I recently finished the Amazon Original tv show Invincible, based on the critically acclaimed comic book of the same name by Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker. It is, without question, one of the best superhero TV shows or films I have ever seen. It is a triumph of storytelling and character development and deftly mixes two different styles of superhero stories. It is exciting, funny, moving and I cared a lot more for the characters than many live-action superhero films.
Spoiler Warning – some spoilers for the first episode of the show as this sets up the main storyline of the show
Invincible takes place in a world full of superheroes and supervillains. They range from gadget wielding humans with no powers, to magical creatures, to aliens from distant worlds. And while there are many superheroes and superhero groups there is an undisputed top superhero – Omni-Man. He is a hero with a vast range of powers, virtually indestructible and an alien from a distant world and is obviously, blatantly and intentionally, a version of Superman. Omni-Man has a secret identity and a family – including a son in high school – Mark, who is aware of who his father is and is expecting his own powers to kick in any day. Just as they do the premier superhero group, Guardians of the Globe are massacred and Mark is immediately called upon to help fill the gap, taking the superhero name Invincible. The investigation into the murder of Guardians of the Globe begins to raise some troubling questions while Mark has problems balancing his superhero life and normal teenage life.
It’s worth taking a moment to consider the astounding cast for Invincible, with Steven Yeung, Sandra Oh, Gillian Jacobs and J.K. Simmons taking leading roles and numerous brilliant actors brought in for small parts – Mark Hamil, Mahershala Ali, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogen, Laura Cohan and more. By my reckoning, the film has two Oscar-winning actors in the cast and one of them has two Oscars.
Two Superhero Worlds
One of the things that struck me most about Invincible was the mix of two different kinds of superhero-story styles. Invincible has a bright costume and his struggles with his girlfriend and schoolwork are discussed as much as saving the planet, bringing to mind a friendly, and lower-rated superhero world. It also has people being literally torn limb from limb with that carnage shown on screen. The first episode ends with a massacre of superheroes where you see what happens when people with superpowers fight, bodies ripped apart, bones crushed, punching through people. It is brutal. This continues throughout the series with numerous fights showing what being indestructible and having super strength does to your opponent. There are also a deeply unpleasant array of villains, one of whom kidnaps people and carries out grotesque experiments on them that are up there with awful body horror.
There are also some truly devastating emotional moments of people doing and saying awful things, of believing awful things, and the show does not back away from what that would mean. There is no easy redemption for characters who have done bad things, people who suffer terrible injuries and trauma aren’t just immediately better – this stuff has an impact.
The Military-Industrial Complex Vs Superpowers
One of my favourite parts of Invincible is the moment when the American government needs to take action against some superpowered individuals, without calling on superheroes for help. So America, the most powerful country in the world, with a defence budget so huge they should frankly be ashamed of it, with cutting edge science and seemingly endless resources can’t stop these superpowered opponents. And this is a sci-fi comic book America with space lasers and invisible SWAT teams, the amazing line of “$400billion dollars for the world’s most expensive nosebleed” reflects the sum of their efforts come to – a nosebleed.
I’ve seen a lot of people talk about Bruce Wayne could do far more good in the world if instead of spending his time beating up criminals he put his billions towards social programmes. And there is at least one superhero in Invincible who does think that they could use their powers and spend their time doing good works rather than fighting, it’s perhaps less obviously heroic but helps people and she certainly feels it’s a better use of her time (but she will stop happily punch an alien monster or whatever if the occasion calls for it).
So while Invincible the comic book isn’t as well known as Superman or Captain America, this tv show is far better than much of the output of its more famous rivals.