Secret Invasion Fails Because It Can’t Pick a Genre

Marvel's Secret Invasion doesn't know what kind of show it wants to be.

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Secret Invasion
Photo: Marvel Studios

This article contains spoilers

“Trust no one.” That bit of advice is the cornerstone of every paranoid thriller, whether it’s The X-Files, 70s classics like Three Days of the Condor, or recent entries such as Get Out

As a show about shape-shifting aliens, Secret Invasion should be able to excel at “trust no one” better than any of its predecessors. Nearly anyone can be a Skrull, even Tony Stark’s best friend Rhodey, a mainstay of the MCU since its beginning (albeit played by different actors).

And yet, four episodes in, Secret Invasion’s biggest mystery is about the nature of the show itself. Is this a thriller about secret agent Nick Fury uncovering a vast conspiracy? Is this a commentary about the insiders and outsiders in the American experiment? Is this a show about spies battling aliens?

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One gets the sense that showrunner Kyle Bradstreet wants to say “yes” to all of those questions, and that’s not unreasonable, as numerous shows and movies have managed to combine genres into satisfying stories with larger philosophical resonance. 

But with only two episodes left, Secret Invasion has only been a dull mishmash of plots, scenes, and character beats other movies and shows have done better. It lacks the excitement achieved by even a cheesy thriller like A Perfect Murder or The Bone Collector, it does not reach the intelligence of the more thoughtful MCU entries, and it isn’t even a good, grounded alien invasion story like V or Attack the Block

Secret Invasion shifts from one genre to another without succeeding at any, rendering the entire series a bland bit of green slop, not unlike its AI-designed title sequence. 

Nick Fury’s Domestic Drama

The latest episode, “Beloved”, perfectly captures the shortcomings of Secret Invasion. Midway through the episode, Fury sits at a table with his wife Priscilla (Charlayne Woodard), who is in fact a Skrull called Varra ordered by villain Gravik to kill Fury. Varra tells Fury how she met the human Priscilla, who only had weeks left to live, and secured permission to take on her identity. The two speak with genuine interest and concern, despite the fact that they both have pistols on their kitchen table. Calling back to the episode’s opening, the two recite together a poem by Raymond Carver, seemingly strengthening their commitment to one another until they both draw their weapons and fire. 

Director Ali Selim cuts immediately to static shots of the couple’s well-appointed home, using domestic peace to contrast the violence of the standoff. This moment of silence underscores a sense of tragedy. We viewers perhaps hope that Fury survives the standoff even if it means killing his wife, a character we knew nothing about before episode two of Secret Invasion, but we still understand the tragedy of losing this person Fury (apparently) knew and loved.

When we return to the dining room, we see that both Furys survived. They each fired over the other’s shoulder, unable to complete their deadly work. “I don’t know if this means we should get divorced or renew our vows,” quips Nick. 

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By itself, the kitchen stand-off is incredibly well done. Both Samuel L. Jackson and Woodard find humor and pathos in their situation, giving the characters the sense of a lived-in and complex relationship, even if it’s completely new to us viewers. Selim nails the pacing of the scene by cutting away from the duo at the sound of the shot, allowing the moment to breathe. And cinematographer Remi Adefarasin gives the images a sober, striking look. 

But what’s the point? As impressive as the staging of the scene is, it’s not exactly exciting or tense, especially with the reveal that no one died. And as excellent as Jackson and Woodard are as actors, the outrageous stakes of the situation strip the conversation of anything relevant to the human condition. Even the basic plot revelation that Varra has resisted the orders of Skrull Rhodey, and by extension rebel faction leader Gravik, has no ramifications within the episode. 

Problems like these persist across all of Secret Invasion’s episodes to date. The show looks great, has a fantastic cast of seasoned actors, and has a compelling hook, but it has done nothing with these assets.

Swings and Misses

Secret Invasion’s inability to be a straightforward spy show makes its higher aspirations all the more frustrating. The show ranks among the best-looking MCU entries, which corrects a problem in even the best MCU shows and movies, but try as they might, the impressive lighting and blocking can’t polish a dud. 

Characters bring up heady issues like the plight of refugees and American racism, but the writers have no special insight on these topics, so they have no depth. Episode two peppers an argument between Fury and Rhodey with references to the realities of systemic racism, which demands near-perfection from Black men who hope for any sort of success. But rather than provide new insight into the situation or find a metaphor in the show’s shape-shifting plot, Secret Invasion simply drops its observations, as if they were just one more piece of set dressing, and later, when Rhodey is uncovered as a Skrull imposter, they mean even less.

