Each Saturday, Kevin from @tastienfilm_bad will be recapping the most recent episode(s) of Invincible and giving us insight into the comics on which the show is based.
101: It’s About Time
Comic books are magic tricks. They take a collection of static images, speech bubbles, and fourth-wall-breaking sound effects and make something that you can smell, hear, and feel. 90% of what happens in a comic book happens inside our heads. It is up to us to take the baton from the suggestions left by the artists and fill in “the gutters” (the affectionate term for the spaces in between comic panels) with our own imaginations. It’s one reason that fans can be weary when their favorite comic gets adapted for the screen. It’s the same when a novel you love gets a movie remake. On one hand, you might be excited to see your favorite characters get new life, but on the other hand, you have the perfect vision of it already in your head, and so it can never really live up to your lofty expectations.
I went in with those reservations this morning but came out with a big dumb grin and real excitement for the rest of the season. Today is the first of my weekly Invincible recaps, so here’s a quick note on what they will look like. Every episode will have a “show-level spoiler” section where I discuss the events of the episode, but also a “potential future plot” spoiler section where I go a little deeper with knowledge from the comics and provide potential theories as to what could happen next. Read at your own peril.
Recap (Show-Level Spoilers)
I feel bad for pilots. Not like Sully Sullenberger (love that guy) pilots but like the first episode of a TV show pilots. The show’s success rides on their shoulders but they’re also beholden to mostly introducing characters and beginning the world-building. There’s a lot of shoe leather to get through but you also want to start your series on a symbolic note of some sort that sets up the central thesis of the show. Lots to take care of! A good pilot can deliver that information cleverly and efficiently, and leave you with enough questions to tune in next week, and that’s exactly what we got with “It’s About Time.”
The show opens with an introduction to Invincible’s version of The Justice League, The Guardians of the Globe. They’re a great mix of parodies and references to many of the “Big Two” superheroes you love with members like War Woman and The Immortal (voiced by Walking Dead stars Lauren Cohan and Ross Marquand) filling out the roster. They show up to the White House lawn just as the Mauler Twins (played here by the voice acting vet Kevin Michael Richardson) begin wreaking havoc. The twins, who are really clones (or at least one of them is a clone of the other? It’s hard to tell at first with those two and their constant bickering on the subject is a great running joke), put up a good fight but are dispatched quickly once Omni-Man, aka Nolan Grayson (JK Simmons), shows up.
Hard cut to Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), our protagonist and titular hero, on the can, reading a comic when his mom, Debbie Grayson (Sandrah Oh), barges in to remind him that he’s running late and to set up the family dynamic. While Invincible gets into the cosmic and world-ending, it’s a story about family at its core. The episode does a good job of showing us that and sets up what I expect to be great character development and struggle later on. In this scene we also get a peek at daddy’s backstory. He mentions the planet Viltrum, and that he is a Viltrumite. More on that later.
Mark gets to school and we’re introduced to a bevy of supporting characters including Mark’s best friend William Clockwell, played here by Andrew Rannells, and Amber Bennett played by Zazie Beetz. Again, more on them later! The show also adds a Flash Thompson-like bully character to the cast to move the plot along a little more efficiently. We see that Mark has a crush on Amber, that Amber doesn’t suffer fools (namely Todd), and that Mark’s friend William is already out of the closet, something that doesn’t happen until far later in the comics.
After school, Mark, at his BugerMart job, accidentally throws the day’s trash into space. Literally. It’s “panel-perfect” to the way it happens in the comics. He’s ready. His powers are here. Mark is Invincible. Or, he will be, soon.
From there, we are treated to more family bonding and backstory. Omni-Man (who I will refer to as “Dad, Daddy, Omni-Man, JK, or Mr. Moustache” depending on my mood) fills us in on his backstory. In a flashback, we learn about the aim of the Viltrumites: universal protection and aid. Mark is half Viltrumite and shares DNA with a race of brilliant Schwarzeneggers who can fly and create utopias across the galaxies. Seems like a really nice, really done-to-death, Superman ripoff. It also seems a little too rosy to be true…
Nolan, excited to impart some wisdom, takes Mark out for the superhero equivalent of driving lessons. The father/son scenes work really well here for a few reasons. 1) As said, they fill us in on Omni-Dad’s side of the Viltrumite story. We get worldbuilding through backstory and we get a sense as to how powerful dad might be. 2) Simmons imparts cold, hard factual responses to a lot of questions surrounding their powers. It’s always good to establish the rules of your world early and here he tells us explicitly what flying is like (“peeing your pants on purpose”), what their movement is based on, and more. 3) It builds intrigue for the future. The sitcom-like parental lesson closes with a bone-shattering punch to the gut. It shows us dad is strong, maybe a little too strong. It feels like keeping his true power in check is a necessity. And it hints at something darker still to come.
