1 out of 5 stars

Easily the worst television series from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Secret Invasion uses the title and basic premise of a popular 2008 comic-book run and does nothing of interest with it. Quite how a Samuel L. Jackson-led espionage thriller about shape-shifting aliens conspiring to provoke nuclear armageddon could be this boring is a remarkable feat. It’s hard to imagine Disney will continue bankrolling these expensive yet divisive shows much longer. Where they once felt like a creative flex from the indomitable Marvel machine, recent efforts have felt like death rattles.

Ostensibly a six-part sequel to Captain Marvel (2019), Secret Invasion finds Nick Fury (Jackson) returning to terra firma from an orbiting space station to help with a threat of his own making. A disgruntled faction of Skrulls, the alien refugees who fled to Earth in the mid-1990s and were promised a new home by Fury himself, have reached breaking point after waiting three decades for an unkept promise. So, under the leadership of a Skrull called Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), they’re now plotting to trigger a nuclear war between the US and Russia and inherit whatever remains of the planet. Skrulls are immune to radiation, but it’s never explained what the appeal of living amongst bombed cities and billions of corpses has for them.

Fury is reacquainted with his old Skrull buddy Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), whose grown-up daughter G’iah (Emilia Clarke) has allied herself with Gravik and his cohorts, and together they work towards alerting the President (Dermot Mulroney) to the threat of world leaders being replaced by Skrull operatives. But it’s not an easy job after Fury is framed for murder and forced to operate in the shadows as a now disreputable voice spouting crazy conspiracy theories — even amongst old friends like MI6 honcho Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman) and James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who’s now a trusted advisor to the White House.

The setup of Secret Invasion promises an MCU-flavoured spy thriller brimming with paranoia and excitement, especially as the Skrulls can imitate anyone so every character’s identity should be in question during every scene.

Nick Fury’s been part of the MCU since it began with Iron Man (2008), but mostly as a garnish who pops up occasionally to guide superheroes like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Carol Danvers, and Peter Parker. It’s a fantastic idea to now spend six hours with Fury as the focus of his own ground-level story, especially with such a charismatic and talented actor like Samuel L. Jackson in a role he’s presumably eager to develop after so long playing second and third fiddle.

Interestingly, the Nick Fury we meet here is a broken man after tyrant Thanos vanished half the universe’s population for five years; noticeably aged with a whitened beard, he doesn’t even bother using his iconic eyepatch to hide his frailties. He’s understandably world-weary and the early events of Secret Invasion only increase Fury’s feeling of uselessness and regret over his unfulfilled promises to the Skull people— some of whom he used to ascend to power by using them as undercover operatives for S.H.I.E.L.D.

It’s an interesting idea to approach a character we’ve always seen as being two steps ahead of everyone in this way. And revealing more of his mistakes and moral complexities sounds fun. It primes us for a clear arc where a jaded Fury slowly gets his mojo back, but too much about Secret Invasion feels listless and infuriating.

We at least have the repartee between Jackson and Mendelsohn to savour, for a while, and there’s an interesting development with Fury’s personal life that puts his decisions in a different context, but Secret Invasion feels like a TV show that didn’t know how to develop whiteboard full of ideas. Hilariously, most of the episodes end with a major character dying too, which quickly feels like a lazy way for the writers to inject cliffhangers and drama into an otherwise slow-moving narrative.

Fuelling a theory even the writers knew the problems surrounding this show, a lot of episodes also open with flashbacks in order to set up important relationships between characters we’ve only just met because there’s an emotional pay-off that wouldn’t work otherwise. And even then, it only works mildly better. Secret Invasion would have worked better as the third season of an ongoing TV series, having spent years getting to know the main players and thus caring about their sudden demises or acts of treason.

