Animated Heads will roll: a double feature review of Invincible Season One and Castlevania Season Four (Spoilers of some kind)

Invincible' Season 2 Release Date, Plot Spoilers, Cast News, More
Image from Men’sHealth Two expressions one may have from watching Invincible.

In the span of two months, two animated shows based on pre-existing properties that are known for their considerable violence premiere their debut and final seasons respectively.

One is the darling of Robert Kirkman, the man who gave us The Walking Dead. The other is the fourth, final season of what is arguably the best adaptation of any kind for a video game series. Both involve strained relationships between sons and their terrifyingly powerful fathers. One is upfront about that dad being bad news, the other informs the audience near the start and everyone else catches up to one hell of an ugly truth.

Both are great examples of a growing trend in Western Animation: violent content. Sure, there have been plenty of adult cartoon shows that have played with violent imagery for decades for the purposes of black humor like South Park, Family Guy, Rick and Morty and arguably The Simpsons.

Invincible and Castlevania are not satirical comedies rather straight faced depictions of their genres, one for superheroes and the other a fantasy-action-horror-adventure with surprisingly potent social commentary.

Castlevania is drawn in the manner of an anime, despite being developed in America. It’s fitting considering the game series’ origin in Japan and that many of the original designs for characters like Dracula and his son Alucard are based off an anime design. On the matter of Eastern Animation, especially in Japan, it has been acceptable and profitable to boot to have adult subject matter longer there than it has over here.

While adult animation for the West was coming to attention in the 1970s, largely thanks to the efforts of one Ralph Bakshi( Fritz the Cat), it didn’t quite have the same mainstream recognition that quickly came to become a norm in anime by the 1980s. Having an American equivalent to Anime powerhouses like Grave of the Fireflies, Akira and Fist of the North Star was all but unthinkable.

Even now, when it comes to adult Animated movies, traditional or CG, there are only exceptions that often lampoon the overly family friendly market of the cartoon film industry like Sausage Party and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. For whatever reason, adult cartoons on the small screen has gained traction and Invincible and Castlevania are somewhat unique in telling an R-rated but not overly comedic story.

Invincible Season One

The first thing that caught my attention was how remarkable the voice acting was to how I had imagined it in my head when I first started reading the comic back in 2012.

With the small exception of Walton Goggin’s’ take on Cecil Steadman, the shadowy yet amiable deep state agent for superheroes in America, every last vocal performance had remarkable fidelity to my subjective interpretation of how these characters sounded in the graphic novel. True, I wasn’t necessarilly envisioning J.K. Simmons as Nolan Grayson/ Omni-Man, the father of Invincible but man if it doesn’t now feel like he was only ever the voice for the character.

Steven Yuen, who played everyone’s favorite ill-fated Korean American, Glenn, on TWD is now the voice of Mark Grayson, the once and future Invincible. While the Grayson family was originally a Caucasian family, it is now multi-ethnic with Nolan/Omni-man being a Caucasian-looking alien( like Clark Kent) and the mother and son being Asian-American, presumably Korean like the voices that portray them.

Other ethnic changes, supposedly to make the cast more diverse than before, include changing Amber, Mark’s high school girlfriend from a white blonde to an African-American. Rex Splode, one of the most dickass teen superheroes you can imagine also goes from being white to some unspecified brown.

The change in race is nothing really major as the characters are still faithful to their comic depiction, though it’s a matter of debate whether Amber is more or less of a bad girlfriend to Mark here than she was then. Only those that are really caught up on race for whatever reason( a lot of it I imagine for unsavory reasons) should really be bothered here.

Invincible is hardly the first superhero story on or off the comic page to deal with a coming of age, learning to grow into an adult story. Superman, the Teen Titans and especially Spider-Man are all known for this. The key difference with Invincible in how Mark Grayson is distinguished from those examples is that extra weight is placed on the consequence of superpowers existing, showcased in a way that is mostly impossible for something below an R rating. That isn’t the only distinction, but much more on that later.

What the powers in this superhero universe can do, especially in relation to super strength is terrifying, both when an accident and on purpose. When Mark, the son of the world’s most beloved hero Omni-Man finally grows into his powers in his teenage years, it’s not instant or easy mastery. Learning to fly can be dangerous, more so for everyone in the vicinity than Mark himself. Knowing when and how to use his super-strength can be a delicate matter.