Back to school to show us that Todd, school bully, does not punch NEARLY as hard as dad. When Todd punches Mark in the ribs, he barely registers the hit. He just got hit by a train, in comparison, this must feel like a feather duster. The display of power leaves Todd embarrassed and Mark the hot new thing at school.
Invincible is a lot like Spider-Man in that a huge portion of the story is spent balancing work and school; the public and private lives of a teenage superhero. The show does a great job of this and will often play the two settings off one another in back-to-back scenes, adding a second layer of depth and storytelling in the contrast. After school, we get to watch Mark do the classic “first solo patrol with newfound superpowers and a janky homemade suit” trope, a personal favorite superhero trope of mine! The slapdash costume he puts together is exactly like the one from the comics, and a solid nod to the early “goggles and bandanna” get-up that Peter Parker uses as well. On his outing, Mark goes toe to toe with Titan, a street-level bruiser from the comics played here by Mahershala Ali. It’s a quick fight but builds more world, partially by destroying some of it. Something tells me we haven’t seen the last of this guy, both Titan and Mahershala are too big for a cameo.
The fight is quick but messy, and Mark has work to do on his collateral damage skills. Dad sees all of this from above, and the two get into the great power/great responsibility bit you’ve heard a million times before. After the spat, Omni-Man makes it up to Mark with a visit to the Invincible Universe version of Edna Mode. Art is the tailor that has made many a hero look a bit more super. He’s voiced here by My Favorite Joker, Mark Hamill who gives him a lovely gravelly tenor.
Pumped up from by prospect of a super-suit of his very own, Mark flies back home and gets in a heated confrontation with his mom. He’s already a little cocksure thanks to his new powers, just as you might have felt like the smartest person in your home after returning from your first semester of college. No? Just me? Well Mark takes a bit too much bravado home with him and mom gives him a solid heat check.
Debbie Grayson plays a huge role in this universe. We often picture ourselves as the titular hero, or at least someone with powers. But Debbie is our real representative. She is the one left at home when her husband and son fly off to distant galaxies to protect our planet. She’s the one that bears the worry, the fear that comes with that great power. Often comics will use loved ones as props (look into Refrigerator Girls to learn more about that unfortunate trope), as means to get the superhero to go out for John Wick-style revenge. But Invincible always did a great job of making the supporting cast feel as real, and as vital to the heart of the story, as any of the main characters. The show feels no different, and that’s fantastic news.
Add in a Cage the Elephant song to play over Mark’s first joy ride moment (the moment when the hero gets the hang of their powers and really just uncorks for the first time) a title card drop, and a “looking at the city you protect from a high-up vantage point” shot and you got yourself a pilot! It’s missing a little stinger, something to entice you to episode two though.
That is, until the post-credits scene.
If you read my preview last week, first off, thank you, and secondly, you would have read about the twist that comes at the end of issue #7 in the comics. Welp. Here it is. Episode one. The Guardians of the Globe are called into a secret surprise meeting and get absolutely murked by none other than Omni-Daddy himself. Up until this point, the violence shown on screen felt pretty tame, more MCU than ICU if you will, but after this scene, Invincible shows its true colors (blood red). One by one the Nolan rips the JLA rejects apart. The scene is gory, grotesque even and the foley work is top-notch. Guts are severed and punched out of chests, bones are snapped into dust, a capi- gets absolutely de-tated (head flies off). And every mutilation gets brought to life with squeem inducing sound effects.
Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley, the original artists on the comic, work on the show as consultants and it shows. When I first read this scene in the comics, my jaw was agape, and the movie-in-my-head I saw in the gutters between panels was horrific. This show does that vision justice. Just like in the comics it zigs just when you’re getting ready for a nice simple zag. The scene develops and builds upon those panels beautifully and leaves you in an absolute lurch.
