There’s a lot to like in Amazon’s new animated series, but the R-rated superhero antics have a tough time translating from page to screen.
While there are many ways to adapt material to another medium, there do seem to be two prominent schools of thought. Some want adaptations of existing works to take the source material as a jumping-off point. The original text should inspire the creators of the new media, but should make their own perspective felt. On the other hand, there are those that crave pure accuracy. They want the new piece to resemble the original as closely as possible, in tone, point of view, and style.
Fans of Invincible that prefer the latter approach will likely come away from the new animated series very pleased. While the show may go in wild new directions after the three episodes provided to critics, it currently looks like a very faithful interpretation of the Robert Kirkman-penned, Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley-drawn comic book series.
The show, like the comic, tells the story of Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), the teenage son of Debbie (Sandra Oh) and Nolan (J.K. Simmons) aka Omni-Man. Omni-Man is a Superman type—nigh-invulnerable, fast, capable of flight—who came to Earth as an adult, an apparent self-appointed protector who fell in love with Debbie and the world itself. Mark, anxious for his powers to kick in, struggles with life in the middle of the high school pecking order. He’s cute and sweet enough to attract the attention of Amber Bennett (Zazie Beetz), smart and fun enough to be friends with William Clockwell (Andrew Rannells), but still not cool enough to avoid Todd’s bullying.
When his super puberty kicks in, Grayson finds himself struggling to settle on a codename, repelling an alien invasion, and trying to fit in with the likes of Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), Robot (Zachary Quinto), and Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow), members of the Teen Team, in short order. Above it all hangs a mysterious attack on the Guardians of the Globe, Invincible’s nearly one-to-one Justice League pastiche.
In addition to the story very closely mirroring its comic book predecessor, the artistic interpretation of the characters marches pretty much in lockstep with the source material. This makes sense, given that co-creator and original artist of the comic book Cory Walker is the lead character designer for the series. The animation itself is workmanlike but not much beyond that, just getting the job done.
It’s for this reason that when the show opens up the blood-and-guts floodgates, it all feels like empty spectacle. In the comics, Invincible’s willingness to spray plasma and viscera all over the panels is bracing, at least early on. It’s an invasion into what, at first, seems like a fairly traditional teen superhero book. On screen, it hits different. It no longer feels transgressive. Instead, it reads more like the show trying to shock you; like it’s sidling up to elbow you in the ribs while smirking, “I’m pretty edgy, right?” It appears intended to place us alongside Mark’s shock at the realities of being a hero, but only plays as giddy self-indulgence. The buckets of red strike one as juvenile edginess, like a scene where one of the heroes is caught in a threesome with a twist.
Three episodes in, competence is the watchword of Invincible.
Instead, the moments that really shock and disquiet the viewer are smaller. The sight of a character pounding away at an immovable object as their body breaks down. Mark’s shock at his dad’s “tough love” lesson about superpowered combat. These moments hit me way harder, and stuck with me much longer, than the “PG-13 personality playing at R” maturity of the extreme violence.
Much of that lies with some truly great voicework helping the characters come to life. Simmons plays Nolan as a more functional Great Santini for the 2020s. Sure, he’s warmer and sexier than Santini ever came close to, but the training sequences reveal a nastiness that Yeun’s voicework catches even Mark by surprise. Oh rounds out the Grayson cast by giving voice to being the one left behind, by same-sex parental bonding just as much as the ability to stand up to a hail of bullets. As Invincible’s superpowered frenemy, Splode, Mantzoukas nicely captures the character’s wounded narcissism and feels age-appropriate, a feat for an actor who’s probably 25-30 years older than the character he’s voicing.
Fans of the comics will go in knowing that there exists an element of deception early in Invincible’s story. The show dispenses with that masquerade much earlier than the books, a choice that, at least in the first three episodes, seems well-advised. Revealing the truth deepens the show quickly, and losing the mystery doesn’t seem to have any storytelling drawbacks yet.
Three episodes in, Invincible‘s a competent (and very close) adaptation conveyed by competent animation. However, the strength of the voicework suggests the show can offer increasingly more interesting stories as the season goes on. That is, if the series can resist the devil on the other shoulder — the one that suggests sub-The Boys demonstrations of “maturity” are the path to success.
Invincible slips on the costume March 26th on Amazon Prime.