I honestly didn’t know what to expect going into the premiere of Amazon’s Invincible series. I had long since soured on the comic (the early issues were a favorite of teenage Zoe, but the quick descent into Robert Kirkman’s stock gore and shock reveals made me abandon ship). Still, the idea of a big-budget Western animated series for adults that isn’t a comedy is very exciting. Throw in an absurdly stacked voice cast led by Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, and JK Simmons, and you’ve got a hell of a pitch for a show. So, when I sat down to watch it, I was pleasantly surprised by an adaptation that modernized and improved on the faults of its source material in just about every way possible, making an excellent first impression…right up until it completely falls apart.
This article has spoilers for the comic series and first episode.
Robert Kirkman (source, story, co-executive producer), Cory Walker (source, character design), Jeff Allen (supervising director), Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, JK Simmons (starring)
March 26, 2021
Invincible, for the unaware, was an Image Comics series that ran from 2003 up until the final issue in 2018. Created by Robert Kirkman, in his pre-The Walking Dead media empire days, and Cory Walker, the series follows Mark Grayson, the titular Invincible, as he follows in his father’s footsteps as a superhero while juggling the challenges of being a teenager in high school. The series is a surprisingly close adaptation to these early issues and manages to capture the energy and world that made Invincible such a success back when it first launched.
The bulk of the premiere is spent focusing on Mark (Steven Yeun) and his relationship with his parents. Nolan (JK Simmons) and Debbie (Sandra Oh) are loving and supportive parents whose marriage manages to be wholesome and very much alive even as Nolan juggles his personal life with his role as the incredibly powerful Omni-Man. These scenes are genuinely powerful and easily the most humanistic, natural writing I’ve seen from Kirkman, who wrote the premiere’s script. A particular stand-out for me is the scene where Debbie confronts Mark over his obsessive training. A mother suddenly having to deal with a frustrated, angry son who can throw the family SUV into low orbit is a terrifying prospect, but Sandra Oh’s performance gives a quiet dignity and power to Debbie as she outright confronts Mark’s burgeoning toxic masculinity. Forcing Mark to face the attitude he is developing by asking “Does that make you feel strong? To know, I can’t physically make you do something? Is that what you need?” is a powerful moment and keeps the very much human Debbie a relevant, compelling character in a world filled with super-powered heroes and villains.
Speaking of those super-powered folks, the showcase of those abilities is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Animated by South Korean studio Maven Image Platform, Invincible is a stunning show. Every fight scene is smooth and weighty. Inventive uses of old stand-by superpowers like super-speed and strength make big-budget live-action superhero projects look stiff and quaint in comparison. This is helped by the design work put in by Cory Walker, who serves as the show’s lead character designer. The scenes are filled with bright, eye-catching hero costumes to make even the most crowded of fight scenes easy to follow and enjoy. But fights aren’t the only visual delight Invincible has up its sleeve.
My favorite part of the entire premiere came when Mark Grayson first suits up as Invincible. Rather than a climactic shot to end the episode, we are treated to an extended sequence of Invincible trying out his powers by soaring through a crowded metropolis. Set to “Broken Boy” by Cage the Elephant, the entire scene is just an absolute joy to behold. Mark’s excited whoops as he speeds between skyscrapers are infectious. The fluid combination of slick 2D animation with 3D backgrounds outshines many theatrical releases who tried the same trick (looking at you, Dragon Ball Super: Broly). Segueing beautifully into Invincible’s first big superhero fight, the entire triumphant sequence ends the episode with a charming, just-clever-enough title card drop that solidifies the series’ playful tone.
And then it keeps going.
Invincible, the comic, became infamous over its 144-issue run for its gore-filled fight scenes. Blood-drenched pages that featured disembowelments, decapitations, and every possible permutation between the two in often gratuitous detail became a hallmark of the series. That all started with the reveal in Invincible #7 that Omni-Man is not the hero he pretends to be. Murdering his way through the Guardians of the Globe, a knock-off Justice League, he is revealed as an alien conqueror waiting to take the Earth as his prize. The specter of this ultra-violent streak hung over the premiere the entire time I watched, and, disappointingly, it appeared in the episode’s final scene.
Fleshing out the comics’ two-page betrayal sequence, Invincible’s premiere ends in a 5-minute splatterfest as Omni-Man viscerally murders his way through the previously introduced Guardians. The entire brawl, preceded by a 5-minute collection of spotlights on the soon-to-be-dead heroes, is shocking, upsetting, and precisely what I hoped this series wouldn’t be. I have no problems with violence. I play violent video games, watch movies like the John Wick trilogy, and everything in between on the regular. But even I had to look away from the massacre at the end of Invincible, as Omni-Man’s kills grew increasingly cruel and stomach-churning.
The violence is a part of Invincible; I can’t deny that. By including the shocking reveal, it stays true to the series’ roots and will likely make long-term, die-hard fans happy. But I can’t help but feel like it is a poisonous creative choice that rots an otherwise charming show from within. The violence in Invincible has nothing to say, no message behind it. Even a show like fellow Amazon product The Boys has a clear intention behind its gore, showcasing a view of superheroes as little more than a tool for the powers that be. Invincible’s bloody deaths are violence for violence’s sake, utterly at odds with the 37 minutes that preceded it. It felt like any progress Kirkman has made as a writer since the mid-2000s will inevitably give way to relying on shock kills and blood to get attention.
Invincible is, in many ways, a much stronger story than the comic that spawned it. Better writing, an aesthetic brought to motion wholly intact, and powerhouse performances to bring the characters to life. If it had simply ended after the title card, it would be in the running for my favorite superhero TV pilot ever. But for every bit brighter Invincible shines than its source material, it’s juvenile, sadistic ending seemingly guarantees it will never be able to get rid of its origin’s shadow, and has no desire to do so.