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By the end of the first episode of “Invincible,” 17-year-old Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) has discovered and embraced his own awesome powers, courtesy of his extraterrestrial father, Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). He’s learned how to take a punch, fly, and land — after making several alarmingly deep holes in his backyard, anyway. He’s also gotten his very own superhero suit and color scheme, a sunny combination of yellow and aqua as optimistic as his newly adopted name of “Invincible.” Puffed up with the confidence of the newly kickass, Mark decks a goon and grins as credits start to roll. This job is done — but, as it turns out, the episode isn’t. Instead, it cuts back to Omni-Man headed off on a grim errand that will change everything for good.
At least in the first three episodes, this stark contrast between Mark’s teenage journey to becoming a true superhero and his father’s violent double life lies at the heart of “Invincible,” Amazon Prime Video’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s popular comic book series. In one scene, Mark is nursing crushes on cool schoolmate Amber (Zazie Beetz) and fellow teen hero Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs); the next, Omni-Man is tearing heads off skulls with the playful ease of a toddler picking dandelions. (Viewer beware: this show can, and does, get extremely violent.) These two worlds and vibes certainly collide more the deeper Mark gets into his training and experience as “Invincible.” But for the most part, these first few chapters keep them relatively separate, making for some disorienting — but undeniably intriguing — narrative whiplash.
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It’s been a long road to this show for “Invincible,” which Kirkman and artist Cory Walker co-created in 2003, with artist Ryan Ottley joining the team shortly thereafter. While a film production from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg is ostensibly still in play, this new series is the comics’ highest profile adaptation by a mile (and not for nothing: Rogen and Goldberg act as executive producers on it, anyway). Now, of course, Kirkman is the wildly successful co-creator and executive producer of “The Walking Dead,” so even those who might not have picked up an “Invincible” comic might be interested in this spry, hourlong animated series that somehow manages to be both snarky and earnest within the same breath.
And yes, you read that right: much of “Invincible” might look and feel like a ’90s Saturday morning cartoon, but it takes itself seriously, demonstrated in part by the fact of its extended run time. Each of the first three episodes spans at least 40 minutes, and is structured similarly to traditional hourlong dramas. It’s an immediately pointed and ambitious swing to take — one I have to admire, even if each episode could comfortably handle bifurcation into more traditional 20-minute chapters.
What both anchors and keeps “Invincible” compelling is its cast, packed to the brim with talent. As Mark, Yeun conveys a perfect combination of teenage insecurity, determination and occasional arrogance. As his father, Simmons imbues Omni-Man with dual affection and flinty disapproval, while Sandra Oh quickly establishes his wry human mother Debbie as the family’s linchpin. (Here, it’s also worth giving credit where it’s due for casting Oh, a Korean Canadian, and Yeun, a Korean American, as mother and son.) Voice acting presents its own opportunities and challenges, and in this instance, all three actors are sharp enough to make their characters, and relationships with each other, feel whole from the get-go.
While Yeun, Simmons and Oh are the unequivocal highlights of the the “Invincible” cast, there are plenty other standouts from which to choose. Beetz makes the most of her time onscreen despite suffering a bit of a Mary Jane problem (i.e. she’s mostly there to flirt and keep Mark tied to Earth, for now), as does Andrew Rannells as Mark’s underdeveloped gay best friend. Jacobs makes it all too easy to imagine a whole other show about the adventures of Atom Eve, and as her mercurial boyfriend Rex Splode, Jason Mantzoukas continues to make his case as one of the most instantly recognizable and malleable voices in TV, period. Meanwhile, voiceover vets like Mark Hamill, Kevin Michael Richardson and Clancy Brown bring some campy cartoon flair to their roles as, respectively, a superhero tailor, a pair of bright blue muscle heads and demon detective “Damien Darkblood” (he wears a trenchcoat and everything!).
Over the course of eight episodes, “Invincible” may dive deeper into classic superhero questions of destiny, loyalty, kindness and duty. It may even find some new ways to do so, especially as it leans into its own voice and particular strangeness. Take a seemingly random scene in the third episode, in which Mark has to hold his breath to fight one-eyed weirdo (voiced by Rogen) in space, only to end up in a perfectly civil conversation about the bureaucratic mistake that sent “Allen the Alien” there. While it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything in The Big Picture of Mark, Omni-Man, or the planet’s legendary “Guardians of the Globe,” the scene is nonetheless a perfect little peek into what makes “Invincible” tick. As Allen flies away, Mark is left alone on the surface of the moon, staring up at the Earth in all its majesty. It doesn’t last long, but in that moment, Mark is a simultaneously a superhero, an alien and an awed teenager marveling at what he can do. Whether or not he’s actually invincible, he’s at least a character who makes the journey of following him worth it.
“Invincible” premieres Friday, March 26 on Amazon.
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