Superhero Subversion and Reaffirmation in Invincible

*Spoilers for Logan and Invincible ahead*

In 2017, I watched the film Logan, which is inspired by the “Old Man Logan” alternate storyline from the X-Men comics and stars Hugh Jackman as an aging Wolverine. I remember feeling that this film was different from other superhero movies I’d seen, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why that was. It was gritty and dark like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, but it didn’t feel as much like a superhero movie as those did. It felt more grounded in reality, and as I watched not Wolverine the superhero, but Logan the human, struggle not against metahumans with fantastic powers but a militant corporation driven by greed, I felt more and more pulled into the story. Unlike with other superhero films, I didn’t feel envy or any urge to take part in the “heroics” that Logan and company were engaging in, yet I couldn’t peel my eyes away. His sadness and grief were all too real, his struggle closer to human despite his inhumanness, and I loved every bit of it.

I was able to better understand my fascination with Logan when I watched Evan Puschak’s (better known by his YouTube username, Nerdwriter1) video essay on the film, where he explains how Logan represents a shift in superhero film genre conventions as a reaction to growing public exhaustion with the dominance of the genre. Citing scholar John G Cawelti, Puschak describes how Logan both demythologizes and reaffirms the conventional superhero myth. By exploring the less-than-heroic story of an alcoholic, aged metahuman who wants nothing to do with the typical heroics seen in most superhero films yet who eventually sacrifices himself selflessly to protect his ideals and those he holds dear, Logan both does a reality check on popular superhero tropes and validates them as noble principles that are still valuable to us. 

Invincible hit hard for me because like Logan, it seems to seek to reflect on the superhero genre as a whole and it asks viewers to re-evaluate their understanding of the messages they’ve learned from the genre while still acknowledging that there are new lessons and stories to be offered from superhero characters. Like Logan, Invincible both engages in demythologization and reaffirmation of the superhero myth.

Almost from the start, Invincible makes it clear to us that superheroes can’t be relied on to fix our problems. The common thread that broadcasts this message most clearly to viewers is the gore in the show. Why does the show constantly show us these extremely visceral, uncomfortable images of the aftermath of violence? Why does the title card of the show continue to be tainted by blood every single episode? Catering to viewers’ morbid curiosity and inherent desire to be shocked is a valid explanation, but I think that this gore isn’t just gratuitous fanservice, it also serves a narrative purpose. The gore is there to show us that there will always be collateral damage as a result of the way that superheroes allegedly act on justice’s behalf – because they choose to fight with violence, hurt and pain is always part of the outcome. The audience learns this in parallel with Mark’s own realization as part of his origin story. Even as Mark gains his powers, which are portrayed very deliberately by the show to be a cut above the rest of his superhero peers, Mark struggles to save the people he wants to help and he is constantly met with one defeat after another. For instance, in Mark’s first major battle against invading aliens from another dimension, he saves exactly one person, who in the process is gravely injured and has to be transported to the Global Defense Agency’s specialized hospital to be nursed back from the brink of death. The show is making an observation here: hurt and pain is an occupational hazard for superheroes, but at what cost? If the superheroes are scarred by what they have to go through and their efforts still aren’t effective, then do superheroes even fix things as we believed them to do?

A tie-in to this question of the utility of superheroes is whether or not superheroes truly act on behalf of “justice” – or rather, whose justice do superheroes really serve? Invincible further demythologizes the superhero genre by casting doubt on the spirit of equality espoused by so many superhero mythos. This is a question most obviously explored in the story arc involving Titan, a small-time superpowered thug who works as the minion of Machine Head, a supervillain crime lord who runs a sophisticated operation within Mark’s city. Sick of the inequality festering under Machine Head’s crimes, Titan approaches Mark to help him take down his boss. At first, Mark refuses, claiming that his powers are meant for bigger, more world-threatening problems. Given that his father deals with world-threatening enemies seemingly every week, the scale of Mark’s own powers, and the expectations that we as an audience have developed for the threats that superheroes should face, it’s easy to understand why Mark would think this way.

