Marvel’s Secret Invasion review: spy thriller veers between blandly competent and politically noxious
Samuel L. Jackson is impressively committed in Marvel's Secret Invasion, but can't save this politically confused story about violent shapeshifting refugees
This review contains mild spoilers for Marvel's Secret Invasion.
Samuel L. Jackson, if nothing else, seems fairly committed to Secret Invasion. His latest appearance as Nick Fury – his first since Spider-Man: Far From Home in 2019, and his twelfth overall since Iron Man in 2008 – is his most significant to date, the first to position the former director of security agency SHIELD and perennial supporting character as the lead in his own project. Rather than the hyper-competent spymaster we’ve seen before, in Secret Invasion Fury is tired and comparatively frail, walking with a limp and second guessing himself at crucial moments. It’s an open question as to whether Fury is actually ready for the fight that lies before them, with both allies like Maria Hill (an underused Cobie Smulders) and adversaries like Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman, having a blast) suggesting it’s time for him to simply walk away from it all.
Secret Invasion opens with special agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman, never as charming as Clark Gregg in the same role) checking on an informant in Moscow who has become consumed by paranoia. He’s convinced that a string of recent and seemingly unrelated terrorist attacks were, in fact, orchestrated by a single group: a shadowy cabal of world leaders and people of influence, high-profile politicians and journalists and legislators, all of whom have been replaced by shape-shifting alien Skrulls who intend to not just infiltrate planet Earth, but soon take it over entirely. It’s enough to catch the attention of Nick Fury, who has by this point spent years in space – ostensibly working on a new planetary defence system, but in reality hiding from the world, still shaken by Thanos’ attack in Marvel’s supersized crossover event Infinity War.
What follows is, generally speaking, pretty standard Marvel fare. For all the supposed versatility of the format – where a superhero movie can be (at least advertised as) a heist film, or a John Hughes style coming of age film, or a horror movie – the Marvel Cinematic Universe clearly has a preferred tone and outlook. Secret Invasion is in the same vein as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which was in the same vein as Captain America: The Winter Soldier before it, which built on both The Avengers and Agents of SHIELD, one little corner of the world with its well-practised and by now essentially quite refined house style. (One character questions if the Skrull invasion is comparable to Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD, as seen in an earlier film, and Fury concedes that it’s a little similar.)
It's always, at a baseline level, diverting enough. Secret Invasion isn’t Marvel’s Andor, even if it might aspire to be, but it’s got a reasonable grasp of the faded Cold War aesthetic to spin a competent spy thriller in the moments it’s not distracted by big budget explosions. Where it really works, though, is in giving Jackson the space to do things he could never do with Fury in prior brief cameo appearances – it’s only really at a rate of about once per episode, but Secret Invasion makes the effort to pair Jackson with the likes of Ben Mendelsohn or Don Cheadle, letting them confront one another and just act together. In those scenes, at least, it’s clear that Jackson is passionate about the project, and Secret Invasion feels worth watching.
Little of that matters, though. It’s hard to get past Secret Invasion’s chief flaw, i.e. its surprisingly conservative politics. Part of that comes with the territory, obviously, when your protagonists are agents of the state who make flip comments about carpet bombing another country after a disagreement with a diplomat, but at times Secret Invasion feels like it’d be more at home broadcast during Fox News rather than streamed on Disney+. When they were last seen in Captain Marvel, the Skrulls were introduced as dispossessed and persecuted, in search of a new home after their own was devastated by war; Secret Invasion, meanwhile, spins a literal Great Replacement-style story about shape shifting refugees with plans to kill everyone.
The idea is that there are a group of radical breakaway Skrulls, extremists frustrated by Nick Fury’s unfulfilled promise after Captain Marvel to find them a new home, who decide in turn to take matters into their own hands and claim Earth as their own. Their leader, Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir), has particular enmity for Fury, and it’s not long before all but a handful of Skrulls are converted to his cause, with plans to puppeteer a nuclear war between Russia and the United States to wipe out the human population of the planet – and leave the Skrulls, all of whom are immune to radiation, free to find “home in [their] own skin”.
There’s a sense, occasionally, that Secret Invasion was reaching for more thoughtful commentary than it managed: perhaps a draft of the script put more emphasis on Fury abandoning his promise to rehome the Skrull refugees, or on the reveal that Fury enlisted the Skrulls as his personal informants as a precursor to helping them, building to a criticism of US foreign policy. Instead, it’s an unreconstructed piece of superhero fluff where the bad guys are repeatedly described as “homeless refugees”. Worse still is someone clearly realised they’d unwittingly grabbed the third rail and made something even more reactionary than the Bush-era comic they were adapting, and made a faltering attempt to retrieve matters. “There was a reason we ended up as homeless refugees in the first place,” one Skrull warns another as they plan an attack on US soil. “We were too willing to indulge in warlike ways.” This, for obvious reasons, only serves to make things worse.
Ultimately, then, it’s difficult to straightforwardly recommend Secret Invasion, other than in the way you might recommend a trainwreck, or glance at a piece of propaganda in a museum exhibition. Samuel L. Jackson is always watchable, and it’s clear enough he cares about his performance here more than some of his co-stars, but if the only appeal of Secret Invasion is that it’s a television show with Jackson, you’d be better off watching his 2022 passion project The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. He was fairly committed to that, too, but it has the added benefit of generally being much better than Secret Invasion.
Marvel's Secret Invasion begins on Wednesday 21 June, with new episodes available weekly thereafter. I watched the first two of an eventual six episodes before writing this review. You can find more of our TV reviews here, and more of our coverage of Secret Invasion here.