Mark Grayson needs to know what Mongolia looks like from the sky. Having already saved the world from an alien invasion — and potentially facilitated one after his Mars trip — Invincible has been positioned as a superhero on a global and interplanetary scale. That requires a change in perspective, both in terms of his literal geographic view of the world and his role as a hero within it.
“That Actually Hurt” explores the challenges that come with this shifting point of view. On one side, Mark has his father pushing him to focus on the “big picture.” On the other side is Titan (Mahershala Ali), a superpowered family man forced to work for the crime boss who loaned him money when his daughter was sick. When Titan reaches out to Invincible for help breaking free from Machine Head (Jeffrey Donovan), Mark goes against his father’s wishes and decides to team up with Titan, a valiant choice that backfires spectacularly.
The opening sequence of this episode juxtaposes Invincible and Titan’s superpowered activities, highlighting the very different circumstances that shape their lives. Titan’s scenes lean into intensity and drama while Mark’s play up the humor, and jumping between tones makes for a very fun and exciting set-up to this relationship. The slapstick of the Mark moments is especially welcome, like the scene of him texting Amber while being hit over and over in the middle of the fight. The text message graphics look great on the screen—I love the touch of autocorrect spellings popping up—and the chaos emphasizes the stress Mark is dealing with as he tries to balance superhero and personal obligations.
Mahershala Ali is a two-time Academy Award-winning actor with established superhero cred after appearing as the villain Cottonmouth in Marvel’s Luke Cage, and Titan gives him the opportunity to show what he would do if he flipped and played the Luke Cage character. The action sequence showing Titan punching his way through a rival gang cements him as a formidable fighter, but we also get to see his more sensitive side through his interactions with his wife and daughter (both voiced by Nicole Byer). I appreciate how this episode looks at different superheroes interacting with their families, and showing Titan and, later, Eve in their respective home environments reinforces their motivations. Titan is dedicated to protecting his family while Eve wants to be respected as a competent superhero who doesn’t need a man to protect her. Family is such an integral theme of Invincible, and it’s nice to know that the Graysons aren’t the only family getting the attention.
Mark’s human ethnic background was never established in the comics, which are far more interested in exploring his Viltrumite side. But the casting of Sandra Oh and Steven Yeun gives the Grayson family South Korean roots, adding new layers to Debbie and Mark’s identities. As an Asian-American woman, Debbie has lived a very different life than her husband, who isn’t just a white man but one with superpowers that make it nearly impossible to hurt him. It’s no wonder that Nolan has a superiority complex, and he’s so concerned with the “big picture” that he doesn’t care about what happens to the common man. That picture is one that he defines, and as we’ve learned, his mission to protect the Earth is one rooted in colonialism. He’s protecting this world because he’s conquering it, so why should he care about any humans he doesn’t have a personal investment in?
That dismissive mind-set creates tension between Nolan and Debbie when Mark tells them about Titan’s plea. Nolan says that the ask is beneath Mark, and the lack of empathy rattles Debbie, who is already suspicious that her husband is a mass murderer. There are racist undertones to Nolan’s protestations, and even if he’s referring to humankind as a whole, hearing a white man say that the struggles of a Black man are beneath him is a big red flag. Debbie’s eyes are opening to the man Nolan really is, and it’s all the more painful because of the work she put in to help him develop some semblance of humanity. She taught her husband the baseline decency and empathy he needs to be a successful superhero, playing the woman of color who had to educate the privileged white man that not everyone shares his experiences and that he can use his power to improve the lives of others. And she’s furious about it. Sandra Oh gets to play rage this week, and you can hear the heartbreak behind her anger.
Debbie’s not the only woman pissed off, and after dealing with Mark’s chronic unreliability, Amber has had enough. Amber Bennett is one of Invincible’s biggest changes from the comics, reimagined as a Black woman with her own strong commitment to justice. In an interview with The Beat, Robert Kirkman and Zazie Beetz spoke to the show’s expanded diversity compared to the comics and how that creates a richer narrative. This week’s episode showcases the evolution of Amber’s character in her interactions with both Mark and Eve, and like Debbie’s real estate job, Amber’s volunteer work at the local community center enriches her personality by focusing on the things she cares about. Mark’s unable to make it to the community center because he’s getting beaten to a bloody pulp, but Eve shows up, providing some substantial interactions between the two classmates that give Eve insight into how she can help the world beyond putting on a costume and punching people.
The last two episodes downplayed the graphic violence, but “That Actually Hurt” reminds viewers that they signed up for carnage. The title card is splattered with more blood every week, an aggressive reminder that the seemingly sunny tone of Mark’s superhero adventures is not to be trusted. Titan’s big brawl at the top of the episode has plenty of bodies getting destroyed, but the real action extravaganza comes when Invincible and Titan take on Machine Head and are ambushed by a crew of supervillains that they are woefully unprepared for. This scene features the debut of one of the comics’ most beloved characters, Battle Beast (Michael Dorn), and his first appearance on screen captures all of the over-the-top bombast and terror that defines this lionesque brawler.
This action sequence is basically a mix of the two big fights from the first episode, delivering the superhero thrills of the original Guardians’ introduction along with the visceral brutality of Omni-Man’s killing spree. The new villains have bold designs and visually interesting powers; my favorite is the Tether Tyrant, who wears a contraption around his torso that spits out long pink tethers that look like tongues. Invincible and Titan try their best but are quickly overpowered, and rather than help, Omni-Man watches from the sky above, eventually sending an anonymous tip to Cecil to put the new Guardians of the Globe in action.
An earlier scene establishes that the Guardians of the Globe are far from a well-oiled machine, and their attempt to save Invincible and Titan is a failure. Live-action superheroes can definitely take a beating, but those fights typically lack the gory, crunchy relentlessness of Invincible at its most violent. The harshness sets very high stakes, and in this week’s episode, it leads to Mark finally tapping into his full Viltrumite fury. “You guys are fucking dead!” Mark shouts when he lets loose, and Steven Yeun channels pure anime berserker in his voice work. I wrote in the pilot recap that Mark gives Yeun the opportunity to play emotions that he wasn’t allowed to explore as Glenn in The Walking Dead, and this moment is a prime example, letting him exude fierceness and formidability.
That doesn’t save Mark, though. Battle Beast pummels him with his giant mace, at one point hitting him so hard that it creates a shower of blood that rains down on the feline alien’s face. The shot of Battle Beast licking the blood off his lips says everything we need to know about the character, but the taste of blood doesn’t satisfy him. He wants a real challenge, and this fight shows him that Earth doesn’t have it. Of course, there’s one person on Earth who could give Battle Beast a run for his money, and if that fight ever comes, it’s going to be epic.
There’s a lot of biological experimentation happening behind closed doors, and in a genre where death has a tendency to be temporary, these scenes change the show’s relationship with mortality. Robot approaches the Mauler twins for their cloning expertise this week, and the post-credits sequence shows GDA scientists conducting experiments on Mark’s blood to determine what can hurt a Viltrumite. The clean-up process after the original Guardians’ murders gave the impression that the genetic tissue there would be used for something, and there are a lot of possibilities given that this is a genre where anything can happen.
The body count is a question mark at the end of this week’s episode, but regardless of casualties, this is a dark day for the superheroes. Well, everyone except for Titan, who fills the empty seat left by Machine Head’s removal and moves his family into the demolished penthouse. Will he continue his former boss’ crime reign or create something better for his community? Hopefully the show will check back in, because that question introduces a lot of storytelling possibilities to keep the series with one foot on the ground while the titular hero is up in the clouds.