Things aren’t helped by the politically misjudged core of the show’s treatment of the Skulls, by making them the green-skinned “other”. Captain Marvel subverted expectations from the comics in making Skrulls persecuted aliens we could sympathise with, but Secret Invasion undoes this masterstroke purely because it’s the only way to make this comic-book story work. One might be charitable and say only Gravik and his sympathisers are truly villainous and out for blood, but the angle the story takes is that refugees will become a dangerous threat if ignored.

There are genuine concerns in the real world about immigrants and refugees coming to various shores after being displaced from their war-torn homes, so painting them as terrorists-in-waiting is in poor taste and reckless. And it doesn’t even make much sense because this is a race of people who can adopt the likeness of anyone, so isn’t integrating into society an easy thing to do if you get frustrated living otherwise? It’s never made clear why the Skrulls have stayed inside makeshift camps on irradiated ground for decades, just hoping Fury would find them a new planet to inhabit. The fluid timescale of the MCU may be to blame there, simply because Captain Marvel had to happen before Iron Man to make a lick of sense.

Even ignoring some unfortunate creative choices being made, Secret Invasion also fails to work on the basic level of a spy show with action set-pieces, double-crossing, and anticipated moments when someone we thought we knew and trusted is revealed to be a Skrull in disguise. Admittedly this show was made during COVID-19, which I’m sure put limitations on what they could deliver safely with the actors, but too much of the show feels cheap and plodding. Far too many scenes take place in London pubs, warehouses, and on dark street corners. A reported $200M was spent on Secret Invasion, and even if the budget doubled due to the pandemic it’s an extraordinary amount of money for what’s actually on screen.

The scope of the story is global in the sense a nuclear war could be triggered between the US and Russia, but Secret Invasion never feels like anything of much magnitude is happening and we’re days away from an apocalypse. A million Skrulls may have infiltrated every part of human society to orchestrate our extinction, but it just never feels like the story is operating on that grand level. 

The only positives are with a few of the performances. Samuel L. Jackson’s interest in the material seems to wane at times, but the better moments do involve him quietly playing a scene with another actor that relies on dialogue — be that Mendelsohn, Cheadle, or Colman. The latter is also good fun as Sonya, bringing an upbeat cheeriness to scenes where she has to do brutal things to get her way. Mendelsohn and Cheadle are fine because they’re both talented actors, but neither is given the material they deserve. Kingsley Ben-Adir comes out of the show the best, as he’s clearly enjoying being the villain. He also delivers the best moment in the finale with Gravik’s emotional outpouring to Fury. Emilia Clarke, meanwhile, is continually given opportunities to join major franchises (first Star Wars, now Marvel), but always ends up playing tedious characters

The pleasures are few and far between. Secret Invasion was once expected to be the next Avengers-level event movie after Endgame (2019), before being demoted to one of the MCU’s streaming projects. And if you hoped that decision was made because Marvel wanted to focus on more intricate long-form storytelling, you’ll be disappointed by the harsh reality of Secret Invasion being so unsubstantial and unwaveringly dull. There’s a set-piece with a helicopter gunship firing on the President’s convoy at an airstrip that feels like a fan film someone roped these actors into.

There’s ultimately no excuse for producing the MCU equivalent of a series like 24 (2001–10) and Homeland (2011–2020) and making it this dull and forgettable; especially when there’s the comic-book series to lean into and plenty of other shapeshifting alien thrillers to inspire you. And without giving too much away, it ends in a manner where you could probably avoid watching it ahead of The Marvels (2023) because the few lasting effects can be explained in a few lines of dialogue the next time you’re at the box office.

USA | 2023 | 6 EPISODES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

Cast & Crew

writers: Kyle Bradstreet, Brian Tucker, Brant Englestein, Roxanne Paredes & Michael Bhim.
director: Ali Selim.
starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Kingsley Ben-Adir, Killian Scott, Samuel Adewunmi, Dermot Mulroney, Richard Dormer, Emilia Clarke, Olivia Colman, Don Cheadle, Charlayne Woodard, Christopher McDonald & Katie Finneran.