In the early going, Amazon’s animated action series Invincible feels almost too earnest to be real. It unfolds at a leisurely pace, as a teenager learns he has incredible powers and begins his fledgling superhero career with enthusiasm. For 40-odd minutes — an unusual length for episodes of animated shows — Invincible wears its heart on its sleeve and plays everything straight, just so happy to be here. In fact, it’s very easy to miss the post-credits scene that makes it clear, in no uncertain terms, that things are going to take a sudden and drastic turn.
Based on the comic by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley, Invincible is, much like The Boys, an Amazon Studios foray into adapting a comics hit that didn’t quite cross over into the mainstream. Kirkman — who serves as an executive producer on the show — has already proven himself as a comics-to-TV hit with The Walking Dead, but in early-2000s comics, The Walking Dead was only half of what made Kirkman an industry juggernaut. The other half was Invincible.
This is not something the animated adaptation will make terribly clear, though. Invincible has a languid quality that permeates the whole enterprise — its excellent voice cast, stacked with beloved actors like Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, and Jason Mantzoukas — must work through sleepy characterization, and its animation sits in an uncomfortable space between Young Justice-esque Saturday morning cartoon and elevated Flash web cartoon (RIP). A well-choreographed fight is often followed by painfully static conversations and weightless movement, making it impossible to truly become enamored with the show’s overly efficient art style. Invincible is difficult to love, but not difficult to watch.
The latter is largely due to its cast, but it’s also efficiently plotted snack-food television, just pleasant enough to binge and enjoy before moving on to something else. The setup is pure teen soap: Mark Grayson (Yeun) is a pretty average high-school student with a part-time job and loving parents — except his dad Nolan (J.K. Simmons) is Omni-Man, a Superman-like indestructible hero from another planet. Mark and his mom Debbie (Oh) know this, which makes for wry comedy about life with a superhero dad. But they also know that Mark will almost certainly inherit his father’s powers, and no one is shocked when that finally happens, and Mark wants to follow his father into the family business.
A big part of Invincible’s charm is in the way it has little use for most of the traditional sources of drama in superhero storytelling. Keeping his powers a secret from his parents isn’t a problem — the entire Grayson family knows about Omni-Man. And it’s set in a world that’s familiar with superhero tropes, without winking at the camera about it. It’s also casually hyper-violent and gory in a way that feels jarring, but also essential to the show’s worldview: While it’s not a cynical take on superheroes, it is one that wants to engage with the violence of superpowers, and it presents a world where superhuman dust-ups aren’t great for innocent bystanders. There’s a self-awareness to the series that’s easy to appreciate, and it hits even better when it lays its cards on the table at the end of its premiere. (A twist that’s still fun even if you see it coming a mile away, and one that adds a great level of tension to the rest of the series.)
All of this is directly lifted from the source material, but nearly 20 years after its 2003 debut, Invincible doesn’t feel nearly as fresh as it did in a world just waking up to superheroes in movies, and in an insular comics scene that didn’t see nearly enough disruption. And unlike The Boys, Invincible largely plays its adaptation straight — in the three episodes made available to critics, the series is extremely faithful to the comic, and because of that, it doesn’t feel nearly as vibrant or exciting as it did in comics shops, where the series cultivated a fervent fandom.
Perhaps that’s part of the appeal, though. Invincible is no longer the new wave. It’s old-school, a throwback to superhero stories that weren’t trying to make grand statements about much, and didn’t have ambitions of big mainstream success. It’s just a story about a teenager going through some changes, and how violently adults — and aliens, and extra-dimensional armies — will respond, should that teenager get any ideas about stepping out on their own.