However, Titan rebukes Mark’s claim, and encourages Mark to consider the people of his city that need his help but are generally unseen and ignored by the larger superhero community. This conversation and the resulting story arc catalyzes viewers to reassess their understanding of superhero-driven justice. At least for me, this scene highlighted questions that I hadn’t considered because I’d simply accepted superheroes as they were from genre conventions. Most notably: How do superheroes pick who to save? It’s easy to say that they represent everyone in need, but even with powers as great as Mark’s, that’s simply impossible – so how do superheroes know that they are helping the right people? 

Invincible actually goes a step further by not only bringing up these questions, but also examining what it would be like for a superhero to come to this realization as well. Atom Eve, Mark’s good friend and fellow superhero, becomes increasingly disillusioned with the life that she’s been living as a superhero, and decides to dissociate from her old superhero team completely. She even goes so far as to run away from home to live alone so that she can choose the problems that she wants to help solve as a superhero rather than let others such as the Global Defense Agency dictate that for her. In a montage sequence, we see her scouring current news for global disasters, and we see that she has seemingly focused on preventing environmental disasters that have both ecological and societal consequences. It begs the question: even if her work isn’t about preventing crime, isn’t the value of her heroics equal to those of conventional superheroes – or perhaps, arguably even more valuable because of the long-term impacts that she has on the future? Eve’s disillusionment and her choosing her own path as a superhero makes us question not just whether conventional superheroes are truly fighting for justice, but also whether superheroes are using their powers in the right way at all.

Another key part of Invincible’s demythologization of the superhero myth is the reveal that Omni-Man is the twist antagonist of the first season. The obvious reason for why this acts as demythologization is that it paints a superhero, who we’ve always understood to be good, as an evildoer. However, an equally important part of his characterization that demythologizes superheroes is Omni-Man’s disdain for humanity. Through the consumption of many superhero stories, we’ve come to this assumption that superheroes would be benevolent, fair entities that have sympathy for humanity and who find humanity worth saving. In Omni-Man, we have the opposite. He finds humanity below him, and in his own twisted, kind of imperialist way, Omni-Man wants to “fix” humanity by conquering Earth and adding it to Viltrum’s collection of “purified” planets. In the context of our own history, this interpretation of a superhero seems to make more sense – those who hold more power and are willing to exercise it are more often inclined to conquer rather than to serve. Painting this painful picture of a superhero is shocking but also brings us down to reality through an obvious question that no one seems to dare ask: If a being really is that much more powerful than us humans, what motivation would they have to help us?

So far, it’s pretty clear that Invincible has a darker, more grim outlook on the hypotheticals of a world that relies on superpowered beings for protection. Despite all this, it also offers hope in the form of reaffirmation of the superhero myth. We see this most clearly in Mark’s own sacrifice in the last two episodes when Mark discovers that his father was the hidden villain all along. In his confrontation with his father, Omni-Man, we see that Mark has a choice: he can choose to defend Earth or join his Viltrumite father in conquering it. When Mark chooses Earth, he suffers the wrath of his own father and effectively breaks his own relationship with his father, something that he once held close to his heart from his days as a youth looking up to his superpowered, world-saving dad. Frustrated with Mark’s decision, Omni-Man asks him what he would still have on Earth even if he did save it, considering that his Viltrumite genes would prolong his life so that everyone he loves will die before him. 

Mark tells his father that he would still have him. And in unprecedented fashion, Omni-Man flies away into space, abandoning his post on Earth without an explanation. 

It’s Mark’s commitment to humanity and his appeal to his father’s own innate sense of humanity and lingering attachment to his life on Earth that saves the day. He couldn’t use just his powers, because although they are considerable, they aren’t enough. Power devoid of humanity can’t serve anyone, but power grounded in humanity is the essence of superheroism.

This message of bittersweet hope is the tantalizing legacy that Season 1 of Invincible has left for us, and it’s left me craving more and more. It shows us that sometimes our heroes aren’t who we think they are, and it shows us that superheroism has as many flaws as any other institution or occupation, yet, like many flawed aspects of our own lives, it also may be too defeatist to give up on it just because it’s not perfect. At its core, superheroism is built on the notion of benevolence, of one acting on the behalf of all, and that is an ideal of selflessness that will persist in stories for many more years. I’m looking forward to seeing how future seasons of Invincible continue to develop these ideas – 2022 can’t come soon enough.

Published by The Second Stylus

The Editor

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