How long can our pop-cultural obsession with superheroes persist? We are now long past the point of saturation; even the act of complaining about it has become a cliche. Amazon Prime Video has dabbled in the superhero trend before, with The Tick and The Boys, and the streaming service’s latest effort, an animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s comic series Invincible, imbibes the genre in big, earnest gulps.
At the centre of the story is Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), a superpowered teenager with some Hulk-sized daddy issues. His father, Nolan (JK Simmons) spends most of his time engaged in daring heroism, as the Superman-like saviour known as Omni-man. Nolan comes from the planet Viltrum, and works in tandem with a team of heroes known as the Guardians of the Globe to help keep Earth safe from supernatural danger. Mark’s mother, meanwhile, is a compassionate human woman called Debbie (Sandra Oh). Invincible’s first three episodes drop on Amazon on 26 March, with subsequent episodes arriving weekly. They loosely take the form of an origin story – speeding through Mark’s acquisition of superpowers and getting straight to the “... comes great responsibility” part of the deal.
Invincible may boast one of the most stacked casts in TV history. Recognisable names are piled one on top of another – Mark Hamill, Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, Jason Mantzoukas, Seth Rogen, Zachary Quinto, Walton Goggins, Ezra Miller, Jonathan Groff, Jon Hamm and Mahershala Ali among them. Besides the ever-reliable Yeun, Oh and Simmons, Mantzoukas is particularly enjoyable as the abrasive hero Rex Splode.
Like so many modern animations, however, it suffers for a lack of specialised voice actors. The ongoing trend of hiring live-action stars for roles that would have traditionally gone to voice artists has the obvious benefit of name recognition. As series like BoJack Horseman have proved, this can yield some terrific performances, more naturalistic than conventional cartoon voicework. But traditions were born for a reason, and too often, in Invincible and elsewhere, the performances could do with being broader – more cartoonish.
Episodes are also on the longer side. While the tone is mostly light and lively, there’s not as much wit as you’d expect in Invincible’s script. The animation fares fine but doesn’t dazzle; from fight scenes to quiet conversations, everything could just do with a shade more panache. The first episode in particular is a bit of a slog to get through, but saves its most potent moment for an extended mid-credits sequence (in case you didn’t know you were watching a superhero show). Invincible sometimes seems built for a younger audience – the recurrent high-school setting certainly yells “YA” – but then it will indulge moments of genuinely frightful gore, scenes of innards and wrenched-apart bodies that really push the limits of its sensibility.
Invincible often seems derivative; perhaps its ideas were more groundbreaking in the original early-2000s comics. Some of its characters are unapologetic parodies (the Batman facsimile “Darkwing”, for example), and you could easily go through picking out elements or story ideas that have cropped up in Watchmen, or The Incredibles, or Sky High, or Misfits. But there are still some good bones to its premise, and just enough subversiveness to let you ignore the fact this is a story you’ve seen a hundred times before.
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