Monday, May 10, 2021

Invincible, or how to blow up daddy issues to the stratosphere

Underneath the gore, Invincible is a classic Freudian tale about the tragedy of hero worship

The first shot of the first episode of new Amazon Studios series Invincible shows the sun, the American flag, and the barrel of a cannon. No need for subtlety, it seems: this is a story about power. In that scene, a White House guard discusses his personal issues with a coworker while obliviously waving in every car that approaches. One feels a bit alarmed at the lapse in security, considering the show is set in a world where supervillains exist and the White House is equipped with laser cannons, but if we continue to read a theme in this scene, it's probably about a the difficulty to find compatibility between duty and family life.

I want to spend some more time analyzing this scene, because it achieves many things with great narrative efficiency. With the White House in the background, the emblem of a literal superpower, the guard is talking about how proud he is of his stepson's maturation into a responsible young man, which apparently was hard to expect given his biological father's traits. What this scene is doing here is establishing a theme of fatherhood that explicitly contrasts love against genetic destiny. That, in a nutshell, is the emotional driving force of the show.

This sweet moment is interrupted by two twin supervillains whose shtick is that they constantly argue about who is the original twin and who is the clone. The fixation these two have with proving their firstborn status and engaging in performative violence, just after we saw two mature men talk about their feelings with sincere openness, presents another side to the show's theme: conflicting visions of masculinity. The guard, who couldn't be happier to be raising a son he's not related to, because fatherhood is not about genes, has the literal power to decide who gets into the White House. On the other hand, the supervillain twins are so comically insecure in their manhood that their first line of dialogue is to complain about having failed to penetrate the White House while carrying gigantic bazookas that are fired at groin level. The ensuing fight, which has the hero Superman Omni-Man making a repeated exhibition of how much more powerful he is than the Justice League Guardians of the Globe, cements the theme with a sequence of small acts of petty rivalry.

As if it weren't clear that we're exploring the repressed fear of emasculation (about which, a bit later, the character of Rex Splode will go beyond overkill), the scene that follows introduces Mark, our teenage protagonist and Omni-Man's son, covering his privates when his mother enters the bathroom. Her justification for the breach of privacy? She has already seen everything he's covering. The plot hasn't even gotten to his incredibly complicated daddy issues and we already have a sense of how easily a confident adult can challenge his unfinished self-image. In a later scene, the protagonist expresses disgust at the mere implication that his parents have a sex life; later still, more disgust at a classmate's atraction toward his father's superhero image. The symbolic intention becomes more noticeable on rewatch. While he's waiting for his genetic superpowers to manifest, Mark's first act of heroism is to stand up to a clichéd incarnation of toxic masculinity, and he finally gets his superpowers during the humbling task of taking out the trash. This is not just a story about a boy looking up to an idealized father; it's about the anxiety of grasping at the indiscernible shape of manhood while trying to fit into it. Remember the White House, that venerable embodiment of ultimate power? Turns out it has to be rebuilt twice a year. Here, male power is fragile, and its symbols more so. For a protagonist who has been raised with the expectation that he'll grow into a superhero, this is not a world of solid truths.

This feels familiar. Invincible is told in the overused narrative language that equates superpowers with puberty and the superhero life with a fully developed sexuality. For Mark, becoming a superhero and becoming a man are the same inner journey. But, just like happens to every young man, the last and indispensable step in the construction of your own masculinity is recognizing that your father is not perfect, and that you should never have expected him to be.

After we've all been forced to spend a year in our homes, the superhero genre seems to have entered an era of looking inward, of deeply personal drama. Mere weeks ago, we saw the Scarlet Witch try her hand at suburban housewifery, and shortly later Superman was putting down roots at his childhood home. Even the new Captain America would rather spend time with his sister and nephews than save the world, and let's not forget Wonder Woman's wish for domestic happiness last December. Superheroes are exhausted. They just want to sit at home, relax, and cuddle. Mark's tragedy is that he still doesn't know this. He yearns to join the glamorous élite of world saviors, unaware that the select group is sick of the job. The question for Mark is the question every young man has asked himself: why should he (and, by extension, any of us) want to be like his father?

So let's talk about Canada.

In a flashback scene, Omni-Man reveals his alien origins to little Mark. Unlike in the comic, the animated version of this dialogue has Mark ostensibly wearing a T-shirt that says CANADA in big letters. In a show where the main superhero is positioned as the defender of the American way, this brief shot is loaded with meaning. The Invincible comic was written by the American Robert Kirkman, but this animated adaptation has among its team of producers Simon Racioppa, Catherine Winder, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg, all Canadians. Post-production services are credited to a company in Vancouver, operating under a British Columbia tax credit. That combination of facts was inevitably going to leave its mark on the show. This is one of those nice cases that illustrate how adaptation can enrich the content of a text. Growing up in the same house with an alien who can lift buildings and fight dragons must be pretty similar to what it feels like for Canadians to live next door to the world's biggest superpower. The question for Mark is reflected on a larger scale: why should Canada (and, by extension, any country) want to be like America?

So let's talk about Britain.

