Ultra-violent superhero stories are anything but uncommon these days. But back in 2003, when Robert Kirkman’s Invincible debuted on comic shelves, it was unique in its juxtaposition of startlingly vivid violence and gore with colorful, Saturday morning cartoon imagery. And the violence wasn’t for show—unlike most popular superhero stories, characters in Invincible die all the time, and for the most part, they stay dead. The blood and guts splattered across the panels were a constant reminder that this superhero story had real stakes.
Eighteen years later, Invincible is now an animated Amazon Original, with Kirkman attached as writer and executive producer. This adaptation captures both the aesthetic and tone of the comics well, with animation that effectively mimics the book’s original art by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, and a level of violence that has earned the show a TV-MA rating.
Like the books, the show centers on Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), an ordinary high schooler with an extraordinary family tree. His father is Nolan Grayson a.k.a. Omni Man (J.K. Simmons), a super-strong, super-fast, extraterrestrial superhero from the planet Viltrum. Mark’s mom, Debbie (Sandra Oh), is human, which means Mark is only half Viltrumite and has been waiting since he was a child for his powers to manifest. When they finally do, he’s thrust into a new world of superheroics that he isn’t quite ready for, all while attempting to navigate the brambles of teenage life.
As Mark learns to control and harness his new abilities, his relationship with his dad begins to take on a new complexion. Like a lot of dads, Nolan employs a tough-love approach to raising Mark that sees him push his son to his physical limits to prepare him for the hardships of being a superpowered protector of Earth.
There are clear parallels to be drawn to other superhero myths here, with Superman being the most obvious comparison. The show even features the Guardians of the Globe, a Justice League proxy whose members include “Red Rush,” “Darkwing,” and “War Woman” (resembling The Flash, Batman, and Wonder Woman, respectively). These references are intentionally on-the-nose and feed into the brilliance of Invincible, which is that it subverts everything we’ve come to expect from superhero stories, and in brutal fashion no less. Without getting into spoilers, you can be sure that any initial resemblance the show’s characters have to popular superhero stories is promptly shattered to pieces. Expect big plot twists early on, and even bigger twists just a little further down the road.
There are several moments throughout the story that play with the superhero myth, but at its core the show is about Mark and his relationships with those around him. It’s as much a domestic family drama as it is a sprawling intergalactic adventure, and the characters are written and drawn simply but distinctively, to the point where even the most minor characters are memorable. And if the show is as in-tune with the books as it seems to be from the first few episodes, we can expect to meet an enormous cast as the story unfolds.
One of the most striking differences between the show and the books is just how much the voice acting elevates the story. The cast is stacked, with the surging (and now Oscar-nominated) Yeun leading the charge, supported by a litany of recognizable players like Simmons, Oh, Gillian Jacobs, Jason Mantzoukas, Zazie Beetz, Walton Goggins, Mark Hamill, Seth Rogen (who also serves as an executive producer), and more. The performances and casting are solid all around (Simmons and Oh are the TV parents we never knew we needed), and Yeun does a nice job of capturing Mark’s awkwardness without making him come off like a wimp. Zachary Quinto is a surprise standout as Robot, the number-crunching, non-organic leader of young superhero squad the Teen Team, not because the Star Trek actor isn’t capable, but because he sounds like he was born to play this role. Perfect casting.
For the most part, the show follows the book’s narrative closely, albeit with some plot omissions to account for the shorter format (each episode is around 43 mins long). It’s a coming-of-age story that sees Mark deal with a lot of the same things most teenagers go through, and just as Kirkman’s The Walking Dead is a character-driven story framed by the zombie-apocalypse genre, Invincible’s character work is its greatest strength. While the superhero action and world-building are incredibly cool and compelling, it’s the interpersonal drama between Mark and his friends and family that gives the show its depth.
Visually, the show looks nice, with hand-drawn animation that pops with color. What’s surprising is that, despite the comic being nearly twenty years old, all of Kirkman, Ottley, and Walker’s designs hold up incredibly well. Compared to the books the illustrations and coloring aren’t quite as clean or detailed, but this is to be expected when adapting from comic book to TV. Compared to some of its peers in the animated category, the show doesn’t look quite as dazzling or polished. But perhaps in later seasons we’ll see a higher-budget presentation with more CGI implementation.
Delightfully, Invincible is every bit as gory as the source material is, and seeing some of the bloodiest scenes from the books recreated in motion adds significantly to their dramatic impact. It’s difficult to delve into without revealing spoilers, but whenever there’s an explosion of blood and guts on the show, it’s done with purpose and in support of the story.
While it would have been interesting to see Invincible brought to life as a live-action show or movie, the decision to keep it rooted in the book’s hand-drawn art style seems to be the only way to preserve the spirit of the original idea. The dichotomy of the cartoon aesthetic and the extreme violence is fundamental, and it’d be near impossible to convey that in a live-action setting, particularly when the story expands exponentially in its later acts.
Pacing is going to be one of the keys to the show’s success moving forward. Invincible is a truly gigantic story encompassing a ton of characters and subplots, and with hope the show will be able to achieve that same sense of scope. So far, the series seems on track to do so and stand out as one of the most unique superhero stories on television.