'Invincible' Showrunner Breaks Down the Shocking Season Finale and That Brutal Train Scene [Interview]
The Invincible finale didn’t pull its punches. Spoilers ahead, obviously, but showrunner Simon Racioppa and the team behind Amazon’s superhero animated show — which includes creator Robert Kirkman — showcased the true, devastating destruction that comes with turning a city into a bloody battleground between super-powered characters. The body count was high, but so were the personal stakes.
The season finale, titled “Where I Really Come From,” ended with serious physical and emotional blows for teen superhero Mark (voiced by Steven Yeun). For fans of the comic, it was a faithful adaptation, but for those unfamiliar with the source material, it packed gruesome surprises that are generally absent from large-scale comic book adaptations.
Before the final episode was even available on Amazon, Invincible was renewed for a second and third season. Showrunner Simon Racioppa told us about his hope for future seasons, but mostly, he walked us through the season finale of Invincible, from Mark’s childhood baseball game, to even the sound of Omni-Man’s (voiced by J.K. Simmons) thunderous punches.
The train sequence is quite shocking. How close to the comics was that?
We actually follow the comic books as closely as we can, or pretty close. If there are panels or events or moments that happened in the books that we’re like, “That should be in the show,” we put it in the show. So there is a section in the books that happens when Mark confronted his father, who ends up taking Mark and they smash down into sort of the subway. You don’t see what happens down there, but you see that some trains are crashing. It’s a much smaller moment, it only happens across two panels.
The final episode is written by Robert Kirkman himself. He wanted to expand upon that moment and just make it bigger, more brutal, more devastating, but emotionally to Mark and also to our audience. He came up with the idea of holding Mark up to that train and forcing him to face Nolan’s reality, which was that these people are meaningless.
The writing of the scene is pure Kirkman, I can’t take any credit for that. That was Robert who came up with that, put it on the page. Jeff Allen is our Supervising Director, so he oversees the direction of all the episodes. What we do is we sit down and we do what’s called a tone meeting or a pitch meeting. We read through the script with our director of that episode, Jeff, and our storyboard artists. We do a visual pitch, where we’re like, “Okay, so he’d be holding it here and the train would be coming like this. It would just kind of explode around it.”
We do that really to try and communicate even more so than what’s on the page to the team. Jeff is like, “Oh, yeah, I have this, I know how we’re going to do this.” And then they went to work and just did a phenomenal job on something that’s very difficult to do in animation, the way they can make that look good and make them look reasonable, especially given the number of characters in it and given our art budget and our constraints on schedule and also COVID, and somehow managed to pull an amazing-looking scene out of that kind.
What other moments from the finale that, just given the time and other challenges, were exceptional challenges to pull off visually?
A lot of it. All the big fight scenes up in the sky, the buildings falling over. There are a lot of things that seem like they should be easy to do in animation that ended up being really difficult. Anything involving crowds is always a big issue in animation, certainly hand-drawn animation. We used some 3D software to help simulate crowds that are a little further away from cameras just to make it even possible. If we didn’t use that, our crowds would be like eight people. We don’t have the time and the budget to do any more than that. It’s hard to the huge crowds of hand-drawn characters.
Also, the big destructive scenes, like Mark coming down to the city, when he gets punched by Nolan through the building and then the building coming down; those were all huge challenges to the team. Challenges they met, I think, enormously well. Once you add on the sound team, they carry a lot of weight for how good those things feel. Because good sound will make the picture look better, believe it or not, in a way that’s almost magical.
Let’s just say you had a scene that had really weak animation in it, which I think we didn’t have too much of that in our last scene, but you always have stuff that maybe doesn’t come out exactly the way you want. If you put the right sound behind that it will enhance it in the viewer’s eye, in the mind, in a way that’s often better than it would’ve been if you had better animation.
Sound plays a massive role in painting a picture beyond the frames well. If you’re hearing voices or people running and not even seeing them, your mind kind of creates those people outside the borders of your television and it just sort of fills everything in and can have an enormous effect on the finished product.
Let’s talk about the sound of Omni-Man beating Mark when he’s down and bloody. The sound of the fists is cringe-inducing. What conversations did you have with your sound team about that moment in particular?
We do a lot of punching in our show, a lot of it, even across the whole season, especially in that last episode. So we did have a specific talk with our sound team about the different phases of that fight. We broke that final fight into three different phases, which is Nolan going through three different things.
So the first one, he’s not really trying to hurt Mark. In the second phase, he’s like, “Okay, I need to beat the sense out of you now. Now I’m going to hit you hard enough to make you smart and then fuck off.” And then the third phase is, “I’m going to kill you. I’m hitting you now to kill you.” The third phase is very short, but it’s still an important part.
