The following contains spoilers for the first four episodes of Invincible, S1E5, and the Invincible comic book.
Just when I thought the violence had felt toned down since the first two episodes! Wow! The title of the episode, “That Actually Hurt,” is maybe the most apt since S1E1’s “It’s About Time.” The brutality of the fight scenes in this episode almost makes the audience physically share the characters’ pain. Surprisingly, I also thought that it was the funniest episode to date. There were all sorts of wonderful gags, from Omni-man dropping a villain during an interrogation and waiting until well past the point when you’re unsure he’s going to actually catch him, to Mark getting pelted by bricks and mailboxes while he casually texts Amber. Once again, Invincible is able to display its masterful handling of humor juxtaposed with violence.
The opening scene is more obviously connected to the rest of the episode than in most of the other cases up until this point. In other episodes, we’re often treated to some sort of framing sequence, usually that ties into the themes of the episode rather than the plot. The opening scene of Invincible S1E5 reintroduces us to Titan (Mahershala Ali), a supervillain who can form protective stone armor around his entire body. Titan also happened to be the first supervillain Mark fought as Invincible before he had come up with his superhero name. I always got the feeling that much more was planned for Titan in the comics than what we got, because when the scene that ends this episode happens in the comics, he only shows up a handful of additional times. The casting of the Oscar-winning Ali, along with his increased presence in these early episodes, seems to imply that we’re going to get a lot more of him in the show. S1E5 very much feels like a Titan episode.
Titan is an enforcer for an organized crime kingpin named Machine Head. In the opening scene, he storms a drug operation that has been encroaching on Machine Head’s turf, brutally killing almost everyone inside. The deaths are incredibly creative and over-the-top: in one instance, a bullet bounces off his stone back into the shooter’s head; in another, he apparently kills someone by throwing a dead body into their chest. I’m not particularly sure how this killed them, maybe a crushed sternum? Don’t worry about the details, it’s awesome, trust me. Despite Titan’s brutality, he spares a younger gang member despite getting shot by him. In a later scene, we see Titan give money to some residents of an apartment building he torched so Machine Head could collect insurance money. It’s obvious at this point that Titan isn’t all bad, but his motivations aren’t revealed until later in the episode.
Meanwhile, Mark’s superhero life is taking off, but he clearly hasn’t figured out his work-life balance. He is shown saving the world and easily dispatching villains, and we see how far he has come midway through the episode when he is shown comfortably flying next to an airplane, which is in direct contrast with his early misadventures with flying around planes in S1E1.
On the flip side, the principal at his school, Principal Winslow (Reginald VelJohnson) talks to him about his attendance issues, and Mark quits his job at Burger Mart after getting chewed out by his boss. While Mark quitting his job is a minor development since we hadn’t seen him at Burger Mart since the first episode, what’s more troubling is that Amber is getting increasingly frustrated with Mark’s unreliability, and rightfully so. His superhero duties make him constantly late or absent from their dates, and it really isn’t fair to her. Mark tries to make up for his absenteeism with gifts, including Japanese cheesecake. One of the last straws is when he is two hours late to dinner where he would have met her mom for the first time. There were several times when I thought he would reveal his secret identity to her in this episode, but he chickens out multiple times much like he did in the last episode. They set one of the times up very nicely, with Mark starting to say “I’m Invincible” the way he has in each of the episodes before to set up the title card. When he only says “I’m going to do better” after a lengthy pause, the audience’s expectations have been thoroughly subverted.
After stealing and delivering a microchip for him, we discover that Titan isn’t working for Machine Head voluntarily; instead, he is working to repay a debt. Although he pays it in full, Machine Head forces him to keep working for him by threatening his family. Unfortunately for him, Machine Head doesn’t seem to take into account how smart Titan is, and probably plants an idea in his head when he asks Titan “You think you can just punch your way out of this?”
As an aside, it seems weird to me that they establish that Titan has a family when Machine Head threatens him, but then when we’re introduced to his family they initially play it as if he is committing more villainy. Titan sneaks into the house and looks menacing at first, before popping up beside his daughter to surprise her with ice cream. It is kind of a weird choice regardless, but I’m not sure if it works when you remember that it is already established that he has a family, so the little girl he’s sneaking up behind is likely his daughter.
Anyway, Titan tells his wife that he wasn’t able to get out from Machine Head’s gang. Frustrated, he drinks a beer on his fire escape. His daughter joins him and points out Invincible flying by to take a villain named The Elephant to prison. When she asks Titan if he’s a good guy, it strikes a nerve, as Titan isn’t sure how to explain the bad things he has done to his daughter (also, this is where the actual title card happens, roughly 16 minutes into the episode).
