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Amazon Prime Video’s animated superhero series “Invincible” does this cute thing with its title card that, as great title sequences often do, slowly comes to define the story’s tone. Basically, the title isn’t displayed until a character says the word “invincible,” and even when they do, you don’t hear them say it — the show just cuts away to a full-screen image of “Invincible” in bright yellow font with a sky-blue backdrop (plus a credit to original comic book creators Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley underneath). So in the third episode, the title cuts in after about four minutes, right in the middle of a gloomy scene. Episode 2 drops it at almost exactly the same time (though during a cheeky bit of foreshadowing), and in the premiere, the title card pops up with only 10 minutes left in the episode.
How, exactly, the premiere incorporates its title is a) a pretty big spoiler, and b) integral to establishing the kind of show “Invincible” really is, behind its sunny color scheme and family-centric story. Kirkman’s adaptation is provocative, surprising, and sometimes challenging, as it constantly tries to disrupt the accepted ideas of its genre, whether that’s the superhero genre, the teen drama genre, or the misguided notion that animation is a genre unto itself. After three episodes (out of eight in Season 1), it’s hard to see exactly what “Invincible” wants to say with its expectation-shattering ethos, but it’s certainly earns your attention.
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“Invincible” starts out as a fairly typical superhero story. Two blue-skinned giants wearing black-and-white spandex are launching a frontal assault on the White House, and a group of heroes swoop in to stop them. There’s Darkwing, a Batman surrogate with cool gadgets and a dark, winged suit; War Woman, a Wonder Woman replacement who wields a sleek golden club; Red Rush, a super-fast Russian dressed in red (and standing in for The Flash); Aquarus, the King of Atlantis and, rather than a muscly, bearded, Jason Momoa-type, is instead a human-sized fish. Martian Manhunter and Green Lantern knock-offs complete the Guardians of the Globe, but their de facto leader is Omni-Man (voiced by J.K. Simmons), who’s like the graying, mustachio’d Superman fans once dreamt they’d see in “Justice League.”
The “Invincible” creators clearly conceived of these heroes to be reminiscent of their more famous predecessors, for reasons at least partially evident by episode’s end. But before the jarring twist in the final 10 minutes, the episode flies home with Omni-Man, to meet his 17-year-old son and series lead, Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun). In most ways, Mark is your typical geeky teen. He collects comic books, goes to high school, and awkwardly crushes on girls. But he’s also been waiting for his own super powers to kick in, courtesy of his super-powered father’s genes. His mom, Deborah (Sandra Oh), is a human, but his dad, who goes by Nolan when he’s not suited up, came from a faraway planet called Viltrum. Viltrumites are blessed with superhuman abilities and charged with using those abilities to protect planets throughout the galaxy. Nolan was given Earth, and he plans to pass it down to his son someday.
Most of the premiere plays like a rather straight father-son drama. Advice is shared. Hugs are given. The duo even play catch, albeit in mid-air and throwing the ol’ baseball around the entire planet. Mark is in training, trying to get a grip on his new abilities, but he’s also learning about responsibility — to his family, friends, and Earth itself. But then “Invincible” makes a hard pivot into hyper-violence. Before the premiere’s last scene, the most blood shown was when one of those blue baddies caught a bullet to the eye. What’s seen in the ensuing episodes makes that cringe-inducing shot look like a medicinal balm. The next two episodes pivot between Mark’s reality — his relatively tame super-heroics and actually tame teen life — and a darker world lurking around the bend.
The tonal shifts could have torn the story apart, if not for the excellent voice cast and confidant structural maneuvering. Yeun has long been perfecting his work in the recording booth for a while now, with roles in “The Legend of Korra,” “Trollhunters,” and “Voltron.” He arguably topped out as the ebullient bird-friend Speckle in “Tuca & Bertie” (soon returning for Season 2), but he strikes all the right notes as an anxious teen here. Oh is another major highlight, adding outsized personality and warmth to a character still waiting to be developed. (Plus, credit to casting director Linda Lamontagne for hiring a Korean Canadian actress and Korean American actor to play mother and son.) Simmons’ commanding baritone finds the perfect chord for the world’s most powerful hero, and while Jason Mantzoukas and Zachary Quinto are almost too perfect for their parts (an immature super-bro and the robotic version of Spock, respectively), there are enough strengths throughout the ensemble to keep these on-the-nose casting choices from becoming a distraction.
Still, distractions are at least part of “Invincible’s” design. This is an hourlong animated drama (which is rare unto itself) that’s popping holes in the benevolent depictions of those with unparalleled power (not unlike “The Boys,” though still a rebellious take) that can manage to find room for earnestness and pathos amid satire and snark. The sheer audacity of all that is enough to earn more than a little respect, and once the shock wears off, “Invincible” quickly builds anticipation for where this story goes next. While too early to tell exactly how it will stack up as a season, let alone a series, in an era where lots of “ambitious” TV can feel all too predictable, “Invincible” should keep viewers on their toes — for the right reasons.
“Invincible” premieres Friday, March 26 with three episodes. New episodes will be released each Friday until the Season 1 finale on April 30.
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