When did comic book stories become mainstream? For me, it was 2010, when The Walking Dead premiered and brought comics to the small screen in a huge way. The FX series shattered TV-ratings records and was designed to continue for years in the way that comic books do, mining from nearly two hundred issues of source-material. While The Walking Dead is set to end next year, an adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s other popular publication, Invincible, is making its debut in a television landscape now filled with all kinds of sprawling, complex shows based on comics.
The animated series, also created by Kirkman and distributed by Amazon, follows teenager Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun) as he grows into the powers he inherited from his Superman-like alien father, Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). Giving himself the titular moniker, Mark must learn to control and use these special abilities, which include flight, super-strength, and invulnerability, all while still attending high school. He is aided by his mother, Debbie (Sandra Oh), and his best friend, William (Andrew Rannells), while his romantic attention vacillates between classmate Amber (Zazie Beetz) and superpowered teammate Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs).
At first, Invincible comes across like a tiringly traditional superhero saga, especially when compared to the past decade’s worth of bold small-screen storytelling within the genre. The series opens with a nine-minute world-saving sequence in which a Justice Leaguesque crew of heroes battle baddies who are attacking The White House. Despite coming from Image Comics and Skybound, the animation is sturdy and standard, reminiscent of shows from the DC Animated Universe. The pilot episode has a lot of run-of-the-mill writing, including several significant father-son talks and capital-I Important Lessons.
Here’s the good news, though: Invincible is not what it first seems.
Readers of the comics will know there’s a shocking twist early on that throws the entire series’ premise into question. The adaptation, to its benefit, reshuffles some plot points and emphasizes certain characters in order to make that defining moment even more upsetting and destabilizing on screen. The simplistic set-up, a lighthearted throwback that calls to mind beloved teen hero characters like Peter Parker, is only the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface, there’s a much darker series, one in which major threats against humanity are by turns hilariously commonplace and upsettingly relentless.
Fans of Kirkman’s comics may be hesitant to embrace some of the series’ aesthetic changes — which seem more in line with Amazon’s other superhero show, The Boys — as it thrives on exploding heads and buckets of animated blood. Yet despite its taste for violence, Invincible is not as inherently callous or caustic as The Boys and still manages to temper its darker moments with homages and jokes that are rooted in pure love for all things superhero. Plus, the series smartly brings some characters into sharper definition. Debbie, for example, comes off as one-dimensional early in the comics, yet Oh already imbues her with a vital sense of strength and personality in the three episodes that were available to critics ahead of the series debut.
Invincible also boasts one of the most impressive voice casts of any series in recent memory. Joining the main players are Mark Hamill, Jon Hamm, Walton Goggins, Zachary Quinto, Mahershala Ali, Jason Mantzoukas, and Nicole Byer, and that’s only about half of the standouts. In one of the series’ most perfect bits of casting, Seth Rogen pops up as a dopey alien named Allen. Meanwhile. Yeun, fresh off an Academy Award nomination for Minari, establishes himself as a nimble voice actor. He’s excellent as a boy on the brink of adulthood who must often balance his own youthful confidence — several other characters point out the blind optimism of naming oneself Invincible — with the infuriating and exhausting reality of the world around him.
Within the constellation of superhero TV shows, Invincible might have shined a bit brighter if it had been made sooner — before the format became overcrowded with programs attempting to one-up each other in terms of cleverness and visual originality. Despite this, the series still stands on its own as having an intriguing and surprising story led by an inimitable cast. Kirkman’s comic ran for one-hundred-and-forty-four issues, taking readers to astonishing and fantastic places. I only hope that the TV version of Invincible, with its clear love for the heroes that came before, also gets the chance to grow into the epic it aims to be.
Invincible kicks off with a three-episode premiere on Amazon Prime Video on March 26th.