Warning: The following contains spoilers for Secret Invasion through episode four and all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
Secret Invasion’s fourth episode, Beloved, continues the show’s pattern of feeling like there’s one show going on with incredible acting and character pieces and another one of a checklist of MCU requirements (”Action set piece with vehicles!”) and never the twain shall meet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still enjoying the show. As of this second in time I wouldn’t call it the worst of the MCU Disney+ shows by a long shot and I don’t even mean that in the sense of damning with faint praise. But it is hovering around the middle ground where it feels like it has the potential to be so much more and yet here we are. Sort of the Falcon and Winter Soldier problem only without sudden Covid lockdown to blame for why entire storylines weren’t as strong as they could be.
I think about why and the comparison that comes up is The Last of Us. So let’s get into it. (I promise there will be no The Last of Us spoilers.)
Why Secret Invasion Should Take Cues From The Last of Us
I was watching the opening credits of Secret Invasion last night pretty much against my will because I needed to see who the credited writer was (Brian Tucker, for those playing the home game). And as I was watching this AI abomination I was thinking to myself that for all the fuss they made about how AI allowed them to show the insidiousness of the Skrull invasion, at four episodes in we’re not exactly seeing that on the show.
Watching the credits tells me that we’re getting a show where at any second we have no idea who we can trust. Can the characters trust who they’re talking to? Can we trust the characters? And yes, there are aspects of that like the confirmation that Rhodey is a Skrull, all of these reveals have lacked the sense of creeping horror and suspicion that this story should be giving us.
Compare Secret Invasion to Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Loath as I am to ever praise the Russos this was truly the one movie they managed to put a solid effort in regarding both tone and character work. The reveal that SHIELD had been taken over by Hydra upended the MCU world as we knew it and discovering just how many known characters had been secret Hydra agents the whole time was a great twist (even if reveals like Latine Jasper Sitwell and Jewish Senator Stern willingly joining an organization whose only issue with the Nazis was that they lacked ambition were dubious writing choices at best).
Now this does raise the issue that Secret Invasion has the challenge of doing what is essentially the same reveal - the enemy has snuck into positions of power! You don’t know who you can trust! - but the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe rests on the premise that audiences are fine for seeing “A person becomes a hero with varying degrees of surprise and willingness and in the third act there’s a fight sequence that is entirely based on what VFX package Marvel Studios felt like vastly underpaying for regardless of whether it fit the story.” over and over again so a story beat that’s merely being repeated twice is not that big a deal.
And yes, we’re getting beats like Rhodey is a Skrull! Skrulls have taken over for world leaders! But the thing that I kept asking myself last night was… okay and? Yeah there’s noise about how Gravik wants humans to destroy each other so that Skrulls can have Earth for themselves but what’s the real plan here? “I poke things and people get grumpy” seems to be the best Gravik has come up with. And Gravik taking over leadership in episode two showed that the Skrulls being world leaders wasn’t even his plan!
So whose was it? Was that Fury? Talos? Other?
Which brings me to my first comparison to The Last of Us. With the Last of Us one of the things I and everyone else who knew the story reminded people was this is not a story about zombies.
The Last of Us had a strong thesis statement for the show and the non-spoilery part of that thesis statement was This is a love story. Every episode of the show held up that thesis statement in one way or another.
Which was why, when I was forcing myself to sit through the opening credits for Secret Invasion last night, I said to myself okay, the show is clearly not really about a Skrull invasion the way the credits are suggesting it is. If the Skrull Invasion is the “this is not a show about zombies” of Secret Invasion, what is?
And I’m left thinking you know what? I don’t know.
I can’t point to a singular thesis for this show and we’re four episodes in. Now the nature of the story means we can’t rule out huge reveals in episodes five and six which recontextualize everything we’ve known so far (which has happened before), but at the same time story has to work as story. The Sixth Sense worked long before the audience knew what the twist was. You admire the craft more when you see how well the twist was baked in, but you didn’t need to know the twist to enjoy what you were watching the whole time.