Even when dealing with heroes young and old who have a good understanding of their powers or trained ability, emphasis is always placed on the deadly seriousness of collateral damage and what one simple mistake can cause. While civilians getting caught in the crossfire is always acknowledged on some level in superhero media, Invincible through it’s mature content rating shows you often what those powers can do to folks whose bodies can’t take the punishment.

It can be messy and grim viewing and I wouldn’t put it past some daring to call it exploitative, but Invincible always has a purpose to its violence. Even with the context in mind, it won’t restrain most from a healthy amount of screaming “Holy Shit!”, and is maybe most disturbing when Invincible and fellow superheroes feel the hurt themselves. The fifth episode’s comical title of “That actually hurt” undersells one horrifying as hell encounter that Mark and co. go through. I won’t lie, I felt a little queasy in that one brutal fight.

Though I normally have a strong stomach for such stuff( I’ve seen both seasons of the Boys with little difficulty), that this was a fight that I remember going much less gruesomely in the comics or with seemingly much smaller stakes made the onscreen depiction all the more unsettling for being an apparent change in the story.

I was told there would be some narrative changes from the comic and that is somewhat true based on my comic recollection. It feels more compressed though hardly choked in its narrative. Some moments happen much earlier or later than expected. The moment that made me realize Invincible was not going to be your normal superhero comic, that moment happens in the very first episode. A moment which occurs several issues in the comic surprised me by it’s early inclusion.

Much like how much of the suspense of Amazon Prime’s The Boys comes from what the anti-Superman Homelander might do next, the dread in Invincible relates to both what Omni-man will do following that moment and how will he do it, not to mention the moment that Mark discovers who his father really is. Seeing as how Omni Man revealed his true, bloody colors to comics readers back in 2003 and how people have made memes about his true villainous nature following his TV debut, I feel safe mentioning this “spoiler” of a plot detail. As if the header image wasn’t some tip off for you already.

Invincible does a remarkable job in both versions of being a genuine superhero story with optimistic messages and ideals that also gives off a sense of fun and discovery while still being a dark deconstruction of older superhero stories. Unlike the critical and pessimistic examination of superhero identity and ethics in Moore’s Watchmen, Kirkman goes more for a “what if” scenario that comes around to still pondering much of the same questions Peter Parker and Clark Kent tell themselves.

That “what if” is as such: What if Superman was raised on Earth by his father Jor-el and what if his dad and the Kryptonians were f***ing evil as hell? While Kryptonians are as strong as you and me on a planet with a red sun and only become godlike in power when not near a red sun, Omni-man’s Viltrumites have no such weakness. Hell, they may have no weaknesses at all.

When a race of sentient beings have terrible, world-ruining power, is it any surprise they would develop a sense of exceptionalism and become a galaxy conquering empire? If a Superman was to arrive on Earth without that nurtured humility that living in Kansas apparently brings, what would happen? Mark and the rest of humanity will find out and they will need a lot of therapy thereafter.

Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s polarizing 2013 take on the Superman mythos was given particular criticism for its final battle between Supes and Zod making it look less like a one on one duel and more like Godzilla had a really bad day and took it out on Metropolis.

Despite being perhaps the most archetypal superhero ever created, it didn’t feel right that not once did Superman consider taking this unavoidable fight with Zod to a place that could avoid innocent deaths. Dragonball makes a point to have Goku and his super-powered friends fight in unpopulated arenas. Even the villains are oddly ok with this. Here’s a visual example for you.

Dragon Ball Z - Goku VS Vegeta -Kamehameha vs Galick Gun - Video Dailymotion
Image from Dailymotion See, that’s not so hard ain’t it Zack?

When Mark learns who his father actually is in the penultimate episode, it starts off in an empty field somewhere in the great plains. In order to teach him an important lesson about being a real Viltrumite, Omni-man forces Mark to populated places and to show how strong he and his kind are and how absolutely weak we are by comparison.

