So I don’t know how old you are reader, but I certainly have fond memories of watching Saturday morning cartoons when I was younger. Coming down stairs and watching SM:TV Live and whatever cartoons were on (normally the likes of Pokémon, Digimon and Hey Arnold!) is a fond memory of when I was young and unfortunately one that younger generations will no longer experience. In an age of streaming, binging and on demand, children are free to choose to watch the same thing over and over or sit through entire series back to back without the need to wait for the show to be on once a week. The anticipation of what will happen next and the impact of cliff hangers has largely gone from this experience and the Saturday morning cartoon is an unfortunate victim of this shift in how we digest media.
Now, I am not here to tell you that Invincible is the show to watch with your children on a Saturday morning. In fact it is far from it. However, the weekly release of Invincible, a superhero coming of age story based on the graphic novels by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead), smacks of nostalgia of the days where I would wait with baited breath for the next instalment of the story. Cliff-hangers, twists and turns as well as just the building anticipation of the next instalment added even more enjoyment to this show, even though I am also primed now that if I find that a show isn’t all accessible I do feel a sense of frustration that I cannot binge it followed by a sense of shame for that frustration. For those of you who enjoy superheroes, visceral violence and J.K. Simmons then this is the show for you. Ironically though, as I think about it, since the series one has wrapped up, if you haven’t seen it, you won’t get that Saturday morning vibe as you can just go ahead and binge it slumped on the sofa in your PJs… but you should definitely watch it weekly when Season Two hits!
Before I jump into this, if you haven’t seen anything on this, I have dropped the trailer below:
Unless you have been living under a rock, the current zeitgeist is very much focused around superheroes. Early Marvel films explored what it means to be a hero with later ones exploring the role superheroes play within society and politics as well as the impact of powered beings on the literal fabric of the universe. There are shows like The Boys that look at the role of superheroes in a much more realistic and critical light, adding in a dark layer of humanity that Disney can’t really do with Marvel films. The recent release of Jupiter Legacy on Netflix looks at how heroes persist within a society and how they could be forced to change their rigid code against a ever more ambiguous approach to right and wrong. Even in anime, the hugely popular My Hero Academia explores how, in a hero society, there would be schools and systems dedicated to being a hero as much as you would become a teacher of Police Officer in our boring reality. You do not need to look far to find a superhero film or series and given there are so many, they are often trying to find new and niche ways at exploring the role of superheroes within society. In this respect, Invincible is no different and doesn’t exactly innovate. It has a grounded, realistic view on superheroes as well as the human elements that often play a key role in a superhuman society. You have the typical origin story of learning the limits of the titular hero’s power, the balance of responsibilities that come with living a dual life and of course the teenage angst and love stories that come from being a teenager. If you are looking for a new take on the superhero genre, this isn’t it, but that doesn’t mean it is not an emotional and entertaining ride from start to finish. For lovers of the genre this is one for you, but it’s sphere of influence stretches wider than that – fans of Kirkman, of the Walking Dead or even just animation in general, this has something that you can enjoy and at eight episodes (40 – 50 mins a piece) it is not too much of a commitment!
In case you don’t know, Invincible is based off of a graphic novel series created by Robert Kirkman, the same man behind the Walking Dead, and the series ran from 2003 to 2018 while this Amazon series had been in production limbo for many years. I haven’t actually read the series but after watching the show I am eager to pick it up and give it a read, but what I find interesting is it’s attitude towards the superhero society. I imagine bits have changed from the source material to reflect the current superhero fervour as well as a society that is a decade or so later, but you also need to remember that this series started five years before the original Iron Man film (2008) meaning that many of these views of a violent, disillusioned world, overly dependant upon ludicrous superheroes pre-dated the current Marvel universe and the wider cynicism and potential fatigue of superheroes that has been established in the minds of many fans today.