Secret Invasion, on the other hand, is a jumble. Is this about Fury getting his groove back? Is it about a metaphor for immigration? Other? Why am I tuning in every day other than to watch Samuel L Jackson be amazing? Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great reason to watch something. But frankly even if “Watch Samuel L Jackson be amazing” was the thesis for this show it’s falling down on that end too.
Part of the reason why Secret Invasion is a jumble relates to the other comparison I have to The Last of Us which is how the handling of a required action set piece can reveal the strengths and weaknesses of a show.
The battle in Beloved was so obviously a required set piece. It could not have been more obvious that this was something put down for the show before a single line of script was written. “Car battle, helicopters, guns, key characters” and there ya go. And there is nothing wrong with that. Most superhero media works that way and that’s been true of the MCU all the way back to Iron Man which was a movie of already planned set pieces that Robert Downey Jr and John Favreau scrambled to come up with a script for every day they were filming.
But not all action set pieces are created equal, and Secret Invasion’s was a mess.
I feel bad saying that because clearly a lot of work went into the stunts and explosions but… what was going on exactly?
Let’s Goofus and Gallant this to help show why it was a mess.
The set piece in The Last of Us episode five, Endure and Survive, was brilliantly done. I can guarantee I’m going to be pointing at that thing for years as an example of how to do it right.
Was it necessary for the story? Absolutely not, and I detailed all the reasons why in that article. But as a set piece it was amazing.
You had explosions, you had fire, you had hundreds of enemies, you had characters with differing motivations and goals, you even had a night shoot for God’s sake and at all times you knew what was going on.
Even if someone watched nothing of The Last of Us except that scene they would be able to say things like okay, the guy in the window cares about protecting the little girl. The woman has her own small army. These specific people are on the same team as the guy and the girl and everybody else is an enemy. In order to escape to safety this is what every character needs to do.
Meanwhile over in Secret Invasion again I say: What was going on exactly?
The president shows up for a meeting with Russians to… what? Skrull Rhodey gives that speech about being strong but okay about what? At this point in the story what does the US think that Russia wants? What did Russia state its goal was?
Gravik has his people attack the convoy which, as a side note, why did Fury need to plant a tracker on Skrull Rhodey to know where the convoy was? As someone who lives near a town the real world president visits not infrequently I can assure you everyone knows where that convoy is going to be. It backs up traffic like a motherfucker for a start. But it’s not hidden knowledge unless there’s a reason for it to be.
Which would’ve actually made sense! Fear of a surprise attack on the president would’ve been a great setup for two convoys and a need to know which one was the real one. And I get that popular media doesn’t need to reflect reality - this is why I’m not deconstructing how inaccurate all of the Secret Service procedures shown were - but it still has to pass a bare bones sniff test for making sense in and of itself.
Anyway, back to Gravik. He wants to make it look like the Russians attacked the convoy. Sure, fine. We’ll ignore the part where if the shape shifters want to give the impression of being Russians maybe someone as reasonably well known in government intelligence circles as Gravik should change his appearance but whatever. I’m never going to complain about looking at Kingsley Ben-Adir and frankly knowing where Gravik was at any given time (with one notable exception) was one of the few things that was clear about the sequence so I’m not taking points off.
That being said, the fact that they were speaking Russian in the helicopter smacked to me of being a part of this sequence that was originally scripted one way, had to be something else by the time the episode was being finalized, and thus they tossed a line in via ADR to explain it. Because seriously why are they speaking Russian in the helicopter? Like what, in case a random hiker was flying a drone nearby and picked up what they were saying?
The whole “This is what we have and thus that’s what’s going to air” aspect applied to everything else. What was Gravik’s actual goal? Was it to stir shit up? Kill the president? Is there a reason they haven’t replaced the president with a Skrull by now anyway? If it was for something bad to happen and the Russians to get blamed for it a sign that said “The president is a secret Nickelback fan XOXO The Russians” would’ve had a similar effect, you know? Frankly all of Gravik’s plans so far feel like very long walks for goals that could be achieved much more easily (again: if you want to start a nuclear war replace both guys with the keys to the bombs and call it a day).
