What if your dad was the most powerful superhero, a universally adored being who, despite being from another world, embodied the best of humanity (and had an amazing mustache to boot)? That's, broadly speaking, the premise of Invincible, a new Amazon Prime Video animated series adapted from a comic book written by The Walking Dead's Robert Kirkman with art by Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, one set in a world in which superheroes streak across city skylines and ordinary suburban homes can help protect even the most famous hero's secret identity.
Teenaged Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yuen, one of several Walking Dead veterans to work on the series) lives in just such a home, one he shares with his father Nolan (J.K. Simmons), a mild-mannered man who lives a double life as Omni-Man, and mom Debbie (Sandra Oh), who's adapted remarkably well to being in love with a man who lives a life that puts him in constant peril. (That he can also whisk her off to Europe to enjoy a meal at a favorite restaurant probably helps.) Mark and Debby have both mostly gotten used to Nolan disappearing for long stretches at a time. He's tough to defeat, especially in a world that's home to other superpowered like the Guardians of the Globe, whose ranks include heroes like War Woman (Lauren Cohan) and Darkwing (Lennie James) — characters that will look familiar to anyone who's picked up an issue of Justice League. Like another Prime Video series, The Boys, Invincible is filled with characters that tweak comic book icons.
Its take on the material is much different than The Boys, albeit not always in the ways it first appears to differ. What begins as the TV equivalent of a heartwarming family drama — interrupted by the occasional attack on a national landmark — takes a turn just after the closing credits of the first episode start to roll. Invincible ultimately becomes almost as violent as The Boys, but the humor doesn't run quite as black and it comes at some of the same stark moral questions about power and responsibility from a different angle. The series, overseen by a team that includes Kirkman, Simon Racioppa (The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), David Alpert (The Walking Dead), and Catherine Winder (Star Wars: The Clone Wars), explores weighty themes with a light touch, one matched to an animation style that draws on Walker and Ottley's clean, Silver Age comics-inspired art.
The setup takes the form of a familiar origin story. Mark looks up to his father, often literally, while waiting for his own powers to kick in. As the series opens, however, they don't seem to be in a hurry to arrive. He gets beaten up by a bully at school while sticking up for Amber (Zazie Beetz), a classmate with whom he's smitten. He plays video games with his best friend William (Andrew Rannells) and saves his money to buy comic books. Then, while taking out the garbage at a dull fast food job, he realizes he's grown incredibly strong.
From there Mark takes to the skies and begins fighting crime, clumsily at first. With his father's help he starts to get the hang of the superhero game, figures out what to wear and what to call himself, and even plays an old-fashioned round of catch in the sky. But Mark's life soon grows more complicated, often in ways he can't yet understand. As he gets to know a bunch of fellow teen heroes, including a classmate who fights evil under the name Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), the series sets him up for dramas that go beyond saving Mt. Rushmore from a bad guy named Doc Seismic (Chris Diamantopoulos). Invincible begins as a coming-of-age story and never stops being one. But by the end of the three episodes provided to critics (which will premiere simultaneously on March 26 before episodes begin rolling out weekly) it's clear Mark's new powers will complicate his life in ways he can't yet imagine.
Like a good superhero comic, Invincible understands the value of unexpected twists and cliffhangers. And, like any comic hoping to keep its audience, it knows the value of getting off to a strong start. The series leans into its limited animated style, letting dialogue scenes play out like static comic book panels then turning kinetic for the fight scenes. It works well in both modes, aided by lean scripts and a first-rate voice cast. Yeun, Simmons, and Oh make for a convincing family with a complicated dynamic that Mark's new powers threaten to upset and the supporting cast, which includes Mark Hamill, Walton Goggins, and Zachary Quinto, in key roles, is equally strong. The comedic highlights, predictably, belong to Jason Mantzoukas as a powerful but egomaniacal teen hero named Rex Splode and Seth Rogen, who's currently working on a live-action film version of the same material, shows up as an alien who's not quite what he appears in a later episode.
Whether Invincible will be able to mix together a brightly colored superhero world and the shadowy undercurrents that threaten it remains to be seen, but the comic series sustained it for a long run and so far this adaptation has taken its cues from the source material, even as it's mixed up and revised its storyline. For now, it's found a neat balancing act that makes for a refreshing new take on superhero revisionism. Unlike The Boys (or Watchmen or other dark spins on comic book worlds), Invincible isn't interested in demythologizing superheroes so much as testing them. Can anyone of such power live up to the ideals we project on them? With so much potential for corruption, does a character as goodhearted and clear-eyed, if undeniably naive, as Mark stand a chance? That's a cliffhanger that, if the series lives up to the promise of its early episodes, Invincible should be able to draw out for a long time.
TV Guide rating: 3.5/5
Invincible premieres Friday, Mar. 26 on Amazon Prime Video.