What Marvel’s Secret Invasion Owes to the British Spy Classics

Secret Invasion is a gritty espionage thriller series from Marvel that owes plenty to the British spy classics of the past.

Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in Secret Invasion
Photo: Marvel

This article contains spoilers

Secret Invasion is not the first time the MCU has dipped its toe into the spy genre; Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a fan favorite among MCU films since it was released in 2014. But Secret Invasion, a show following not superheroes (Rhodey aside), but human spies and aliens posing as humans, embraces the spy genre more than anything we’ve seen yet. With Russia back in the bad guy role, the show draws on the best spy dramas of the Cold War, and with London featuring quite heavily in its story and the British Prime Minister having a major role, a lot of those dramas are British spy classics.

The best known British spy dramas are, of course, the James Bond novels and the films inspired by them. Author Ian Fleming had worked for the British Naval Intelligence Division in World War Two, so he had genuine spy experience and some of that is reflected in Bond, especially in the early stories.

However, the tone of the James Bond novels and especially of the films based on them leans more towards an adventure story. James Bond’s megalomaniacal scientists and objectified female characters have more in common with your more typical superhero movie than with Secret Invasion. The novels did have some grittier spy elements, and the Daniel Craig films, inspired by the success of The Bourne Identity and its sequels, re-introduced harder spy elements like more realistic torture scenes involving just a chair and a bag of bricks, rather than tanks of piranhas or sharks. But Bond is still overwhelmingly associated with glamour and with gadgets, both of which are distinctly lacking from Secret Invasion so far. Even Maria Hill traded in her Bond-style black catsuit for a much more normal-looking black T-shirt under a hoody for this series.

Ad – content continues below

Secret Invasion has some things in common with more recent spy shows. Both the BBC’s Spooks (2001-2011) and Netflix’s much more recent Treason, for example (not to mention the American 24), became notorious for the shocking deaths of major characters, and Secret Invasion made sure to squeeze that into its first episode. Themes around misinformation and the media show that it does exist in the world of the 2020s and is taking inspiration from 21st century spy stories.

In general, though, Secret Invasion takes its cue far more from the more grounded, less action-centric British spy dramas of the Cold War. We can see that straight away from the filming style. The show is all dark streets and concrete flights of steps, taking place in locations that have not changed much since the Cold War, especially in Eastern Europe. Grim shots of the blood-stained walls of abattoirs and clandestine meetings taking place in dark corners, on trains, in vans and so on are all hallmarks of the more dark and gritty type of spy story, the stories with fewer glamourous girls and gadgets, and more torture, back-stabbing, and men in suits sitting around having very tense conversations in empty restaurants. 

One of the early examples of this sort of film was The Ipcress File (1965), based on a 1962 novel by Len Deighton which was also adapted into a television show by ITV in 2022. This was deliberately filmed in a completely different way to the James Bond films that had been released at that time (Dr No, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger). It was intended to be more realistic and less focused on attractive stars and glamour (though putting a pair of glasses on Michael Caine as lead character Harry Palmer hardly made him less attractive). Secret Invasion similarly takes audiences away from the brightly colored world of other Marvel shows like She-Hulk: Attorney-at-Law or Hawkeye and focuses on a more down-to-earth approach. The Earth may be under threat, but it is under threat in a much less flashy way, from dirty bombs and terrorist attacks.

Most of all, Secret Invasion leans on the novels of British writer John le Carré and their adaptations, and his stories about British Cold War spy George Smiley. Unlike Fleming, who served in intelligence during the Second World War, and Deighton, who did his National Service with the RAF, le Carré had actually worked as a spy during the Cold War and knew what he was talking about when it came to Cold War espionage.