The people getting stuck inbetween Mark and Omni-man isn’t a case of lack of foresight or care like in Snyder’s case, it is the intentionally unsubtle point. But, **** me, what a point it still is. Invincible here also relates to a near universal anxiety we have when it comes to reconciling who we are or who we think we are compared to who our parents are or what we think or want them to be.

Luke Skywalker learning the identity of his father was and remains shocking not just because his father is still alive, that Obi-wan apparently lied to him or even that his father is the second most evil person in the galaxy. It’s also because it makes Luke himself wonder how good he himself actually is if Darth Vader is who he is a descendent of.

When it comes to Mark and his father, it’s not just a new fear of what his Viltrumite nature is, it’s wondering how earnest the good fatherly nurturing was as well. How well are his own moral convictions coming from a guy that can and will deftly pop a guy’s head with a single hand with no moral conflict? The age old question of whether we are our parents is more distressing when your pa can single-handedly destroy the world.

Mark isn’t alone and much like how The Walking Dead was characterized by a strong body of characters that certainly changed hands often due to it being a zombie apocalypse story, Invincible does well in having major characters that are given great attention other than him. Eve, who takes on the guise of Atom Eve as a super heroine, is in the comics Mark’s main love interest and eventual wife.

It’s pretty obvious then and it’s obvious now that Mark and Eve rather than Mark and Amber are meant to be the power couple of the series. It’s not a problem even if predictable due to how well Mark and Eve hit it off well before any of them had a romantic connection. Yuen’s Mark and Gillian Jacobs’ Eve interact so well that they would still work as friends or comrades in arms. For all I know, Invincible might throw a curve-ball and not have them get together. Unlikely, but at least when it comes to adapting something I know well from the graphic novel, it’s coming together smoothly thus far.

It has become more important overtime when it comes to writing relationships to give the love interest, male or female, something important to do or have motivation aside from being the love interest. While Eve is not yet with Mark, It is good they are giving time to her already so you know there is more to her than just someone dear for Invincible to worry about.

If there was any group of characters in Invincible that I liked and am glad are being given great attention other than Mark, it would be Robot and Monster Girl. No subplot in Invincible that doesn’t directly relate to Mark felt as consequential, thought provoking or moving as theirs. Again, I have not finished Invincible’s comic run so maybe Kirkman doesn’t stick the landing in some aspects.

Robot is the seemingly synthetic leader of the Teen Team, a superhero group that Mark declines the offer to join up with in spite of Atom Eve being in it. Robot and Eve are accompanied by Rex Splode: the dickass character I mentioned earlier and DupliKate: who can make many copies of herself like the X-Men’s Multiple Man.

Following the tragedy regarding Omni Man and that moment at the start of the show, the Guardians of the Globe need new members. As in, the entire roster has to be replaced. Robot and the Teen Team all volunteer for tryouts and all succeed in joining. Other successful tryouts for the new Guardians include Monster Girl. What makes her stand out is that she transforms into a muscular orc-like being, imagine a Uruk-Hai as the Hulk. However, when she’s in her “normal” form, she appears as a 12 year old girl.

In truth, she is around my age of 27 years and due to receiving a witch’s curse that gave her that “Monster” power, she starts to age backwards like Benjamin Button. She will eventually “die” from this reverse age process, unless something saves her from that fate. Robot, being of a very scientific mind, takes an interest in her case among other not so subtle implications. Saying anything else would be too much. Just giving away Omni Man’s real nature is big enough as it is.

Invincible, for what it’s worth, and it is worth quite a lot from where I’m standing, is a fantastic introduction or re-introduction to Kirkman’s less gloomy yet no less visceral comic work. Half the time I wonder which is better. You are much less likely to feel depressed like with Walking Dead though both in comic and cartoon form, it is no less stress inducing.

If any third party superhero story deserved a chance to strike it big in the saturated genre, I’m glad Mark and his friends and enemies have now.

Castlevania: Season 4( and a review of the whole series)

The Second Season For 'Castlevania' On Netflix Is Genuinely Fantastic
Image by Forbes (Here they come to stake the day. Sorry.)

Castlevania for the laymen and women is a Japanese series of action-adventure games which almost always involve going through Gothic European environments and whipping, stabbing and slicing the ever loving shit of monsters big and small, often ending in a battle with the big vamp himself, Dracula.

