At first glance, it’s easy to draw parallels between Amazon Prime Video’s two superhero hits, Invincible and The Boys. They’re hyper violent, utilize evil Superman tropes, and feature fraught father-son relationships.
What sets the two apart however, is where The Boys chooses gritty cynicism, Invincible chooses optimism and belief in the human spirit. The show excels at deconstructing what makes us human, and it does so in two ways: by contrasting us to the truly alien and by unearthing humanity where you’d least expect it.
SPOILERS FOR INVINCIBLE AHEAD
Mortality makes us human. Like every living organism, we will die, but we are the only ones capable of understanding that grim reality. And it makes us everything we are – prejudiced, kind, loving, cruel. It drives us to build legacies to outlast us, and to value inner growth and resilience, all coping mechanisms to distract us from the inevitability of death.
By contrast, Invincible’s Viltrumites are near immortal and indestructible after years of eugenics-driven efforts to weed out the weakest among them and establish themselves as the most powerful beings in space. They are super strong, super fast, capable of flight, heightened healing, and vastly slowed aging. As Nolan, aka Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons) demonstrates to devastating effect, a human lifetime is of little to no significance to him.
With his utter indifference towards humanity, you could view Nolan as psychotic or unhinged, but he’s not. He has the logical psychology of an invulnerable being. Without the fear of death to motivate him, he has no need to develop emotional resilience or acceptance. He can afford to be comfortably detached from everything around him, at least until his son Mark (Steven Yeun) refuses to take up the Viltrum cause of enslaving earth. Nolan may be powerful, but he misunderstands the child he raised. This is one problem he can’t punch his way through.
The things we strive for – invincibility, immortality – we don’t realize what they might cost us. This series makes that tradeoff obvious. The distinguishing factor that Invincible highlights isn’t strength. The most remarkable characters are those capable of resilience, of dealing with hardship without taking the easy way out. We see this in characters like Debbie (Sandra Oh) and by extension Mark, who fight against all odds and never give up their principles. By contrast, Nolan’s actions are truly alien. His only shred of humanity was fostered by Debbie, which we see represented by his memory of Mark as a child.
That’s what ultimately saves earth. Not the Guardians, not Sinclair’s cyborgs, not the big tentacle monster, not even Mark’s Viltrumite powers, but Debbie, a mere mortal.
One of Invincible’s greatest strengths is its ability to subvert common superhero tropes. In episode one, we’re introduced to the Guardians of the Globe, an obvious parody of the DC Universe’s Justice League. They are the protectors, earth’s strongest heroes…until they get obliterated by Nolan in about ten minutes. The main character is Mark, a fresh-faced teen who just got his powers. We expect him to prove his mettle in battle and emerge triumphant, but instead he witnesses the gruesome massacre of hundreds of civilians by the Flaxans and accidentally mangles the woman he tries to save.
Cecil Stedman (Walter Goggins), the calculated government agent in charge of the Global Defense Agency, also represents the subversion of a common superhero trope: the heartless (and often corrupt) government guy. He believes in doing what must be done for earth’s safety, even if it means falling into a moral grey zone. He spies on the Grayson household after suspecting Nolan of killing the Guardians. He runs shady experiments kept secret by the dosing of all of America’s water supply with light frequency-inhibiting chemicals. And when an unwitting Mark arrives in episode 8 to help his dad, he presses on with his efforts to stop Nolan even after Debbie demands she call them off to protect Mark.
“This is why I’ve always hated you,” she snaps. Cecil can only agree.
Despite this, he displays unexpected sensitivity and courage. In the aftermath of Omni-Man and Invincible’s fight, Cecil makes arrangements to protect Mark and Debbie’s identities. He fakes Nolan’s death, arranges a funeral with proxies, and oversees any other unpleasant details to give the broken family time to grieve. Controversial methods aside, his intentions are undeniable – protect humanity, and, in his own words, “make things as right as they can be.”
Admittedly, Invincible does still fall into the corrupt government trope as many of the GDA’s actions are massive overreaches of authority. But Cecil is more than an agent coldly carrying out orders. He takes his job seriously, strives to ameliorate the consequences of his decisions, and even has the courage to confront Nolan directly with nothing but a teleporter, a healthy sense of mortality, and a quick trigger finger.
Then there’s Robot (aka Rudy, voiced by Zachary Quinto), who initially appears far removed from humanity. As you might expect, he’s monotone, logical, and, well…robotic. But when he’s tasked with assembling a new set of Guardians, he’s anxious to do a good job. When his newly assembled team takes a walloping from Machine Head’s (Jeffrey Donovan) henchman, he goes to extreme lengths to nurse Monster Girl (Grey Griffin/Kevin Michael Richardson) back to health. It’s clear at this point he has a crush, so he does what any schoolboy would: break a couple supervillains out of prison, bribe them into creating an age-appropriate clone of your rival love interest using stolen DNA, then replicate your consciousness and transfer it into the new body to win her heart.
Okay. It’s really weird and messed up, but since this story is told entirely from Rudy’s perspective, he comes off as sympathetic. Unable to live outside of a specialized pod, Rudy is locked out of much of the human experience, and introduced to us as a literal robot. Yet he is one of the most emotionally motivated characters in the show. As his original self dies, he bids farewell to his cloned consciousness: “Be happy. Change the world. Experience everything we never could.”
Where we expect to find humanity in a father figure raising his teenage son, we get the alienating detachment of a nearly immortal and invulnerable deity. Where we expect side stories or tropes, we get a remarkable array of human experience – courage, love, acceptance, resolve – experiences that would barely register for someone like Nolan.
This is why Invincible is so effective at deconstructing humanity. This is why the show has resonated with so many viewers and why we’ll be talking about it for years to come.
There are sure to be many twists ahead for the characters I’ve discussed, so I can’t for this article to age really poorly when the next season comes out!
Invincible is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.