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Invincible Is the Animated Soap Opera That Superhero TV Needs

Season 2 of the Prime Video animated series succeeds because it escalates like an enthralling soap opera — and the comics that give it life.
  • Invincible (Image: Prime Video)
    Invincible (Image: Prime Video)

    Cruel betrayals, return-from-the-dead twists, unrequited romances, and long-forgotten rivals returning to wreak chaos and vengeance — when it comes right down to it, superhero sagas are just soap operas dressed up in capes and spandex. Die-hard soap fanatics and comic book hounds may bristle at the comparison, but that's how it is. That's how it's always been.

    Robert Kirkman and Simon Racioppa's Invincible, based on the Skybound Entertainment/Image Comics series of the same name (created by Kirkman with Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley), wears its soapy tropes like a badge of honor. This animated saga made for Prime Video has developed into one of the few dependable superhero comic book adaptations we have; with 16 episodes and one standalone special in the can, there's no question its overall success is due to its structure as an ongoing soap. Dedication to this creative choice has set this series up for a legendary television run — after all, how can a story sustained by byzantine twists and just as knotty character developments end any time soon, short of cancellation?

    Yes, Invincible is successful thanks to its choices, but it is simply the latest steward in a long tradition. The will-they/won't-they of Clark Kent and Lois Lane (and their inevitable wedding), the travails of poor Peter Parker (and his various love triangles), the fact that almost every character at one point will die a dramatic death only to come back to life regardless of their planet or dimension of origin, "comics are like soaps" as criticism isn't novel; it’s anodyne. Suggesting Kirkman has pilfered these tropes isn't a new thing, either; the writer and entertainment mogul freely admits to using the long-running TV melodramas as his narrative true north.

    Kirkman has even admitted that the success of The Walking Dead — Skybound's other property that lives on in new full-color comic reprints and a television franchise that simply will not die — is due to the clichés that make soap operas so enduring. Invincible simply takes this framework to another level, one so improbably expansive that its character cohesion and clarity of vision often beggar belief. In fact, its second season has been crowded with all sorts of twists and new characters, and its introduction into the currently-dreaded multiverse concept (courtesy of Sterling K. Brown's villain Angstrom Levy) has created worries that the series has perhaps embraced the more outlandish megastructure of its source material too fully.

    Season 2 of the series, the final four episodes of which drop on March 14, sees Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) finishing his second semester in the Invincible School of Hard Knocks in typical bloody and chaotic fashion. After reuniting with his estranged father Nolan, aka Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), and discovering he now has an infant alien half-brother, Mark returns to Earth, sent packing by Viltrumite General Kregg (Clancy Brown). Mark's brother, his renegade father, and an awareness that the Viltrum Empire will soon come for him and his homeworld — that would be enough story for a less ambitious series, but Invincible isn't interested in resting on its laurels or letting even the most ancillary characters go to waste.

    Those too-frequent intergalactic changes of scenery and Superman-level tyrants aren't just Mark's headaches but, in a way, Debbie's (Sandra Oh). Mark’s mom not only has to reckon with the fact that her violent husband is still alive and has, apparently, moved on with a new relationship, she's also decided to care for Nolan's alien child despite only just recently tamping down on her despair (and her drinking) to return to work as a successful realtor.

    Mark's ceaseless family drama also affects Amber (Zazie Beetz), who is now questioning the wisdom of dating a superhero in an increasingly dangerous world (especially when all this pining is ruining her grades). Complicating Mark's romantic life further is Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), who slowly circles the Guardians of the Globe, Earth's dominant superhero team, which puts her closer to Mark (and the two have been getting really huggy lately). If Mark and Eve's friendship changes, it will doubtlessly impact the trajectory of the next season, say nothing of characters like Eve's ex, Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), who experiences a gnarly battle and comes away from the outcome with a clearer, more mature perspective. (More mature for Rex, anyway.)

    There's also Donald (Chris Diamantopoulos), the Global Defense agent who works under Cecil (Walton Goggins) and whose existential despair this season derives from the discovery that 1) his body was annihilated last season during Omni-Man's big betrayal and 2) his brain now resides in what appears to be an android. And speaking of automatons, Rudy (Ross Marquand), the genetically engineered version of Robot (Zachary Quinto), is trying to "fix" his would-be girlfriend Monster Girl (Grey Griffin) from aging backward all the way into infancy — a result of her using her powers to turn into a big, green hulk.

    More extraterrestrial dilemmas pop up, as well, and will have various effects on the season and the series as both move precariously into the unpredictable future. Don't forget about Thaedus (Peter Cullen), the leader of the Coalition of Planets, who makes surprising moves against the Viltrum Empire that will impact Season 3 in fittingly tremendous ways.

    Like a proper soap, Invincible's story points and character developments are executed in lockstep; each episode furthers every character beat and irons out the wrinkles so that when its seasons inevitably dovetail all their subplots, the ensuing chaos operates in harmony. Nothing is inconsequential, and no one scene is superfluous. Its structure and commitment to incremental detail make Invincible compulsively watchable TV. (Even the credits, where lie teaser sequences that suggest even wilder developments to come, are mandatory.)

    Season 2 sticks the landing and makes enough pavement for the future stories to come. It's wild to think about. Here's a vulgar, violent, and unabashedly dorky animated superhero series brimming with characters, each with deep lore histories, hopes, dreams, and desires. Through their actions, almost all of them, without exception, push it to unexpectedly dramatic and sometimes irrevocable places. We have recently witnessed the once indomitable Marvel Cinematic Universe fall into a tangled mess by jettisoning its comics' soapy developments for superficial spectacle, and losing its sense of direction in the scramble. Invincible gives Marvel a run for its money because it understands that its story is the spectacle; character is what provides its sense of life, drama, and fun. From this juncture, the only substantial fear about the show comes from the knowledge that soap operas never stop, but Invincible one day might.

    Invincible Season 2, Part 2 premieres March 14 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.

    TOPICS: Invincible, Amazon Prime Video, The Walking Dead, J.K. Simmons, Robert Kirkman, Sandra Oh, Steven Yeun, Adult Animation, Superhero TV