Secret Invasion – Episode 1
Marvel’s Secret Invasion puts Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the spotlight as he works to deal with the threat of an invasion by shape-shifting aliens.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is in a tenuous place at present. Box office takings are down and much of the output receives mixed critical reception. Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania failed to break even and a lot of discourse is in the air about superhero fatigue. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Chris Miller (producer of the recently released Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse) talked about the phenomenon. He said that the fatigue comes from audiences feeling like they’ve seen the same movie repeatedly. That indeed tracks with common criticisms that the MCU has become formulaic and there’s no appetite to deliver any innovation in terms of style and storytelling.
Secret Invasion represents an attempt to return to a more grounded approach to comic book storytelling; even more so than the celebrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Its primary characters are spies, the plot revolves around espionage and secrecy and there are no costumed heroes in sight. Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes appears in this episode but he’s wearing a suit and talking to the President of the United States (Dermot Mulroney) so only appears in respect of his soldier background.
Despite being introduced way back at the beginning of the MCU in 2008’s Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury has never headlined a project. He has been prominent but none of them have ever been built around him. This seems strange when considering that his appearance in Iron Man began the promise of the shared universe that is taken for granted today but now he headlines his own prestige miniseries for Disney+ that would seem to be in the wheelhouse where the character does his best work.
One of the most interesting things about Fury in the opening episode is the repetition of how old and worn down he seems. He is frequently accused of losing a step and multiple characters comment that he hasn’t been the same since the blip. It could be interpreted that Nick Fury represents the MCU; a franchise that may be old, tired and out of touch. Dialogue stating that he hasn’t been the same since the blip echoes similar sentiments about the MCU peaking at Avengers: Endgame and being of lesser quality ever since. Nick Fury -possibly like the MCU- is seen as a relic of a world that no longer exists and too out of touch to adapt to what the world is now.
Another indicator that Fury represents the MCU is that he enters the show coming back to Earth from space which possibly represents the desire for the MCU to tell more grounded stories after spending so long indulging in the fantastical. The metaphor is far from subtle but it’s nonetheless interesting to view Nick Fury through the lens of representing the universe that began with his introduction.
In the context of the show, Fury comes to Earth because he gets wind of a group of Skrull refugees who feel the promise to find them a new world was a false one so take it upon themselves to render Earth uninhabitable for Humans so they can claim it as their own. Since Fury and Carol Danvers promised to find them a new form way back in the 90s as seen in Captain Marvel it’s easy to see why some would feel that it will never happen. He returns to Earth and teams up with Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and his trusted right-hand agent, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) to deal with this splinter group and save the world as they know it.
The first episode is very slow-paced and does a lot of table setting that will presumably become important as the series progresses. We are introduced -or reintroduced- to the main players, the Skrull plan is laid out and there is an escalation when a dirty bomb goes off in Moscow at the end of the episode. Lots of time is spent establishing that nothing can be taken at face value and that there is tension in the air that is likely building to something very bad.
In many ways, the opening scene is what the show wants to be in microcosm. It features Martin Freeman’s Everett Ross -or so we think- investigating what the Skrulls are doing on Earth. He meets with an informant who is a die-hard tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorist who just so happens to be right, a chase breaks out and it ends with the reveal that Everett Ross is actually a Skrull. The scene sums up the intent of the show because it starts with a situation that seems simple enough on the surface, talk of conspiracies, cover-ups and danger, an action sequence and a reveal designed to shatter the complacency of the audience. It sets the viewer up to question everything they see after that point and promotes the anxiety-based tone that the show wants to adopt.
Secret Invasion suffers from a lack of depth in its storytelling. There’s nothing actively wrong with it as the points are expressed clearly but there’s a general lack of polish to it. Dialogue is clumsy and obvious with characters openly discussing the themes they want the viewer to think about rather than have the buried under subtext. It’s bizarre that a show about spies navigating secrets and lies lacks any texture to its dialogue as it makes these supposed experts in their field seem inept as they are completely unable to bury their true intentions in their carefully chosen questions. Egregious examples include flat-out telling Fury that he hasn’t been the same since the blip punctuated by a flashback to establish that the event weighs heavily on him. Such a character beat could have been delivered with far more subtlety, especially when considering that one of Nick Fury’s defining traits is how much he keeps to himself.