It is renowned for its difficult challenge, rocking soundtracks and being emblematic of a then running trend in game design that was often a result of hardware limitation in the 80s/early 90s: 2D side scrolling. Once the series attempted a 3D environment during the Nintendo 64 era, it didn’t work. At all. It looked ugly, it played poorly even for the standards of its time and it was just not as fun as its predecessors of two prior generations. Based on what I’ve heard, seeing as how I have not played any of the games, the classic entries to check out are the 1986 original, Castlevania 3: Dracula’s Curse and the SNES’ Super Castlevania 4.

At the same time as the two ill-conceived N64 entries, the PlayStation had the 2D side scroller Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, widely regarded as not only one of the PlayStation’s best games, one of the best games in the series, but even one of the best games ever made. The guy in the middle of the header image for this segment is Alucard, Dracula’s heroically wayward son. Symphony of the Night is responsible for both Alucard and his Daddy’s look in the Netflix show, just to let you know how highly regarded that PS1 title remains.

I could delve ever deeper into the game series, but the great thing about Castlevania’s four seasons is that you don’t really have to to get it. To be sure, there are callbacks or references to the games. The story of the first two seasons, that of a vengeful Dracula wanting to punish all humanity for an anything but petty slight is based off of Castlevania 3. The three leads of the Netflix series: Trevor Belmont, Sypha the mage and the aforementioned Alucard all originated from that game, each as playable heroes.

There is of course, fighting through a host of terrifying monsters to defeat Dracula, a Belmont and his trademark whip weapon, some other weapons that I’m fairly certain are of the games like a big mcguffiny one in the fourth and even an awesome rendition of the franchise’s most beloved songs: Bloody Tears.

Ironically, that song originated in one of the more polarizing entries, that being the second overall game, Simon’s Quest, notorious for it’s puzzles so difficult that only sheer accidental luck or buying a copy of Nintendo Power magazine could allow you to figure them out. I will link the original 8 bit theme and then the rendition from the second season of the show. Enjoy.

Spirit of 1987/88

Spirit of 2018

This adaptation of Castlevania was spear-headed by Warren Ellis, who you should probably know from his graphic novel work for Marvel and stand alone series like Transmetropolitan and Red. I’ve not read much of his work so I couldn’t tell you high or low Castlevania ranks in his works.

Castlevania’s fourth and final season follows the third in having Trevor Belmont, Sypha and Alucard deal with the ramifications of a post-Dracula world following his demise in the second. Trevor and Sypha more or less become a couple traveling throughout what is modern day Romania hunting anything remotely monstrous and demonic all the while hoping their efforts make Dracula’s return less likely.

The lord of darkness’ son Alucard watches over the castle so no one can abuse the supernatural and scientific wonders within. An encounter with two guests from the Far East last season turned really ugly and he has become more isolated and reserved than ever, in the process risking becoming like his tormented misanthrope father. Ironically, answering a cry for help from a nearby town provides him a chance to open up in ways that adventuring with Trevor and Sypha couldn’t.

Trevor and Sypha are the “Are they, aren’t they” couple of the series, one being the last of a monster hunting family of former prestige and the other being part of a magical warrior monk group known as the Speakers who when not fighting monsters try their best at being their era’s Red Cross.

The duo’s journey takes them back to Targoviste( a real Romanian city to this day), the beginning of Dracula’s rampage following the Church burning his mortal wife at the stake. A conspiracy involving vampires, many that were once part of Dracula’s war council, soon threatens to bring Dracula back to life for real this time following the failed attempt last season and it is interesting how the two unrelated story paths between Trevor/Sypha and Alucard come together at the end, all culminating in an iconic enemy of the games taking surprising center stage.

Some of Dracula’s former lieutenants are unaware of their part in this conspiracy and are attempting their own designs, both for better and poorer. Carmilla has the relatively banal desire to succeed where other male vampire lords failed in conquering the known world while Isaac, whose job it was to forge demons for Dracula’s armies, seeks to improve the world rather than conquer it with his own demon horde.

Stuck in the middle between Carmilla and Isaac is Hector, another demon forgemaster once under Dracula, now imprisoned in Carmilla’s fortress and ever observed by one of her vampire lieutenants, Lenore. Hector and Lenore relationship is quite complicated and while Hector is bitter at her treachery in keeping him truly enslaved, Lenore views him back with the mindset of a pet owner and yet also one who has genuine romantic feelings.

