What the Big Omni-Man Twist in Amazon's 'Invincible' Means For the Rest of the Series
To understand more about that jaw-dropping twist, we referenced Robert Kirkman's comic.
The setup of Amazon's new series Invincible seems innocuous enough: Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) was a normal high school senior with a normal part-time job and otherwise normal life, except his father, Nolan (J.K. Simmons), is Omni-Man, the most powerful superhero on the planet, saving people alongside the most famous troupe of heroes, the Guardians of the Globe. At the age of 17, Mark begins to display his latent superpowers, which come from his father being a member of the Viltrumite race, who, according to Nolan, protect the galaxy on a mission of benevolence and enlightenment. Since he discovered his heritage, Mark dreamed of helping people like his father does—and he tries to do just that as his alter-ego, Invincible. With Nolan as his mentor, Mark begins working as a superhero, navigating great powers, great responsibilities, and teen angst like Peter Parker once did. And then, just as he begins to get the hang of things, his father brutally murders the entire Guardians of the Globe. The act begs for explanation: Was a nefarious third party somehow controlling Omni-Man, or did he wipe out his cohorts of his own free will?
In both the show and the comic it's based upon by Robert Kirkman (best known for The Walking Dead), it’s the moment where Invincible first displays its potential for permanent change in its superhero stories, and as the episodes have progressed, the show drops hints that Omni-Man's motives were likely the former, even against the backdrop of Robot clearly getting up to no good. It also reveals the real nature of the book, of the graphically violent action for which it gained some notoriety, despite its droll sense of humor and colorful artwork, which the show does well to honor. Co-created by Kirkman and Cory Walker (who also provided art from issues #1 to #7, until Ryan Ottley took over) in 2003, Invincible was the premier title in Image Comics’ then-new superhero line. After a run of 144 issues (not including spinoffs and crossovers and such), the comic ended in 2018, but has since found new life in its recent animated adaptation for Amazon Prime.
Even rewinding to 2003, the idea of an evil Superman-like figure was hardly a novel concept— Frank Miller imagined him as a US government lackey in The Dark Knight Returns; in Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan also appears as a Superman-like figure who becomes increasingly detached from his humanity. Before and since Invincible’s publication, there have been many stories like it—outside of the comics themselves, there’s the DC Comics video game Injustice: Gods Among Us and its sequel. There’s been the (pretty bad) movie Brightburn, there’s been the paranoia in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and his recut of Justice League. Where Invincible differs from these stories is, for hesitance of spoiling anything important for people watching, in its centering of the family dynamic that Omni-Man’s actions eventually fractures, and how the characters permanently change over time as a result.
The comic and the show differ in pacing out of necessity—the concept on its face is a little less novel in 2021 than it was in 2003, and superhero fiction is well past the point of oversaturation already. So with its limited episode order, Invincible had to tip its hand sooner rather than later. In the comic, Kirkman lasted nearly a full year after the series' debut before revealing Omni-Man’s murderous acts in Invincible #11 and #12, as Mark witnesses firsthand Omni-Man’s attempted murder of The Immortal, who had already been killed once. Up until this point, Invincible is simply a fun spin on golden-age super heroics, the godlike powers of DC characters mixed with the mundane human angst of characters like Spider-Man in its protagonist Mark. Once his father is revealed to be a genocidal maniac, everything changes for Invincible—both in the eponymous character’s life and view in the public eye, and the series’ approach to superhero violence, which from that point conducts itself with more than a little bloodshed.
How the story interacts with Mark and Omni-Man’s heritage differs slightly between the comic book and the series: It moves into the twist a lot faster, but introduces Mark’s powers slower–the comic’s very first page appears 15 minutes into the first episode—and changes the framing of the alien invasion, as we’re also privy to Omni-Man’s genocidal rampage on the other end of the alien portal, claiming Earth as his own before becoming the worst thing that ever happened to this alien civilization, events only discovered much later in the comics.
But perhaps the most interesting restructuring for the show occurs early. The first episode is bookended by two scenes featuring the Guardians of the Globe, which display the two sides of Omni-Man, as well as immediately making clear Invincible’s dueling impulses: a genuine love of traditional, idealistic superheroics, and one towards a bloody disassembling of them, questioning the placement of this power, and later, whether that force even does anything good. This new angle brings a little more urgency and immediacy to the conflicting personas of Mark’s father, neither being a facade, but both incompatible.
For example, what at first reads as doubt in his son when he discovers Mark is finally developing his powers is clear with hindsight that Omni-Man is visibly afraid of that change because of the burden of violence that this represents—and because he doesn’t see any alternative to it. Even without the twist that Omni-Man is actually a murderer, Mark’s determination to be just like his father carries a weight that he doesn’t fully understand yet. This turning point seems primed to be an example of comic books for children reaching to earn an 'adult' label, but in the end, it ends up being better for it, emphasizing just how miserable it is for Mark to have to solve problems with his fists. It used that brutality in combination with the length of its five-year run to explore how much all of the fighting wore its main character down over time, as particularly violent actions stuck with Mark, and permanently changed him and how he thinks and reacts to each new event in his life.
It’s never as simple as throwing some punches, and Kirkman explores the kind of collaboration and forgiveness necessary to make it work. Omni-Man (and many other villains in Invincible) can’t see a way of creating permanent change beyond destructie, usually genocidal action. Cecil (voiced by Walton Goggins) often indulges and forgives such violence for the greater good, and as the comic carried on, Mark began to wonder about the calibration of his moral compass and what his actions as Invincible even achieved. To Mark, to be brutally violent, even if out of necessity, is to emulate the monstrous actions of his father.
Omni-Man’s actions are not just a hidden truth about the nature of Mark’s alien heritage but really about the nature of superheroics in Invincible as a whole: bloody, unpleasant, and relentless. It has a brutal edge that, despite appearances, isn’t just for show or as an edgy declaration of how uniquely transgressive it is. It’s purposefully unpleasant and wearying. It does all this to varying degrees of success, of course—not everything in Invincible the comic has aged gracefully, though the show so far appears to be acting as a corrective to this (considering the adjustments to its cast of characters to make it a little more diverse).
It’s easy to wonder what place Invincible has as a television adaptation, especially as an Amazon original, which puts it directly alongside The Boys, which has its own interpretation of a genocidal maniac Superman in Homelander. Where Invincible will stand will become more apparent in the long run, and obviously it’s a little bit difficult to discuss without majorly spoiling things, but put simply, Invincible is more about unlearning the violence inherent to superhero stories, or at least, trying to. Omni-Man starts in a very similar place to a character like Homelander, but as the show is already setting up with the brewing conflict of his double life, things are already set to become much more complicated. To be a little reductive, it’s like if the depressed superheroes of Watchmen were learning about themselves along the way—grim parodies of golden age and silver age superheroes, but crucially, not lost causes. Part of the magic of Invincible the comic, other than seeing Ryan Ottley’s fantastic penciling continue to improve over time and be paired with a run of wonderful colorists, is seeing how Mark’s perception of super heroics changes through time and through the emotional attrition of the violence committed against him and his loved ones, and the violence he is forced to commit. Kirkman’s exploration of their changes can get a bit didactic, but the extremes of Invincible and the flexibility with which it approaches are undeniably compelling to read—and watch.