Courtesy of Prime Video
Invincible's second season arrives just as the superhero industrial complex that has monopolized multiplexes for the last decade-plus appears to be at its breaking point. Marvel’s grip on the box office is shaky and its TV offerings have oversaturated the market; meanwhile, the DCEU is in the midst of yet another rebuild. The fatigue—among casual moviegoers, binge-watchers, and loyal superfans alike—is real. Thankfully, Amazon’s Invincible made its long-awaited return last week, giving this worn-down genre another much-needed shot of animated adrenaline.
A multi-dimensional, blood-soaked deconstruction of superhero conventions, Invincible debuted in 2021 to critical acclaim for its impressive vocal cast, inverted character arcs, and flourishes of hyper-violence. Created by Robert Kirkman—also the creator, with artists Ryan Ottley and Cory Walker, of the 144-issue comic series that inspired the show—the show begins as a coming-of-age drama centered on 18-year-old Mark/Invincible (Steven Yuen) and his father Nolan/Omni-Man, a Superman-esque global defender tasked with protecting Earth from alien invasions and monstrous threats. But what starts as a twist on the standard superhero origin story ends with betrayal, paternal conflict, and a father-son beatdown whose collateral damage kills thousands of Chicago residents, bringing Mark to within an inch of his life.
The first four episodes of Season 2, which drop weekly this month, address the fallout of that destruction, both familial and otherwise. In the months after Omni-Man unexpectedly exposed himself as the leader of a superior alien race, beat his son to a pulp, and fled the planet, Mark and his mother Debbie (Sandra Oh) have been left to process his crater-like absence. Their emotional volatility grounds this season, which adds a host of theatrical new and returning villains (Angstrom Levy, King Lizard, and the Mauler Twins) and narrative threads, and keeps the characters' humanity front and center amidst the show’s high-flying, joke-hurling, and gut-spilling highlights.
If you still need more convincing to let another superhero into your life, here’s a quick rundown of why Invincible cuts through the Marvel malaise and cartoon clutter.
Let’s start with the cast.
Not many animated series have such diverse star power. As Omni-Man, Simmons relishes the chance to chew on more than J. Jonah Jameson's cigar, toggling between tender and rage-induced monologues with his signature snarl. His performance is a nice contrast to Yeun, who captures the naïveté and headstrong tendencies of an immature teenager coming to grips with his own superpowers as he shuffles between spandex and the start of college.
In addition to Oh, who navigates Debbie’s newfound grief with expected gravitas, there’s Zazie Beetz, Andrew Rannells, Gillian Jacobs, Walton Goggins, Mark Hamill, Zachary Quinto, Jason Mantzoukas, Seth Rogen, and Sterling K. Brown, among many others. (Seriously, go look at this cast.) What’s unique about this talented collection of actors is the lack of vocal overlap—each superhero, villain, and ordinary citizen has a distinct sound and personality, which helps keep the show’s dozens of characters straight. The luxury of their familiar intonations and inflections makes even the smallest scenes crackle.
Invincible plays with music, art, and form in cinematic ways
At the beginning of Season 2’s first episode, Mark soars over the city and continues his superheroic duties in a montage set to Radiohead’s “Karma Police.” It’s an ideal, melancholic mood-setter, showcasing both Invincible’s ho-hum crime-fighting and his life-saving abilities as he grapples with his identity and his father’s duplicity.
The sequence lasts three minutes, but it embodies the best of this series: pointed musical cues, emotionally-driven storytelling, crisply painted metropolitan landscapes, and playful formatting. Over Thom Yorke’s familiar serenade, Mark experiences flashbacks to his father’s betrayal, painful memories that fuel his heroism and toss out unnecessary explication that animated shows often lean on. The clean aesthetic only underscores the chaotic and crimson color palette that emerges during his villainous showdowns.
Throughout the next few episodes, showrunner Simon Racioppa experiments even more with structure, at one point devoting a 15-minute section to Allen the Alien (Rogen). Using a radio teleplay-style narrator, we’re introduced to Allen’s origin story and his love interest, and we discover another betrayal that will have implications for Mark down the road. The credits roll halfway through the episode, which pivots back to its primary storyline for another 20 minutes. It’s slightly disorienting—but it’s thrilling to watch an animated show take these kinds of narrative risks.
The violence is exaggerated to an extreme, but it always serves a purpose.
As much as the new age of visual effects has allowed live-action movies to mimic action-packed comic panels, the MCU—like most of the superhero-movie category as a whole—still plays in the PG-13 sandbox. Invincible has no such restrictions. It revels in stylized violence that underlines the sheer force and otherworldly nature of its superhuman characters. The blood erupts like a stringy goo, and the killshots rival Mortal Kombat knockouts. Eyeballs burst from sockets, torsos get disemboweled. It’s bleak, cringe-worthy stuff.
Like its Amazon companion The Boys, the show’s portrayals of aerial carnage align with the nature and reality of a world dominated by superhumans. If the Viltrumites are effectively demi-gods, it makes sense they’d be able to rip out someone’s spinal cord and decapitate at will. These depictions cater to a more mature audience, but they’re never meant to be gratuitous. Unbound by VFX roadblocks and stunt work, the art team takes advantage of its limitless scope. It’s a punishing and torturous viewing experience, but all the more authentic for it.
It centers its characters’ trauma and transitions into adulthood.
If you’re going to show grotesque horrors, you have to reckon with their psychological impact. Though Invincible isn’t breaking ground with its depiction of trauma and grief, the show is keen on keeping it a foundational text. Throughout the first part of Season 2, this primarily manifests through Debbie, who struggles to come to terms with her new, lonely life. How would you feel if your longtime husband suddenly revealed he was actually an alien species keen on conquering humanity? As Mark moves into his college dorm and learns what a door sock means, Debbie clutches glasses of wine, suffers various breakdowns, and attends therapy. But there’s a dignity in the show refusing to let her become a marginalized figure.
On a similar plane, Mark’s friend and fellow superhero Samantha/Atom Eve (Jacobs) struggles with her own domestic problems. In one episode, she flexes her powers to ease her parents’ financial burdens, but her father refuses to take her handout. Later, she wantonly transforms a rubbled city lot into a verdant park, but her good intentions backfire when the sinkhole beneath it swallows it up. It’s a vital lesson: Eve can’t solve everything with a finger snap. Even a superhero’s good intentions can have tragic consequences.
Who doesn’t love some epic daddy issues?
Invincible revolves around a central question: Will Mark embrace the Viltrumite blood his father gave him, or will he use his powers for good and resist his DNA’s worst qualities? In other words, can people escape the sins of their parents? The classic struggle has a Vader and Skywalker dynamic, except that the iconic Sith lord never split open an office building and smashed a subway in half using Luke’s head.
Though Mark’s internal struggle will forever be attached to Omni-Man’s betrayal, his more pressing quest is to convince Cecil Stedman (Goggins), a government agent in charge of the Global Defense Agency, that he won’t turn heel like his dad. That, and ridding the world of multiplying and malicious enemies. Despite the revitalized “Guardians of the Globe,” Invincible is the only sure thing Earth has left to protect it.
There’s still time to catch up.
Amazon split up Season 2 into two parts (the second batch of episodes will be released in 2024). In the meantime, the midseason finale drops Nov. 24, a perfect Black Friday wake-up call to jolt you out of your tryptophan turkey coma.
Originally Appeared on GQ