Amazon Prime Review: ‘Invincible’ Season 1

Invincible - Amazon Prime

Comic book adaptations are by no means an easy task, but Robert Kirkman and his co-producers achieve a soaring success with the Amazon Prime series Invincible. The eight-episode action drama reveals the natural emergence of 17-year-old Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) as the titular protagonist, the son of the planet Viltrum superhero Omni-Man (J. K. Simmons) and his wife Debbie Grayson (Sandra Oh). Invincible challenges perceptions of our place in the universe, as not since Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) has an animated adaptation transcended the graphic novel source material so effectively.

In typical superhero fashion, Invincible begins with an establishing action piece. While two White House security guards (Jon Hamm and Sean Patrick Thomas) chew the fat, the Mauler Twins, who are a mad scientist and his clone (both Kevin Michael Richardson), emerge from the depths of Earth determined to eliminate the U.S. President. Fortunately (and right on musical cue), the original Guardians of the Globe (generic versions of the Marvel and DC Universes), along with the nearly-mythical Omni-Man, arrive to defeat the blue monstrosities. While this might sound like a typical Saturday matinee, this is one gigantic hoodwink. Following the climatic conclusion of the inaugural show, Omni-Man, Invincible and a new crop of superheroes, the Teen Team, provide thrills and surprises in episodes two through eight as earthlings face not only domination and elimination by alien races, but also evil from within.  

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Invincible - Amazon Prime

Mark Grayson is an energetic, admirable young man with a heart of gold. His superhuman core has the capacity to blast off into outer space and onward to Mars, thwart an alien invasion, uncover body horror experiments a la David Cronenberg films, maneuver girlfriend conundrums and overcome heart-wrenching revelations. Displaying human strength is his mother, Debbie Grayson, who is shaken to the depths of her heart and soul by the eighth episode yet remains wise, nurturing and resilient. All of this ultimately leaves Mark in the very precarious state of not only discovering what it means to be a hero, but also where his allegiances truly lie. 

In the tradition of Fleischer Studios’ Superman (1941), Invincible‘s animation team, Wind Sun Sky Entertainment, creates a world where flying is the name of the game. The movement and grace of the aerodynamics on display, coupled with rich texture and lighting effects, generate an immersive viewing experience, reminiscent of Superman (1978). The quick shot-reverse-shot and POV perspective as Mark soars to the sky evokes a sense of acceleration and momentum. Stirring up sandstorms and causing building debris to fall enhance the realistic portrayal of Mark’s aerial force.

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Invincible - Amazon Prime

Throughout Invincible season 1, the filmmakers respect the source material yet compress and improve upon the original plot points, bringing the overall superhero mythology into the 21st century. One such advance is establishing the Mauler Twins as genetics’ terrorists. Widening the diversity of the character pool are Mark Grayson’s girlfriend, Amber Bennett (Zazie Beetz), and best friend, William Clockwell (Andrew Rannells). Their importance emphasizes that the human aspect of this superhero outweighs that of his mighty superpowers.

It’s striking how much Amazon Prime’s Invincible mimics the dynamics of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. This is most evident in the fifth episode, “That Actually Hurt,” which plays a similar episodic role as Watchmen Chapter 5: Fearful Symmetry (1986-87). It foreshadows the foregone conclusion of the season 1 finale and demonstrates how the right combination of brutal violence and team dynamics yield a powerful saga. A pronounced theme of both epics is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Like Watchmen, recurring secondary characters play a large role in the grand scheme of things during Invincible season 1.

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Invincible - Amazon Prime

Significant detail enlivens Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs) and Damien Darkblood (Clancy Brown), with separate style and physicality. Eve presents herself with elegance and bravado. Her flight prowess mirrors the halfpipes of professional snowboarder Jamie Anderson. Enhancing the booming voice of Darkblood is carefully placed mise-en-scène. During Omni-Man’s confrontation with Darkblood, the establishing shot is identical to that of Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet (1944). Darkblood is hunched over in an armchair, drinking scotch. Low lighting and Venetian blinds augment the sinister sense of mystery. The most essential visual detail is the cold breath and demonic freezing temperature that accompanies Darkblood every time he enters a room. The complementary soundtrack is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Calling/The Neighborhood” score from Poltergeist (1982). In the seventh episode, “We Need to Talk,” exciting events involving the secondary character Robot harken back to “The Real Transported Man” segment inThe Prestige (2006).

All that said, the Invincible animation isn’t bulletproof, as the quality of the Mars space mission is a mixed bag. The boosters and rocket movements feel too quick (even for a cartoon show). At times, the CGI is overly apparent. The same goes for character models that appear in the foreground and background of various shots. Still, the writing and editing of the heroic set pieces more than makes up for these minor blemishes. 

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Invincible - Amazon Prime

In the documentary The Mindscape of Alan Moore (2003), the comic shaman states “Watchmen used the clichés of the superhero format to try and discuss notions of power and responsibility in an increasingly complex world.” Watchmen brought the ideas of coincidence and synchronicity to comics and superheroes at large. Invincible season 1 expands upon these ideas and updates the narrative. Just as Watchmen grew out of the morally bankrupt landscape of 1980s Cold War, Invincible captures not only the heightened sense of patriotism and duty that evolved after 9/11, but also the prevalence of paranoia, betrayal and hatred for others in contemporary times.  

The quality and appeal of Invincible season 1 will prompt viewers to anxiously await the next season. Experience to date in this genre has typically proven that the medium of animated series is optimal for superhero storytelling. In live action, the costumes are often the weakest link, while comic books have stilted energy about them. Animated shows like Invincible seem to provide a sweet spot in the middle, where the action is precise and crisp. There is more than a fair hint that the actions and reactions of the characters of Invincible season 1 will lead to serious ramifications. It’s now just a question of whether the writing staff is capable of building upon their initial lightning in the bottle success, or whether Invincible will be forever stuck in a limbo state of stagnation, like the lost bottle city of Kandor in Superman. I’m betting on spiraling success.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture.

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