“Invincible” soars high above today’s superhero media landscape, giving viewers a refreshing take on the genre.
The following review contains spoilers for season one of Invincible.
Back in March, I was lucky enough to attend a virtual screening of Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” starring Steven Yeun (read A&E editor Hemmy’s phenomenal review of it here). I couldn’t get enough of Yeun’s performance. I consumed every interview and profile piece on him in existence, but it wasn’t enough — I needed more. I’d tried watching “The Walking Dead” in the past but found that it just wasn’t my cup of tea, though Yeun still delivers a memorable performance, as many Walking Dead fans can attest. I was interested in watching “Burning,” but the two-hour runtime felt too daunting. Enter: “Invincible.”
“Invincible” is an eight-episode adult — emphasis on the adult — animated series based on the Image Comics series of the same name. Steven Yeun delivers a remarkably natural performance as Mark Grayson, a regular 17-year-old high schooler, as he figures out how to balance his relationship, family life, work, extracurriculars and oh, yeah, living up to being the son of the world’s most powerful superhero. With a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, and Jason Mantzoukas, it would have been easy for this show to lean on its cast’s starpower to draw viewers in. Instead, these stars serve as the cherry on top to a well-written and well-paced show.
Throughout the series we often see ordinary and quotidian moments juxtaposed with intense, fast-paced action; this constant switch in pace immediately draws viewers in, never knowing when things could take a turn. The first episode of “Invincible” opens with a conversation between two White House security guards about the many mundanities of their lives: crisis training, step-sons, vacations, etc. This scene sets a mellow tone that leaves viewers wondering where this could possibly be heading. Suddenly, the ground begins to shake, as the massive blue-skinned Mauler Twins erupt out of it armed with guns, the size of which only makes sense in a super-world. What follows is a fast-paced, action-packed, and engaging introduction to this world’s best superhero team: The Guardians of the Globe. This fight scene gives viewers a small taste of the many battles that the show has in store, with smooth, flowing animation that makes every punch and kick immensely satisfying to watch.
In the midst of this fight, we’re introduced to Omni-Man, the world’s greatest hero. Omni-Man’s immense strength and ability is made clear in his first scene, as he defeats the Mauler Twins with relative ease, making it back home just in time for breakfast with his wife Debbie (Sandra Oh). At home he ceases to be Omni-Man, instead taking on the role of father and husband Nolan Grayson. He’s shown to be a warm and affectionate father, trying to cheer Mark up after the latter is disillusioned with his lack of powers, telling him “they’re bound to come in any day now.” Their relationship evolves over the course of the series, but always serves to anchor Mark as he struggles to acclimate to his newly gained powers and the Invincible lifestyle, something that makes the season’s finale so devastating to watch (more on that later).
“Invincible” excels at weaving together a number of different subplots, both super and non-super, without losing focus of the bigger picture or neglecting character development in favor of reaching the finish line. At the end of the first episode, we’re treated to the first of many twists in this series, as Omni-Man sadistically beats and murders all seven of the Guardians in a shower of blood and viscera. This scene serves as an immediate hook, leaving viewers on the edge of their seats wondering what the hell just happened, but it also serves to set up the season’s main storyline in a seamless and effortless manner. As the series explores the implications of the episode one finale, we’re also introduced to a number of characters, who we grow to care about through their smaller stories. While Mark’s powers are something he and his father are able to bond over, that’s not the case for everyone. We’re given glimpses into Mark’s super-friend Atom Eve and her contentious relationship with her parents. The toxic relationship is explored in small scenes throughout the season, giving depth to Atom Eve’s character and inviting viewers to empathize with her. This balancing act between subplots and the main plot also keeps things from stagnating, maintaining viewers’ interest throughout. Despite the superpowered action, some of the series’ best moments occur in its most mundane moments (Debbie and Omni-Man’s domestic arguments come to mind) as we see how these characters’ relationships either become stronger, or end up as broken and mangled as Mark often does.
