TV Review: Invincible, Series Premiere (Episodes 1-3)

Aaron Neuwirth reviews the first three episodes of Invincible, the animated adaptation of the Image/Skybound Comics superhero series, featuring the voices of Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, and J.K. Simmons.

There are a lot of superheroes. What do you do differently to leave an impact on the genre with something new? Invincible is an adaptation of a Skybound/Image Comics series by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, and Cory Walker. It lasted from 2003 to 218, for 144 issues. It’s pretty much my favorite comic series ever, as I was able to see a whole universe get built from the ground up, taking in all the ways it attempted to move in its own direction. Delivering a combination of silver age superheroes, the ultraviolence of the late 80s/early 90s comics, and a modern attitude shining through in the writing, it felt great to read something so clever and captivating. Now we have an animated series on the right track as far as holding onto what made the series special.

S1E1: “It’s About Time”

The series focus is on Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), a normal high school teenager whose father, Nolan (J.K. Simmons), happens to be Omni-Man, the most powerful superhero on the planet. That’s an important distinction, as Earth is full of heroes. The episode actually opens with an extended action sequence focused on the Guardians of the Globe, which features a plethora of heroes with abilities including flight, stretching, super strength, super speed, cool gadgets, and a water-powered fish person. Still, this is a show focused on Mark.

It doesn’t take too long for Mark to get his powers. Much like his father, who is actually from the planet Viltrum, Mark has super strength and can fly. With that said, Mark is still an anxious teenager who finds himself in awkward situations around school bullies and the young woman he has an eye on, Amber (Zazie Beetz). As this pilot episode is heavily focused on Mark simply coming to understand what he’s capable of, the meat of the episode focuses on Mark learning from his father that he’ll have to be ready for anything that comes his way (and get a handle on landing when ready to come down from flying).

This could all seem fairly typical, and in terms of what to expect from an origin story, yes, the basic beats are familiar. However, it is the casting, writing, and presentation that pushes this in a different direction. Showrunner Simon Racioppa, along with executive producer Kirkman, and the others familiar with the series, has done what’s needed to bring in the sense of humor and heart that made the comic so remarkable.

But okay, saying a comic has humor and heart isn’t exactly new either, right? Well, it’s the way the superhero genre can feel so informed by what’s came before it that helps this series out. It’s not just that we see Mark become a superpowered individual, but that the show takes its time to explore how that feels and its effects on a life. Having Yeun, Simmons, and Sandra Oh as Debbie, Mark’s mother, makes for a solid family unit that is fun to be around. Having Mark break down what it is to fly, be stronger than he once was, and take on the world in a way that makes him feel invincible is going to mean a lot in the episodes to come.

S1E2: “Here Goes Nothing”

There’s another thing I haven’t alluded to yet about this comic, which has also been transferred fully to the animated series – it’s a very adult book. By adult, I don’t only mean the characters speak to each other like people and attempt to process very human feelings; it’s also incredibly violent. Watching superheroes and supervillains punch each other is one thing, but the first episode moves up a key incident that makes sure viewers know what they are getting into.

[Skip this paragraph to avoid a major spoiler for the first episode.]

By the end of the first episode, the Omni-Man commits a very shocking deed that will turn audiences around on how they feel about the character. It’s very shocking and animated in the most violent way possible to show that Omni-Man is an absolute force who is seemingly impossible to take down and that this is a series that is not about to censor itself. There’s no indication why Omni-Man delivered such extreme violence the way he did, but it’s one of the ways this world opens up, and further complicates the heart of this story, which is the relationship shared between him and his son.

“Here Goes Nothing” is focused on showing us what else is in Invincible’s world, as he learns what it means to stop crime and any other dangers threatening the planet. In this case, the recurring villains come in the form of the Flaxans, an alien race that keeps attempting to throw armies through portals at the planet, only to be outdone by the fact that they age way quicker on Earth. Invincible’s attempts to help do not go very far, but he does meet the members of the Teen Team, which includes another potential love interest, Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), along with Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow), and Robot (Zachary Quinto, perfectly cast).

This group has a range of interesting powers, once again showing off the unique nature of this comic book world. By this point, there are various heroes and villains with distinct powers, all visually represented in cool ways. As an animated series showing off characters for the first time for many, the show knows how to create action sequences that really push these abilities for the sake of making it clear as far as what a show like this can offer.

While there are moments that impress visually, I will be curious to see how much stronger the animation gets in the future, as the blend of traditional animation and 3D effects sometimes sticks out more than it should. Additionally, Invincible’s amateur nature as a hero means learning to be a better hero, which I think applies to how we see his movements. Given the rougher fights that occurred and the more measured performances in dramatic moments from this (stacked) voice cast, it’s hard not to see the animation choices as very deliberate in many instances. Suffice to say, while the detail level seems lacking at times, I believe it to be for a reason.

