tv review

Invincible Offers Superheroes With a Side of More Superheroes

This is only a fraction of the costumed heroes you will meet in Invincible. Photo: Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Invincible, a new series premiering tomorrow on Amazon Prime Video, is an hour-long animated superhero drama with the violence of The Boys, the storytelling structure of a Netflix drama, the look of the animated ’90s X-Men, and the outlook of … this part I’m still not entirely sure about.

The TV series is based on a comic book series of the same name by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker, and it’s another interesting entry in the growing pantheon of movies and TV shows that want to take the idea of superheroes seriously in one way or another. There are many ways of interpreting exactly what “seriously” means, and for superheroes, the options are usually big budgets, adult themes, gritty aesthetics, or gore. Or the seriousness can be something like psychological realism, a baseline assumption that superheroes might be people with uneven motives, petty grudges, and simple human desires.

Invincible flirts with many of these approaches. Its central story is about a teenager named Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun) whose father Nolan (J.K. Simmons) is a Superman-inspired all-powerful superhero named Omni-Man. When teenage Mark begins exhibiting some of his father’s superpowers, rather than making a clean break from his dad (via death or alienation), Invincible sticks with the messier discomfort of their changing relationship. It’s not that they’re enemies, or that Omni-Man is a nightmarish father, but the show explores a more nuanced connection between them that continues even after it introduces some big and shocking heel turns. That sort of thing is true throughout the show, which is as interested in Mark’s fumbling efforts at teen love as it is in his superpowers, and is clearly reaching toward some big, shattering self-realizations for Mark, even though they’re not yet realized in the first three episodes, which drop tomorrow followed by a weekly rollout of the remaining five. But beyond the nuance of Mark’s relationship with his dad, Invincible doesn’t dig that deeply into the psychological portraits of its (massive) cast.

Its other big moves into “serious” superhero territory are via big budgets and gore. Its overall look is a far cry from the super-sad coffee-stained darkness characteristic of the “What If Superheroes, But Important” genre, thank goodness. Invincible looks like a pristine, loving glow-up of the mid-’90s Saturday morning cartoon, full of primary colors and big, stark motion. But it’s also a demonstration of just how much gore you can see with a bright color palette and bold lines. It turns out blood looks very bloody when it’s regularly splashed across the screen in vermillion gashes rather than the dripping dark pools of a Batman movie.

As for budget, Invincible’s intended cultural heft is maybe most obvious in the impressive combined firepower of its voice cast, which is on full display over the first three episodes provided to critics. There are so many superheroes in this show, enough that I kept the show’s Wikipedia page open at all times while watching, just trying to keep track of who I was hearing. There’s Yeun and Simmons, there’s Sandra Oh as Mark’s mother, and there’s also Zazie Beetz, Mark Hamill, Gillian Jacobs, Mahershala Ali, Jon Hamm, Jason Mantzoukas, Mae Whitman, Seth Rogen, and the list really does go on. The sheer tonnage of characters is due in part to a twist that happens early in the show that I will not spoil, but even once the twist is underway, the number of names and powers and relationships is almost overwhelming. It feels purposeful as a form of storytelling complexity: It’s not just about Mark’s adolescence, it’s also about a big world of overlapping plots and motives that Mark’s wandering into without knowing what he’s taken on.

The number of characters, and Invincible’s broader narrative shape, also feel pointed back at the seriousness goal. It has some of the Netflix slosh of heavily serialized drama, with plot points and character beats falling a little haphazardly in each episode. But there are sly, winking formal gestures, too, like an opening title card that comes crashing in much of the way into the first episode, arriving at an especially surprising moment.

Taken all together, there’s something not quite settled about Invincible, something that touches back on my opening uncertainty about what precisely this show is reaching for. It has the violence of The Boys, but it lacks that show’s steely cynicism about what superheroes are and what their cultural status means. It has the fun teen drama of some of the CW superhero shows, particularly in the sections about Mark’s dating life and the painful experience of high school, but at least within the first three episodes, Invincible is reaching for something less soapy and less sincere. It wants to turn superheroes inside out, to make them people, to make its audience (and its characters!) question the role of superheroes in society. But it also wants alien invasions and clones that escape from jail with nefarious purposes, and it wants us to sympathize with the heroes who take down the baddies.

Three episodes in, it’s still difficult to say what Invincible will develop into. That seems purposeful. The show doesn’t want to be like the half-hour digestible Saturday morning cartoon its animation style evokes; its storytelling model is closer to an hour-long Netflix drama. The series has a palpable “more of an eight-hour movie” thing going on, and the potential of that model is that it will all coalesce in the end into this glorious, big, transfixing story. But the pitfall is that it makes these opening episodes a little weaker; there are so many characters happening here, so many story threads to put in place, that it’s hard to know what to invest in as a viewer. Still, if “animated hour-long superhero drama” is a thing with any appeal, there’s likely going to be at least some of part of Invincible that piques your interest. But it’s too early to say whether the whole season will pull together into something greater than its many parts.

Invincible Offers Superheroes and a Side of More Superheroes