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Amazon's 'Invincible' animated series gives the mega-mature superhero story a retelling — and then some
Imagine waking up in the middle of your senior year in high school with incredible powers of strength, speed, and flight. You're practically invincible. Call it a final growth spurt or late-stage puberty, but it's proof that you're the child of the most omnipotent superhero on the planet. Now you have another big secret to keep — one of many — and it involved changing your entire life. The one secret you don't know is that your heroic father isn't everything he says he is — and this secret means your hero's journey is going to take a much more adult and mature turn than the typical coming-of-age story.
Invincible, which premieres on Amazon Prime on March 26, is the animated adaptation of the long-running comic of the same name by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Ryan Ottley. It revolves around a teenager named Mark Grayson (voiced by the recently Oscar-nominated Steven Yeun), the son of Deborah (Sandra Oh) and Nolan Grayson (J.K. Simmons). Mark's dad, we learn, happens to be superhero Omni-Man from the alien planet Viltrum, and Mark's own superpowers kick in right at the start of the series as he's introduced to the very grown-up world of protecting the Earth.
With one of the most impressive voice casts you'll ever find, including Mark Hamill, Seth Rogen, Walton Goggins, Jon Hamm, and a mile-long list of The Walking Dead alums, Invincible is an exciting addition to the superhero canon. But, as SYFY WIRE saw firsthand while watching the first three episodes and speaking to some of the cast and creators at a press event ahead of the premiere, Invincible isn't your average superhero story.
PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES
Early on, the Invincible comic book serenades readers into thinking you're reading a modernized mash-up of Superboy and Spider-Man, that it is about a son trying to connect to his father while managing the hustle of high school. But by Issue #7, the s*** hits the fan and you realize that you're not simply ready a coming of age story in superhero gift wrap. In Amazon Studios' animated series, that honeymoon period lasts only 40 minutes.
"I've always thought that Invincible is very mature but that maturity came in more in the later issues," Kirkman told SYFY WIRE and other members of the press. "It's good in the adaptation to be able to unify the series more. To have that maturity that was in the later issues present in the earlier seasons in this form. I don't think there's too much difference, really, when you look at the whole, but we do get to the more mature and brutal aspects of the storyline earlier.
"We're really trying to take this well-worn genre that everyone has followed and loved and tried to put a fresh coat of paint on it and do something a little different with it," he continues. "Even if you've watched a thousand Marvel and DC movies and various superhero TV shows, when you sit down with an episode of Invincible, you're going to get something that shows you a different corner of what superheroes can provide you as far as entertainment goes."
Invincible isn't the first time Kirkman's seen one of his comics become a TV show, as it follows The Walking Dead on AMC and Outcast on Cinemax. As gruesome as those two series could get, though, there were times when the networks put some limitations on Kirkman's visions. However, with Amazon, Kirkman says it's all self-policing.
"The streaming services can pretty much do anything they want; there's no governing body. You can run wild with it," he explains. "I was always waiting for that tap on the shoulder where they say, ‘Hey, tone that down. We don't want you to go too crazy,' or ‘This sequence might be a little too intense.' But that never happened."
Invincible also breaks ground with its diversity, as it's rare to see a male Asian lead in any American mass media and storytelling, much less a superhero. Mark is biracial, as his mother is Asian American and his father, Omni-Man, is an extraterrestrial of the Viltrumite race who presents as white and is voiced by a white actor. Perhaps even more interesting is that Mark's heritage is normalized.
"We are in a time and place where we can see people you don't normally see in these roles," Yeun says about Invincible's diversity. "The beauty of this show is that nobody is aware of that on its surface. We're able to service the truth of the internal lives of these people but for the outside looking in, you also get to service the fact that we're in a new time, where it can be more eclectic, and other experiences can be seen and connected."
For Zazie Beetz, who voices Mark's classmate Amber Bennett, one of two young women competing for the budding hero's dwindling free time, the diversity of the voice cast as well as in the animation was one of the big draws of Invincible.
