Imagine growing up with Superman as your dad. He constantly misses your Little League games to battle Lex Luthor and Brainiac, yet you can’t even brag to your friends about what he does because of the whole secret identity thing. Oh, and good luck feeling worthy to fill his red boots some day.
There have periodically been comic-book stories about Super-Sons — some referred to as “imaginary” (as opposed to the real kind?), some part of the canon — and now they’ve made their way to television. The CW’s Superman & Lois recasts the First Couple of the DC Universe as overextended parents of twin teenage boys, battling work/home balance, economic hardships, and the challenges of having one child whose special needs include superpowers. That’s the official Super-Family narrative, albeit a fairly dour one.
Over at Amazon Prime Video, we get a livelier animated pastiche: Invincible, an adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker’s long-running comic book about the teenage son of a Superman type, now adjusting to fantastic abilities of his own. In this case, the revered hero is called Omni-Man (voiced by J.K. Simmons), who came to Earth from the planet Viltrum, married Debbie (Sandra Oh), and became father to Mark (Steven Yeun). When Invincible begins, Mark is just beginning to display the super-strength, invulnerability, and gift of flight he inherited from the old man.
Kirkman, after years of working on AMC’s adaptations of his Walking Dead comics, is executive producer here, and smartly plays with our collective geekdom from the start. Omni-Man is transparently this universe’s Superman figure, and the opening action sequence involves the extremely Justice League-esque members of the Guardians of the Globe (many of them, like Mark himself, voiced by Walking Dead actors). But once Mark gets into the family business, both he and the heroes he hangs out with — particularly Teen Team, which his new friend Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs) describes as “Everyone’s fourth-favorite superhero team” — feel like their own thing, rather than riffs on characters who have been around for decades. The various stand-ins for Batman, Wonder Woman, et. al., work as shorthand for the world that Mark feels intimidated to join, while he in turn grows closer to people like Atom, Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), and Robot (Zachary Quinto). And the series’ bright and clean action sequences take good advantage of the varied power sets beyond Mark’s back-to-basics approach. The fight scenes are all terrific.
Steven Yeun, up for an Oscar for his work in Minari, is having a much-deserved moment. He’s done good voice work before on series like Tuca & Bertie, and he has to carry a big emotional load here as a teenager not always ready for the task of living up to Omni-Man’s legacy, nor for the specific hardships of trying to save the world every day. Invincible neatly blends traditional father/son iconography with the superpowered kind, so we see Mark and his dad play a game of catch where the ball can travel around the planet, or an emotionally fraught scene where Mark is so eager to prove he has what it takes that he pleads with Omni-Man to hit him as hard as he can.
As the series moves along, Kirkman and company begin introducing twists to what we think is the formula — perhaps too many. Even within three episodes, the number of reversals and secrets pile so high that it can be hard to invest in certain characters and scenes, rather than trying to guess what will come next.
Also, while Amazon is billing this as an “adult” animated series, that’s only in the sense that there’s ample gore and profanity. The designs (modeled on Walker’s art from the comics) and most of the characterization and plotting feel more suited to an all-ages show — a very good one, at that — but then someone’s head will burst onscreen, or Rexplode will say, “Motherfucking what the fuck?” None of it’s emotionally or narratively complex enough to feel truly adult (the ideal audience is probably 14-year-old-boys), so the more extreme content can feel like Invincible is trying too hard to seem older, just in a different way from its title character.
Still, it’s fun, and Yeun, Simmons, and Oh make for a strong central ensemble. While shopping for a costume, Mark tells his father’s tailor Art (Mark Hamill) that he wants something iconic; Art replies that everyone wants iconic, but it’s “tough as hell to pull off.” Invincible isn’t quite iconic yet, but it has its charms.
I’ve seen the first three episodes of Invincible, which will premiere March 26th on Amazon Prime Video. Additional episodes will be released weekly through April 30th.