Comic book kings Marvel and DC currently rule Hollywood with their various movie and TV universes. But lesser-known creators have had a pretty good time of it lately as well. Take, for example, comic book writer Robert Kirkman, whose efforts at Image Comics have resulted in hit series on AMC (“The Walking Dead” and its various spinoffs) and Cinemax (“Outcast”). Now comes an adaptation of yet another Kirkman creation, the head-spinning superhero series “Invincible.”
“Invincible” has been brought to life as an animated series by Amazon Prime. It tells the story of young Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yuen from “The Walking Dead”), a teenager whose dad just happens to be the most powerful and most famous superhero on Earth, the high-flying Omni Man (voiced by J.K. Simmons, no stranger to superheros, having portrayed J. Jonah Jamison in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy). While dad is hailed as a hero the world over, poor Mark has yet to come into his genetic superpowers and must content himself with being an ordinary, nerdy high schooler.
One day, though, Mark’s powers kick in and he inherits dad’s strength, invulnerability and supersonic flight skills. What follows is a good-natured, almost entirely straight-faced coming-of-age tale about a young boy being mentored by his super-powered pop. At the same time, our protagonist is stuck dealing with all the usual teenage woes: school, popularity, dating. … Although fans of the comic book already know this narrative quickly goes off in a very different direction. Those unfamiliar with the source material will most likely be brought up to speed during the jaw-dropping, hyperviolent twist ending to the show’s pilot episode. It looks sunny and colorful and family friendly. But watch out, brother; “Invincible” is just lulling you into a false sense of security.
Revisionist superheros are nothing new, really. Since the late-’80s, re-examining the myth of the American superhero has grown so common as to become a cliché in its own right. (See for reference: Marvelman/Miracleman, The Dark Knight Returns, Bratpack, Watchmen, The Killing Joke, The Authority, The Boys, Kick-Ass, Umbrella Academy.) Kirkman’s twisted take on a superhero-filled world isn’t exactly groundbreaking. Like “The Boys” (the shock value-loving comic book and the darkly demented Amazon series) before it, “Invincible” spends most of its time satirizing the tried and true. The characters on display here are clearly modeled after DC’s Justice League. Omni Man is a Superman riff, right down to his alien origins. We also end up meeting slightly altered versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter. While it might be nice to see a modern superhero take that breaks completely free from the genre’s 70-year-old roots, “Invincible” succeeds by offering up some genuine, “did not see that coming” moments. Kirkman starts by sticking to extremely familiar superhero tropes, but slowly tears them to shreds as the story progresses.
The animation on “Invincible” isn’t particularly stylish, but it gets the job done, and the clean-line look mirrors the classic work artist Cory Walker contributed to the original comic book run. Episodes run upwards of an hour, giving the show plenty of time to develop its story and its characters. While there’s loads of action on display—what with the parade of supervillains threatening national monuments and aliens invading major metropolises—”Invincible” finds room to really bring its characters to life. The relationship between Mark and his unflappable suburban mom (Sandra Oh from “Killing Eve”) is particularly well-drawn. The show also has the luxury of dwelling on its small moments. Watching young Mark revel in his newfound ability to fly though the air elicits a genuine feeling of freedom, joy and awe. Viewers are reminded of the wish-fulfillment fantasies that drew them to comic books in the first place. And it’s these human moments, spread among the wide cast of characters, that allow “Invincible” to punch home its comic elements and its more outrageous, “WTF” scenes.
The best that can be said about this show is that it earns your attention. If it was all table-flipping, expectation-shattering twists on the superhero genre, it would be wearying. But it’s not trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Unlike “The Boys,” “Invincible” isn’t cynical about its milieu. Kirkman is more realistic than the average comic book writer about what certain people might do, given superhuman powers. But he doesn’t imagine every person in a cape as a vain, self-serving, misanthropic asshole.
Funny, exciting, dramatic and surprisingly bloody when it needs to be, “Invincible” walks a fine line. These tonal shifts would be much harder to navigate if not for the expert voice case—which also includes the likes of Lauren Cohan, Sonequa Martin-Green and Michael Cudlitz (three more “Walking Dead” cast members) plus Zachary Quinto, Gillian Jacobs, Walton Goggins, Seth Rogen, Zazie Beetz, Clancey Brown, Mark Hamill and Jon Hamm.
In the last 30 years, comic books have come a long way toward establishing themselves as thoughtful adult entertainment. In the last 15 years, superhero movies have followed suit. Now, with Amazon’s “Invincible,” an animated TV series can say the same.
BOX: The first three episodes of “Invincible” Season 1 are available now on Amazon Prime. New episodes premiere every Friday.