Sunday, May 09, 2021

"Invincible," Season 1: review

Omni-Man (voiced by JK Simmons) demonstrates what I look like when I find onions
in my Whopper after having specifically asked for no onions

[WARNING:  Spoilers.]

I haven't seen Zack Snyder's revised "Justice League," but I did see the 2017 film.  In that version of the story, the heroes have revived Superman (who had died in "Batman v. Superman"), but Superman, only recently resuscitated, is—to put it mildly—not quite himself, and he gets into a fight with Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, Aquaman, and the Flash, all of whom (except maybe for Wonder Woman) are more or less terrified of Superman, who is a far more powerful being than any of the rest of them.  The fight is impressive but fairly bloodless, as befits a film with a PG-13 rating.

Now imagine that same scene again, but it's the R-rated version.  Skulls get smashed; wet chunks of brain matter are flung through the air; pools, droplets, and rivulets of blood decorate the scene of the fight.  Similar to "Justice League," the fight is between one extremely powerful, Superman-like being and a league whose members call themselves The Guardians of the Globe.  The Guardians have the equivalent of The Flash, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and Batman, plus a shape-shifting Martian superhero who is a little bit like the shape-shifting Cyborg from DC Comics.  By the end of the fight, the treacherous Superman analogue, here named Omni-Man, stands among the corpses of his former friends, but he's severely injured.

Omni-Man's massacre of the Guardians is our introduction to the world of the animated TV series "Invincible," and it's not a spoiler at all:  it's the seminal event that becomes the central mystery of Season 1 because Omni-Man (JK Simmons) made sure that no cameras or bystanders were around to witness and record the carnage.  Omni-Man goes by the nondescript Terran name Nolan Grayson.  He is, like Superman, an alien from another planet—the planet Viltrum, which is populated by Viltrumites who are all easily as powerful as Nolan, if not more powerful.  Nolan arrived on Earth in the 1980s; he settled in and fell in love with a Korean-American Earthling named Debbie (Sandra Oh).  Together, they had a half-Viltrumite (and half-Korean!) son named Mark (Steven Yeun).

The series has several interwoven subplots.  We learn that American superheroes generally work with a governmental organization called the GDA, or Global Defense Agency, which is headed by the always-cool Cecil Stedman (Walton Goggins, doing his best Billy-Bob Thornton impression).  The GDA is aware of all sorts of threats to the planet, and it's used the alien technology it's encountered to clandestinely shore up Earth's defenses.  Omni-Man, who is a renegade by nature, has only a tenuous connection to the GDA and has never formally joined the now-defunct Guardians of the Globe.  He has a prickly relationship with Cecil—a relationship that only worsens as Season 1 progresses.  Along with learning about the GDA, we see that young Mark, a high-schooler, is having relationship issues at school, somewhat in the manner of Peter Parker.  As Episode 1 begins, Mark still hasn't acquired his Viltrumite powers.  Despite being so mundane, he catches the attention of the beautiful Amber (Zazie Beetz), and they begin, awkwardly, to date.  When Mark does finally manifest his superpowers, he also makes the acquaintance of cute fellow student Samantha Eve Wilkins, nicknamed Eve, who goes by the superhero moniker Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs).  Eve has the near-godlike power to rearrange the atoms and molecules of inanimate objects; a corollary of her power is that she can fly like a Viltrumite.  Atom Eve is a member of Teen Team, and she eventually becomes a member of the New Guardians once the deaths of the former Guardians come to light.  Eve is dating the snotty pyrokinetic hero Rex Splode (Jason Mantzoukas), whose talent is—you guessed it—the ability to make things explode like tossed grenades.  Rex is mouthy, selfish, and arrogant, thus setting up a subplot in which Eve—who is a kind soul—must pull herself away from the bad boy on the team.  Eve finds herself attracted to Mark, but Mark is with Amber.  Other members of the New Guardians include Robot (Zachary Quinto, doing his Spock voice), a robot drone piloted by a deformed human named Rudy Connors (Ross Marquand); Kate Cha/Dupli-Kate (Malese Jow), who can multiply her own bodies; Amanda/Monster Girl (Grey Griffin), a Hulk-style human girl who turns into a huge, muscular, green beast (Kevin Michael Richardson), but who is cursed to reverse in age every time she reverts to her human form; Shrinking Rae (also Grey Griffin), whose power is the ability to shrink; and Markus Grimshaw/Black Samson (Khary Payton), a former Guardian who lost his powers and must now use a superpowered suit to fight his battles.

