Amazon Prime recently released an 8 episode season of Invincible, an animated series based on Robert Kirkman’s long running original Image comic book. At first it didn’t seem to me like it penetrated popular culture. Did anyone care about Invincible?
After the season ended, Invincible conversations and memes started passing my social media space. Maybe running almost perfectly parallel with Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which won over the Internet in a big way, obscured the response to Invincible. Or maybe being R rated in a big way limited the audience and how comfortable fans were in expressing their feelings. Or maybe, like me, a lot of viewers didn’t know how to feel about it until the season concluded.
My Invincible Expectations
Like most people, my introduction to prolific comic writer turned influential television creator Robert Kirkman was Marvel Team-Up vol. 3 #21, the second appearance of his original character Freedom Ring. From there, I fell in love with one of his longer running series, Super Dinosaur.
So yeah, most people know Kirkman for Invincible and Walking Dead. I’ve only read one issue of Walking Dead (a reprint of #1) and watched a couple of seasons of the series. I never read Invincible. I was interested, based on reputation, but the 25 total volumes seemed impenetrable.
Although I didn’t have specific expectations, I was looking forward to the series.
The series as a whole left me conflicted, the first episode most of all. Now of course I couldn’t be conflicted if I didn’t enjoy the series. I enjoyed more about Invincible than I didn’t. And what I liked, I liked a lot. Unfortunately, what little I don’t like has me worried.
What I don’t like is that I don’t trust the show.
I can’t really talk about it without episode 1 spoilers. I’ll avoid spoilers for everything after episode 1. Odds are, by now you know everything I’m going to spoil anyway.
Episode 1 is a 40 minute episode, and about 25 minutes of it is the origin story of mild mannered Mark Grayson, secretly the son of the most powerful man on the planet, discovering his super powers. It’s also our introduction to the world as a whole, kicking off with a Justice League analog, the Guardians of the Globe, and Omni-Man, a Superman analog. What’s weird is that the Justice League analog has its own Superman analog.
Then we go through the motions of Mark discovering his super powers, getting his costume, and settling on a name. The show gets major points for making a big deal about how a super suit can’t just be “iconic,” and then introduces the Invincible costume, which is everything an iconic super suit should be.
We get a high note at about the 25 minute mark, then the end credits begin. Again, kudos to the show, timing the fake ending to the typical run time of an episode of an animated series. It felt over. But the post credit scenes take up a third of the episode, and feature its the most consequential scenes.
Last chance to avoid the spoiler that’s basically the premise of the series and one you’ve probably already heard.
The Post Credit Scenes
In the last 10 minutes of the first episode, we spend some time with each Guardian of the Globe, the only 1-on-1 scenes we get with these characters, each setting up their personal stories and supporting cast.
Then Omni-Man kills them.
It’s brutal and sensational. It’s also interesting. The way each Guardian uses their powers and strengths, and the way they act as a team, writes to the ego and super ego of the viewer, while the carnage writes to the id. The episode does foreshadows tension between Omni-Man and the Guardians of the Globe, and that Omni-Man has a dark side. The surprise is how dark.
I’ve heard the comic doesn’t foreshadow Omni-Man’s heel turn, that it happens much later in the series, and the fight isn’t as interesting. All of which sounds like the cartoon made the right changes. But did it make enough?
Tropes and Twists
Episode 1 balances familiar comic book tropes and unexpected twists. At least, it tries to. The problem is, the Invincible comic came out in 2003. That’s only a year after the first Spider-Man movie. After almost 20 years, with retreads and other parodies, those tropes became clichés.
Invincible isn’t even the only Amazon Prime super hero series with a Justice League analog and an evil Superman type.
Because of this, episode 1 before the post credits feels too familiar, and not super interesting. The Mark Grayson scenes especially, other than him bonding with Omni-Man. Omni-Man sucker punching him was the highlight of the first episode, pre post-credits.
The sucker punch and the leaning into clichés seemed mostly to serve the twist ending. Similarly, there’s no blood or death all episode, until the Guardians of the Globe bloodbath. That, and establishing the lives of each Guardian right before killing them, it all feels like setup for the twist ending. And when the season only has 8 episodes, dedicating a whole episode to one twist feels like a lot.
To their credit, that twist got people talking. They executed it perfectly.
My main concern after finishing the first episode was that this would be the formula. Oh, you are invested in a character? Dead! Here’s an interesting plot line. Over just as it began! All while our main character is the least engaging.
The Twist Was… No More Twists!
When episode 2 began with the introduction of the Teen Team fighting off an alien invasion, I thought “here we go.” I expected the Teen Team to be a Teen Titans analog, and for the aliens to wipe them out, or for them to survive only to be Omni-Man’s next victims.
But as we met each member of the Teen Team, I couldn’t place which Titan they were supposed to stand in for. Then, I noticed each (other than Robot) incorporated their first name into their code name. That’s a terrible idea, in world, and never explained, which makes it all the more intriguing. On top of that, they survived! There were multiple instances where a meat grinder series could have killed each one off, but they all lived.
The alien invasion also plays out in a clever manner. They aren’t just generic aliens, or Skrulls with the serial numbers filed off. There’s an interesting premise to the logistics of the invasion, a premise the show explores for the entire episode. All while setting up personal dilemmas for Invincible, and developing a subplot about the murder of the Guardians of the Globe. A Hellboy analog investigates the murder. He’s the last analog in the series, and a good one. I can’t think of another Hellboy analog that I’ve seen, and seeing basically Hellboy in a comic not from Hellboy’s POV is a fun use of the character.
It Just Gets Better
Episode 2 reset my expectations, but I was shocked by how much I enjoyed the series by the end of episode 5, my favourite of the series. In it, Titan, a high tier goon, comes to Invincible for help. He is caught in a vicious cycle, working for a crime boss he owes money to, and the crime boss keeps finding ways to increase his debt.
The episode explores grey morality, trust, and who someone as powerful as Invincible is “supposed” to help. After all, how many innocent people could he have saved from burning buildings in the time he was making a criminal’s life better?
Also, the world building gets better after episode 1. The villains defeated in the series’ first fight, The Mauler Twins, not only return, they get a subplot that lasts the whole series. What looked like throwaway villains are in as many episodes of Invincible as Invincible. The Teen Team take over as the new Guardians of the Globe, and their development as a team and relationship with the shady government agency that funds them and keeps tabs on Omni-Man develops as the series goes on.
These plot seeds and overarching plots hooked me, in ways I never expected after Episode 1.
Episode 8 pays off the world’s strongest murderer subplot, which felt like the right time to do it but also way earlier than I expected the series to do it.
Although I loved episodes 2-7, episode 8 left me feeling like nothing that Invincible cares about matters, because Omni-Man. And that worries me, because as a viewer I care way more about the things Invincible cares about than I do Omni-Man.
If Omni-Man only showed up at the end of the series to bookend Invincible’s growth, great. But I worry everything else the series sets up is all for the sake of the next gotcha moment, when Omni-Man does to the interesting subplots what he did to the Guardians of the Globe.