This article contains spoilers
The premiere of Marvel’s latest Disney+ series Secret Invasion asks us to believe that this is going to be a different kind of Marvel Cinematic Universe property. Ostensibly a darker, grittier tale focused on grizzled ex-SHIELD leader Nick Fury, the story requires him to face his own complicity in creating the very Skrull crisis he’s now rushing to solve. There are real life or death stakes with genuine consequences attached, and the motivations of the Skrull rebel faction aiming to wipe out humanity are certainly understandable if not particularly commendable ones. (Fury and Carol Danvers promised to find the displaced aliens a new home back in Captain Marvel but conveniently forgot their plight as soon as other villains and bigger problems came calling.)
It’s pretty clear that this is a show that’s meant to do for the MCU what Andor did for Star Wars: tell a heightened political story that proves this is a franchise worthy of being taken seriously, using a prestige-style drama format that’s as much about more complex thematic and real-world issues than we’re used to seeing from this universe. But after its first episode, it’s pretty difficult to believe that the franchise learned any of the right lessons from Andor’s success. As set-up episodes go, “Resurrection” is pretty disappointing—it repeatedly tells us how changed a man Fury is without showing us any sign that’s actually true, the screen is often so dark it’s difficult to tell what’s going on, and it may actually have a worse grasp on issues like terrorism and geopolitics than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier did. (The implication that even the most sympathetic refugees will ultimately turn evil and try to steal your house is…certainly a choice!)
But perhaps its most disappointing element is the “shock” death that closes its premiere, a twist that not only killed off a long-running supporting character but made it clear that her death is more about establishing high-stakes consequences and making the fight against the Skrull radicals personal for Fury than about any sort of concrete end to her story.
Maria Hill has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for over a decade, first appearing in the inaugural Avengers movie back in 2012. A steady, calming beacon of normalcy in a world full of super soldiers, chaos magic, sentient robots, and talking raccoons, she became a fan favorite over the years that followed for the simple reason that she was one of the few consistently ordinary people in this franchise. Without superpowers, magic, or a high-end mech suit, she still managed to face down everything from Fury’s temper to rogue Asgardian gods and HYDRA terrorists using little more than her gun and her own inner steel, repeatedly proving that everyday people are as capable of saving the world as Iron Man and Captain America.
Loyal, capable, and efficient, she’s the one person that Fury (canonically the most untrusting man on earth!!) chose to share his secrets with. Surely she deserved better than being gunned down in a firefight with a gang of double-crossing aliens whose secret plot was so flimsy and obvious that a child could have figured out it was a trap. To make matters worse, her death—surprisingly bloody and graphic for a franchise so traditionally sterile that it shies away from letting its lead characters kiss—isn’t ultimately even really about her, but rather how the fallout from it will affect, enrage, or otherwise motivate Fury.
To be fair, the MCU hasn’t ever been terribly interested in Hill as a character for her own sake, so I suppose it’s not all that surprising that her death is little more than a plot device. She’s never had a story of her own and has largely been treated as an extension of Fury, fulfilling the roles of his right-hand, emergency backup, and sounding board by turns over the years. Her multiple appearances across various movies and television shows have only ever sketched in the barest details of her character and personal life, relying instead on Cobie Smulders’ capable performance and a general sense of fan affection for her as an actress to fill in the emotional gaps along the way. (Look, we all loved How I Met Your Mother’s Robin Scherbatsky, okay?)
The idea that Secret Invasion finally might allow us to get to know Hill as something other than (or at least something in addition to) Fury’s #1 Sidekick was honestly pretty compelling, and it’s unfortunate that Marvel missed out on yet another opportunity to deepen our understanding of and connection to this character who has been part of the stories it’s been telling for so long. But even though Smulders may have not been given a ton to do, her presence on the canvas mattered, and if Maria had to die her character deserved a better end than a shock death in Fury’s shadow, meant to convince viewers that Secret Invasion is a Very Serious Story with real and even deadly stakes. And let’s not even get into the fact that this twist continues an uncomfortable narrative pattern of killing off female characters—including Natasha Romanoff, the original Gamora, and even Peter Parker’s poor Aunt May—to provide some sort of emotional motivation for a male character. (Doesn’t that edge awfully close to the idea of fridging? Just asking questions!)
Granted, this is a Marvel series—and a Marvel series that’s about aliens that can shapeshift into familiar faces at that—so there’s no guarantee (or even likelihood) that this is the end of the line for Maria Hill in the MCU. After all, we’re well over a decade into this thing across two different mediums and we can still count the major characters who’ve really “died” in this franchise on the fingers of one hand. So, you know, hope springs eternal. But while it seems almost certain that Smulders will return in some form, whether as a Skrull copy in this series or as a flashback in the upcoming film The Marvels—it’s hard not to mourn what might have been, for a character we spent so much time with and somehow never really got to truly know.