(Warning: MAJOR spoilers ahead for season one)
As I discussed before, Amazon’s animated superhero series Invincible, is a compelling, though occasionally tough, watch. The comic adaptation seems to have been steadily increasing its viewership numbers over the course of the season, especially as the reactions for each week’s episodes are shared on social media. The show runners, Invincible comic creator Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead) among them, have done an amazing job at alternating this coming-of-age story between humor and bloodshed. Each of the many reveals throughout the season have been shocking in various ways, though arguably none have been quite as astonishing as the one at the end of episode one: when Omni-Man proceeds to violently murder his fellow superheroes, the Guardians of the Globe. Despite that impressive display of bloodshed, along with the many others that occur over the course of the series, little could prepare viewers for the brutality of last week’s season finale.
At the top of the episode, Mark witnesses his father, Nolan, literally tear The Immortal apart. His face turns to an expression of horror as he sees that his father, the man that he’s looked up to and wanted to be his entire life, is capable of such savagery. Understandably, his immediate reaction is to assume his father is being subjected to some sort of mind control. It’s only when Nolan divulges that he is part of a violent imperialist effort by the Viltrumites, and not simply some sort of galactic peacekeeper, that Mark realizes his father is in full control of his actions. Nolan’s hubris allows him to pitch the idea of making Earth’s subjugation a team effort to his son, a fairly bizarre assumption considering that Mark’s a full-fledged Earthling with various emotional attachments despite his unique parentage. So when Mark decides to not only defy his father but to stop him, well, all hell breaks loose.
I’m putting that mildly, of course. What actually happens is a series of acts so destructive that they resemble war. When Nolan throws the first punch five minutes into the episode, what follows is seventeen minutes of carnage so shocking that many (myself included) watched with mouths agape. Much of it is the sheer number of fatalities that occur in the (one-sided) battle between father and son. The collateral damage that is such a common feature in epic battles—especially in urban settings—is thrown into stark relief. When Mark is sent flying through an apartment building, thereby causing it to become unstable, he doesn’t hesitate to assist. As he flies upwards to hold the tottering structure in place, it’s easy to assume that he’s going to save the innocent people inside. When he catches a falling mother, he yells, “I’ve got you,” before offering her young daughter some comfort: “Don’t be scared, okay?” Because Mark is Invincible. This is the stuff straight out of the superhero playbook. Surely it’s going to be okay, right?
Except it isn’t. Not at all. Because when the building finally gives way and Mark emerges from the rubble, the hand that he so steadfastly held onto is no longer attached to a human being, living or otherwise. His grief is immense, which is only made worse by Nolan’s arrival. Egged on by his words, Mark attempts to attack him again to no avail, which allows Nolan to hurl him down through the street and into a subway station below.
So begins what is now being referred to simply as “the subway scene” by viewers. From an animation perspective, it’s a marvel. From a human aspect, it’s utterly horrific. When Nolan, now fully willing to inhabit the role of abuser, overpowers Mark and notices a train approaching, he takes it as an opportunity to give a mindlessly cruel ‘lesson’ to his son: he holds Mark by the head and essentially uses him as a stationary battering ram. The result of which is that he uses Mark to carve through the speeding train like a hot knife through butter. Screeching metal explodes outwards while unsuspecting riders simply come apart, their blood raining down on Mark who is wordlessly screaming. The remaining train cars careen towards the platform filled with people attempting to flee before the entire subway station collapses in on itself.
The scene perfectly encapsulates the sentiment “so horrible to look at, yet can’t look away.” It’s a moment that strikes awe while also feeling aghast at the senseless loss of life.
Amazingly, Mark, still coping with the shock of it all, continues to try to reason with Nolan. It’s a son insisting that his father really is the hero that he’s always known, instead of the ruthless colonizer he truly is. Nolan reiterates that his loyalty will always be to Viltrum despite his brief time of happiness here on Earth, and yet again, Mark attempts to attack (bud, I really need you to rethink your “yell-then-punch” fighting tactic). From there, it’s an absolute beatdown, with Nolan pummeling Mark from air, to sea, and finally, to mountainside. It doesn’t have the nauseatingly ruthless flair of the subway scene, but it’s no less brutal. To call it a fight would be incorrect, as it is more of an extended act of torture. It’s so vicious and lengthy that it nearly defies belief. Finally, after countless hits, an exhausted Nolan, only now feeling slightly emotionally conflicted, flies out of the solar system in frustration and anger.
If the only thing this series had going for it was ultraviolence, all of the above would be nothing more than a gross out exhibit. But what Invincible consistently has going for it is a one-two punch of action and emotion; it’s not just horrific, it’s also heartbreaking. Even after witnessing countless people die, Mark spends most of the time attempting to convince his father of his non-existent humanity. Once it proves fruitless, Mark, grievously injured even before the final assault on the mountain, is determined to save the world, even as his body wears down from the physical trauma.
Then there is, of course, Debbie. Thanks to the plethora of satellites at Cecil’s command, she is able to view the majority of this awful event, a witness to the destruction of her son at the hands of the husband she loved so much. Over the course of the season, as Debbie came to discover that the man she made a life with was also a murderer, she still held out a bit of hope that there was an acceptable reason for it all. One tiny chance to receive an explanation that would allow her to justify her remaining love for Nolan.
That is until Mark and Nolan’s exchange in which Nolan finally confesses his true feelings:
Nolan: “And what were they doing with those fragile little lives anyway? Listen to what I’m saying. You know in your heart I’m right.”
Mark: “‘Right’? About how pathetic and pointless humanity is? Is Mom’s life worthless?”
Nolan: “In the grand scheme of things…yes.”
Debbie breaks down into sobs. It’s a completely understandable reaction. Nolan has already stated that he considers her as little more than a pet (fucking OUCH), but to discover just how dispensable she is to him is almost too much to bear. Mark barely survives the ordeal, and though Debbie’s obviously glad to have her son back, we get a glimpse of just how much it’s cost her; when Mark goes to ask his fairly stoic mother a question, he finds her sobbing in her room as she begins the long road of processing her complicated feelings of grief, anger, and yes, love. For Mark and Debbie, there’s no way to know what’s going to happen in the future or the immense trauma that has been inflicted on them. That’s the insidious thing about abusers: despite the mental/physical pain, it takes a herculean amount of effort to get past the very real emotional attachment that remains.
As much as the general public enjoys the idea of superheroes, it’s nearly impossible to count the many potential complications of residing with beings equipped with powers beyond normal human abilities. Invincible invites us to ask questions like “what is humanity,” as well as the potential transaction attached to heroic deeds. What do we define as heroism, anyway? Yes, we had the public displays of monster-killing performed by the once-great Omni-Man, but what is that worth when it’s done for the sake of subjugating all of human life? Thankfully, the series doesn’t deprive viewers of all hope. Towards the end, the new (and still precarious) Guardians of the Globe come together to help with search and relief efforts in the wake of Mark and Nolan’s battle, a rare display of superheroes using their gift for less glamorous, though still vital, means of assistance. I think it’s safe to say that the majority of the fans are looking forward to seeing more of these themes pursued in future seasons, even if it hurts a little.
All of Invincible season one is available to stream on Amazon.
Kaleena Rivera is a tv and film writer. When she’s not praising Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, and Steven Yeun for their remarkable voice work, she can be found on Twitter here.
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