Amazon Prime Video’s Invincible threatens to give you whiplash—but might be worth the risk

Amazon Prime Video’s Invincible threatens to give you whiplash—but might be worth the risk

Image: Amazon Studios

One of the weird things about watching comic book fandom permeate all other aspects of popular culture over the last few years has been seeing the same trends that took nearly a century to bloom on their native, pulpy soil—the natural growth, backlash, deconstruction, reconstruction, post-modern examinations of all of the above, etc.—play out in hyper-accelerated time. Nowhere is that clearer than in TV, where (to put things in extremely simplified terms) we’ve seen relatively straight putts like The CW’s Arrowverse, or the Marvel Netflix shows, give rise in rapid time to increasingly bloody deconstructions, twists, and parodies—hitting their apex, probably, with Amazon’s uber-gory, ultra-profane The Boys in 2019. Now that show’s producers, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, are back with a new animated superhero series, Invincible, that seeks to do much that same arc, from sincerity to semi-cynical super-violence, except in an even more head-twistingly compressed timeframe. Against all odds—and with guidance from comic creator Robert Kirkman, and under the stewardship of showrunner Simon Racioppa—Invincible manages to make something potentially fascinating out of what should be a disastrous recipe for whiplash.

Based on the long-running comic by The Walking Dead creator Kirkman (working over the book’s 15-year publication history with artists Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley), Invincible tells the story of Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), a perfectly normal kid who discovers, at age 7, that his dad Nolan (J.K. Simmons) is secretly Omni-Man, his world’s beloved Superman equivalent. The story then picks up shortly after Mark turns 17, on the day that his own powers (the standard Flying Brick package, i.e., flight, strength, speed, invulnerability, etc.) finally activate, launching him from a part-time burger flipper into the world of superhero action—with all the exhilaration and darkness that implies.

The first thing likely to strike the viewers of Amazon Prime Video’s Invincible is the series’ idiosyncratic approach to tone. The show pointedly starts out with a rambling, semi-comedic dialogue from Jon Hamm (who, between this and Legion, has a real lock on the “extended dialogue sequences that don’t have much to do with all the superhero stuff in the superhero show” game), which is then abruptly interrupted when a massive superpowered battle breaks out all around his character. After that brief jolt of adrenaline, we cut to the Grayson homestead, where things are practically sitcom-esque, right down to an embarrassed teenager asking his parents to please not bone in his presence. Then, when Mark’s powers kick in, the show moves on to a standard superhero origin story, with Mark and Nolan working out some inevitable Oedipal conflict, a few standard “learning how to fly” foibles, and the unavoidable moment when our hero finally settles on his overly boastful nom de cape.

All of this is animated engagingly, if a little stiffly; when designing these characters, Kirkman and his artists went out of their way to deck them out in the standard set of stark, primary colors, and the show’s visual identity reliably apes the comic’s look. The super-battle sequences, especially, have clearly been given a lot of love; if the show’s comedy and dialogue scenes don’t look quite as fluid, it’s hard to fault the animators for putting the most work into its most striking, likely-to-be-talked-about segments. Similarly, there’s been a great deal of attention paid to how different classes of superhero fight; the opening battle between the Justice League-ish Guardians Of The Globe and the clone scientist Mauler Twins (Kevin Michael Richardson) is all quips and cool professionalism, while Mark’s team-up with the far-less experienced Teen Team is volatile, slapdash, and appropriately awkward.

And it’s not like Invincible doesn’t have a hefty team of comedians and actors on hand to elevate its talkier moments, either. Invincible’s voice casting trends, at times, toward stuntishness (one superhero team, the aforementioned Guardians, is voiced entirely by old Walking Dead alums), but almost all of the central performances are top-notch. Sandra Oh breathes life into the potentially thankless part of Mark’s non-powered mom, Deborah, for instance, while J.K. Simmons obviously does “distant, vaguely disappointed dad” about as well as anyone in the business. The one real letdown is Yeun himself, and even then it’s largely down to factors outside his control. The Minari star is a talented and charismatic actor (duh) who winds up sounding exactly like the 37-year-old man that he is—which is something of a problem, when you’re attempting to play a teenager whose inexperience and vulnerability are a major part of his narrative arc. (Even so, his Mark is perfectly likable, because, hey: Steven Yeun.) Beyond that, the Hey-it’s-that-guy-ism can get a little distracting at times—looking at you, Jason Mantzoukas—but if it gets us multiple scenes starring Clancy Brown as the noir-throated “Damien Darkblood, Demon Detective,” we’ll take what we can get. As a light-hearted superhero comedy, Invincible defaults to the undeniably effective combination of having funny people (see also: Walton Goggins, Zazie Beetz, Gillian Jacobs, Zachary Quinto, and more) say funny things, to generally strong effect.

Which would be all well and good, if Invincible was a light-hearted superhero comedy. Which it totally, completely is, right up until… it very suddenly isn’t. To say more would be to venture fully into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that any confusion as to why a series so seemingly indebted to the beats of half-hour comedies sports an “hour-long drama” runtime are pretty swiftly cleared up, and that any content warnings the series carries for violent content are absolutely not fucking around. Fans of the comic will know that Kirkman likes to spread a healthy spatter of blood-red amongst those bright, cheerful yellows and blues, and that, while sitcom plotting is a huge part of the show’s appeal, it intentionally offsets the wholesomeness with a heavy focus on the toll prolonged superheroing can take.

The end result is bewildering, but also exhilarating, injecting energy into a simple power fantasy premise even as it carries the potential to alienate viewers looking for lighter fare. Which makes this a pretty great adaptation of Invincible, actually, a comic that happily oscillated between ultra-violence and Reginald VelJohnson jokes for the duration of its run. And those darker impulses are rarely used glibly, instead employed to highlight the increasing stakes of the world Mark has aspired to join for all his life, and the immaturity of his initial desire to throw himself into the fight. When the show lands its punches—metaphorical or otherwise—it does so with consideration for where the damage is going to land.

If that sort of emotional whiplash—from death and destruction to high school romance and then back to the battlefield all over again—sounds overwhelming, you’d be forgiven for giving Invincible a miss. But if you can hang with its shifts, you’ll find a show that is working at high speed to try to embody multiple elements on the superhero cynicism scale, sometimes all at once. Funny, exciting, and emotionally smart—seriously, Sandra Oh is killing it here—Invincible isn’t bulletproof. But, like its increasingly burdened hero, it’s trying. And sometimes, in the superhero game, that’s all you can really do.

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