Creator: Kyle Bradstreet
Director: Ali Selim
Writers: Kyle Bradstreet, Brian Tucker, Brant Englestein, Roxanne Paredes
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Cobie Smulders, Olivia Colman, Emilia Clarke, Kinsley Ben-Adir
“All these other attacks, they would be nothing compared to this. This is the one that sets the world on fire.” These lines, spoken early on in Secret Invasion, the new show set in the Marvel cinematic universe (MCU), elicit only weariness. How else is the franchise assembly line meant to convince the audience that with each new instalment, this is the most urgent, the most devastating, the most crucial one yet? Such statements render every adventure that came before this to be one weightless in hindsight and that’s a dangerous game. It means that one day, this show too will be dwarfed by the next one promising an even bigger threat. What actually brings gravity and depth to Secret Invasion, however, is the crushing weight of a promise left unfulfilled. Regrets and bitterness seep into the show, making it much better as a character drama than a spy thriller (or any of the other descriptors it’s been marketed as). For all its fistfights, this is a show about two lost men struggling to find their footing.
It's been 30 years since the events of Captain Marvel, in which Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) offered to find a new home for the Skrulls, a shapeshifting race of alien refugees. It’s been 30 years and they still haven’t succeeded. Displaced and abandoned, a faction of the Skrulls on Earth have begun to nurse resentments. Led by Gravik (Kinsley Ben-Adir, who deserves better), they’ve been living under assumed human identities in what was meant to be a temporary measure. Now, they want to take over the planet completely.
Secret Invasion lacks the sustained atmosphere of paranoia its opening stretch builds. For a show in which anyone could be a Skrull, it’s almost immediately obvious who is. Viewers will realise who the Skrulls have assumed the identities of at the same moment characters suspicious of them do, despite the show attempting to cast doubt on the doubters by painting them as unreliable. What makes for much more compelling viewing instead is the focus on characters wracked by self-doubt, unsure of themselves even as they’re meant to be unsure of whom they can trust.
Fury has aged, his reflexes not as sharp as they used to be. Characters repeatedly cast doubt on his ability to win this fight. Meanwhile, former Skrull general Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), has been made weary by a string of defeats. Information that is dispensed as rote exposition is made moving only by Mendelsohn’s performance, a man laying out all his losses as he attempts to reconcile them. One of these men, back after a self-imposed exile, is watching the world pass him by, while the other is left watching a world that has no place for him. It’s a poignant image, one the show leans into by establishing an immediate intimacy between these men, an understanding of each other’s circumstances. Between Fury, Talos and Talos’s daughter G’iah (Emilia Clarke), the show builds a throughline of characters who’ve either forgotten parts of themselves, had to change themselves to blend in, or adapted so much they’re now in danger of losing sight of who they were originally.
It's still hard to fully root for any one character in Secret Invasion, at least so far. Even the ‘good guys’ reckon with how mercy is confused with weakness and how violence is conflated with strength. MI6 agent Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman, whose cheeriness jars with the show’s self-serious tone) tortures information out of an enemy agent with such gleeful sadism, she cedes any moral upper ground. Secret Invasion also falls into the same trap that The Falcon And The Winter Soldier (2021) established by creating antagonists whose needs are so easy to empathise with – displaced refugees seeking shelter – that it has them commit violent atrocities so as to bluntly hammer home that these are, in fact, the bad guys. There are obvious speeches about man’s inability to co-exist. Jokes about bombing other countries land distastefully in a series about the cost of war and the refugee crisis. And there’s an awkwardly shoehorned segment about what it means for a Black person to hold power.
There are some nice visual flourishes – a shot of a building in which the automatic lights on each floor switch on in rapid succession during a chase sequence – but not much else that’s inventive. In a franchise that’s constantly in flux, constantly in the rush to the next big thing, however, it’s nice to just watch two weary old men pause to take stock – where they’ve been, what they owe, what they’ve lost. Their nagging worries, their creeping thoughts of self-doubt are strands that, so far, hold more promise than a full-scale planetary invasion.