While elite comic outfits like DC and Marvel grapple with live-action reinvention, Prime Video's Invincible has found its niche. Unrestrained, in almost every sense of the word, by animation and content to keep its expanding universe contained to one series (for now, at least), this irrepressibly violent adaptation of Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley's heroic magnum opus can focus on what matters most: character, story, and a ridiculous amount of head-exploding action sequences.
Boosted by a nigh-impeccable voice cast and a healthy commitment to its comic source material, Invincible Season 1 was quality hard-R superhero TV, imbued with four-color lunchbox appeal and simmering family drama. Season 2 is more, much more, of the same. That's no bad thing.
Following the Chicago-trouncing events of Season 1, in which Invincible, aka Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), discovers his superhero dad Nolan, aka Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), is an extraterrestrial double agent tasked with conquering Earth, everyone looks for ways to cope. Mark keeps his mind busy by saving the day. Global Defense Agency honcho Cecil Stedman (Walton Goggins) wants to pull Mark from active cape duty but knows the world — also reeling from Omni-Man's devastating heel turn — doesn't have that luxury. Debbie Grayson (Sandra Oh) processes her husband's betrayal by hitting the sauce more than usual. This family fallout is quantified by a staggering number of dead bodies and spent tears. In the opening moments of its premiere episode, "A Lesson For Your Next Life," set to Radiohead's "Karma Police," Invincible Season 2 strikes a melancholic mood.
It's not all doom and gloom. Despite morale being at an all-time low, life goes on as it must. Mark, his girlfriend Amber Bennett (Zazie Beetz), and best buddy William Clockwell (Andrew Rannells) are graduating from Reginald Vel Johnson High, and they've all been accepted to the same college. (It makes telling their stories easier.) There are new allies to meet, like the Shapesmith (Ben Schwartz), the Martian from Season 1 who has taken (stolen?) the form of an American astronaut and wants to be the new member of the Guardians of the Globe. There are new threats, too, like the Lizard League, who, despite what social media says, are as dangerous and cool as their serpentine monikers suggest. And then there's Angstrom Levy (Sterling K. Brown), a pacifist from another dimension who doesn't just want to save the world, but all worlds, and pays big for his hubris.
Angstrom hails from a dimension where Mark accepts his father's offer and betrays Earth for the Viltrum Empire, a confederacy of planet-conquering supermen. The Graysons made short work of the world and, during an amusing sequence where Angstrom springs The Mauler Twins (Kevin Michael Richardson) from super-jail to help him execute his goals, the only broadcasts heard among the carnage is a chirpy Mark extolling the virtues of fascism. Of course, this isn't the Mark of Invincible-Prime (or whatever the main reality will be called; dimensional designations in these multiverse jobs are such a headache). But it could have been, and Angstrom wants to ensure that there are no other Marks out there to disrupt his plans to achieve omniversal utopia.
At least, it appears that way. Angstrom's ultimate goals remain unclear by the end of this season's first half. He casts a strange shadow, and Brown's strong vocal performance complements such a consequential heavy. Angstrom gets a good amount of play in the premiere, more so than the other four episodes made available for review, and it's a safe bet that his unique perspective on Mark Grayson will inform the latter half of Invincible Season 2 when it drops next year. For now, space and time aren't big enough for a new baddie, not when the long shadow cast by Omni-Man remains, not to mention the tyrannical galactic empire for which he serves. Or used to serve. It's complicated. (Suffice it to say, Nolan's betrayal has upset more than his family and the relative safety of Earth.)
What's important is that Mark's moral core remains. It helps that he's surrounded by a sturdy group of support players, though the broader scope of Invincible Season 2 means less time is spent with characters like William and Amber. Even Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), who gets a bit more dramatic stuff to do that feels like a natural extension of her one-shot special earlier this year, still seems on the periphery. (The Guardians of the Globe, with their interpersonal strife and new leadership, are also stuffed in this season's margins, at least so far.) When these characters do pop up, Invincible drops its interest in exploring the elevated rawness of living in such a dangerous world to indulge instead in a few easy "finding myself" college tropes, like skipping class to do fun friend stuff (brunch) and learning how to abandon childish things — even if they rule, like Mark's collection of Seance Dog ephemera.
It's not surprising that Invincible's explorations of the teenage condition are sketchy, even by cape comics standards, but Mark's college experience feels well-trod and, considering how out-there its approach to violence is, oddly tame. There's the ol' sock on the doorknob technique. Mark and Amber break their dorm rooms in with responsible off-screen sex. (Allowing Yeun and Beetz to breathe loudly through their nostrils and go "hm" into the microphone.) There's a quick, pre-coitus conversation about the intensity of Mark's, erm, "finishing move," specifically whether it might provoke a physical reaction that could crush Amber "in the moment." Its superpowered sexual curiosity is firmly in TV-edit Mallrats territory, where goofs ask silly questions about super-sexual prowess. Invincible has shown that it can be more nuanced, bizarre, and feisty than that. (It could learn a few lessons from Gen V, another superhero college show from Prime Video.)
While its approach to sex is curiously chaste, the way Invincible compounds its narrative dread remains unassailable. The third episode, boisterously titled "This Missive, This Machination!," a bottle-episode-within-an-episode that features Allen the Alien (Seth Rogen), expands the series's cosmic scope with the brawny showmanship of peak Marvel Comics. It contributes to the often chaotic rhythms of the series and is a fun, if distressing, introduction to the Coalition of Planets and how they relate to the Viltrum Empire. (Hint: Not well.) Here dwells Thaedus (voiced by Optimus Prime himself, Peter Cullen), the Coalition leader who gives Allen a dangerous task that sets up a series of reliably shocking twists.
With all this intrigue and place-setting, it'd be natural to lose sight of why we're all here: to watch Mark build a better hero for a world that desperately needs one. There's a good recurring joke this season that pokes fun at the series's title card motif, where characters go to say Invincible's name only to have it pop up in big, yellow letters, sprayed with an increasingly ridiculous amount of blood. It once represented how Mark took his super-ascension for granted, a lesson he learned the hard way. This season, when people say his name, the title card is nowhere to be found, as though the hero everyone is anticipating isn't quite ready for the big time. It's Invincible commenting on the dusty "hero's journey" we've seen so many times before. When he does arrive, fully formed and prepared to save the day despite sanity-stripping odds, the accompanying fanfare will be earned. Perhaps the success of Mark's story can provoke Invincible's live-action competition to re-evaluate what makes these larger-than-life characters so compelling. There's no need to reinvent something that works this well.
Invincible Season 2, Part 1 premieres November 3 on Prime Video. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Jarrod Jones is a freelance writer currently settled in Chicago. He reads lots (and lots) of comics and, as a result, is kind of a dunderhead.