Ultra-violence can be a tricky needle to thread. There are so many great directors and writers who use it to call attention to the audience’s twisted love for it. Think Paul Verhoeven and his movies Total Recall and Starship Troopers, two 5-star films in my book. In them, he uses violence as a critique of itself. Many miss that, however, and love or hate his movies based on the surface text alone. Both Verhoven and Invincible use violence and gore not to impress or glorify, but to show how truly horrifying these violent acts we’ve become so desensitized to really are. There is rarely any blood in a blockbuster superhero movie these days. Sure Deadpool and Zack Snyder have something to say about it, but the vast majority of on-screen hits are either off-screen or bloodless. It makes it easier to take for granted how powerful these heroes are, and how violent their actions can be. In depicting the violence as unflinchingly as it does, Invincible shows us exactly what that responsibility that comes with great power looks like.
OK, also, the violence was really cool.
Spoiler-Free Random Thoughts
- Mark is seen reading a comic titled “Seance Dog” which is a clever tip of the cap to the fake comic within the comic, “Science Dog.”
- There are plenty of easter eggs for Invincible fans throughout. For instance, one of the super-suits Mark tries on belongs to Bulletproof in the comics.
- The voice acting is just a big ol’ chef’s kiss all around. Mark Hamill does a lot with a small role, JK Simmons sounds pitch-perfect to the Nolan Grayson/Omni-Man I had in my head, and Steven Yeun does a stellar job of filling Mark’s voice with equal parts teenage self-doubt and hope.
- The creative team working on the show has me feeling that it’s all in very VERY good hands. As I said, the original artists are on board to make sure the characters look and move as they did in the comics. And Ottley seems here specifically to make sure the gore is up to code. But add to that mix multiple people who have worked on (personal favorites) Avatar and Justice League of America and you got yourself a recipe for a faithful and kickass adaptation.
Potential Future Plot Spoilers
From this point forward I’m writing with the assumption you either a) have read the comics or b) love a good spoiler, either way, you’ve been warned!
Again, I loved the pilot and thought it had a huge undertaking that it pulled off with aplomb. There’s a couple of things I noticed that have me curious though. Who is Steve? AKA why do we open up on a new character (as far as I can remember) not really involved with the comic story? At first, it seems like a nice little cold open to misdirect us to the REAL cold open, the introduction of the Guardians of the Globe. But the guy is given a two-minute monologue about his adopted son, and “the guy” is voiced by John Hamm. (Not a guy you give the role of “some guy” to) We’re going to be hearing more from this Steve fella. And I think his son is going to have a HUGE impact on the story. Here’s my spoiler-steeped prediction. Steve’s son is actually Omni-Boy, another child of Omni-Man’s and Mark’s half-brother. There isn’t much to back this up as of right now besides IMDB posts, but I got an Omni-Man-sized hunch about it.
I also absolutely love the updates made to Mark’s friends Will and Amber. In the comics, they were paper-thin at worst and a little cringe at best. Amber was “The First Girlfriend” and mostly just riffed off of what Spider-Man did with Gwen Stacey. Here she has much more agency. She speaks for herself, goes after Mark because she wants to, and tells Todd where to shove it without the intervention of a superhero. They pull it off without her feeling performative or tokenized and it works. She just feels like a teenager alive and well in the year 2021. Plus, Will is gay, from the start. I know I keep harping on this and it sounds like I’m weirdly hyper fixated. It’s just that it took a while for Will to get there in the comics, and when he did it was handled in this refreshing-for-the-times way. The show updates it so that there is no big reveal. Will’s sexuality isn’t some twist anymore, and that kind of “yeah no big whoop whatsoever that you’re gay” is refreshing for THESE times. Small changes keep the show feeling new and aware of the zeitgeist. It’s also great from an efficient storytelling perspective as we won’t need to bog down early character development with him and Mark both vying to date Atom Eve at some point. It allows Will to start off on a fuller note, just like Amber. Here, he’s much more than “Annoying Best Friend.” And we will see in episode two that there is more to his backstory than meets the eye as well.
Whatever is coming, I’m excited. Stick around as I will be giving this treatment to every episode this season. Check back soon for a recap and analysis of episode two!