For as much jawboning as the Twitter-verse does about superhero movies and the decline of both the MCU (owned by Disney) and the DCU (owned by WB), there’s not nearly enough chatter about one of the absolute best productions in the genre this past decade. That would be INVINCIBLE, the Amazon Prime animated series that started in 2021. Based on the Image comic of the same name, INVINCIBLE was, quite simply, incredible. Boldly written, strikingly rendered, and voiced by an expert ensemble of actors, the series was an edgy, adult take on what it would take to play the role of a superhero in a conflicted world, let alone a vast galaxy. Lucky for all who loved the series as much as I did, it’s returned for a second season starting tomorrow, November 3.
INVINCIBLE concerns Mark Grayson, a teen superhero, as he struggles to come to terms with the powers he’s inherited from his superhero father. Of course, as a senior in high school, he’s also struggling to navigate the classroom, dating, friendships, and peer pressure. It makes for a superb coming-of-age story for sure, but the show also serves as a blunt and often vicious put-down of the American war machine, violence in our culture, and even the superhero tropes mined by both the MCU and DCU. Adapted by Robert Kirkman, from the comics he created with Cory Walker and Robin Ottley from 2003 to 2018, the series stands as one of the smartest commentaries on what constitutes heroics in a cynical, savage world like today.
And now, as the second season commences, I can tell you they’ve not missed a step. The show’s sophomore effort deepens the characters and expands its playing field exponentially to make an even greater statement about Earth’s place in the galaxy. The narrative still concentrates mostly on Mark, but this time out there’s a lot more of an ensemble feel as many of the supporting characters introduced in the first season take more of the spotlight with their own heftier storylines and character arcs. Additionally, the inclusion of more planets and their populations dealing with our Earthly heroes makes for even more political commentary.
The first four of the new eight episodes, premiering the first Friday in November and continuing through the month, start with things looking up for the often-beleaguered Mark. Voiced with a nervous soulfulness by Steve Yuen, Mark is trying to get past last season’s brawl with his father, the superhero Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons) when he discovered he was an alien here to colonize Earth. Pops almost pummeled his son to death and ended up leaving Mark, his wife Deborah (Sandra Oh), and the planet in one hissyfit of a huff.
Thus, Mark’s trying to move on by starting his freshman year in college with his best friend William (Andrew Rannells) and girlfriend Amber (Zazie Beetz) in tow. Mark’s still an over-achiever though as he finds plenty of time to freelance for the Global Defense Agency (GDA). The assignments he is given by head honcho Cecil (Walton Goggins), a wily shit of a boss, are often essentially hit jobs asking Mark to eliminate invading aliens with extreme prejudice. Mark hates some of it but feels compelled to defend the US of A, so he tries to carry out his orders without maximizing the bloodlust he inherited from his father.
When the story isn’t concentrating on Mark, it’s exploring the lives and problems of his peers in the GDA, primarily Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow), The Immortal (Ross Marquand), and Rudy (Zachary Quinto). Being a superhero is not easy and such an existence turns into a love/hate conceit for most of them. That’s especially true for Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs), the breakout character from both the comics and the first season of INVINCIBLE. The energy-manipulating superhero – think Supergirl, only moodier – wants to genuinely help people, but it’s not easy, even for someone with her skills. In the first episode, Atom Eve rebuilds a partially destroyed apartment building in the inner city, something that would’ve taken months by any construction crew, but her speedy progress ruffles the feathers of local pols and unions. She’s also got it bad at home as her parents have not greeted her coming out to them as a superhero positively. (Did I mention that the show leans heavily into its sexism critique as well?)
As the stories push out more and more into the galaxy, it’s fascinating to see the show tackle more alien cultures. No matter what the makeup of the planet, they all seem to have their caste systems, military-industrial complexes, and power-thirsty leaders. These other worlds educate Mark far beyond his collegiate curriculum when he tangles with them, and in episode three he discovers a megalomaniac leading one planet whom he’s all too familiar with.
It can be a very nasty show, full of slow-motion bloodletting that would’ve made Sam Peckinpah blush, but the show also traffics in lots of cheeky humor as well. At times, the members of the GDA play like a wise-cracking troupe from some 70s workplace sitcom like TAXI or WKRP IN CINCINNATI. In one episode, superhero Rexplode (Jason Mantzoukas) is furious that his ex-girlfriend Dupli-Kate has had a shower orgy with another superhero, along with three of her duplications. The show continually makes fun of her multiple versions, as it does with all the outrageous characteristics of most of the other superheroes.
Yet, as good as the extra worlds are, as is the expanding screentime of the supporting cast, the highlight of the first four episodes has to be a much more intimate and anguished storyline – that of the grieving wife Deborah. Her AWOL husband broke his vows, treated her like a human pet, and nearly killed her son in a mano et mano brawl from the subway to the Rockies. That’s a lot for one woman to handle, and Oh’s vocal performance in the role is outstanding.
The Deborah character also serves as a reminder that all actions have consequences, especially in an action/adventure story with superheroes. With great power comes great responsibility a superhero’s uncle once wisely said, and INVINCIBLE shows the collateral damage that comes out of a ‘good guy with a gun’ way of thinking.
It will be fascinating to see what the rest of this season holds when those final four episodes of series two premiere in 2024. But if these first four offerings are any indication that I got to see in previews as a critic, the final batch this season will be well worth the wait. Stay tuned…