Following the title card, we get to see Debbie for the first time in the episode. While rummaging around her closet, she finds Damien Darkblood’s notebook, which we find out is what he left behind in the stinger of S1E4. She takes a cue from one of Damien’s notes about Nolan’s costume, which she had observed him acting suspiciously about in S1E2. This sets her off searching for the costume, which she hopes will give her clues, and hopefully closure. `
Titan decides to approach Invincible about teaming up to take down Machine Head in a scene that includes another incredibly funny line: when Titan paints Invincible’s name on a rooftop but leaves out a few letters, he explains that it’s because “Paint costs money and you’ve got a long-ass name.” When Mark dismisses Titan’s request, he responds by asking Mark to let him “Sure man, just fly away, forget about everyone else down here. Let me show you what you don’t see from up there.” I think that this is a subtle but wonderful inversion of an iconic recurring line from the comic: when Mark asks Eve if someone will notice them flying away from school, Eve responds with “You’d be surprised how rarely people ever look up.” The “normal” people don’t dream enough to look up and see what is amazing, while superheroes dream too much to look down and see what’s normal.
Titan’s words and story clearly affect Mark, and he’s torn about whether or not he should help take down Machine Head. His hesitant because while he believes Machine Head should be taken down, he would still be helping a criminal to do so. Nolan is very much against it, telling Mark that it would be a big mistake and that Titan is using him. Beyond that, Nolan also says that taking down Machine Head is beneath Mark as a Viltrumite. The situation sets up some nice dramatic irony, with Mark saying “I’m not an idiot, dad, I know when someone’s lying,” which of course is directed at his father who is lying about what happened to the Guardians. While this irony unfolds, an increasingly weary and despondent Debbie watches the conversation as if her mind is a million miles away. She gives Nolan a side-eye while telling Mark that “You know that sometimes people aren’t who they appear to be.” Despite her hesitancy, she tempers some of Nolan’s elitism after he says that helping Titan is beneath Mark, retorting “But I also know that helping someone is never beneath you.”
As in S1E3, the new Guardians of the Globe team is not great. The team returns to headquarters to drink and celebrate what can best be described as a sloppy victory over the villainous Lizard League that left dozens hospitalized. Black Samson chastises the team’s hubris, which once again almost leads him to come to blows with Rex Splode. Interestingly, as the team disperses, Monster Girl comments about how her reverse aging is still taking its toll on her and that she lost a week just from this one battle. When Black Samson rhetorically asks “Can you believe these punks?” Robot cryptically replies “Some of them” while eyeing Monster Girl. This makes me wonder if Kirkman and the show’s writers are looking to subvert Monster Girl’s backstory. Maybe in the show she’s actually as young as she looks and is only pretending that she ages backwards to be allowed to be a superhero and get out of combat drills. Also, while time has passed, she gives a different “real age” than she did in S1E3 when she said she was 24 years old, compared to 25 in S1E5.
In the second half of the episode, Eve’s presence really picks up from what it has been recently. She has largely been sidelined, including in this episode where to this point we’ve only seen her get into a fight with her terrible parents. However, she starts to come to the forefront a bit more through her interactions with Amber. Amber and Eve’s budding friendship would have been one of the most memorable developments in the episode if it wasn’t one of the strongest episodes so far in the series—if not the strongest to this point. Their relationship in the comics is virtually non-existent, so this is yet another welcome change. Even though Eve secretly has feelings for Mark, she also goes out of her way to help Mark and Amber’s relationship, reassuring Amber that Mark really cares about her and likes her. Also, Amber’s service to other people on a more personal level begins to plant seeds in Eve’s mind for a path to follow.
Eve has begun taking serious stock of her life and her future following her breakup with Rex. She has even begun questioning whether or not she even wants to be a superhero. She decides to volunteer at a community center with Amber and presumably Mark (although he once again no-shows for reasons that will be apparent soon). Coincidentally, it is the same community center where Titan’s daughter spends time, which is part of what convinces Mark to help Titan. Titan echoes Amber’s words when he calls the community center his daughter’s “second home.” While this isn’t explicitly stated, I think that Mark sees it as a way to make a difference in the life of a girl who could grow up to be an intelligent, dedicated, and strong young woman like Amber. Even though neither of them have super powers, Amber and Debbie are having a big impact on Mark and Eve, shaping their ideas of what kind of heroes they could and should be.
Before the climax of the episode begins, there are two brief interludes. The first is with the Mauler Twins. The newest Mauler clone is awoken, but the pair are interrupted in their lair by Robot, who asks them for their help with DNA replication. He presents to them the vial of blood he stole from Rex in S1E4. The second focuses on Debbie, who sends Nolan on a series of errands across the globe to try to get him out of the house for a while so she can search for the costume he wore during the Guardians of the Globe murders. She has the errands timed to the second. She finds the costume at the last moment and hides it just as Nolan comes back home. This episode was another really strong episode for Debbie, proving that she continues to be one of the best characters on the show.