There is also Saint Germain, a traveling professor who goes from being a lovable scoundrel with uncertain veracity to his background and ethics to being a man driven to save the one person who ever took him seriously in a world that saw him very unserious to say the least. That drive makes him a much darker figure than before, though with that same tinge of pitiable sadness.

The assembling and placing of characters can remind one of Game of Thrones with various subplots intermingling with the main one, mostly culminating in something focused and satisfying. To be blunt, some of the character arcs don’t quite feel finished or better yet, felt finished in the background more than the forefront.

I can say that the resolution of Castlevania as a whole is quite good, even great in some parts. When it come to the resolution of the three leads as well as a really surprising reveal in the epilogue, it feels that Castlevania saw to its end well. Yet, some story arcs mostly revolving Hector and Isaac feel more rushed or left with little concrete conclusion.

What is most interesting about Netflix’s Castlevania being an unlikely success story is that it’s trying to capture more than the heart pounding supernatural action that could only be inferred from the original games. It’s also a surprisingly sound set of critiques of Human society from around 600 years ago.

It’s a fantastical prelude to the Renaissance period, due to its setting in the 1470s. Europe is about to exit the medieval age and enter a time that would come to define or at least create the groundwork for the modern world. Dracula, in spite of being the vampire to end all vampires, is a man of science first. It takes an inquisitive young woman to brave coming to his doorstep and tell him that for all the evil that he might or might not embody, his work could benefit all the world.

The events of Castlevania, from Trevor and co. defeating Dracula to the trials and tribulations that follow act as a fictional fantasy counterpart to the evolution the world was itself going through. An old world of superstition and brittle traditions giving way to something new yet colored still by that old world.

Castlevania, seeing as how it was showrun by an out and out humanist in Warren Ellis is critical not just of the Catholic Church and how it held back human progress but in the idea we are tied to our supposedly essential identities. Can Dracula be more than an apex boogeyman? Can his son, who is both vampire and human, chart a course in life that is unique from his heritage?

The most explicit example of this questioning of one’s nature is with Isaac the Forgemaster. He goes from wanting to avenge Dracula’s defeat to realizing how little that would accomplish. Rather than have everyone experience the pain he has suffered (echoing his deceased master), why not use his seemingly evil abilities to do good? He can raise up demons and make them his servants but should they be used for terrorizing the innocent? Can’t they do better, be better than their purposes or can they at least put their vicious talents towards taking down other monsters like Carmilla?

I wasn’t expecting this much philosophical insight that connected from a game that in its early years really only could be as simple as “Dracula bad. Go kill him.” But here we are.

Perhaps Ellis accepted the job of making a Castlevania show not just because he might be a fan of the games but that there was something in the series’ DNA that could be extrapolated into a beast more complex and nuanced than the sum of its parts.

If the politics, historical references and ideology exploration doesn’t seem like a fit for you alone, the show never fails to make its fights and battles as viscerally cool as possible. Just the motion of those fighting, like with Trevor’s effortless utilization of his whip to Sypha’s finger based spells to Alucard motioning his levitating sword and shield out and about, Castlevania is just enticing to look at when the time comes to whip it good.

The monster designs rarely fail to inspire terror, even if you know they are due to be dispatched with awesome ferocity. At times, I wondered if Ellis was not secretly making his own American version of the late Kentaro Miura’s Berserk. More so than possibly even Invincible, in Castlevania the blood will flow.

It is an intoxicating mixture of anime-inspired action, philosophical dialogue anchored by it varied cast of characters and exploring subject matter that you wouldn’t expect from something titled Castlevania. If anything, a lack of reliance in focusing strictly on the game series’ tenets might have saved it from the fate of too many game adaptations. Adaptations that either fail to recognize the series’ identity or strive for it too messily and narrowly. Castlevania is a faithful to its source material while being identifiable as something separate and different enough still to attract those not in the know.

It’s not unlike the man of two worlds Alucard himself. Neither just his mother nor his father but something else.

Originally posted 2021-06-13 21:31:39.

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