With these Marvel Studios limited series on Disney+, the long-form storytelling can feel like a serialized expansion of the MCU mythology or a six-hour movie broken down into smaller episodes. That’s more or less what we get in Kyle Bradstreet’s adaptation of “Secret Invasion.” After watching the first two episodes of a six-episode series, we see how Marvel Studios takes an acclaimed story arc and relates it to the world we live in now. There’s plenty of talk of politics, explorations of clandestine relationships between humans and refugee aliens, trust issues, and more. And based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s dark, complex, and refreshingly gloomy. That is a nice change of pace for the studio, which has felt like they’ve been stuck in creative neutral for quite some time.
Like most of these shows, “Secret Invasion” requires at least some knowledge of the events of the MCU. So if you have yet to watch the last two Avengers films or Captain Marvel, now might be the time to do a quick watch. But, if you don’t have the time, episode one lays out the premise of the show early on with a quote from a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who theorized that individual terrorist attacks from different factions are part of a collective. “Imagine a world where information can’t be trusted,” Prescod says. Not very hard, is it?” News service says one thing. Website says another. Society starts to fray. All we can turn to are the people we care about. But what if those people weren’t who we thought they were? What if the one closest to us, the ones we’ve trusted our whole lives, were someone else entirely? What if they weren’t even human?”
And from there, we enter a world post-Blip, where humans co-exist with the shapeshifting Skrulls, an alien race introduced back in Captain Marvel. Though Nick Fury and Carol Danvers had promised to find the Skrull refugees a new home, many have stayed on Earth, with some infiltrating political organizations and different terrorist organizations to accelerate their plans for invasion. However, Everett Ross believes that the agent has gone mad and dispenses of him quickly. Thinking he was made, he asks Agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) for an evac. But during the foot chase, Ross dies of his injuries after falling off a building, and Hill discovers he was part of a Skrull rebellion. And Talos’ failure to apprehend him complicates things.
With Talos providing all of the details of the Skrull rebellion’s desire for invasion, Hill summons Nick Fury, who is off-world on the S.A.B.E.R. space station, back to Earth. He’s the only one who understands the Skrulls, given that he’s been working with them for 30 years. He knows the nature of this threat better than anyone else and, as such, is best suited to handle someone like Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), the leader of a radical Skrull faction executing a covert invasion of Earth to seize its resources. He preys upon the rage of displaced Skrulls to build New Skrullos.
However, others like James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Coleman) question why he left his duties on the S.A.B.E.R. space station and if he can fight the good fight. Coleman is diabolically good in this as she uses a cheery facade to mask her dark questioning methods, interrogation, and agendas.
Naturally, the Skrulls’ shapeshifting abilities would prove helpful to infiltrate any organization, political institution, and the media, no matter how small or big, where they could influence humans to go to war amongst themselves and destroy each other, leaving the Skrulls to take over when the human population has been reduced. And because they can morph into anyone, we question who we can trust. The series has us distrusting every character, not because they aren’t who they appear to be, but because they have hidden agendas. All of that plays heavily into the espionage aspects of the spy thriller. As a result, it taps into something dark and complex.
And because the stakes are so high, Fury, Hill, and Talos have clandestine meetings behind the U.S. Government’s back. Not even James Rhodes knew about it until they were able to intercept encrypted messages. Naturally, Fury’s actions also put him at odds with his government and others. He can’t trust old spy allies like Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Coleman). She is devious but also believes in a scorched earth policy to find and kill anyone who knows Gravik. She will do anything to protect Queen and the country.
Kyle Bradstreet crafts the best espionage thriller possible while keeping the world confined to the MCU boundaries. And because it adheres to the rules of the spy genre, the action isn’t nearly as bombastic or cinematic as other films or limited series. Instead, we get a lot of close-quarters combat and foot chases. This works to the show’s benefit because anything more visually intense would take us out of what it’s trying to accomplish. As such, it gives showrunner Kyle Bradstreet the room to explore Nick Fury’s relationship with his fellow humans and Talos. He’s a changed man with difficulty trusting anyone outside Hill and Talos. Though he’s a lot older and moves slower, his network of people who he can trust has shrunk considerably. And Talos is an exiled Skrull looking to protect what family he has left and any Skrull who may have fallen prey to Gravik’s words. Though his mercy and use of diplomacy may cost him his life if he isn’t careful.