S1E3: “Who You Calling Ugly”

The other way Marks’ world expands is with the presence of the Global Defense Agency, which is more of the focus in “Who You Calling Ugly.” The GDA is essentially the Men In Black for superheroes, and it is led by Cecil Stedman (a wonderfully dry Walton Goggins). His disappointment, sadness, and anger over some mysterious murders that change the status quo mean he has to find replacements. Robot, who we only know so much about at this point – calculating, focuses on the greater good, no sense of humor – is Cecil’s choice to lead the replacement try outs, but who will be chosen?

This is a good excuse to pack many heroes into a room and watch us see them all in action. Imagine a Danger Room sequence from X-Men, but with heroes who go hard on each other and don’t resist the urge to swear (especially Mantzoukas’ Rex). It’s fast-paced and fun stuff, and the sequence also introduces us to Monster Girl (Grey Griffin/Kevin Michael Richardson), a woman cursed to slowly age backward every time she morphs into a Hulk-like monster to fight off anything in her way. It’s honestly a trip knowing where many of these setups are going, so seeing a lot of this stuff come to life via animation is quite exciting given all the potential.

Bringing it back to Mark, it is key to understand that his focus is to do what’s right. We can have fun seeing how he interacts with his friends, family, and newfound superhero acquaintances, but the key to who this high schooler is revolves around his inherent desire to choose the right path. A talented actor in his own right, Steven Yeun is a wonderful pick for Mark Grayson. He captures the naivety of the character in this more youthful portion of his life.

In one instance in this episode, Mark has to push aside Amber so he can go off to save the day with Atom Eve.  It leads to a thrilling and funny series of events, only to return home and get some quality lessons from his father before dealing with Amber’s questions of what he’s been doing. This isn’t too far from Spider-Man-like cartoonishness, but there’s a deliberate tone in how all of this plays out. An exciting x-factor defining this series in terms of how well it can balance being a superhero action-comedy of sorts, along with a compelling character drama (these episodes are all around 45 minutes, further pushing the medium and indicating that it wants the room to breathe).

So, is there something new here? In a world where superhero films take up a lot of online oxygen, and we’re at the point where sincere efforts and satires of them can coexist, it’s a tricky route to try and pull off. However, as an animated entry presented as seriously as necessary while maintaining a grand sense of humor (and a fun level of snarkiness), Invincible has plenty to offer and is just getting started. Mark will be put through the wringer as he learns more about his father, the other superheroes, and the universe he’s a small part of. However, much like what his powers afford him, he’s going to push through so much due to his strength and stable mind, which is what I hope to see from this show as well.

From Allen the Alien’s Journal:

  • Welcome to my coverage of Invincible. I will refrain from major comic book-based spoilers and keep most of those thoughts over here, in Allen’s corner of the universe.
  • Speaking of which, Allen made a debut quite quickly. Voiced by Seth Rogen, this alien is my favorite character in the series, so yes, this show really gave me a lot to like, and very quickly.
  • The show is having fun in delivering the title card as a punchline so far, which is neat. The two lengthy cold opens are also a fun choice that totally fit the offbeat tone Invincible can often go for.
  • “Peeing your pants on purpose” is certainly the wildest way I’ve heard to be taught how to fly.
  • Mark Hamill voices Art Rosenbaum, the super-suit designer. Another great choice in a cast that seriously is incredibly loaded with talent.
  • Omni-Man hitting his son as a means to help train him made for a rough moment that will really help sell how strong the drama needs to play in the episodes to come.
  • Sandra Oh is doing a great job of balancing the familiarity of what it means to be married to a superhero as if it’s no big deal and the concern she has for her family’s safety.
  • In terms of power on display, don’t underestimate Atom Eve.
  • This isn’t the last time we’ll see our heroes in space, and the sound design is pretty cool when dealing with that environment.
  • “I don’t use screws.” – Quinto is nailing Robot’s line deliveries
  • Damien Detective (voiced by the great Clancy Brown) is a clear reference to Rorschach in the comics, and it’s neat to see that come through in animated form.
  • Rex is such a bastard.
  • I’m a big fan of the Mauler Twins, as far as comic book villains go.
  • Yup, Robot also has something going on behind those mechanical eyes.
  • I’m excited to be covering this from week to week, and I hope everyone gets as much joy as I do from seeing this series, whether as a comic fan or someone completely new to the world of Invincible!

Invincible streams exclusively on Amazon Prime Video. The first three episodes debut on March 26, 2021.

Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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