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Invincible Turns the Superhero Origin Story Inside Out

The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman brings another winning creation to TV.
  • Invincible (Prime Video)
    Invincible (Prime Video)

    Now that we're into Phase Four of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, most of us know quite well where superheroes come from. The details vary, but: a person is ordinary until something crazy happens, and suddenly they have supernatural powers and a drive for public service (and/or vigilantism, depending on your perspective). From there, all they need is a stretchy suit, an alter ego, and a talent for hiding their exploits from their loved ones — for their own safety, of course. The tropes are so well established that deviating from the formula even slightly makes a superhero story feel bold and fresh, and Amazon Prime Video's Invincible does a lot of zigging where more traditional stories zag.

    Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun) is an ordinary high school student: annoyed by his mother Debbie (Sandra Oh) and her failure to respect the boundary of a closed bathroom door when he's just trying to do some morning business and read his favorite comic book, Séance Dog; beset by bullies at school who have no compunction about coming at him in front of Amber (Zazie Beetz), the girl he likes; worried that he'll never be a worthy successor to his father Nolan (J.K. Simmons). But Mark has more reason than most teens to fear this last possibility. He's known since childhood that his father is not human: Nolan is a humanoid extraterrestrial of the Viltrumite race, and he's come to Earth to defend it from threats as his alter ego, Omni-Man. Since Debbie is human, the family hasn't been certain when or how Mark's Viltrumite powers will kick in. Fortunately for those of us watching, this occurs not too far into the series premiere, as Mark attempts to heave a bag of trash into the dumpster at his fast food job and, instead flings it into orbit. Nolan starts training Mark, Mark settles on his superhero handle — Invincible — and even gets fitted for a sharp blue and yellow supersuit. All of this happens just in time, because the episode closes with the Justice League-esque Guardians of the Globe all getting drawn into a trap and killed....

    Without spoiling any plot twists in the early episodes, Invincible doesn't regard superheroes as an unmitigated force for good in the way that Invincible himself does — or did while he was anxiously waiting for his superpower puberty to begin. The show's portrayal of superheroes as horny, arrogant, and worse may remind viewers of Amazon's other series in the genre: The Boys, which dropped its second season last fall and is currently staffing up its college-set spinoff series. Both shows share executive producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (who are also developing a live-action Invincible movie that won't hook in to the series), so it stands to reason that they'd share a similar sensibility.

    However, the animation format enables Invincible to do things The Boys couldn't. While no one in the show's huge voice cast is a mononymic A-lister writing their own ticket (though Simmons is, of course, an Oscar winner, and Yeun may be by the time a second season comes around), it's probably a lot easier to convince a Zachary Quinto to merely voice Robot rather than fit him for a cumbersome suit he can't take off for a bathroom break; Gillian Jacobs and Jason Mantzoukas's faces may no longer be credible playing high school students, but their pipes are ageless. Beyond that, there's the violence, which manages to be remarkably graphic even in illustrated form. Animation makes room for more fanciful antagonists than we've seen on The Boys, as well as more ambitious skirmishes: in just the first few episodes, there's a hand-to-hand fight in outer space, and a portal that opens in the middle of the Graysons' city, disgorging hundreds of aliens. I never thought of The Boys as especially constrained until Invincible started unfolding in so many directions and dimensions.

    It's hard to explain what makes Invincible worth sampling without ruining one of its most shocking surprises, so instead I'll simply say that that it managed to win me over, and I'm a very stubborn superhero stick-in-the-mud. I'm a sucker for a bureaucracy conceived to organize and contain the fantastical, and Walton Goggins is predictably great voicing Cecil Stedman, head of the Global Defense Agency. Yeun's charm comes through even when it's separated from his dreamy face; the show wouldn't work if we didn't believe both his intense desire to succeed as a champion for the human race, and... that he is kind of a screw-up whose eagerness is outrunning his mastery of his new powers. And clearly Simmons has learned more than a thing or two from his time in the film franchises of both major comic-book publishers. Invincible is at turns exhilarating, fun, unsettling, creepy, and disturbing — everything you want from an action-adventure story. Take a flyer on it.

    Invincible premieres on Prime Video on March 26th.

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    Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.

    TOPICS: Invincible, Amazon, Gillian Jacobs, Jason Mantzoukas, J.K. Simmons, Robert Kirkman, Sandra Oh, Steven Yeun, Walton Goggins, Zachary Quinto, Zazie Beetz