The first shot of the second episode shows the British flag over Buckingham Palace, repeating the framing of the previous episode. The scene has the same guard we saw earlier, visiting London on vacation with his stepson and explaining to him the meaning of government buildings. Here the topic of power is made explicit: the Queen of England descends from a long line of tyrants. The dialogue stops short of claiming that oppression and cruelty are in her blood, but the viewer is given enough tools to analyze Mark's difficult relationship to his inheritance.

Indeed, the issue of impossible standards seems to have become yet another obsession of the genre. So far, every Marvel production after Endgame has dealt with how to honor the legacy of a beloved superhero (Peter Parker anguishing over filling Iron Man's shoes, Wanda Maximoff adjusting to a world without Vision, Sam Wilson learning to accept Captain America's last will). Over at the CW, the new Batwoman is still working under the shadow of the original's reputation, while Superman's son is suddenly burdened with the knowledge of what his father can do and what could therefore be asked of him.

Impossible standards are a hallmark of bad parenting. In Invincible, Mark believes he has a strong role model in Omni-Man, but he's actually being manipulated into losing his humanity. In another meaningful shot, once Mark's started training, we see the two supermen from a low angle through the window in the kitchen of their house. The shot frames them as separate from mundane affairs: we see the curve of a faucet and the curve of a flower, both pointing down, toward the earth. This motif of the faucet and the flower reapperars when the demon detective Damien Darkblood explains his backstory to Omni-Man's wife. With the downward-pointing shapes as a background, the symbolic implication is an opposition between the beings of up above and the beings of down here. Compared to supermen, we mortals might as well be living in hell. The supermen are unreachably beyond.

The perks that come with power extend to every level of life. Of note, superheroes get a level of medical care that the general population doesn't even suspect exists. Rex Splode is the most obvious example of this assumption of entitlement; his treatment of Black Samson, a hero who has lost his superpowers, reeks of macho posturing and a desperate need to prove himself. Interestingly, Damien Darkblood, who has nothing to prove to mortals and doesn't even use the word "I," is the most heroic character in the story. The third episode makes a curious contrast between this demon's icy presence, always announced by frozen air, and the literal lake of fire opened by the villain of the episode, who aimed to position himself as a new god.

So let's talk about America.

The third episode's villain makes a silly speech about how people should worship him instead of false idols, but it's interesting that his choice of false idols is Mount Rushmore, American civil religion's equivalent to a site of holy pilgrimage (and built on an already existing holy site). Invincible brings a closer focus to the "worship" part of hero worship and examines it on a more concrete level. America worships itself, or rather a sanitized idea of itself, and has very little tolerance for questions that lift the smiling mask it desperately needs to hide behind. America needs to remain on top, and needs to keep believing it deserves to be there.

In Invincible, the murder of the world's strongest heroes in the first episode leaves Omni-Man at the top, enjoying a sort of unipolar moment as the representative of the putatively benevolent Viltrumites, who, as he can't stop repeating, like to intervene in less developed cultures to steer their development. Even after we watch him butcher a whole team of heroes in the first episode, it's still unnerving when he struggles to keep the saintly pretense and lets his true selfishness show. Mark's realization that the culture he comes from is not made of wise gentlemen but of heartless supremacists is too obviously a metaphor for the hard awakening that not enough Americans get when they come of age. And in tiny but crucial moments, one can see the malevolent drop of Omni-Man that lives in Mark.

The anxiety underlying the desperate need to be the strongest is explored through Mark's friendship with fellow crimefighter Atom Eve, who is having a crisis of identity because she doesn't know who she is beyond her power. This theme is echoed in the morally gray character of Titan, who wants to leave organized crime, but has let himself be defined solely by his power. His choice, in the end, is to embrace who he has been as the only way he can keep on being. Eve's choice shows another way: she takes control of how she uses her power, and finds freedom.

Mark takes a long time to learn anything from these examples. His situation parallels that of 21st-century America, finding himself with more power than he knows what to do with, protected by a bubble of privilege, terrified of having to go through life without it, and haunted by an earlier example that is only capable of destruction. Mark's struggle to build himself as a man, but not become his father, is punctuated in the show by setting several key scenes on Mount Everest, the most phallic place on Earth. Every time the action returns there, we know a crucial emotional step is occurring.

It's important to point out these uses of symbolism. Invincible is visually gory and yucky at first sight, but it's told through the motifs of time and repetition. Side characters make copies of each other left and right, one superheroine's only power is to replicate herself, and Mark's main quest is to not let history repeat itself, to somehow defeat what seems inevitable. It's interesting that Mark's first big fight as a superhero is alongside a team of kids against aliens who age rapidly, because Mark's biggest enemy, more than his father's influence, is time. He will soon become a man, and life is only giving him one chance to define who he's going to be. His predicament contrasts with the case of Monster Girl, an actually adult superheroine who reverses one week of age each time she uses her powers, and is thus doomed to stay perpetually unfinished. That is not the path Mark must go. The only way is forward.

For a show with such a disturbing penchant for blood and guts, Invincible is capable of deeply meaningful moments. Maybe it was necesary for a team of Canadian creatives to step in and start asking so many uncomfortable questions about America's destiny. I'm not even an American, and I was moved. I can only imagine what it will feel like for you.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10.

Bonuses: +1 for great direction, particularly when it comes to shot composition and symbolic motifs.

Penalties: −2 for showing way more internal organs than was necessary.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.