by Jordan King
In the past year or so, with cinemas strictly off-limits, comic book fans have been forced to turn to the small screen for their fix of spandex-clad superheroics. Fortunately, with the likes of WandaVision, The Boys, Superman & Lois, and most recently Falcon & The Winter Soldier hitting various streaming platforms, there’s been no shortage of quality material to dive into.
The above being said, what has been lacking in the line-up has been a really strong animated series. Films like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse and Teen Titans Go to the Movies have lit up the big screen in recent years, whilst the DCAU’s offerings have far outstripped their live-action DCEU counterparts, making a compelling case that comic books and animation are made to be together.
Additionally, classic series such as Batman: The Animated Series, Spider-Man, FOX Kids’ X-Men, and Batman Beyond continue to endure in comic fans’ collective consciousness, further proving that there’s never been a better time for a bold new series to hit our screens.
Enter Invincible, Amazon Prime’s all-star adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s popular Image Comics series, which ran from 2003 all the way through to late 2017, earning a cult-like following because of its brutal action, broiling family drama, and genre-critical approach to superheroic storytelling.
Invincible follows seventeen year old Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), a would-be typical teen navigating college and romance and holding down a part-time job. The only difference between Mark and his peers is that his dad Nolan (J.K. Simmons) is the world’s greatest superhero Omni-Man, who is basically Superman – alien origin story and all.
Having waited years to gain his dad’s powers, one night Mark finds himself accidentally launching a bin bag into space during a nightshift at the diner he works for. Initially excited by his newfound powers, it isn’t long before Mark – superhero alias Invincible – learns that there’s more to superheroes than swishing capes, quick quips, and biffing bad guys (although there is also a lot of time for that too!)
At the time of writing, season one is done and dusted, with its mind-blowing game changer of a finale leaving fans the world over salivating at this week’s news that a second and third season have already been ordered. But what has had comic book fans in their droves flocking to Amazon Prime’s latest addition to the superhero sub-genre?
Whilst many’s immediate draw to the show will be its crazily stacked cast, boasting not only Yeun and Simmons in leading roles, but Sandra Oh, Zazie Beets, Seth Rogen, Walton Goggins, Mark Hamill, and Jason Mantzoukas amongst others in an excellent ensemble, the real pulling power is the show’s combination of exceptional craftsmanship on the page and on the screen.
With a vibrant visual style that harkens back to the likes of the earlier mentioned Spider-Man and X-Men series, as well as an increasingly graphic and adult approach to violence and tone that plays like an R-Rated BTAS, Invincible’s aesthetic is instantly eye-catching.
In the first episode of the series alone, we see the Justice League-like Guardians of the Globe in full flow in a flurry of fast-paced, kinetic action sequences that establish Invincible’s ability to recreate the immediacy and intensity of the comics’ panels. We also see in Mark, his mother, and his father’s relationship a visual nuance and dialogic richness that has come to define the series – the Grayson family unit is drawn to life in little gestures and lines, mounting tensions and simmering secrets, all of which from the get-go set us up for something a little more complex but every bit as enjoyable as your average Saturday morning cartoon.
In fact, by the frankly shocking finale of episode one, enough is given to have viewers totally hooked. I won’t divulge the events that unfold in ‘It’s About Time’’s closing moments – it is destined to be spoiler-alert worthy for time immemorial – but suffice it to say that comparisons drawn with The Boys and Kirkman’s own The Walking Dead are well-founded. The brutal bait-and-switch from family dramedy superhero show to… well, to something far darker and more portentous, is pulled off excellently. And this wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the welcome prioritisation of deep character work and believable dynamics made clear from the beginning.
Once that first episode has you reeled in good and proper, those which follow expand the world of Invincible exponentially as Yeun’s portrayal of newbie hero Mark/Invincible becomes the show’s holding core. Over the course of the series, Invincible flits between high school drama, superhero origin story, intergalactic odyssey, and darker than dark family character study.
Though the world of spandex-clad heroics and cosmically manifested threats to humanity in the form of various memorable villains doesn’t lend itself immediately to the descriptor ‘grounded’, the show’s constant foregrounding of the human cost of a world of heroes and villains feels revolutionary. What Zack Snyder does to remind us of our mortality in the face of God-like beings with his DCEU efforts, Kirkman matches and in many way goes beyond as we see Mark pulled between his Viltrumian bloodline and his human upbringing.
When you add in a soundtrack featuring the likes of Birdy, The Hives, and Run the Jewels, a set of supporting supes and villains with believable backstories and daring character development, and wrap all that up in a plot that only thickens and never threatens to come undone, it’s hard not to resort to hyperbole and say this may well be the best animated comic book series since Bruce Timm’s noir-inflected nineties travails of the Dark Knight.
Blending character-driven action with empathetic storytelling, and acting in the process as a meta-commentary on a generation of adults dependent upon superheroes, Invincible is a series that melds visceral violence with equally visceral emotion to ensure that every drop of blood and every tear shed in the series’ course is as keenly, sharply felt as the last.
I for one cannot wait to see what happens next, and if you haven’t already gotten on board with Invincible, then take it from me – YOU MUST WATCH THIS!
P.S – Whatever you do, don’t skip the credits!
Invincible is streaming now on Amazon Prime.