Invincible’s Second Season Heightens What Made the Comic Special

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Invincible’s Second Season Heightens What Made the Comic Special

Invincible was a special comic, and the first season of its cartoon adaptation on Amazon has been a special superhero show, because it understands the most interesting dynamic at the heart of the story of fledgling superhero Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun): his fraught relationship with his father, Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons). There are a lot of stories of fathers and sons engaged in epic battle, but I’ve rarely seen one in this genre with a betrayal so personal and brutal, on the page or on the screen. Season 2’s second half continues the show’s all-around hot streak, with charming character moments, vivid animation that takes cues from the original graphic novel, and tons of over-the-top action and gore.

While the series is incredible for those reasons, the best subplot finally takes center stage in the second half of this bisected season: Mark’s relationship with Amber.

Invincible, the comic, presented a fairly simple premise back when it debuted in 2003: a modern take on superhero tropes. It meant more real-world repercussions for the characters, a grittier examination of what, for instance, the government might do if superheroes existed, or whether masks even work to conceal identities anymore. Coming right before the true glut of superhero movies hit cinemas, it was an action-heavy superhero comic with all the soapy melodrama but none of the incomprehensible continuity baggage of the ongoing narratives of the Big Two. On the level of a light satire/homage to the capes genre, Invincible was pretty good, and always exciting to read.

All that was window dressing for the story of Mark Grayson and how he navigates his conflict and reconciliation with his father Nolan and the life of a superhero in the 21st century. A big part of that, just as in Spider-Man or Superman, was how Mark managed to balance being Invincible with maintaining his romantic relationships. And nowhere did that fall flatter than with the comic version of Amber.

In the scene where Mark breaks up with her, he shows up outside the window of her college dorm to find her talking with The One She Told You Not To Worry About. Nothing untoward happens, but it’s clear that she’s beginning to cheat on Mark emotionally. We know he’s also been doing so, as he’s also attracted to someone else whose life is less incompatible with his own. Mark and Amber have a sad talk about it and then amicably break up. It’s tidy and clear-eyed and sort of anticlimactic. I had to dig through my hardcover volume to even find it.

The show, from the get-go, has gone in a different direction with Amber, probably correctly assuming the fans wouldn’t raise much of a stink about it. The first difference anybody who knows the comics will notice about the cartoon version of Amber is that she’s now Black. I’m sure some corners of the internet I never visit aren’t happy about it, but it’s also the least important change to the character (portrayed by Zazie Beetz). It’s also in service to a character who really didn’t have much to offer in the original work. Comic Amber is not a shrew or a scold—nobody would have given her the same unfair treatment as Breaking Bad’s Skyler White got just a few years later. She didn’t exist to rain on the protagonist’s parade. But she also wasn’t that interesting, and I remember feeling relief when the comic writers gently pushed her aside to explore Mark’s feelings for fellow superhero and clearly superior partner Atom Eve (Gillian Jacobs, who got a whole gruesome origin story episode in the run-up to Season 2).

The page of the comic where Comic Mark and Comic Amber break up is a lot of talking, and Invincible actually had a lot of quiet character moments just like that. Many times they were compelling, revealing, occasionally devastating. Amber and Mark’s breakup, though, felt like housekeeping.

In Season 2 of the show, it doesn’t.

The show makes you believe it’s going in a similar direction to the comic: Mark is trying his best to be present and attentive at the same time his superheroic life keeps dragging him to outer space to stop invasions or meet his father. He and Amber go on one last date—it has all the feeling of a last date, and even this is interrupted. When he does finally get a chance to catch up with her, he’s visited by another Viltrumite, one carrying a message for him: adopt his father’s mission of conquering Earth, or the Empire will come and crush him. But the important moment is that this Viltrumite threatens Amber, and the threat is much different here than it was in the original work. 

In the comic, Mark is having a quiet meal not with Amber, but his mother Debbie, when the Viltrumite Anissa (Shantel VanSanten in the show) shows up to deliver her warning. The threat is implicit in her being anywhere near Mark’s human mother. The show made a much scarier decision, with Anissa putting her hands on Amber. Here, the threat is alarmingly overt, after everything the show has done to show that Viltrumite strength can unmake human bodies without the slightest effort. Debbie, in both works, is so used to the various and sundry dangers of the cape life that it almost feels like a throwaway plot point in the comic. In the show, it’s terrifying, and Amber and Mark react like a couple of college kids realistically would.

Amber can’t be in Mark’s world because at any moment, it might swat her like a bug. They don’t break up because he’s absent and she’s been kinda sorta seeing another guy who’s more present. It’s a powerful scene with deeper and more dramatic emotion behind it, and it also doesn’t sell it like the characters (or the writers) are just kind of bored and tired of trying to make a difficult relationship work. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how the show is taking inspiration and direction from the comics while going in a fresh direction that really works and often does better by the characters than the original work.

I’m excited to see more whenever Season 3 makes its way to Amazon, but as before, I wonder how they’ll handle other plot points that, as a comic reader, I know are coming. In this case, the show has revealed that it does plan to follow through with Viltrumite Anissa’s presence in the series. For some fans, that’s an immediate, large, red flag.

Spoiler for a comic that printed at least six years ago: Anissa rapes Mark and carries a baby to term. After Anissa dies in an even bigger spoiler, Mark is stuck with the kid—which is the second time somebody gets stuck with a Viltrumite baby they didn’t ask for in the comic.

I both get how this being a plot point might have seemed progressive at the time—to acknowledge that men get raped, too—and I also don’t know what the hell to do with it whenever I remember it. It feels like it comes out of nowhere, even in a comic where shocking reveals and reversals are built into the story.

The show, though, has proven time and again that it’s determined to do better by its secondary characters this go-round (though, I note, Debbie is still stuck raising Nolan’s kid). I’m hopeful that Anissa’s presence here indicates that the writers have bigger and less inexplicable plans for her, just as they’ve shown they have for Mark’s love interests.

Kenneth Lowe is … TITLE SCREEN! You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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