How the animated series refreshes pop culture TV 18 years after its source material did the same for comics.
I know it is final exam season so not everyone has the time to devote to a new series right now. But, if you find time and are a fan of the superhero genre, this is a no brainer. To round out this year’s Collegian reviews, let’s take a look at….
Spoiler Warning: For those that haven’t had a chance to check out “Invincible” yet, or those who are just hearing about the series from this article, it is nearly impossible to discuss what makes it so special without discussing the events of the first episode. I will only be spoiling the first episode of the eight episode season in this review, so please go check out “Invincible” episode one: “It’s About Time” on Amazon Prime and then return to this review at your convenience. T/w: Extreme violence.
Okay, so with that out of the way.
“Invincible” conquers one of the biggest challenges that superhero shows have: establishing a world, characters and rules in just one episode. The opening act of the first episode introduces us to a world where superheroes and supervillains roam the cities, where the United States government sponsors and organizes heroes through the Global Defense Agency, and our main character, Mark Grayson, a newly superpowered teen going by the name Invincible, the son of the world’s greatest superhero: Nolan Grayson aka Omni-Man.
After establishing everything the viewer needs to know about the world, it continually adds on characters and plot lines that fit into its established rules until the very end of the episode. Every single thing the viewer has learned about this world is instantly brought into question as Omni-Man, the great hero that much of the story revolves around, brutally and disgustingly murders seven of the world’s most powerful heroes and role models. Not only does this bring to life the age old question of “what if Superman was a bad guy?” it also presents a world where there is an unstoppable force, and the only person who could possibly act as an immovable object is his own son who, despite his ironic name, is definitely not invincible.
Amazon made the right call pulling this plot twist to the first episode, as now the whole series is simultaneously an origin story of Invincible, as well as a fast moving bullet train of dramatic irony pushing these lovable characters into a horrifying situation where the strongest being on the planet becomes their enemy. The series sets its stakes, lets them breathe and tells us a story of an awkward teenager finding his way in the world to distract us from the implications of the carrot on a stick that is the massacre. I could write a whole dissertation on how the plot twist affects the viewer’s perspective on every other second of screen time either Mark or Nolan has, but anyone who has seen the series already feels that, as was intended by the showrunners.
On the subject of the series’s production: J.K. Simmons, Sandra Oh, Mahershala Ali, Zach Quinto, Steven Yeun, Mark Hamill, Jason Mantzoukas, Seth Rogan, Walton Goggins, Zazie Beetz, Justin Roiland, Reginald VelJohnson, the list goes on for voice talent. I know Amazon is producing this series and that means they could pay the Queen of England herself to be on the show if they wanted with all that money, but I was seriously not prepared for this number of talented actors to show up in such a niche series. Every character feels simultaneously real and heightened. J.K. Simmons as Omni-Man flips perfectly between fatherly and menacing, Steven Yeun as Invincible brings a sense of insecurity and youthful ignorance to a deeply passionate character, Sandra Oh as Debbie Grayson plays both the perfect mother and the perfect subject of grief and Jason Mantzoukas as Rex Splode makes every other character seem dull in comparison to his vibrant and erratic voice. The cast is unmatched in the animated space, and can only go up as the series gains popularity.
Beyond story and talent, though, the series’s presentation leaves a bit to be desired. Creating an animated series in the modern pop culture space can be daunting when the major hits are live action, big budget series like “Game of Thrones,” or recently “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier,” and the animation space already has similarly budgeted masterpieces like “Attack on Titan” or “Enter the Spider-Verse.” Animation is a lovely medium that should be supported because it allows voice actors to act up and accentuate, it can tell stories that are impossible to tell in live action without massive CG budgets and because it can create visual art that is unique to a showrunner or animator. While I will vouch that “Invincible” is a great series that realizes the creator’s unique vision, I would hesitate to call it a ‘great animated series.’
While the fight scenes and big set pieces can be visually interesting, a majority of the series are just PNGs of characters being moved around on screen. During the final episode, the series’s budget limits really show, employing the use of CG characters and low frame-rate animation that looks like an amateur YouTube project. Any time two characters are having a normal, non-superhero discussion on screen, I was completely enthralled by the complex story, relatable characters and voice talent, but what I was actually looking at was just a comic panel that was slightly animated at the head.
With that said, let’s talk about the animated elephant in the room: the extreme violence. “Invincible” is undeniably violence and gore porn that is unapologetically bloody and grotesque. And it is awesome. Amazon has tried their hand at these violent superhero stories before with “The Boys,” but “Invincible” takes it to the next level, making a series that borders on the horror genre because of its visuals. The violence is there — not for violence’s sake — but to create a sense of absolute dread for the characters. When Omni-Man chops someone’s head off, it isn’t for spectacle, but to show you that any character that gets into a fight with him should fear for their lives. When Invincible watches civilians be turned to red mist, it isn’t explicitly to shock the audience, it is to visually show them the helplessness Mark feels that he cannot save people, forcing him, and the audience, to view these traumatic sights. Although it can be a bit gratuitous at times, and it can definitely be criticized, I believe the violence is what drew me into the series, but it kept me with its strong world building and story.
Despite my nitpicks, “Invincible” is definitely a one of a kind series that already has me adding compendiums of its comics to my Amazon shopping cart (Funny how that works, huh Bezos?). The first season sets up so many threads and perfectly leads them along until all but some are paid off in the finale which may be one of the best episodes of TV Amazon has ever put out. “Invincible’ has already been greenlit for two more seasons, which is great news. The pacing in the first was so perfect not only because of its contained stories, but also the hints and wide reaching story ideas it began that will be explored in subsequent seasons. If you want to binge a short, expertly crafted series with strong characters, impressive concepts that break the superhero genre and extremely talented voice actors, give “Invincible” the time to blow your mind. On a scale from “Bad” to “Perfect” I’d say “Invincible” is “Excellent.”