show also falls short when it comes to defining Mark’s central motivation. Why does he look up to superheroes, so much? Why does he want this job for himself? The show practically begins with him already knowing the answer to these important questions, but the audience is left to fill in the blank with what might be the most boring explanation. Because, well, why not be a superhero, if you had the chance?
This is all well and good enough for a Spider-Man meets Watchmen series (or perhaps Spider-Man, if Peter Parker became a superhero in the same continuity as The Boys) where the real fun is in punching the villains and outwitting their evil plans. But the inclusion of a gratuitous edge has yet to make thematic sense within Mark’s Hercules journey from “son of a famous god” to “hero in training.” The show occasionally dabbles with Mark’s aversion to the job’s most ardent challenges in one episode, but then in the next he’s fighting a supervillain ripped from maybe Incredibles 2 outside Mount Rushmore and hoping he can make it back home for a make-out session. The show, while thoroughly entertaining and addicting, clearly hasn’t quite found a consistent rhythm for its mature storytelling mixed with the kind of bombastic action fantasy that might’ve made you love comics as a teen. But in that vein, it does offer a steady stream of cliffhangers and WTF moments that allude to something much deeper and more rewarding down the road. In other words, Invincible knows how to hook its audience and doesn’t pull any punches in doing so.
Some of the show’s best set up so far is certainly in its fleshing out of a world teeming with superheroes and the people who manage them. Mark consistently meets other metahumans as he embarks on his hero career, many of them bolstered by a truly jaw-dropping voice cast. There are of course the welcome, animation mainstays, like Mark Hamill from Batman: The Animated Series, Grey Griffin from The Fairly Oddparents, and Clancy Brown from SpongeBob Squarepants. But also a robust ensemble of unexpected voices, including Mahershala Ali, Jon Hamm, Lauren Cohan, Zachary Quinto, Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, Jason Mantzoukas, Walton Goggins, Seth Rogen, and many more.
As the universe of Invincible expands, and as these characters settle into more intriguing story arcs, a lot of the growing pains will hopefully sort themselves out as well. Like Mark Grayson himself, this seriously epic series shows a tremendous amount of potential, though fans of the comic will quickly notice that the main thrust of the original narrative has been tightened and streamlined quite a bit, to the point where the show rapidly departs from the slower ramping up of its source material — do not be quick to turn off the show when the credits of the first episode kick in. For some, they might scratch their heads trying to figure out why a show this graphic and dark still tries so hard to be sincere and nearly kid-friendly in its tone, while quite literally knocking teeth out all the way through. But at the same time, it’s nice to see at least one superhero property at least trying to capture the full spectrum of what makes us so annoyingly obsessed with them.
Episodes 1-3 of Invincible premiere Friday, March 26 exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
Image courtesy of Amazon Studios