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What Makes ‘Invincible’ a Superhero Show for Adults?

Rather than relying solely on shock value, Robert Kirkman’s new Amazon Prime show feels “adult” in the more minor considerations of its characters

Scott Laven / Prime Video

Invincible is a brightly colored, high-flying feast of lively language and arterial spray that splits the difference between the impertinence of The Boondocks and the dourness of Batman: Beyond. There are Run the Jewels drops, heroes have noticeably few hang-ups about the use of excessive force, and, at one galling moment in the first episode, there are actual, visible intestines. In Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman’s new Amazon Prime show, there is Omni-Man, an all-powerful and mustachioed super being that’s a little like Superman in that subduing him in any event would require teams, plural, and a plan, detailed, which naturally raises the suspicions of both the government and his coworkers. And for good reason. In the pilot, for reasons that are still unclear after four episodes, he murders the Guardians of the Globe, which were like the Justice League. The sequence is an awesome, grotesque (expensive-looking) demonstration of what a hacked-off Superman might actually do to the Flash once he caught up to him, among other things. It is a surprising explosion of violence, even in a violent show, made even more horrifying for the specificity of the sound design. Invincible emphatically earns its 18-plus rating in just under three minutes, and yet, outbursts like these are not what make Invincible feel “adult.”

“Adult” can be quicksand for superhero shows, which on the whole would very much like to be taken seriously despite revolving around grown men in spandex. Whenever a new grown-up hero show is bandied about, I’m reminded of the first trailer for Titans, the tentpole series for the launch of the DC Universe streaming service. Titans Robin, unlike the affable boy wonder of the comics, carries a katana and takes his frustrations with his absentee mentor out on Gotham’s criminals. This version of the story is a corruption of a corruption: It’s constantly raining, it’s too dark to see, everyone is a little too angry. Robin poses after breaking bones out of a shallow-seated sense of inadequacy. “Fuck Batman,” he says. We all die a little inside.

It’s difficult for superhero shows to be subversive at this point—Homelander (from Amazon’s other adult hero series, The Boys) has been to the top of New York City and pissed off of it. Rather than relying solely on shock value, Invincible feels “adult” in the more minor considerations of its characters. The show is as concerned with how Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) handles alien incursions as it is with how he navigates his love life, but it seems preoccupied with how the son of the most powerful being on earth might learn to be his own man. Mark is 17 years old, awkward in a cute way, and, at long last, getting his powers. He leaves the nest with a familiar hesitancy—before trying to fly for the first time he does some mental accounting. His dad is Omni-Man. Omni-Man has invulnerability. So Mark should have invulnerability. How much could falling on his face even hurt, then? Ah screw it.

So far, Invincible also seems to be interested in whether the emissary of a hyper-advanced alien civilization, meant to be Earth’s “sole protector,” might have a bit of a god complex. JK Simmons is part of an incredible voice acting cast that includes the likes of Sandra Oh, Walton Goggins, and Mahershala Ali, and there are shades of Terence Fletcher in Simmons’s performance as Omni-Man. Consider how Fletcher first enters the dimly lit practice hall in Whiplash—he hangs his suit jacket on the door, revealing a tight black tee and an imposing physical stature. You immediately understand that his suggestions are demands, and that he enjoys being a big fish in a small pond. It’s the smirking gaze and the visible vein on his temple. Simmons brings the same kind of lurking monomania to Invincible, and it causes me to consider the paroxysm of force not just when Omni-Man is on the job, but when he’s at home, and when he’s speaking to service workers too. He yells at a hospital clerk and you wonder if he thinks she’s disposable. He makes demands on his wife’s time and you wonder whether he thinks of her as an accessory. He hits his newly superpowered son a little too hard while sparring and you wonder whether he feels somewhat threatened—perhaps afraid of obsolescence. So far, the host of characters are largely defined by their proximity to the Graysons. Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs) functions as both a mentor and a love interest for Mark, but she’s also a senior in high school. Is it worth pursuing a serious relationship with college bearing down on her? What does college mean for hero work? Is this a means for the show to make some larger comment about the impossibility of a balanced life?

I’m still not entirely sure what Invincible is after, in the grandest sense. The Invincible comic book series skewered superhero comics, and with over two decades of TV and movie adaptations to draw on, the Invincible television series is accomplishing something similar. It has an irreverence regarding heroes and hero stories, but I wouldn’t call it a disdain—they save us from the multifarious portals that open up overhead, and they give us something to believe. The show’s optimism is such that it almost seems as if a viable, satisfying reason for Omni-Man killing the Guardians of the Globe will reveal itself in the remaining four episodes. As Mark’s powers are growing, he’s forcing his father into more inconvenient conversations. I almost don’t care whether the final confrontation is over a dinner table or a city skyline.