The Inverse Review

Invincible: Amazon's best superhero show yet rivals the MCU

While it explores familiar genre territory, Robert Kirkman’s superhero epic from Image Comics comes to life to disrupt Marvel’s domination.

When Robert Kirkman published Invincible with Image Comics 18 years ago, superheroes had just begun box office domination on the screen.

Invincible stood out from the spinner rack as a modern, matter-of-fact take on Marvel and DC’s genre-bending operatic violence.

The new animated series version on Amazon Prime Video, with Kirkman as executive producer, is faithful to the comic book in spirit, tone, and some of its illustrated pages. (A few pointless stories are thankfully abandoned, like the very post-9/11 plot of kidnapped students used as live bombs.)

It’s fast, it’s kinetic, and above all, it’s touchingly human. And with its bright color palette, informed by Invincible’s blue and yellow costume zig-zagging across the screen, you’ll never be prepared for how bloody red it can get.

Premiering with three of its first season’s eight episodes on March 26, Invincible is the story of Mark Grayson (Oscar nominee Steven Yeun). Aside from being the son of the great alien superhero Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), Mark lives a humdrum life. He’s a nobody in his high school’s hallways, he holds down an after-school job flipping burgers, and crushes never give him the time of day.

When Mark’s powers finally manifest, he begins training under the cape of his father and soon joins the caped community at large. It’s then and there Mark learns that just because he calls himself “Invincible” doesn’t mean it’s true.

Normally, that would be enough. But Invincible isn’t just any superhero saga. Readers of the comic know there is a darker side to Mark’s family. While it took a year for that story to unfold on the page, Invincible the Amazon series wastes no time getting to the juiciest (and most violent) elements of Kirkman’s saga.

Invincible is a new superhero animated series streaming on Amazon Prime Video. It is based on Robert Kirkman’s superhero epic, which ran for 144 issues from 2003 to 2018.Amazon

At its core, Invincible is another take on the familiar question: “What if superheroes were real?” It’s an idea previously explored by alt-superhero movies like Unbreakable (2000), Hancock (2008), Super (2010), Kick-Ass (2010), Brightburn (2019), and TV shows like The Tick and The Boys, both Amazon productions.

The Boys is actually a great contrast for Invincible. Unlike Invincible, The Boys is more cynical about superheroes as PR-friendly tools for American imperialism — and the billion-dollar defense industry — than Invincible. At least at the start. The Boys is still the most subversive superhero narrative of the 2020s, and while Invincible isn’t far behind, it’s more concerned with Mark’s adolescence than critiquing how the U.S. behaves abroad.

Along with the proliferation of Marvel and DC in adapted forms, a casual observer could lose Invincible in the shuffle. On paper, a teenager coming to grips with his powers inherited from a Superman-like father is a premise that pales to the likes of WandaVision. Invincible’s most powerful angle — “What if a superhero was bad?” — feels less daring when Homelander and Zack Snyder’s Superman both have glowing red eyes.

But in execution, Invincible’s traditional and earnest superhero-as-adolescence metaphor, akin to what Stan Lee and Steve Ditko achieved in The Amazing Spider-Man, is a welcome palate cleanser for anyone worn out by the many flavors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What allows Invincible to truly stand heroic is in its approachable, cheeky tone. Though aliens and magic run amok, it’s clear big battles and city-wide carnage are a normal Tuesday in this universe. In one instance, Omni-Man flies into a portal to another dimension that shuts behind him. At home, a traumatized Mark doesn’t know how to tell his mom, Debbie (Sandra Oh).

“Dad saved us from the Flaxons, but he went into one of their portals,” Mark mutters.

“Oh,” says Debbie. “So, he’ll be late for dinner?”

Invincible stars J.K. Simmons and Steven Yeun as the father-son duo Omni-Man (left) and Mark Grayson (right), whose new superpowers encourage him to train under his father’s guidance.Amazon

In a word, Invincible is playful. Disposable alien baddies get more than one dimension via comic banter, like two-bit crooks in a Shane Black movie. Riffs on Marvel and DC archetypes are just novel enough to feel new. Incidents befitting an epic like Avengers: Endgame are reduced to a minor subplot resolved by the next episode, sometimes quicker.

Nothing in Invincible is careless; it’s calculated. Kirkman knows how fluent we are with superhero tropes after two decades of movies and 80-ish years of comics. His Invincible knows how to deliver comic-book-style goods while downplaying them to emphasize real human stuff.

While superheroics are an everyday fact of life, Invincible takes care to emphasize Mark’s life as an underdog high school student.Amazon

If Invincible’s approachable tone to comic book heroics doesn’t impress, it at least features industry innovations worth noting. Invincible is the first hour-long animated production I’ve seen. Even BoJack Horseman, arguably the best adult animated show of the 21st century, clocked in at a standard half-hour length an episode. Invincible’s length, reminiscent of a prestige drama, doesn’t just give it necessary dramatic weight but actual screen time to unpack the onion-like layers behind its colorful animation (which, by the way, has an aesthetic that almost — but not quite — achieves the grandeur of Ryan Ottley’s comic pages).

Invincible is loaded with funny, suspenseful, and very violent fun that will appeal to superhero fans of all stripes, even bored ones. It has a ridiculous cast who fill in even the tiniest of roles. Keep your ears open for voices like Mark Hamill, Mahershala Ali, Seth Rogen, Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, Walton Goggins, Jason Mantzoukas, Mae Whitman, Zachary Quinto, Ezra Miller, and even Jon Hamm to show up when you least expect. While its premise feels a touch passé in 2021 as contemporaries push the genre past perceived limitations, there’s still a sight to behold when Invincible goes up, up, and away.

Invincible will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on March 26.