Another example is his conversation with Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman); a former colleague and another major player known for operating in the shadows. The conversation is laughably unsubtle with Sonya failing to notice the obvious tricks that the other is employing. Sonya uses the fact that Fury was brought to her by her mediocre -her words- henchmen to illustrate her point that he is nowhere near as effective as he once was instead of deducing that he let himself get caught; something that he points out to her. She also fails to figure out that he only allowed that to happen so that he could bug her office. Of course, it is possible that she was aware of both of those things and only letting Fury think that he got the drop on her but the conversation is so surface-level that any suggestion of expertise on her part doesn’t come across.
The scene is a good one because it features two talented actors elevating very basic material. Samuel L. Jackson and Olivia Colman have excellent chemistry and their performances sell a lived-in relationship going back years. Even if subsequent shared screen time is equally surface-level, at least their presence in the scene will make it watchable. The same applies to scenes that he shares with Ben Mendelsohn and Cobie Smulders; the material isn’t the strongest but the talent of the performers enhances it by virtue of them saying the lines.
Nick Fury himself is an interesting character to base a show around. He’s someone that has been defined by being enigmatic by his own design. There was always a sense that he couldn’t fully be trusted and often evidence to back up that feeling so making him the protagonist of his own show when he has been established as someone with dubious motivations is by itself compelling. This is a real opportunity to deepen the character and define him along different lines. It’s always possible that knowing more about him will be to his detriment but the opposite is also possible. For now, there is the repeated insistence that he is past his best and mentions of him leaving Earth because of a crisis of faith. This neatly sets up a character arc that will possibly end with him reclaiming that faith and finding a sense of purpose in a world that has radically changed to the point where his relevance is in question. His ability is never in doubt and Samuel L. Jackson leads the show with ease so there’s an abundance of potential going into the rest of the season.
Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is a compelling addition. He’s in a state of grief after the death of his wife and worried about his daughter who is among those trying to claim Earth as the new Skrull home world. It’s clear he takes the current situation personally which makes sense considering his daughter’s involvement. His passionate refusal to let Fury assist him in a fight suggests that he sees this as his mess to clean it. There’s more than a hint of Talos being tortured and uncertain even if he does find time for some quips here and there.
His daughter G’iah (Emilia Clarke) is part of the group looking to take over Earth but she doesn’t seem to be fully committed to their ideology. She wants a home but seems conflicted about how far she’s willing to go in order to get it. She’s very much caught in the middle and her strained relationship with Talos provides fodder for compelling character-driven interactions following this. More will come of this, especially when Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir) becomes more prominent in subsequent episodes but framing G’iah as the possible heart of the show seems to work for now and is the best chance of providing nuance to a group that is either depicted as dangerous terrorists or suffering refugees with nothing in-between.
The optics of the messaging surrounding this group is deeply questionable. The show is suggesting that if you welcome refugees then they will eventually violently take over which isn’t very progressive or sensitive as far as messaging goes though that may change as the story progresses. The idea that humans and aliens may be alike in less flattering ways rather than the aspirational celebrated commonalities that come through in other sci-fi media is mildly interesting and may become something if it receives attention.
It’s a clunky yet reasonable start to the series with an ending that does manage to be shocking. Maria Hill’s apparent death is unexpected though it does come across as something of a stunt to get the audience talking between episodes. Cliffhangers are designed to do that but Maria Hill doesn’t do much else in the episode so it seems to transparently be placed for shock value. Her death isn’t confirmed but the explosions definitely escalate the conflict very unambiguously and increase the tension appropriately going into the next episode.
A solid start to the series with excellent performances and an intriguing premise that is often let down by a lack of nuance in its storytelling.
- framing Nick Fury as a representation of the current state of the MCU
- the suggestion that he has lost a step and is out of touch with the current world
- presenting an opportunity to deepen Nick Fury and define him along different lines
- Talos being a compelling addition with lots of potential
- G’iah possibly being the heart of the show torn between the two sides
- material elevated by talented performers
- surface-level storytelling that does the characters a disservice
- clumsy dialogue
- questionable messaging around refugees
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