"That was something that was really exciting to me when I read the script. I loved that," the Deadpool 2 star said of Invincible's Asian lead before noting that the series commitment to representation goes beyond just the leading man. "Even my character, in the comic she's originally white and they changed her to be a young Black woman. So for me, I'm glad that they made those changes and were open to doing that. It's important to open that door in this genre."
Of Amber's change and Mark's upbringing, Kirkman says, "We've been able to take this Amazon show and make it more diverse than the comic book series was. It's very important to reflect the world around us, and that's something that comics didn't do for the first 100 years or so of their existence and I'm very happy to be part of the correction, and moving things to a better place on that front."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
Taking further steps back, Invincible is really good at being a family drama, one that seems stable one moment and on the edge the next. Mark is unlocking parts of his relationship with his father now that they have this common bond. He tests the patience of his mother Deborah, who is a constant empty nester when her entire family flies off to save the world, and Mark continues to find who he is in dealing with his superhero contemporaries Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), Dupli-Kate (Melise), Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), and Robot (Zachary Quinto), who each have their own baggage.
"Mark is trying to understand who he is and fight through his own expectations, he's not prepared for what he's about to embark on," Yeun explains. "It's always about the human experience, overall, and that's the thing I'm most excited about. Especially getting to play with J.K., we're talking about a real father-son dynamic, a family dynamic. We get to play this out and that's the most enjoyable thing."
There are also larger-than-life moments in which power and responsibility come into play, poor judgment leads to major consequences, and Mark must balance his self-growth with being a team player. All of that is embedded in the harsh realm of a cutthroat world coming fast at a high schooler entering adulthood overnight. "This [superhero] genre is just another way to talk about the human condition, anxiety and feeling different, trying to find your place is in the world except the setting is more heightened," Beetz says.
"In some ways, you almost have more access to what those raw emotions are like if you're dealing with death, which is something Invincible does a lot," she continues. "Obviously we're not flying around killing aliens, but to me, the story of how to deal with grief or guilt or killing off parts of yourself in order to continue to grow. For storytelling, it's a different world to set in very human and grounded themes to me. For me what I take away is coming into yourself is the largest theme of the show, and who you are, that's an important takeaway."
EVERYTHING ON THE TABLE
The Invincible comic ran for 15 years, a run that will not be easy to condense into a TV show regardless of how many seasons it gets, but with the drawn-out nature of serialized television, the animated series aims to pack as many touchstones as it can.
"The way that the season is plotted out is beautifully done," Jacobs says. "I was so impressed with the storytelling; they kept it very faithful to the comic but also changed certain things so even if you're a devoted reader of the comic, there'll still be surprises for you. I think fans of the comic will be fans of the show as well."
Even the animation style and colors are evocative of Ottley and Walker's open line art. Action sequences move you to the edge of your seat and the pacing is tight. They've managed to bring the thrills of reading Invincible comics to the screen experience seamlessly.
Fans can also expect all of Invincible's 144 issues to be fair game source material, over the course of (hopefully) many, many seasons into the future. But if the first few episodes offer a glimpse of what's to come, this will be an attempt at telling a comprehensive translation of the entire comic's run. Kirkman believes that, in hindsight, they can develop Mark more carefully and plant seeds that will pay off as the show moves forward.
"This show is very much a second draft for me," he says in reflection. "There's going to be a lot of improvement to different story aspects of Mark's character as well. The idea is that we're able to tell the story to its logical conclusion. There are some limitations to animation, we don't have a truly unlimited budget, but we are still able to pull off some really crazy things.
"I don't think anyone is going to see anything lacking from the comic book series as we move through this series in animated form," Kirkman continues. "I hope we get to see some superheroes burrowing through the center of a planet until that planet explodes. There are some moments like that I'm very excited to get to and I think we're going to do those moments justice."
Season 1 of Invincible will span eight hour-long episodes, and the first three episodes will be streaming on Amazon Prime starting on March 26. New episodes will premiere every Friday through April 30.