Narratively, it begins as you would expect of a story about a pseudo-Superman’s son, a boy called Mark Grayson, who is half human and half Viltrumite. When we meet him he is awaiting his powers to ‘develop’ and when he does get them, he struggles to understand his place within the world while simultaneously trying to live up to his father, Omni-Man’s, legacy. And a lot of this story starts with Mark’s father. Although I want to avoid spoilers, the parallels between Omni-Man and Superman are evident and intentional. Both are powerful aliens who have arrived on Earth and in turn protect humanity and want to push the planet into a brighter future, but as the show goes on, Invincible explores a much more Injustice-like approach to this character who has the literal strength to destroy planets and what right holders of such power have to enforce their will on those they deem weaker than them. It is also critical of idea that humanity should be dependant upon a small group of beings to protect the entire planet, it explores the vast level of damage that can be caused by these heroes (something that has been a criticism of contemporary Marvel and DC films too) as well as the idea that these figures should and are key pillars of society and therefore do not have flaws while showcase an evident level of humanity in each character.
While exploring all of these themes, the crux of the story is still very much around Mark’s journey to discovering the hero he wants to be and finding what motivates him. Along the way, you have the bumps in the road you would expect; the doubt around his ability & responsibility, the conflict between his superhero life and school life as well as the morality when faced with the worth of human lives in tough situations. But the show also takes time to flesh out other characters, such as the Avengers/Justice League copycats, The Guardians of the Globe and the world that Invincible is inhabiting. There is a lot more development needed, but over the eight episodes you get a sense of the society that he is fighting to protect and although very similar to ours, you can understand that this is one with an acceptance and reliance upon superheroes. The world is made so believable thanks in part, to its very strong supporting cast of characters who interact with the key players to set the stakes and give us a lens in which to discover a not so perfect society, not to remiss from our own.
On the note of characters, it is worth pointing out that this show is bursting at the seams with talent and in my opinion, these voice actors add such weight and personality to each person we are introduced to that it doesn’t just allow us to connect to them but it also makes the show feel incredibly high budget and well polished. Apart from the legend himself, J.K. Simmons as the voice of Omni-Man and the ever lovable Steven Yeun (RIP Glen from Walking Dead) as the voice of Mark/Invincible you have voices from, Gillian Jacobs, Mark Hamill, Seth Rogan, Zazie Beetz, Jason Mantzoukas, Sandra Oh. Ezra Miller and Zachary Quinto all supporting in roles of varying size. Even Justin Roiland of Rick and Morty fame makes an appearance. The core trio of Simmons, Oh and Yeun create a compelling family dynamic that you can buy into as a believable family unit while the likes of Mantzoukas steps up once again to play a douchebag character that he plays oh so well but it all feels right. I don’t want to discuss too much more in terms of their individual roles as it can get into spoiler territory and this is something I want you to experience, but I will say that Yeun carries the show with such torn emotion that I found myself invested in his plight all the way through.
Something that makes this the Saturday morning cartoon for those old enough to remember a cartoon on a Saturday morning is the age rating. Most episodes sit at a 15 rating (for us in the UK) and although there are swearwords and adult themes discussed, this is definitely driven by the violence. The show is bookended by tow 18 ratings, one for the first episode and one for the finale and to be honest both episodes earned their rating. I am not one who is put off by cartoon violence but I would say that there are some bits of incredibly graphic gore in the series that I imagine some would deem unnecessary. For me, it feels like it fits in with the tone of the overall show and the message it is trying to convey. You consider a Marvel cartoon, or even a live action film, and these characters take a beating with a very admirable level of durability. Invincible, and its animated and mature format, allows for a greater exploration of the true aftermath of a superhero that has the ability to punch holes in mountains – without restraint there will be blood. Think of it as Homelander (from The Boys) level of violence and gore in cartoon form. On the surface it likely appeals to certain audiences as it is simply just an entertaining, fantastical throw down, but in my opinion it also serves to show the vulnerability and fragility of the characters, even characters such as Invincible, when they don’t live up to their namesake.