The mess then continues with what is going on in this fight at any given time? At one point we’re told reinforcements have arrived and my hand to God I could not have told you if that was meant to be good or bad news. American reinforcements? British? Gravik’s? Other? I’m not saying they had to do a roll call when they arrived - even if that would have been umbrella corporation appropriate - but knowing who the fuck they were fighting for would’ve been handy. This is one of the reasons why uniforms were invented! Let me know by sight who I’m supposed to be rooting for! The Last of Us didn’t even have uniforms and they managed it!
Then we get into things like somehow Fury is connected with these reinforcements? Because he’s able to tell them to stand down? Fury? Fired Fury? Why are they listening to him in the first place?
Which granted could be one of those things that seems like a continuity error and is actually a plot point, and in which case fine! But it shouldn’t have taken as long as it did to know if these reinforcements were with Fury or against him.
All of which goes back to a general weakness of the show which is frankly what is ever going on at any given time? Did G’iah join with Gravik because she was rebelling against her parents or was she secretly working with her father the whole time? Who were the Skrull world leaders answering to before Gravik and what were their goals? Fury cares about hidden Skrulls in positions of leadership but is that only Gravik’s agents or is it Skrulls in general?
Which are questions we may get answers to by the end of the series, and if so great! But when we don’t have enough information to know motivations in what should be an obvious sequence it’s hard to trust what’s an actual mystery and what’s a mess.
As always, things that don’t fit anywhere else.
- Per Kevin Feige, Fury knew that Rhodey was a Skrull the whole time. I’d love for this to be an indication that there’s still more things Fury is savvy to that he’s just not making obvious.
- Related, I’m not a fan of the reveal that Priscilla was lying to Fury from the start. They had a perfect argument for her turning to Gravik’s side during the Blip and after Fury came back. It didn’t need to be a long con. Especially since this adds to the pile of things nerfing Fury for no reason. Not to keep going back to the Winter Soldier well but Fury being surprised by Hydra’s infiltration of SHIELD conveyed that oh shit, this was really bad if even Fury wasn’t aware of it. Throw in that Fury didn’t know his own wife was lying to him for decades and it just makes it sound like Fury’s never been particularly observant.
- On the plus side we’ve seen less and less of that thing they’ve been gluing to Samuel L Jackson’s face and calling a beard so I’m all for it.
- Yet another person killed by being shot in the chest? Really? This is yet another thing that feels like it was placed in the story timeline with a post it saying “Fix before filming” and nobody remembered to circle back and come up with new death methods.
- If Talos hadn’t been shot I would’ve said home boy needed to schedule some therapy. “If we’re nice enough people will love us!” is some co-dependent ass shit and I’m with G’iah that it’s not the same thing as a feasible plan for their people. (Also this would’ve been a great time to establish that it wasn’t just that in general they were going to help the president but literally later that day.)
- Though, yanno, related: how did Fury and Talos know that an attack was planned? Yeah, they were tracking Rhodey but this could’ve just been a commute from A to B. Again, some bare bones exposition would’ve helped a lot.
- I’m not saying I make snap judgements but given that Priscilla orders her books by color she’s obviously evil.
- I 100% want to know what cheesy award Priscilla had sitting on that bookshelf. “For 10 years of loyal service to New Skrullos” perhaps?
- This episode was 38 minutes long and I can assure you adding some dialogue to explain things would not have increased the budget by a significant enough amount to explain why they didn’t do it when they also had plenty of time. This again suggests to me that they had what they had and it was cobbled together in something that vaguely looked like a story even if there wasn’t proper connective tissue.
- There is like one person who might understand the hiker reference I made earlier and you know what? Sometimes I make jokes that are that specific audience-wise. Maybe next time you’ll be the lucky recipient!
And that’s it for now! Episode five tends to be the good ones for these shows so let’s see what next week brings. As always, thank you for reading.