John le Carré was the pen name of David Cromwell, who during the Cold War worked for the Intelligence Corps of the British Army, then for MI5, then for MI6 (MI5 is the UK’s security service and is responsible for threats to national security at home, roughly similar to the American FBI. MI6, or the Secret Intelligence Service, is responsible for international espionage and is equivalent to the American CIA. James Bond works for MI6). Cromwell/le Carré was outed and forced to retire from MI6 by the infamous British traitor Kim Philby, one of a ring of spies who passed on intelligence to the Soviet Union, who had been recruited at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s and became known as the “Cambridge Five”. All of them worked for the British government, and Philby worked for MI6.

The influence of le Carré’s stories on Secret Invasion is clear from the introduction of Olivia Colman’s character, MI6 spymaster Sonya Falsworth, when she refers to MI6 as “the Circus”. That nickname was created by le Carré when he first started writing spy novels with the first George Smiley story, Call for the Dead, in 1961. At that time, he was still working for MI6 himself, so he used “the Circus” as a sort of a code for the organisation, and “Control” for the Chief of the organisation, known as “C” in real life and “M” in the James Bond stories.

Ad – content continues below

Secret Invasion’s story also has a lot in common with one of the best known Smiley stories, the 1974 novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This was adapted into a very well known BBC TV series starring Alec Guinness as George Smiley in 1979, and a 2011 film starring Gary Oldman. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the story of a recently retired Smiley’s hunt for a mole at the highest level of “the Circus”. It was directly inspired by le Carré’s own betrayal by Philby and the main theme of the book is betrayal by someone you trusted. Smiley continues to love his estranged wife Ann, whose unfaithfulness and betrayal is somewhat expected by this point as it happens all the time, but he is furious at his and others’ betrayal by someone who made vows to his country and whose actions have got their mutual friends and colleagues killed.

In Episode 1 of Secret Invasion, Richard Dormer’s Prescott says “What if the ones closest to us, the ones we’ve trusted our whole lives, were someone else entirely?” That is a pretty good description of the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and of the real life mole who inspired the story, both of whom were revealed to be completely different to the person everyone around them thought they were. The Skrulls working undercover in Secret Invasion are very literally not who people think they are, and if the show adapts the comics reasonably closely, then some characters we thought we knew may turn to have been Skrulls in disguise for a very long time, allowing the audience to share that sense of betrayal as well.

We can also see a lot of George Smiley in the version of Nick Fury we meet in Secret Invasion. Smiley, described as “small, podgy and at best middle-aged” had appeared in several novels before Tinker, Tailor and would appear in several afterwards. In Tinker, Tailor in particular, he is at an especially low point. He has been forced out of his job and into retirement because he and Control failed to find the mole before, and his wife Ann has left him again (this is usually the case whenever Smiley is introduced in a new novel), leaving him bitter, lonely and at something of a loose end before the story starts.

Making Samuel L Jackson look podgy and middle-aged (never small) is quite challenging, even now when the actor is 74 years old in real life. But Fury here – if he’s not putting it on to throw off his enemies – is shown looking less muscular than usual, sporting a big, grizzled grey beard and having neglected his appearance so much, he isn’t even wearing his trademark eyepatch. He has clearly been beaten down by the events of the last few years, and especially by the blip and the subsequent loss of Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Natasha Romanoff. Like Smiley, he is at a low point. We can only hope that, like Smiley, he is also able to successfully uncover the truth and in the process recover some of his own dignity and his position.

Back in The Winter Soldier, Fury told Steve Rogers, “Last time I trusted someone, I lost an eye”. A lot of fans were a bit disappointed when the truth turned out to be that the cat-like Flerken Goose had scratched it out, though strictly speaking that does match the description – Fury had slowly come to trust Goose over the course of the story of Captain Marvel, and paid for it with an eye. And his comment to Steve still rings true – he does not trust anybody (except perhaps Maria Hill, which still brings the total to 0 as of the end of Episode 1 of Secret Invasion). Fury’s open display of his scar and damaged eye in this series is a constant reminder of the show’s central theme – that you can trust no one, that even your closest friend might turn out to be an enemy. The echoes of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are another reminder of that, too.