You need somewhere to go, I guess that is what I’m saying. If the sound teams didn’t know that, they might’ve used much stronger sounds early on in the fight and we wouldn’t have had anywhere to go from there. Giving them that arc and let them decide, “Okay, so we know about how much strength and how to make these initial punches and impact sound versus at the end. We can go places with those sounds across this 20 minutes.” Also, make them sound different enough too because you don’t want to hear the same punch sounds 30 times. Kudos to those guys for coming up with a hundred different ways to hit somebody.
Very good song choice when showing the aftermath of the destruction, but this whole season had a very good soundtrack. How’d your music supervisor decide on the right tone to strike with the finale’s song choices?
Our music supervisor is Justine von Winterfeldt from Format Entertainment, and she’s phenomenal. Everyone listens to music, right? But she listens to it in a different way. She just listens to much more of it. She hears things that are underneath new music that’s coming up and draws connections between songs and pictures that most people can’t. I can’t, just not in the way she does it.
Sometimes you get a really esoteric concept. We’re like, “Okay, so this song starts meaning something, it starts optimistic and feeling really good, but then it gets really bad, but then it speeds up and has some action at the end,” and she’d be, “Okay.” She would come back with five of those. She would always come back with multiple options. Sometimes you would listen to as many as 10 or more, we would narrow those down to about four or five and then we’d try them against the picture.
Our editors will block them in, and then we’d literally watch them multiple times before we sort of made decisions on what was working. I mean, sometimes it was really obvious. Sometimes there’s a song she would bring up there like that, we don’t even have to try the other ones, that’s the one we want here. Usually, we would draw a bunch of them into the picture and just watch them and watch it over and over again, and then sometimes have arguments and debates and discussions about which way to go with things. It was a lot of work, but it was enjoyable work. And again, just good sound, it just made things better.
Debbie’s speech at the baseball field, how close is that to what’s in the comics?
So that scene doesn’t really happen in the comic books. That’s the original scene Robert wrote just for that moment in the show. It draws from a lot of other similar moments in the comic book, but it’s an original scene that he wrote just for the show. My favorite part about it is the transition, where Mark is sitting and the ships become the sound of the baseball cracking off the bat. Similar to The English Patient, where the sound just sort of transitions between scenes.
Robert wrote that script, so I’m not taking credit for it, and it’s actually the team was able to execute on it really well. Robert wrote that section and the scene there, though, which sort of explores why and how, what is going through Nolan’s head at that moment and why he doesn’t finish the job and why he leaves and doesn’t kill Mark and start over as he threatens to do earlier.
Nolan was a good liar throughout the season, so how sincere is he during that scene?
Well, that’s a good question, but that’s a question that I can’t answer. In my head, I know what I think he is thinking and what I think he’s doing, but I think every audience member should interpret that their own way. Hopefully, in season two or three, we’ll be able to add to that interpretation in people’s heads, so they can decide how genuine or conflicted they think Nolan is. To me, that delights me, that people have different interpretations of this character. It seems like we did our jobs well if you’re like, “Oh my God, is he telling the truth, is he lying?” That’s something we want.
Was that a benefit of having episodes over 40 minutes long?
It’s great. I was talking to Robert and the team about the show, it was three years ago basically, was where they’re like, “No, we were thinking about doing an hour-long,” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do an hour-long and make it like the other dramatic power on television.” So that was the decision that came on really early with the development of the show and it influenced the first two, the pilot script and the second script and the bible, which I wrote to sort of put the show together.
It lets you have moments that can hang and breathe that you can’t do in 22 minutes, even though there are some really great dramatic 22-minute shows coming out now like Made for Love, which I’m watching right now is 22 minutes. I think it’s amazing, it’s really good. But having an hour, it lets you slow things down a little bit and have those quieter moments, draw them out a bit, even though I think the show still runs pretty quick. I love having extra time.
First off, congratulations on the renewal for two more seasons.
How does that renewal, as well as the response to the show, influence where Invincible goes next?
It’s a huge vote of confidence from both our audience and from Amazon, which is wonderful. It lets us go forward with, I don’t know, clear hearts and bright eyes and just be like, “Yes, let’s do this.” You know we’re going to get to do it at least for two more seasons, which is amazing. So it gives everybody a burst of confidence on the show, which is wonderful because before this, honestly, before it airs you don’t know how the show is going to do. You really don’t know. Especially if you’ve been living with it for so long, you’re like, “This could be a giant flop,” but you’re not aware of that until the show hits and sometimes great shows fail, and sometimes terrible shows to really well. You never really know. Again, it’s a wonderful burst of confidence.
I think going forward it just gives us the confidence to keep on doing what we think is important, which is telling hard character stories, not flinching away from the consequences of violence in our world and the consequences of superpowers. What could we do better? Well, everything, I’m sure we can do better, everything. You always look at a show and see the flaws.
I’d love to just get deeper with some of our other characters other than Mark, Nolan, and Debbie. Just spend more time with them, get further into their backstories. Ideally, every character feels as real as every other single one and it’d be great to reach that ideal, even if it’s unattainable. So to push towards that, that’s pretty cool.
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