The beginning of Invincible episode 1 is so annoying that it’s not clear what all involved were thinking, aside from, “Our audience definitely has the patience to bear with us.” Two security guards at the White House engage in painful, pseudo-Tarantino banter about nothing relevant, as their mouths are practically the only parts of the picture that move. Hang in there. It’s a really odd choice for an intro, but not remotely representative of what’s to follow.
Soon enough, the ground cracks, and two gigantic mutant clones (Kevin Michael Richardson) attack the president’s residence in order to create a dramatic show of force. They’re fought back by the Guardians of the Globe, a Justice League analog that includes such knockoffs as War Woman (Lauren Cohan), Martian Man (Chad L. Coleman), and Red Rush (Michael Cudlitz). Their Aquaman analogue is an actual giant fish with arms and legs, which is undeniably funny.
But the most powerful superhero, and one not directly affiliated with the Guardians, is Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), an alien from the planet Viltrum, which is basically Krypton. He’s generally the one who saves the day, but he also lives a suburban life with his human wife Debbie (Sandra Oh) and half-human teenage son Mark (Steven Yeun), who’s due to start developing his own powers any day. It’s Mark whose escapades we follow from here, as he deals with the usual high school drama of bullies and dating. Oh, and the super strength and flight abilities that begin to kick in.
The gimmick of the story initially seems to be “Superman and Super-teen,” which the new Superman and Lois show appears to be tiptoeing towards, and Bryan Singer’s aborted movie franchise approached. But around the end of the first episode, things take a sudden turn, dragging what had been a relatively conventional superhero show into explicit violence and gore, while abruptly altering the plot dynamics. Suddenly on his own without paternal guidance, and in a newly fitted super suit, Mark, now the self-dubbed “Invincible,” must figure things out for himself. With a bit of help — and pushback — from the super-powered Teen Team, which happens to include his high school’s most popular girl Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), a.k.a. Atom Eve. Super villains, recurring alien invasions, and powerful misunderstandings await.
Because Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg produced the show, having also brought Preacher to TV, the R-rated content should come as no surprise. But don’t expect the same level of kink or nihilism. There are implied, off-camera sex scenes, but the tone never gets as cynical as, say, The Boys. And it takes superheroics a bit more seriously than Harley Quinn.
More so than most other airborne hero movies, Invincible approaches flight almost the way Hayao Miyazaki movies do. It’s a dream of a power, and the show lingers on it in a way that feels like a fantasy. Like the Greatest American Hero, Mark has to learn how to stick the landing. But when he’s playing super-catch with dad in the sky, flinging the ball all the way around the world and catching it on the rebound, it’s a refreshing reminder that we like to imagine super powers because they’re fun. “Realistic” wind speed and weather don’t intervene to spoil the moment. This is arguably easier to pull off in animation.
Based on Robert Kirkman’s comics, Invincible feels like it aspires to be Alan Moore at times, notably Miracleman and his run on Supreme. It’s not at that same level of greatness — the stories are ultimately a lot simpler. But the mindset of keeping it in a superhero universe, adding some touches of real-world concerns and violence but not so many that they negate the fantasy parts, comes close to hitting a sweet spot. Even if it doesn’t quite get there half the time.
The voice cast is full of recognizable names, but only a handful are instantly recognizable. Without looking at the credits, it’s tougher to pick out Walton Goggins, Zachary Quinto, or even Rogen himself. This attests to the fact that they’re genuinely acting. And unlike so many DTV cartoons where the fact that the actors never even met in person feels obvious, Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons and Oscar-nominee Steven Yeun as father and son always seem like they’re really there and interacting. The animation feels carefully parceled out so that the budget goes where it needs to and cheapens out where it can. But the vocal acting, for superhero toons, is superior to many.
Invincible will debut with the first three episodes at once, and weekly thereafter. Ironically, of those first three, the third ends with the least urgent cliffhanger of the bunch. The show could go a number of different places from here. But it offers enough so far for at least guarded optimism. And hey, The Boys took a while to get really good as well.
Invincible debuts March 26th on Amazon Prime.
Recommended Reading: Invincible: Compendium One Paperback
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