Amazon Prime Video's Invincible brings guts, gore and grit to a superhero coming-of-age tale
The world of Invincible is a pastiche of DC and Marvel comics, and everything between and beyond
Amazon's new animated superhero series, Invincible, comes hot on the heels of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Zack Snyder’s Justice League and WandaVision. We keep talking about reaching a point of superhero saturation, but the entertainment behemoths keep moving the goal line. Yet, it has to be said Invincible's arrival may be at least a decade too late. When Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker's Image Comics series debuted in 2002, there was a familiarity and freshness to it. There was the "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" familiarity to its coming-of-age story of an average teen with above-average abilities trying to survive high school, love triangles and intergalactic invasions.
The comic’s freshness came from exploring courses classic Marvel and DC hadn't. Its "What if superheroes break bad?" preceded that of Garth Ennis's The Boys (also an Amazon series). Its blood-and-guts story didn’t shy away from the human cost of collateral damage, and it got there long before Mark Millar's Kick-Ass (also a film franchise) and Mark Waid's Irredeemable (whose inevitable adaptation is surely imminent).
Sure, every meaningful deconstruction of the superhero genre can be traced back to Watchmen (also a movie and an HBO series). But Alan Moore's 12-volume run ended way back in 1987. Kirkman's Invincible began its run months after Sam Raimi's Spider-Man had broken box-office records, ushering in the still on-going wave of superhero blockbusters. Had Invincible received an adaptation in its wake, it may have been a fitting companion piece. It may have even birthed the Kirkman-aissance long before The Walking Dead's popularity spread and peaked like a pandemic.
Timing aside, Invincible must contend with the mainstreaming of geek culture. Global audiences are now so fluent in superhero-speak and grammar, we've reached a point where everything feels recycled. The season premiere of the show kicks off in the most conventional fashion: a superhero squad takes on baddies intent on killing the President. It's a regular smackdown, which shifts to a regular high-school story of a teenager trying to stand up to bullies and crushing on classmates.
Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun) is as ordinary as teenagers come. When we first meet him, he is reading comics about crime-fighting dogs in the can. But he won’t remain ordinary for long. On his seventh birthday, his father Nolan (JK Simmons) reveals he is Omni-Man, an extra-terrestrial being of Viltrumite origin. Viltrum, like Krypton, is home to an advanced race of humanoids with heightened physical abilities. So, Mark eagerly waits for the day he will inherit his father's superpowers.
When they finally manifest, Kirkman treats us to the pure joys of discovering extraordinary gifts: the head rush of flying for the first time, the pain of a heavy landing, and the excitement of testing one's limits. Though he doesn’t neglect the complications that come from being an adolescent superhero, he reduces them to a male-centric fantasy. Three episodes in, Mark already finds himself torn between high-school classmate Amber Bennett (Zazie Beetz) and Teen Team colleague Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs).
Over the course of the story, Mark will learn "great power comes with great responsibility" the hard way. For what keeps a fledgling superhero from not giving into his id-centred instincts and tyrannising the powerless but the superego which keeps his alter-ego grounded. Invincible is very much about Mark learning he isn't entirely invincible despite his chosen superhero name.
Unlike her husband and son, Debbie Grayson (Sandra Oh) possesses no superpowers. At one point, Mark makes her feel lesser for it. Debbie however stands firm, before brushing it off with a joke. When Nolan trains Mark in the superhero business, there's a rite-of-passage scene where the two play a round of catch in the sky. Their backs turned to each other, Nolan throws the baseball hard enough to circle the Earth, for Mark to catch it on its return. It's a tender moment of father-son bonding for sure. But the more time Mark begins to spend with Nolan, the more he drifts away from his mother. It's these moments, which examine the impact of superheroics on traditional family dynamics, that could have made Invincible a far more insightful show. But they are few and far between.
In Episode 2, when Mark meets a worthy adversary for the first time, he understands the cost of super-powered warfare. In the grisly spectacle of humans as bags of blood and meat (the realism of Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley's art rendered in lurid detail), he is left helpless and traumatised by all the death. Mid-battle on Atom Eve's instructions, he rushes a wounded woman to a hospital. When she succumbs, he's visibly shaken. But he's moved on to the next battle by the next episode. By omitting the psychological aftermath, it fails to probe what makes a superhero human. The literal to figurative transition of taking out the trash, so to speak, comes with little emotional cost.
The world of Invincible is a pastiche of DC and Marvel comics, and everything between and beyond. The Guardians of the Globe is a straight derivative of the Justice League. The moustachioed Omni-Man, the scowling Darkwing, and the fierce-but-compassionate War Woman are clear stand-ins for Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman (respectively). They are the first line of defence against world-ending threats. Tackling the smaller, non-apocalyptic threats are groups like the Teen Team. Similar to DC's Teen Titans, their powers are hyperboles of their character traits. The superheroes in Invincible embrace the spotlight like their counterparts in The Boys, but they still hide their secret identities from the public.
Baddies of the week range from evil twins to alien invaders to kaijus. Standout supporting characters include Damien Darkblood (Clancy Brown), a demon from Hell who doubles as a private detective. His fedora hat-trench coat-purple suit combo evokes the attire of Rorschach, while his appearance and demeanour bring to mind Hellboy. Jason Mantzoukas voices Teen Team member Rex Splode, a douchey superhero version of his stock character. Seth Rogen voices an alien called Allen, and tries to ring in some cheap laughs. There’s Monster Girl (Grey Griffin as the girl, Kevin Michael Richardson as the monster), a mid-20s woman cursed to grow younger each time she transforms into the monster. There’s even an A.R.G.U.S.-like shadowy government agency headed by Cecil Stedman (Walton Goggins).
From the three episodes we've seen so far, Invincible seems like a straightforward adaptation for the most part. Kirkman will, however, need to break the narrative mould of his own source material, and up the stakes to keep the audiences — those who have read the books and those haven't — guessing. His first attempt at remoulding the material comes in the opening episode just as the credits start to appear. Stick around for the extended post-credits scene, which pulls the rug under your feet. It's bloody and shocking in a Red Wedding-way, only without the build-up or the payoff. How effectively Kirkman continues to betray audience’s formula-fed assumptions will make or break Amazon’s new superhero show.
Invincible begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video from 26 March, with new episodes to follow every Friday.
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