Invincible Is Kinda Bland
Invincible has us ponder the following:
What would happen if someone who did not grow out of their grimdark and edgy high school phase tackled the cliche “what if Superman was bad?” and offered nothing new to the genre?
That is all that Invincible offers. One season into the animated adaptation of the comic book series of the same name and it feels like I’m watching The Walking Dead But For Superheroes. Which makes sense, as both The Walking Dead and Invincible are both the brainchild of Robert Kirkman, and all the issues that plague The Walking Dead have infected Invincible.
One problem is that violence is treated like a meaningless aesthetic. There is no weight to the violence, it’s simply fanservice or ratings ploy. When the Superman-But-Bad character, father of the titular character Invincible, Omni-Man violently and graphically murders the series’ riff on the Justice League in the first episode, it is presented as fanservice. While in the comics the superhero team is killed in a handful of pages, the show wants to let it all sink in for several minutes. It tries to add weight to the moment by having the generic superhero-esque music cut out early on in the fight, but it’s just one Mortal Kombat fatality after another until only Omni-Man is left, covered in the blood of his fellow superheroes.
That horrific act is then the mystery surrounding the rest of the season, which then uses similar violence interchangeably against the heroes and from the heroes. The violence and the gore is only important when the heroes seem to notice it, and they only seem to notice it in very shallow and selfish ways. In the season finale, Omni-Man goes on a rampage and fights Invincible, which destroys parts of a large populated city. Omni-Man throws Invincible through a large skyscraper, and then uses Invincible’s body to graphically tear through the entirety of a subway train and all the passengers onboard. These are awful acts, where the camera lingers on the human carnage this battle is causing. You see detached limbs as Invincible fails to save anybody from the building he crashes into, you see the details as people are being torn apart as a train and it’s passengers runs into an effectively immovable object.
In the aftermath of these violent acts, there is lip service paid to how tragic the loss of life is, but to the main characters it’s all framed within the personal stakes: How could my dad lie to me? The only reason they care is because it is impacting them directly, and it’s only really impacting them directly because they were lied to. Invincible’s loss is not of the lives he couldn’t save, it’s the loss of trust in his dad. And the other characters around him only seem to care about the tragedy in terms of how it impacts Invincible, asking Invincible if he’s okay after what his dad did to him, not what he did to the potentially thousands of people dead.
It’s the attitude of a high schooler who just discovered ultra-violence and is ashamed at having ever interacted with less “mature” media like superhero comics. It’s the idea that “realism = violence”, and that the more graphically violent the art is the more real it is. The violence is just a thing you pepper in to remind the audience how “real” the art is. It’s used when you need to move from one scene to the next, when you don’t know how to get to the next scene so you write a fight with some bones being broken, with no thought on the implications that will have. It’s scribbling stick figures getting mauled and torn apart in the margins of a notebook, but with more rendering involved.
This isn’t even to say that violence in art is bad. Something I’ve been thinking about a lot when it comes to the poorly handled the violence in Invincible is pro wrestling. While pro wrestling isn’t high art by any stretch, it’s absolutely an art. There is artistry in the violence, and I think the artistry comes from the fact that it’s not trying to convince the audience the fight is real but that it’s meaningful to the people involved. A great pro wrestling match uses the predetermined fight to tell a story to the audience. It’s about the characters struggling in the ring, and the implication for the audience is that what happens in the ring will be relevant to the characters after the match is long over. If a character has their arm broken in this match, it will be referenced in the leadup to another match or an eventual rematch. If someone lost to a submission move, next time they may be wiser to the setup or have come up with a way to counter it.
Unfortunately, Invincible is not like pro wrestling, and is instead like The Walking Dead. The violence is effectively meaningless to the narrative, simply existing as a shorthand for “realism”. The Walking Dead TV show is all about getting viewers attached to a character and then killing them on-screen in increasingly gory and graphic ways. In The Talking Dead, the post-show that has behind-the-scenes clips of the making of the series, the emphasis on these deaths from the crew is that they want to one up themselves from last time, really make that next kill nastier than the last. It’s not about emotional impact, or impact on the story, it’s about providing a ratings boost and a spectacle. It’s treated like breaking up their season in half so that there’s now two season premieres and two season finales, a shallow and obvious attempt at increasing viewership. It brings nothing to the thin ongoing story, it is simply aesthetics. It’s a substitute for writing anything interesting.
You add the “violence instead of writing” philosophy to the tired cliché of “what if Superman, but bad”, and the watching experience becomes a slog. We get it, what if an all-powerful being used their powers for bad. Not only is that just how some villains are already are designed, but doing that with a Superman clone, or Superman himself, has been done to death. Stretching the boring premise to eight 45 minute episodes, interjecting gore into the show whenever the characters need to be transitioned into a different scene or be moved along the plot in some way, is exhausting. It’s a concept that’s been done before, done better, and nothing new is being brought to the table with Invincible.
The worst part of all of this is that there are some interesting characters trapped in an otherwise unremarkable show, making you feel like maybe they’ll do something interesting with them. Invincible as a character is fun to see on screen, and he hits that Spider-Man vibe of trying to find his place in the world that I could watch all day. The problem is that he’s surrounded by meaningless trauma that the show insists is more interesting, and that’s just not the case. And even giving credit that Invincible as a character is interesting is really not saying much, as the show is basically invoking “with great power comes great responsibility” but with ultra-violence, so it’s not like Invincible is a unique character in that regard.
Which I guess brings me to my larger, and more succinct feeling: Invincible is doing what other superhero media has already done, but worse. Invincible as a character is going through a Spider-Man origin story. Omni-Man is Superman but evil, a bad dad, and largely not engaging when on-screen. The violence is as meaningless as it is on The Walking Dead. It’s all been done before, and what few minutes of interesting character interactions aren’t worth the largely bland remainder of the series.