Finally, we get the climax of the episode, and it is a doozy. Mark and Titan raid Machine Head’s office, but the chip that Titan had stolen earlier in the episode gave Machine Head the ability to see quantum probabilities, allowing him to know when the pair were coming and set a trap. His henchman Isotope teleports in several bad guys, including the heavy hitter Battle Beast. Interestingly, we see a single blurry shot of Nolan secretly monitoring the situation. It’s the second time that we’ve seen Nolan secretly watching something when it doesn’t entirely make sense why he’s there: he also watched the new Guardians’ first team meeting after the new team is selected through tryouts in S1E3.
The battle scenes are intercut with Amber and Eve at the community center. Amber has essentially given Mark a 15-minute countdown to arrive before she breaks up with him. While the countdown isn’t nearly as life-or-death as the fight, it still is able to effectively raise the stakes of the final moments of the episode. I like this version of Amber, and everything I’ve read and the podcasts I’ve listened to agrees that she is much better than the version in the comics; she has been embraced by the fan community in a way that the comic version rarely was. While we’re worried about Mark’s safety, we also don’t want Amber to break up with him. The climax of the episode once again showcases Invincible’s ability to balance Mark’s superhero persona and secret identity: even though the stakes are much different, we still care about both storylines.
Back at Machine Head’s tower, the fight is going very poorly until Mark seems to unleash. We have seen this side of Mark once before: back in S1E2 when Eve was in danger, but even that wasn’t to this extent. He is able to take out all of the villains except Battle Beast, who is simply in another league. Suddenly, the Guardians show up. They tell Mark that Cecil got an anonymous call, which the audience can presume came from Nolan. They help out briefly, but soon they’re also overwhelmed, and Monster Girl and Black Samson are critically wounded to the point where it isn’t clear if they survived by the time the episode ends. Most shockingly, Mark is also critically wounded after Battle Beast hits him in the chest with a mace, causing blood to explode from Mark’s body. While the remaining members of the Guardians are able to take out the lesser villains by finally acting as a team, they catch a major break when Battle Beast leaves on his own after deeming the battle “beneath him,” echoing Nolan’s words from earlier in the episode.
The battle leaves Mark close to death. He passes in and out of consciousness while medics that they’re losing him (although, admittedly, those cries could also apply to Black Samson). As he is fading, he briefly notices his father hovering ominously above. They take away the injured heroes and Cecil removes the quantum chip from the arrested Machine Head, all but confirming that it was tech from his own Global Defense Agency (GDA). Back at the community center, Eve gets a call about Mark. Visibly shaken, she doesn’t tell Amber what’s going on, but she still goes out of her way to tell Amber that Mark loves her and would have come to the center if he could.
The show ends with a scene that I think might have worked as the mid-credits scene, but I still don’t have any real qualms about its placement. Isotope, who had briefly disappeared during a critical juncture of the fight, reappears and talks to the new crime boss, Titan. In contrast to the episode’s opening scene here he wore a hoodie and bullet-riddled sweatpants, Titan very much looks the part of a crime boss dressed to the nines in an expensive suit. Since he has been thoroughly defeated by Titan, I guess you could say that Machine Head wasn’t better than the rest (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
I found the actual mid-credit scene a bit underwhelming and a little confusing, especially given the amazing episode that immediately preceded it. Donald arrives at a GDA lab where Mark’s blood is being analyzed. A scientist examining the blood tells him that Viltrumite cells “just won’t die.” This seems to undercut the cliffhanger about whether Mark will survive or not, which was already undercut by the meta-knowledge that he is the protagonist in a television show.
While the fight with Machine Head happens only slightly later in the comics, it happens after a major event that changes the trajectory of the book. I’m not entirely sure what I think about the placement of Mark’s near-death here when I expect this event will probably begin at the end of S1E6 or in S1E7 since Mark almost dies in that plotline too. I suppose that if it does start soon, it’s important to show just how not-invincible Mark really is, which raises the stakes once again. Considering how good the show’s decisions have been to this point, it seems weird that they could have a potential redundancy in the plot by placing these events so closely together. That said, the assumption that this event will start in the next episode or two is entirely based on educated guesses about the show’s structure.
These quibbles are minor though, because this might be the best episode to date. The viciousness of the fights, juxtaposed with the fresh sense of humor and genuinely compelling relationships, continue to showcase why Invincible is already one of the best TV shows going.