Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the show’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the show’s own trailer. However, be aware that potential spoilers may be inferred throughout the review
Properties like The Boys (2019 – Current), Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015), Snowpiercer (2013) Dredd (2012) and Kick-Ass (2010) are merely a handful of obscure comics which made the jump from page to screen. With so many comic book adaptations coming out every year, it’s becoming harder for them to stand out amongst the pack. In this regard, Robert Kirkman’s Image Comics series known as Invincible has been fighting to be adapted since its publication in the early 2000s. In the oversaturated superhero film market, how could an awkward combination of Superman and Spider-Man be unique? Make it an animated series, which is exactly what Amazon has done.
Invincible (2021) follows the story of Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), a troubled teenager and son of Nolan Grayson/Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), the most powerful and revered superhero in the world. Very much like Clark Kent, Nolan is a super-powered being from a far away planet called Viltrum, which he left to become Earth’s greatest protector. As such, Mark has spent his whole life looking up to his father and waiting for his Viltrumite powers to kick in. On the verge of turning 18, Mark finally starts exhibiting super human strength, speed and the ability to fly. This should be a cause for celebration, but Mark fears that he’ll never be as great as his father, as being a superhero is all he’s ever dreamed about. The pressure of Nolan’s expectations isn’t the only problem, as Mark may not be ready for how isolating (and grim) the world of a superhero can get.
The fact that Invincible has found life as an animated series is fascinating (and genius) for many reasons. Firstly, it’s surprising that it was even considered as an option, considering live-action films are immediately recognised as the legitimate form of adaptation for superhero stories. Things like Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995), X-Men: The Animated Series (1992 – 1997) and Justice League Unlimited (2004 – 2006) were close to being definitive interpretations, but that never stopped audiences from having a thirst for seeing those stories on the big screen. With Invincible, it’s hardly necessary to ever see a live-action interpretation, as this eight episode epic arguably has more narrative weight, drama and grandeur than its cinematic counterparts. In fact, seeing Invincible in live-action would’ve sapped the story of its charm.
Invincible’s thematic impact makes a strong case for all superhero stories to remain in the cartoon realm. Even though many recent superhero films have shown that we can translate the biggest and boldest stories to the screen, there are still some things live-action can’t get away with. Animation doesn’t have those same restrictions, as the artists, animators and filmmakers are limited only by their imaginations. Anything they can draw can be given life, and it’s amazing just how full of life every frame is. Even with some minor imperfections in the motion, the framing, composition, colour and pacing come together beautifully and gives the viewer chills every time we get to fly through the air. With that kind of result, it’s clear that Invincible was destined to be seen in this way. If there is to be a live-action film down the track, I fear it could only be a disappointment.
Invincible may not seem particularly unique, given that we’ve seen plenty of superhero stories twist the genre tropes. Invincible twists the tropes in very subtle ways, but that subtlety ripples through every aspect of it. It’s very easy to compare Invincible to Watchmen or The Boys, but that ignores the bigger picture of what makes Invincible different. Watchmen takes superheroes and places them a realistic world, whereas The Boys takes superheroes and places them into a world that’s a dark parody of our own. Watchmen is a post-modern examination of the genre, and The Boys is a mean-spirited roasting. Invincible isn’t embarrassed by the superhero genre and isn’t trying to mock, downplay or escape from the more colourful aspects. Unlike Watchmen or The Boys, Invincible takes real people and thrusts them into the bombastic world of comic-book madness.
With this in mind, it’s that very contradiction which fuels Invincible’s heart and soul. These eight scripts aren’t underwritten for the benefit of younger viewers. Where most superhero cartoons can only lightly infer adult themes, Invincible has them front and centre. To be abundantly clear, this show is not suitable for children, as the dialogue, interactions and psychological development of the characters rivals the best that TV has to offer. We are repelled, endeared, horrified and drawn to every character in equal measure, which only adds to their humanity and complexity. In the space of a single hour long episode, Invincible is able to achieve what Game of Thrones (2011 – 2019) needed entire seasons to do. Nearly every time the action ramps up, you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be awestruck and you’ll be left gasping for air.
At the rate this show utterly shocks its audience, you’d think that it would eventually get exhausting. Keeping this season to a brisk eight episodes was the perfect way to prevent the show from getting tiring. Even with its eight hour runtime, the show never uses the same tricks more than once as every chapter adds new and imaginative elements. From the seedy underbelly to the barren wasteland of Mars, Invincible takes us on a colourful and exciting journey to many corners of its fully realised universe. As evident by all the adventures we get to see, the show is keenly aware of the audience’s familiarity with the genre tropes, yet it smartly knows when to subvert them and when to use them. Granted, a handful of these subversions may be too much for some viewers, but these moments never get in the way of emotionally satisfying storytelling.
In the crowded landscape of serialised narratives, it’s understandable that most people may ignore the animated content. After all, animation is a format which historically caters to kids, so it makes sense that people would give a show like Invincible a miss. Letting this one slip past would be a horrendous mistake, as Invincible is not only a terrific animated show, but a terrific show all the same. It’s not going to be for everyone (you’ll know if it’s your thing by the time the first episode ends) but if you’re on board you’re in for a wild, unique and potentially iconic ride.
Best way to watch it: Late at night when there’s definitely no children around.