High school is a constant series of tests, and not just in the classroom. Extracurriculars provide another avenue for adolescents to undergo constant evaluation, and it begins with tryouts. Whether it’s for the school play or a sports team, the tryout can be a major source of anxiety, especially for newbies who haven’t gone through the process yet. Last episode was basically Invincible’s tryout for the Teen Team, and it left him with severe trauma. He has the opportunity to make the varsity jump in “Who You Calling Ugly?”, but as a superhero just starting his career, Invincible isn’t ready for the responsibility that comes with being a Guardian of the Globe.
Invincible’s third episode is a much tighter story than the second, with half of the run time devoted to Robot assembling a new Guardians of the Globe and the other showing how Mark’s superhero obligations interrupt his personal life. “Who You Calling Ugly?” opens with a public funeral for the seven heroes murdered by the man who delivers their eulogy, spouting a bunch of bullshit about having faith and looking to the sky. Damien Dark doesn’t buy it, and at the private burial for the late Guardians, he confronts Omni-Man and makes it clear that he is suspicious. Meanwhile, Robot is listening in, gathering data for his own mysterious plan as he takes a leadership role on the planet’s premier superhero team.
Debbie is shaken by recent events, especially because her husband has no problem going back to business as usual. Nolan is cold and dismissive of his family’s feelings, and there’s visible disappointment in Debbie’s face when she tries to get him to understand why they are so scared and sad right now. You get the impression that this isn’t the first time Debbie has had to deal with Nolan’s lack of sympathy for human emotion, and this scene brings some valuable friction to their relationship. Friction that could become something more incendiary after Damien Dark approaches Debbie in the episode’s mid-credits epilogue, asking questions about her husband that could compel her to reframe the way she looks at him.
So much of Invincible’s appeal comes from its parade of new superhero characters, and the Guardians of the Globe tryouts provide another opportunity for the show to introduce more heroes. The room is full of characters with cool designs who don’t do anything but stand there, but a few of them get the spotlight in one-on-one battles. The fight choreography has a lot of fun with Shrinking Ray’s (Grey Griffin) size-changing powers, and Monster Girl (also Grey Griffin) debuts in the most satisfying way possible: beating the crap out of Rex Splode. These two heroes plus Black Samson (Khary Payton) and the entire Teen Team make up the new Guardians lineup, and tensions are so high that a fight breaks out immediately and one member leaves.
This week’s cast additions have serious superhero cartoon cred: Griffin voices multiple characters on DC Super Hero Girls (amongst many, many animated shows), Payton has been the voice of the Teen Titans’ Cyborg in animation for nearly 20 years while also voicing Aqualad on Young Justice. Payton gets to push the aggressive qualities of his voice as Black Samson — he has one extremely funny line reading when he threatens Rex — and Griffin does particularly strong work bringing emotional honesty to Monster Girl’s dialogue about how she’s a 24-year-old woman whose body gets younger every time she transforms into a rampaging monster.
Robot sees a kindred spirit in Monster Girl, who knows what it feels like for the world to see something on the outside that doesn’t reflect the person you are on the inside. Zachary Quinto is very much in Spock mode for his Robot performance, monotone and without feeling, but also indicating an active interior life. He wants to connect with others, but his nature prevents that from happening. By the end of the episode, Robot joins Omni-Man as a hero with potentially villainous motivations, helping the Mauler twins escape from their high-security underground prison. That’s a big problem considering that he’s now in charge of the Guardians of the Globe, and a major theme of this series is that the heroes are only heroes because the world has no idea what they’re doing when they aren’t in the public eye.
Teenage libido is a driving force of this episode, starting with Rex torpedoing his relationship with Eve by having group fun in the shower with Dupli-Kate and her copies. Eve walks in on them before the Guardians tryouts, which creates a lot of problems when all three of them are recruited to the new team. Eve refuses, and despite Rex’s half-assed attempt to win her back, she realizes that she doesn’t need Rex or a team to be a successful hero. The CW-style music cue for Eve and Rex’s rooftop scene tries too hard to create a romantic atmosphere and distracts from the content of the scene. This is an opportunity to bring some dimension to a pretty flat relationship, and the music indicates a lack of trust in the script to do the work.
While Eve and Rex are breaking up, Mark and Amber are making a love connection against all odds. Mark invites Amber over for a study date, but it gets derailed before it really even begins. Cecil shows up in Mark’s bedroom after his phone calls are ignored, and while Amber is in the bathroom, he gives Mark an urgent assignment to save Mt. Rushmore from Doc Seismic with the help of Atom Eve. The fight that ensues is basically an element-bending sequence à la Avatar: The Last Airbender, with Doctor Seismic functioning as air/earthbender as he uses his “earthquake bracelets” to navigate terrain and attack. It’s a very dynamic action sequence that spotlights the benefits of animation versus live-action, and these characters operate at such high power levels that it would be difficult to do them justice with a live-action TV budget.
Mark is gone for an hour, and Amber miraculously waits around for him despite his flimsy excuse that he’s helping out a family friend. Unlike Eve and Rex, Mark and Amber have developed a captivating relationship, largely because the otherwise-invincible Mark is so vulnerable to Amber’s teasing. The voice work of Steven Yeun and Zazie Beetz does a lot to strengthen the bond between these characters, and after hearing how they sound together, I want these actors to play opposite each other in live action and really see how far their chemistry can go. Mark and Amber end up making out after studying, much to the chagrin of Eve, who sees them through the window when she goes to Mark’s place for solace after firmly cutting things off with Rex.
But Mark has a much bigger problem than a love triangle: his dad. When Mark gets back home from the fight with Doc Seismic, his dad is impressed that he prioritized what he needed to do instead of what he wanted to do and reminds him that he’ll only be gaining more responsibility. It’s not just that Mark is a superhero. Mark is Viltrumite, and his alien birthright is the thing that will determine the course of his life. Mark’s father has specific expectations for him, and given that Nolan is potentially planning on conquering Earth, those expectations are going to cause some major problems.