With Season 1 set up as a sort of mystery from the point of view of the characters (we, the viewers, know what Omni-Man has done), the eight episodes unfurl as one revelation after another.  Mark starts off worshiping his father Nolan, saying he wants to do what his dad does, i.e., fight bad guys and protect the earth.  Ultimately, though, Nolan reveals who the Viltrumites truly are:  a race of superhuman aliens who have created an enormous, galaxy-spanning empire by essentially acting like the Mafia, arriving on a planet and demanding both its resources and its fealty, with the alternative being utter destruction.  Nolan's true purpose on Earth has been to prepare Earth for the arrival of the Viltrumites, which is why he killed the Guardians of the Globe.  As Mark learns this horrible fact, the GDA is closing in on the mystery of the Guardians' deaths.  A terse demon detective (reminiscent of Rorschach from Alan Moore's Watchmen) explores the scene of the crime and, sensing the echoes of violence that linger in the Guardians' main chamber, begins to realize that Nolan was the murderer.  At the same time, Cecil Stedman, using his own methods, is coming to the same conclusion, and so is Art Rosenbaum (Mark Hamill, decidedly un-Joker-y), the man who creates most of the high-tech costumes that superheroes wear (this may be a nod to Edna Mode from "The Incredibles").  Art eventually confronts Nolan's wife Debbie with his suspicions about Nolan.

Where can this go but down?  Everyone now suspects Nolan, and Mark—who now goes by the hero moniker Invincible—must either reconcile himself with his Viltrumite heritage or try to stop his father from preparing Earth for a Viltrumite takeover.  Nolan, meanwhile, must deal with the fact that his wife openly suspects him of being a monster.

The TV series is based on an Image Comics series of the same name by Robert Kirkman, who is also responsible for the comic series The Walking Dead, which got made into a TV series.  By this point, I've watched plenty of exposition videos on YouTube that explain the lives of the series's main characters, so I've learned pretty much all the story arcs there are to learn:  I've spoiled the whole thing for myself.  That being said, I found Season 1 of "Invincible" watchable, but not perfect.  Let's delve into the series a bit.

We'll begin with the superficial things—the voice acting, the quality of the animation, the quality of the dialogue, the music, etc.  As you read above, the series has brought in plenty of powerhouse actors to voice the various roles, and all the actors do a magnificent job.  The animation, though, strikes me as somewhat clunky and hastily done, although there are some very memorable visuals, such as during the Episode 1 fight between Omni-Man and the Guardians of the Globe.  With time and a much larger budget, a higher-quality animation might have been possible.  The dialogue, however, makes up for the animation by being fairly intelligent, although Rex Splode's attempts at witty banter come off as clumsy and lacking in comic timing.  (Rex's character was easily the most annoying one in the series.  I know Rex's eventual fate, though, so I can't complain too much:  I have only to wait.)  The series's music, by John Paesano, isn't particularly memorable, but it's also not memorably bad.

