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Steven Yeun Breathes Life into the Animated Superhero Series Invincible

We live in a time where superhero and comic book content is everywhere, and the weekend of March 19 proved that point with the streaming premieres of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s (MCU) miniseries “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier” on Disney+ and the DC Extended Universe’s (DCEU) “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” on HBO Max. This is only a couple of weeks after the MCU miniseries “WandaVision” wrapped on Disney+, and only a few months after the DCEU film “Wonder Woman 1984” became the first film in the Warner Bros. and HBO Max partnership to debut on the streaming service the same day as it arrived in theaters. This is the monoculture now, and it is everywhere. And yet even against all that omnipresence, Robert Kirkman’s animated series “Invincible”—premiering on March 26 on Prime Video—manages to stand out.

Kirkman’s “Invincible,” which The Walking Dead creator adapts from his own same-named comic book that ran for 15 years, evokes the wham-bam, adventure-packed dynamism of Saturday morning cartoons while also pulling off a self-aware sense of humor and a staggering amount of animated gore. If that combination sounds familiar, it’s because it overlaps with Prime Video’s other big superhero show, “The Boys.” Similar to Eric Kripke’s adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s series, “Invincible” is also set in a version of Earth that looks quite like ours, except for the fact that superheroes, aliens, and all kinds of fantastical shenanigans are accepted by everyone. Costumed defenders and avengers—many of them deliberate spins on characters we already know, like Omni-Man on Superman, Darkwing on Batman, and even the titular Mark Grayson on Dick Grayson—are so commonplace that there are four main teams available to defend humans at any time. A government agency that is potentially shady seems to run things from the background, keeping an eye on whatever could attack Earth from inside our own planet or from the surrounding galaxy. And the characters of “Invincible,” as in “The Boys,” are used to killing baddies to protect the humans who trust them. They don’t necessarily like it—in fact, the hesitance felt by newly minted superhero Mark regarding the responsibility he now bears is a major component of the first three episodes of “Invincible” that were provided for review—but if they don’t do it, who will?

The voice cast here is deep (Steven Yeun, J. K. Simmons, and Sandra Oh lead the pack), the narrative is fast-paced, and premiere episode “It’s About Time” ends on an incredibly sharp turn. Before that cliffhanger, “Invincible” (which visually harkens back to the ‘90s classics “Batman: The Animated Series,” “Batman Beyond,” “Superman: The Animated Series,” and “X-Men: The Animated Series”) immerses us in the life of 17-year-old Mark Grayson (Yeun), whose father, Nathan Grayson (Simmons), also happens to be Omni-Man, the world’s most powerful superhero. He’s phenomenally strong and fast, he can fly, and his identity is a secret. Most of the time, he’s off saving the world, and so Mark grew up far closer to his human mother, realtor Debbie (Oh). Many years before, when Nathan had told his son that he was Omni-Man and an alien from the planet Viltrum, he had also told Mark that he would eventually develop powers. But puberty happened and nearly all of high school passed, and nothing.

Debbie and Nathan raised Mark to be brave and to do what is right: He stands up against bullies, like the one bothering his crush, Amber (Zazie Beetz), and he holds down a part-time job at the fast food joint Burger Mart. At Burger Mart’s dumpster is where Mark’s powers finally manifest, and he’s overjoyed to lob a bag of trash into space, share the news with his parents, and hear that his father will train him on how to fly, how to take a punch, and how to join the family business of defending Earth. But Nathan is wary: “Maybe our lives would be better if he hadn’t gotten them at all,” he tells Debbie of Mark’s powers. And Debbie, for her part, is disappointed by how quickly her son is changing: “It used to be you and me … and now it’s you and him,” she tells Mark after he shares with her his fears of being unable to live up to Nathan/Omni-Man, and his response is pure teen narcissism: “I’m more like you. I’m nothing special.” Not very nice, Mark!

But “Invincible” finds the right balance: acknowledging what a life-changing experience this is for Mark, including typical hero’s-journey scenes (crash landings that really reverberate, grueling training sessions that raise questions regarding what kind of lessons Nathan is teaching his son, and scenes where Mark befriends other teens who also boast similar abilities), and moving the story along so that it also focuses on other characters. Yeun does a wonderful job imbuing Mark with all the emotions of adolescence—youthful zeal, desperate self-pity, self-serious self-assuredness—and already makes him feel like a believable teenager, burdened son, and hopeful hero in only three episodes’ time. He does particularly well with the series’ humorous asides, which mostly probe at these characters’ workmanlike approach to superhero stuff (“What about Ass Kicker? No. That sounds willfully childish,” Mark argues with himself while engaging in his first crime-stopping attempt), and contrasts well with Simmons, who mostly does his expectedly grizzled thing as Omni-Man. But Simmons balances his gruffness with concern toward Yeun’s Mark and affection toward Oh’s Debbie (“Honest to God, a dragon was attacking Hong Kong!” he says as an excuse for being late for dinner), and Oh stands her own as the show’s most relatable character—a woman who is aware of her own humanity, and how it might be her greatest strength. Also delightful to hear in this voice cast are Gillian Jacobs, Walton Goggins, Jason Mantzoukas, Clancy Brown, and Jon Hamm, although to speak too much about any of their characters would violate many of the do-not-reveals that Prime Video outlined with their advance screeners.

“It’s all I ever wanted for as long as I can remember,” Yeun says with palpable yearning in “It’s About Time,” and throughout that premiere and follow-up episodes “Here Goes Nothing” and “Who You Calling Ugly?”, “Invincible” explores the myriad ramifications of that desire. How much danger do the Guardians of the Globe, the superhero team with which Omni-Man works but of which he is not a part, put themselves in every day? How can Mark be a regular high school student while also building his skills as the superhero Invincible? How much authoritative power is held by the Global Defense Agency, or by its partners, like the Hellboy-meets-Constantine demon detective Damien Darkblood (Brown) or the robot named, uh, Robot (Zachary Quinto)? “Invincible” sets up those questions quickly and engagingly in these first three installments, wraps them in a mystery, and then splatters them with blood. It’s not an entirely new approach for this genre, but the familiarity of “Invincible” is forgivable in light of the confidence that both Kirkman and Yeun bring to the material. They’re the reason to watch.

First three episodes of the eight-episode first season screened for review.

 

Roxana Hadadi

Roxana Hadadi is a film, television, and pop culture critic. She holds an MA in literature and lives outside Baltimore, Maryland.

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