Secret Invasion sucks, full stop. I guess that’s blunt. But in the spirit of the show’s first two episodes, I’ll eschew the tradition of working up to my thesis. No reason to waste time building suspense when I can just state outright the facts at hand. Might as well throw everything out there to make sure audiences that forget the events of movies from nearly a half-decade ago don’t feel lost at the expense of gaining new viewers through interesting storytelling.
Now that you know how I feel, I can, in Secret Invasion fashion, start to endlessly explain how I feel. But I’ll try to avoid being as droning and repetitive as writer-producer Kyle Bradstreet’s endlessly pedantic alien invasion “thriller.”
I’ve always been on board with Marvel Studios’ output. I’ve generally given them the benefit of the doubt, even as their more recent work has sunk in quality and relevance on both theatrical and streaming fronts. Most of these films have their defenders – fine – but it’s inarguable that Eternals, Thor: Love & Thunder, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania failed to light the culture on fire. Maybe because half of those were downright bad. The Disney+ series Moon Knight, She-Hulk: Attorney At Law and Ms. Marvel were all at least decent, but it feels like nobody watched them, and Marvel isn’t all hot to trot about bringing a lot of what they introduced into its greater Universe. Meanwhile, the genuinely awful The Falcon & the Winter Soldier is getting a cinematic sequel next year, more than three years after it was released and well outside what feels like the series’ minimal moment in the zeitgeist. Even for this old fanboy, it feels like Marvel Studios has lost its juice.
However, nothing has made me despair quite like Secret Invasion, a show that is bad from the jump and only gets worse. Fifteen years after his debut as Nick Fury in Iron Man, Samuel L. Jackson is finally allowed to headline a project as that character, and the first two hours do not promise a story befitting his stature.
Invasion is a direct sequel to Marvel’s 2019 output – Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame and the execrable Spider-Man: Far From Home. It opens with Fury’s return to Earth after a few years of dealing with the mental trauma of having been “‘blipped” by Thanos’ snap in Avengers: Infinity War and having distracted himself on Sabre, a space defense project for the U.S. government (where we saw him in the post-credits of Far From Home) while letting the Skrulls, a race of shape-shifting aliens he befriended back in the 1990s in Captain Marvel, waste away on Earth waiting for him to help find them a new home. Naturally, some of the Skrulls are now very angry and want to take Earth as their own.
If 2019 feels like a long time ago, don’t worry. The first episode is basically Fury and his friends explaining this to each other as blandly as possible.
The premise has two issues. On a micro level, this positions Nick Fury as the underdog despite it being a situation caused entirely by his lack of follow-through with the Skrulls. That’s theoretically interesting on a character level, but the first two episodes only superficially engage with his guilt.
On a macro level, by continually introducing characters responding to the “blip,” it feels like the Marvel Cinematic Universe is now simply stuck in one position, never moving forward with its grander story. We used to have a sense of movement between films with just four to six hours of storytelling each year. Now we’re four years out from Endgame and there’s no clarity as to what this fictional universe looks like. Frankly, it’s much harder to become invested when everything is standing still.
Especially when the political dynamics of Marvel’s new Earth are incoherent and inconsistent between stories. That wasn’t a problem when they were just making it up as they went along with a few movies each year; so what if Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the first time we see Alexander Pierce as head of S.H.I.E.L.D.? But we’ve now witnessed multiple international organizations develop in the wake of the “blip,” with little weight to any of them. The second episode of Secret Invasion reveals how the Skrulls have infiltrated the highest echelons of international power, and the scene is treated with essentially zero actual gravity. In a fictional universe where the structures of societal power have ceased to look like the world outside the audience’s window, it becomes pretty hard to write a “grounded” political thriller.
Not that those are the primary issues with Secret Invasion, which would be terrible even if it took place in a meticulously designed reflection of reality. It’s difficult to put into words how poor the writing is on this show, where the entire first episode is literally exposition between characters and scenes of Jackson traveling between poorly-lit sets to meet people with all the urgency of a bumbling doofus. He reconnects with old allies, like Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders), and new ones like Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman), an MI6 pal with her own approach to spycraft. But they mostly just regurgitate information without a hint of suspense. The first episode also introduces Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the villainous Skrull leader who at least has the balls to do what seems like the natural strategy for his species: changing into someone’s friend and then shooting them when they least suspect it.
It’s a tactic you’d think gets more play in a show like Invasion, but it sure doesn’t because on a Disney+ streaming budget, there’s not a whole lot of funds for presumably expensive shape-shifting CGI. Which is why we quickly learn the Skrulls are taking on permanent human appearances for reasons of assimilation. It’s not an inelegant solution to the financial restraints, and it even has some thematic heft, but by the time Gravik explains it outright, it lacks any elegance whatsoever.
I haven’t referenced G’iah (Emilia Clarke) yet because she deserves special mention. Clarke is certainly the biggest “geek culture” new face in the show, and it’s disappointing to report that her character’s primary relationship with our heroes is that of yet another disappointed daughter struggling with her father’s failures. In this case, she’s estranged kin to Talos. It seemed like Marvel had become aware of its daddy-issue crutch and yet once again, back to the well.
The promise of Secret Invasion seems to be a riff on Invasion of the Body Snatchers – a story where Fury can’t trust his friends or the heroes he helped empower despite knowing the world is falling apart behind the scenes. That’s just not what we get here. The story unevenly seesaws between a far-too-ineffective Fury and Gravik, who can’t stop discussing his plan. Imagine if half of Body Snatchers was told from the perspective of the alien spores and all they did was endlessly squeal, “We’re snatching bodies! We’re snatching bodies!”
Yeah, we get it.
My only positive word about the series is that the end of the second episode introduces a very compelling twist on Fury’s personal life that would’ve made an excellent hook earlier on before two episodes wasted Jackson’s talent and presence.
In the comics, Secret Invasion was a line-wide event promising earth-shattering reveals about characters who were secretly Skrulls all along. Winnowing down the story to an espionage thriller centered on Fury isn’t an inherently poor choice for adaptation purposes. But oddly enough, the show’s first two hours lack any sense that the writers are interested in mining the tension of who he can trust. Sure, there are four more hours of the series in which to develop those types of reversals (and one feels pretty obvious given the events of the first episode), but the problem with the first third of this show is that I dread even watching the next two acts. It’s an absolute bummer, and maybe the first time in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe that I would tell anyone reading this review: Don’t bother.