Secret Invasion’s refusal to seriously engage with its themes becomes disastrous in its treatment of the show’s villains, the Skrulls. Marvel comics readers know Skrulls to be warlike and untrustworthy, but Captain Marvel used those assumptions for a thoughtful twist. That film revealed Talos and the Skrulls to be refugees from Kree conquest. The reveal used our knowledge of the characters in other media to show Western viewers how our nations can force people from their homes and label them monsters. 

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Secret Invasion’s plot rests on the Skrulls’ frustration with their refugee status, which drives them to take over the Earth. That sort of behavior wouldn’t be surprising from the thoroughly evil Skrulls of the comics, but it’s horrifying when coming from the sympathetic characters in the MCU. The show twists the metaphor from Captain Marvel, effectively framing refugees as inherently untrustworthy beings who use assimilation to cover their plans to replace citizens, and by refusing to properly engage with the political ideas it invokes, Secret Invasion effectively parrots one of the key tenets of modern Fascism. 

I’m all for superhero fiction grappling with complex themes. The genre has been doing it long before Green Lantern and Green Arrow hit the road back in 1970. The best examples – the New Deal aspirations of early Superman, the embrace of outsiders in X-Men, the anti-Colonialist ideologies in the Black Panther films – manage to find social commentary within genre tropes. But Secret Invasion earns no credit for simply acknowledging that these issues exist. It must say something about those issues, offering a perspective that one cannot find elsewhere. 

Secret Invasion Even Fails at Fun

Or, it can ignore politics altogether. After all, we don’t really go to the MCU for philosophy or sociology. On a core level, Secret Invasion just needs to be an exciting show about spies fighting aliens in the Marvel Universe. Give us green lizard-looking baddies in purple jumpsuits, zapping our heroes with ray guns that the Mars Attacks! aliens would envy. 

But instead of embracing the inherent goofiness of its premise, the show opts for a realism that doesn’t fit its core premise. For as much as they talk about pride in their culture, the Skrulls rarely appear in their green skin and never wear space suits, usually looking like regular humans in street clothes. Even big concepts like the Super-Skrulls, who can adopt the powers of Marvel superheroes, feel bland when depicted in Secret Invasion. Gravik uses the abilities of Guardian of the Galaxy Groot for a moment in the climax of “Beloved,” but then abandons the superpower for terrestrial knives and guns. 

Secret Invasion also deliberately swerves away from the shared universe storytelling of the MCU, so although we know that the Blip bothered Fury and that he wants to avoid the Avengers, we don’t really understand the details of those character decisions. And as much as the story reminds us that Fury has been in space for years, we don’t know what he was doing up there in the first place – other than avoiding reality – and that makes Fury’s character a drifting anchor to which we cannot cling.

The show makes a point of telling us that Fury has lost a step after being in space, but it rarely shows us what made Fury a great spy to begin with. Previous MCU entries made good use of Jackson’s screen presence to sell Fury as a man who knows all the secrets. And Captain Marvel showed young Fury pulling nifty tricks like getting fingerprints with scotch tape. But in Secret Invasion, Fury seems to trust everyone immediately and susses out an imposter only because “Nobody calls me Nick” (they do). 

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Secret Invasion Is Not Marvel’s Andor

To be clear, Secret Invasion doesn’t need to be all of the things. Early press for the series invited comparisons to Andor, the Star Wars show that used characters and settings from the franchise to comment upon the rise of 21st-century fascism and the cost of resistance. But Andor is literally exceptional in its ability to blend social commentary, sci-fi action, and compelling character work. It impresses us precisely because it’s so hard to pull off. 

Nor do we necessarily want another Marvel story that ends with good guys and bad guys punching each other while a blue light beams out to the sky. The MCU should be trying to explore different genres, taking advantage of its stacked roster of compelling characters. The franchise has already had some success in these areas, as seen in the kung fu action of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and the horror of Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and Werewolf by Night

But at the very least, Secret Invasion should be fun to watch. The secret to Marvel’s success has always been its likable characters, people we’re happy to see sit down for a meal of shawarma. Despite having a cast of incredible actors, every interaction in this show feels stripped of energy. 

Secret Invasion can’t decide if it’s a thriller, a spy story, or a political commentary. As a result, it has become nothing at all.