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Monday, July 15, 2024

Secret Invasion: Episodes 1 and 2 Review

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The following is a spoiler-free review of Episodes 1 and 2 of Secret Invasion. The series premiere debuts on Disney+ on June 21.

The last couple of years have seen the Marvel Cinematic Universe work with some of its largest concepts so far, what with all the multiverse projects and increasing focus on cosmic storylines. Secret Invasion comes as something of a complete shift in gears, with a story set firmly in the backstreet shadows of regular old Earth. A thriller written to evoke the paranoia of 1980s Cold War flicks, this is the MCU attempting to be all grown up for the first time since phase four’s The Falcon and The Winter Soldier. The approach makes the season’s first two episodes a refreshing and fascinating watch after two years of gods, sorcerers, multiversal travelers, and intergalactic goofballs taking center stage, but there’s already the sense that Secret Invasion may not be quite up to the challenge of delivering the levels of fear and excitement the genre demands.

If you stuck with The Falcon and The Winter Soldier then you’ll immediately recognise a lot of Secret Invasion’s building blocks. This is an espionage show in which our hero, Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, feels three steps behind his shadowy foes. Those enemies are a rebel faction of shapeshifting Skrulls who hide among both regular folk and the upper echelons of power. Much like Falcon’s Flag Smashers, they are depicted as sympathetic terrorists with something of a worthy cause. Decades after the events of Captain Marvel, the Skrulls have yet to be given the new home they were promised and so many of them have reached an understandable breaking point.

Led by Kingsley Ben-Adir’s steely Gravik, the rebel Skrulls’ methods also echo those of the Flag Smashers; rather than entirely rely on sci-fi trickery, the surprisingly dour tone of their story sees them plan out a false flag operation in the hope of dragging the US into a war with Russia, which will act as cover for their global takeover. Fury and his team are completely on the back foot through all of this, and it’s clear that a sense of hopelessness and desperation is going to factor into both Fury and the Skrulls’ storylines. That’s fascinatingly dark territory for Marvel to work in, and while the fundamentals are pretty textbook Cold War thriller it’s so far avoided feeling derivative.

Of course, bombs are not the Skrulls’ primary MO. The show is called Secret Invasion, after all, and so the species’ ability to shapeshift and blend in with humanity is the cornerstone of their plan for domination. This is being used to good effect, at least in the small scale, with some fun reveals that show just how deep the Skrulls’ quiet invasion has burrowed. But I’m already concerned that this central premise lacks the terror that it really needs.

The central premise is that any human could be a Skrull, but there’s a lack of authentic tension.


Secret Invasion threatens to be a paranoid thriller without the paranoia. The central premise is that any human could be a Skrull, but – at least in these first two episodes – there’s a lack of authentic tension. So many of the core cast are already confirmed as Skrulls, and so there are very few characters in the position to be revealed as an imposter. Unless the human cast expands significantly in number and importance over the next couple of episodes, any imposter twist risks feeling insignificant. The threat of the Skrulls should be terrifying and sow paranoia among the human cast, much like in John Carpenter’s The Thing. Sadly there’s very little of that going on right now, although one major reveal does suggest that Secret Invasion may be more interested in sustaining dramatic irony rather than staging shocking twists.

I’m also concerned as to how well the Secret Invasion concept can work without the superheroes that the original comic book story relied on. In Brian Michael Bendis’ eight-issue run from 2008, the fear was rooted in the idea that any of Earth’s most vital defenders could actually be an alien menace. It was horrifying (and exciting) to learn that powerful heroes like Black Bolt, Captain Marvel, and Hank Pym were actually Skrulls. But this adaptation has just one single Avenger – Don Cheadle’s Rhodey – and, at least so far, he’s more political advisor than superhero. And so I’m skeptical that Secret Invasion can carry the same weight as its comic inspiration.

How Secret Invasion Transformed the Marvel Universe Forever

But even if Secret Invasion never hits the levels of fear it ideally should, these first two episodes still demonstrate enough strengths to encourage investment. Chief among them is Samuel L. Jackson, who unsurprisingly proves himself as the show’s MVP. In many ways, he’s still the Nick Fury we know and love. He’s one of the very few providers of comedy in this darker story, piercing the otherwise harsh atmosphere with his cantankerous one-liners. But these days that personality seems something of a facade; an old mask being worn to disguise new fears. He talks of a crisis of faith following Thanos’ attack on the universe, and it’s clear that he’s lost the cool confidence that made him such an effective manager for the Avengers project. He’s the complex lead a show like this needs.

Not every major character is as well-rounded as Fury. Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Gravik has agreeable motivations, but minimal screen time in the first episode and a lack of complexity in the second has left him feeling rather thin. Hopefully material in further episodes will build him out as a multi-layered character, especially when it comes to his relationship with Emilia Clarke’s G'iah. She’s caught between the rebel and refugee factions, and the battle for her allegiance feels like Secret Invasion’s strongest concept right now. This is further complicated by the fact that she’s the daughter of Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos, and while these first two episodes only just about establish their fraught relationship, I hope that the tensions between Gravik, G’iah, and Talos build into Secret Invasion’s emotional core.

While Fury and the trio of Skrull leads provide murky layers to this thriller, Olivia Colman’s delightfully unhinged MI6 agent, Sonya Falsworth, brings the primary laughs. She’s not your classic MCU comedy character; instead of witty quips or goofy punchlines, her darkly threatening words are delivered with all the energy of an excited mother. It’s borderline psychopathic and adds memorable flavor to a surprisingly graphic torture scene in the second episode.

Secret Invasion doesn’t hold back when it wants to indulge in the genre’s grime, but so far it’s been very restrained when it comes to action. When it does kick off, director Ali Selim follows the playbook first established by the Russo brothers with Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It’s all gritty texture and matte finish, and that style extends beyond the action scenes into every conversation and establishing shot. It lacks the memorable frame composition that made the Russos’ Captain America and Avengers films feel like moving pages of a comic book, but even with a slightly more workhorse approach it still feels premium after multiple Marvel projects that have favored an artificially glossy image and rocky CGI. It ultimately identifies Secret Invasion as something very tonally different to the MCU’s superhero-led stories.

Verdict

After a couple of years of multiverse-hopping stories and space adventures, Secret Invasion is a welcome return for the MCU’s lesser-used gritty espionage template. It shares a lot of common ground with the Winter Soldier projects, but manages to stand apart thanks to an almost total absence of superheroes and a solid cast of messy central characters. The first two episodes lack the sense of fear that a paranoid thriller really needs, and there’s already the sense that any reveal won’t match the impact of those in the story’s comic book inspiration, but Secret Invasion’s dark tale is nonetheless off to a solid start.

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