Going deeper, we can talk about themes and character development.  Two of the major themes of the series are family and heritage.  Mark/Invincible has been raised as a regular Earthling, a fact that Nolan later says he regrets because Mark should have come to know his Viltrumite side sooner.  Mark's discovery of who the Viltrumites really are creates a rift between him and his seemingly omnipotent father, and Mark passes from admiration to revulsion to a sort of self-hatred as he digests the implications of his own heritage.  Nolan eventually reveals to Mark that he views Earthlings as weak and utterly beneath him.  When Mark shouts about what Nolan thinks of Debbie—Nolan's wife and Mark's mother—Nolan says, with apparent regret, that he views her more as a pet than anything else.  (Thanks to remote-drone GDA tech, Debbie hears every word of the exchange between Mark and Nolan.  She is stricken.)  The result of this father-son exchange is violence:  Mark, now much more powerful than when he first discovered his super-abilities, lashes out against Nolan, but Nolan brutally beats the boy.  However, even as Nolan violently attempts to teach his son the reality of his Viltrumite heritage—telling Mark that he'll live thousands of years while Earthlings around him constantly wither and die—Mark deflects Nolan's talk of heritage by evoking family.  When Nolan roars, "What will you have in five hundred years?!", Mark, now beaten to a bloody pulp, whispers through broken teeth, "I'll still have you, Dad."  Nolan, touched in spite of himself and remembering Mark's innocent childhood, is unable to finish the beating of his son, and he flies off, in tears, to outer space.

This is a crucial moment for what it reveals about Nolan/Omni-Man.  Nolan has been changed by his experience of living on Earth.  He claims to be "a loyal Viltrumite," but the truth is more complicated, and it hints at what's to come in the successive seasons of this show.  A bit like Superman, Nolan does actually harbor love for and loyalty to Earth, despite his stated belief that Earthlings are nothing to him.  This will have major implications for when the Viltrumite vanguard arrives on Earth.

The eight-episode first season offers enough breathing room to allow for the main characters to be fleshed out.  Debbie, Mark's mom, is shown to be a hard-working real-estate agent trying to deal with the reality of having a superhero husband (and later, as the truth is revealed, a super-monster husband) and a teenaged son waking up to both his hormones and his half-alien pedigree.  Mark's girlfriend Amber proves to be tough-minded, open, and honest.  She also reveals, despite Mark's attempts to hide his hero identity, that she's known for a while that Mark is Invincible.  Eve also turns out to be a complicated person; she was initially attracted to bad-boy Rex Splode, but his arrogance is grating on her, and then she catches him cheating on her with Dupli-Kate because Rex had heard that Mark was now dating Eve.  Eve is attracted to Mark, but she's also not a chaos-sowing bitch, so despite her growing attraction, she leaves Mark and Amber alone.  I admit I wasn't much into the teen drama, but I understand why it's there:  it's there for the same reason that Spider-Man is shown having to cope with teenage life.  Mark's best friend is a guy named William (Andrew Rannells).  William is gay, and for several episodes, this fact has little bearing on the plot.  Later in the season, however, William meets a handsome college guy who ends up being assimilated into a zombie army of "Reanimen" created by a mad scientist (Ezra Miller).

The capable characterization extends to more than just the heroes.  While many of the villains are boringly boilerplate (e.g., a kaiju, an alien army that never learns its lesson until Omni-Man destroys its homeworld, a horde of hive-mind squids, etc.), some truly stand out, and the writing and voice acting are clever enough to provide us with plenty of characterization.  One notable sort-of villain is Titan (voiced by none other than the great Mahershala Ali), a muscular man with the power to cover himself instantly in a layer of near-impenetrable rock.  We discover that Titan has a wife and a little daughter, and he's been forced into a life of crime.  His boss—the guy forcing Titan to remain a criminal—is also quite a character:  Machine Head, hilariously voiced (with Auto-Tune!) by Jeffrey Donovan, is a crime lord who owns whole swaths of the city.  I have to say, this may have been my favorite character after Omni-Man.  While Rex Splode's line deliveries struck me as annoying and lame, Donovan—a talented veteran actor—did marvelous work as Machine Head, a human with a cybernetic head overflowing with sneering sarcasm and a machine's ability to foresee certain future events through the analysis of "quantum probabilities," as he puts it.  Machine Head also has a weird love of Italian-maple furniture; he launches into angry rants when superpowered beings fight inside his office and wreck expensive, imported chairs and tables.  Also worthy of mention, among the villains, are the Mauler Twins, two blue-skinned clones (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson, the same guy who voices Monster Girl's monstrous self) who constantly bicker over which one is the original and which one is the copy.  Despite being big and brutish-looking, the Mauler twins are experts at cloning and the transference of a copy of one brain's consciousness into another brain.  They also possess awesome super-strength, making them a match for most of the New Guardians.