“Secret Invasion” will be a limited series whose success hinges on fleshing out the Nick Fury and Talos dynamic. Though their playful banter continues, it’s toned down because the stakes are so high. Talos’s awkward jokes and inability to read the room may have the humor to break the tension. Still, because of the displacement trauma and his broken family, we see a side of the Skrull that we’ve never seen before. And the same can be said for Fury, who is losing people he can trust by the episode. He is still in the loop even if he is taken out of it by force.
So where the show is short on those explosive action set pieces, it’s long on character exploration and exposition. Talos and Fury hold each other accountable in a game of “tell me something I don’t know.” Fury’s enraged that Talos has been keeping secrets about the Kree invasion and the fleeing Skrulls. And Talos is infuriated with Fury’s manipulation and failure to live up to his promise of finding Skrull refugees a new home. Bradstreet has plenty of fun bringing Nick Fury out of hiding in a post-Blip world and starts to ask questions about who you can and cannot trust.
Slowly we start to see how Fury’s absence negotiated relations between humans and Skrulls. Episode 2 provides the necessary exposition by revealing how a younger Nick Fury asked the Skrulls for help protecting Earth by throwing away their identities and staying human in exchange for refuge and searching for a new home. Of course, that didn’t pan out. And another science sees Fury’s perception of the inability of humans and Skrulls to co-exist because humanity can’t even get along with each other.
Perhaps the scary part of all of this is how much the fear experienced by the characters in the show parallels our own. This may be a show about an alien invasion. Still, it’s how the disgruntled Skrulls use their fearmongering to manipulate humanity into being more prejudiced or suspectable to misinformation. And the Skrull infighting provides a more enriching backstory about the power struggle that exists within the group of shapeshifting aliens who just want to find a place to call home. Some believe that war is the way, and others don’t want to see bloodshed. Those inner conflicts reveal the political complexities of humans and aliens.
And the Skrull at the center of creating chaos is Gravik. He uses his charisma to persuade his followers like G’iah (Emilia Clarke) to do his bidding. The way he speaks to his people and gets them to say what he wants without saying it is masterful psychological manipulation. Everything he does is for “the cause,” and he believes his radical actions are justified because of all the pain, trauma, and distrust that he’s experienced. And he extends that anger to others and places the blame on Fury, who he believes has abandoned his people while humans have cast them aside. No wonder he retches when he sees his fellow Skrulls in a human form. All of that makes for a tragic villain we can empathize with.
Hopefully, there’s more to G’iah than what we got in the first two episodes. But based on what we have seen so far, she is an essential mole who has infiltrated Gravik’s group and has a very complicated relationship with her father, Talos.
“Secret Invasion” is very much the cold and dark slow burning espionage thriller viewed through the lens of Marvel Studios. Yet, it is something that could exist all on its own without those characters we all know and love. Its refreshingly dark and gloomy tone is a nice change of pace from the usual formula we’ve seen many times before in the MCU. And though it takes place within a superhero universe and is populated by comic book characters, a lot of it is grounded because their individual motivations fuel their agendas and ambitions. What makes this work is how it keeps you guessing from beginning to end and has the characters constantly looking over their shoulder, wondering whether or not the next step they take will be their last. And focusing squarely on Nick Fury, we get to see what the world is like without the Avengers saving the day. And the show addresses why they are kept out of the loop. The script is sharp, the cast is phenomenal, and it does some unexpected things. I’m surprised with how much this show gets away with. With all of this praise, it’s no secret that “Secret Invasion” is Marvel Studios at its best.
Secret Invasion premieres on Disney+ June 21, 2023.