Where most superhero shows might see their protagonist triumphing over any and all obstacles they meet, “Invincible” is not afraid to leave Mark bloodied and broken — both emotionally and physically. The show’s subversion of expectations makes it stand out from the rest of the superhero media landscape. Episode five contains a prime example of this, where we see Mark suffer a brutal maiming at the hands of the interdimensional warrior Battle Beast. As Mark lays in a puddle of his own blood, staring up at the broken skylight, we expect Omni-Man to come in and save his near-dead son and defeat the villains. In any other superhero show this would probably happen — except, this isn’t any other superhero show. This is “Invincible,” a show that’s not afraid to remind us that winning is much harder than we want to think it is. In this scene, Mark doesn’t discover any new powers that will help him defeat the bad guys and save everyone; instead, he discovers how naive and weak he still is. “Invincible” is not afraid to put its characters in difficult situations, and it is a better series because of it as these moments are where its characters shine the brightest.
As the season progresses, it’s made clear that we can never really trust any of the character’s intentions, as is proven by Mark’s run with a local villain in episode five, a point that is brutally driven home by the season’s last two episodes. After massacring a surveillance team that’s been placed on the Grayson family, a brutal couple of fights with a kaiju and the revived leader of the Guardians, Omni-Man finally explains why he killed the Guardians; revealing that his time on Earth has all been a lie and that his true purpose is to weaken and enslave the world. Mark doesn’t believe it at first, thinking his father’s being controlled. In any other superhero show, this might be the case. But this is “Invincible,” where Mark’s — and viewers’ — hopes are very rarely realized. As Mark fights, or more accurately, becomes a punching bag for his father, both him and viewers try to rationalize what’s happening. How could the greatest superhero on Earth turn out to be the greatest villain on Earth? We want to think that he’ll have a change of heart, that he must be being controlled, and that maybe Mark’s bruised and disfigured face will break him out of it. But this never happens. Instead we see Omni-Man beat his son within an inch of his life before flying off into space with tears in his eyes, solidifying this episode’s reputation as the most heartbreaking and emotionally impactful thus far.
“Invincible” has made some changes to its source material, most of which has worked in its favor, expanding on scenes — such as when Mark and Omni-Man are playing catch in the Earth’s atmosphere — to add more emotional depth to the characters’ relationships. Many of these changes work in the show’s favor, but others left me wanting more. Mark and Debbie’s ethnicities were both changed to fit Yeun and Oh’s Korean background, a change that the show and comic’s writer Robert Kirkman felt was important for today’s world. The problem is that outside of their character design (mainly Debbie’s, as Mark appears more ethnically ambiguous), there’s no real engagement with Korean culture, making this decision feel somewhat hollow and performative. Allowing these characters to explore this aspect of themselves would not only fulfill Kirkman’s goal, it would also provide more depth and nuance to Mark and Debbie’s characters. The animation during the fight scenes is fluid and smooth but it can feel a bit stiff — even amateur — in the show’s more mundane moments. It’s not the worst animation by any means, but it can at times be distracting, pulling focus away from the story and characters. This is most likely due to budget restraints, and with the show being greenlit for two more seasons, will probably (hopefully) be something that will be fixed.
In a world inundated with extremely commercialized superhero media, “Invincible” is a black sheep — a very gory and violent black sheep. It takes many of the superhero tropes that viewers are used to and flips them, leading to many unexpected twists and crushing emotional moments. Its compelling characters are not only built on great writing, but also on great performances; and despite its flaws, it manages to entertain viewers while keeping them emotionally invested in the lives of its characters. The entire first season is now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video, so grab some popcorn and a box of tissues (trust me, you’ll need it) and spend some time wondering what it must be like to be Invincible.
Created by: Robert Kirkman
Starring: Steven Yeun, J.K. Simmons, Gillian Jacobs, Mark Hamill, Seth Rogen, Zazie Beetz, Sandra Oh, Jason Mantzoukas, Walton Goggins, Zachary Quinto, Andrew Rannells, Malese Jow
Release Date: March 25, 2021
Image courtesy of Skybound.com.