One thing I'm not sure of is how to view the show as a whole.  Is it a critical commentary on superheroes?  If so, well, that's been done to death in various off-brand comics (i.e., not-Marvel, not-DC) as well as in TV series like "The Boys" (which I apparently haven't reviewed yet!).  Is it yet another exploration of dysfunctional superheroes?  I hesitate to say yes because, really, Omni-Man is the only one who seems twisted.  The other heroes have personalities and characters that range from earnest/pure to shady/grating, but none of them—including Mark, who is the ostensible protagonist of the series—strikes me as particularly dysfunctional.  The series is full of winks and nods in the form of references to other works.  JK Simmons, who voices Omni-Man, is well known for having played J. Jonah Jameson both in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and in one of the newer Spidey films starring Tom Holland ("Far from Home").  The character of Omni-Man is drawn to look exactly like J. Jonah Jameson.  Obviously, since the comics came long before the animated series, the choice to cast JK Simmons as Omni-Man came after the appearance of the Invincible comic series.  Also, the character of J. Jonah Jameson existed long before Invincible was a gleam in the eye of creator Robert Kirkman.  Another winking reference:  Mark, Eve, William, and Amber all attend Reginald Veljohnson High School.  You may remember the actor Reginald Veljohnson in the role of Officer Al Powell in 1988's "Die Hard."  Well, the showrunners somehow got Veljohnson to voice the character of Principal Winslow, the head guy at Veljohnson High.  How meta can you get?  And it doesn't stop there:  most of the superheroes—especially the ill-fated Guardians who all perish in Episode 1, are shameless ripoffs of familiar Justice League heroes, with the possible exception of The Immortal (Ross Marquand again), who looks like Wolverine but has powers similar to those of a lesser Superman.  The names given to heroes in this series—Aquarus, Darkwing, War Woman, Green Ghost, Martian Man, Rex Splode, Atom Eve, Dupli-Kate (and, later, her brother Multi-Paul), Monster Girl, Robot, etc.—don't even sound as if the writers were trying very hard with the nomenclature.  Were the names created in the spirit of parody?  That would be strange, given how deadly-serious so much of the plot is.  Again, I have to wonder how I'm supposed to take the series as a whole.  Is it parody?  Satire?  Sly, self-aware commentary?  Some combination?  Or is it possible that "Invincible" simply is its own thing, throwing somewhat-familiar heroes into radically new situations?

The comic series is gritty and bloody.  Like the show, it's R-rated, filled with foul language and extremely bloody violence.  It means business, and that's why I can't convince myself that "Invincible" is meant to be a parody.

Conquest, a Viltrumite, kills Eve.  Not to worry, though:  she'll be back.

Whatever the series is, and however I'm supposed to take it, "Invincible" has a compelling story, which makes the series very watchable.  I wish the quality of the animation were higher, but the voice acting, the characterizations, and the cosmic plot that makes you care about the fates of the main characters are all points in the series's favor.  Overall, I'd give Season 1 of "Invincible" a thumbs-up, and I do believe I'll be along for the rest of the ride, despite knowing the fates of most of the characters.  There is a sense in which "Invincible" is compelling enough to be spoiler-proof, i.e., you can take in the story even if you know how it ends.  That's not so different from rereading a favorite novel, right?


Anonymous said...

Impressive review.
How many WPM do you type?
Do the words fly off your digits from your synapses without review or edit? I imagine they do.
Keep on keeping on,
-Curtis S.

Kevin Kim said...

Curtis! Long time!

Funny you should ask about WPM. I got curious about my typing speed a while back, so I took an online test and blogged the results.

I normally just type everything out as a first draft, but I proof and edit as I go. By the time I hit "publish," a long piece like this will have gone through several rereads. I still end up catching errors after publishing, though, so I have to go back, correct those post-hoc errors, then republish. Only readers who have the patience to reread my post several hours later will notice any differences, so I make these belated corrections knowing that I'm just satisfying my own ingrained perfectionism.

How's life? Still choppin' wood and cooking amazing food?