Warning: The following contains spoilers for Secret Invasion through episode one and all of the MCU. Read at your own risk.
Marvel’s Secret Invasion episode one is a hard one to pass judgement on because it’s about setup without knowing for sure what direction they’re aiming the payoff. I have theories about the payoff, absolutely. But as regular readers know I’ve had optimistic hopes about Marvel shows before and been bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
The trust issues are real.
What we can talk about though is if the first episode of Secret Invasion made me want to watch more episodes, which it did. We can also make some observations about what might be happening, albeit with admittedly cock-eyed, Charlie Brown-esque “Surely this time they won’t pull away the football?” optimism on my part, but hey we can at least put it on the record so I can either be super smug when episode six airs and/or heave a tired sigh.
Also we can talk about the AI elephant in the room.
So let’s get to it!
What is Marvel’s Secret Invasion Trying to Do?
The question is not intended as sarcasm but rather to tee up the mindset I have when watching. It’s a question for any TV show: What is the goal? What’s the thesis? What’s the statement at the top of the writer’s board? This is something we’ve talked about on the site before both when a show is good at it and when a show is very bad at it. Good shows have strong statements that they use as their north stars. Bad shows make you wonder if they had statements at all.
It’s too early to say where Secret Invasion falls here, but the first episode didn’t discourage me at the very least. We’ve got strong tones of this being a thriller about trust. The directing by Ali Selim set a nice tone of being able to follow the story and action while keeping a sense of always wanting to look over your shoulder just in case.
The marketing of the show plays up the idea of trust and never knowing who is who. I have a particular pet theory about this poster of the cast which says that based on positioning Everett Ross and Sonya Falsworth are hidden bad guy Skrulls and, well, first episode proved me out for one of those at the very least!
The reveal of Ross in the opening also hints at this show potentially using some intelligent storytelling devices for those who pay attention. For example, I had it in my notes as I watched “I’m expected to believe Martin Freeman could climb those stairs that quickly?” and then it turned out no, I wasn’t expected to believe that. He was a Skrull with Skrull like abilities.
Things like this have me hopeful that what this show is doing is telling a story that is obvious as we watch but with another layer to that story which will all slot into place by the final episode. Which I realize sounds like a ridiculously lofty expectation for a Marvel show but I’ll remind you Moon Knight did this exact thing from start to finish as part of its thesis statement and did it very well. So it’s not out of the realm of possibility. It’s especially not out of the realm for a show being headed by Samuel L Jackson as one of the MCU’s flagship characters.
Samuel L Jackson is also executive producing the show, which is why on a meta level I have a hard time believing that the story we’re being told is that Nick Fury really is old, washed up, and on the back foot and has to overcome this to succeed. I believe there are things surprising him, absolutely. The show needs stakes so Nick does need to have some failures. But the idea that the guy whose secrets have secrets isn’t playing some kind of long game is a hard one to believe in at all, and especially when Samuel L Jackson knows that his appeal as an actor and as Nick Fury is to be a badass.
To that end, I notice things like when Nick first got back to Earth he walked down the ramp with no noticeable limp (hidden by the fact that he’s not shown taking many steps at all, but the steps he does take are not hampered). We then see him stand in place and look thoughtful, and then when Maria appears he is not only limping but holding on to his leg and groaning about it in an almost comically obvious fashion. What then comes up in later dialogue? Enemies talking about how Fury is so weak now he has a limp. Either this is because the show is hammering home the message that Fury is weak and useless now, or it’s subtly trying to show us how information spreads and thus who possibly can’t be trusted.
Likewise, there’s a repeated pattern in the dialogue where characters say things they know about each other. Fury’s conversation with Sonya Falsworth has several of them. He indicates he’s never been aware of her clock collection (albeit as part of a distraction as he plants a spy device). Then Fury says “I’m pretty sure you recollect my drink of choice is bourbon” when she offers him vodka. She deflects by saying it’s because she hasn’t forgiven him for destroying her “very expensive flat” to which he replies “You mean city.”
All of which on the surface is great for establishing a past history between these characters as well as a bantering dynamic between the two of them. But at the same time it has me quirking an eyebrow and wondering if it will be revealed that this was a subtle way Fury was testing to see who was real. Particularly when the pattern of characters stating things they know about each other is repeated throughout the episode, such as Maria Hill’s comment about how she thought when she and Fury played chess together they were always honest. Again: on the surface it’s quick exposition to set up the scene. But it’s also possibly a clue of who is and isn’t what they say.
There’s also certain directing choices. Such as the scene in the cafeteria where G’iah appears to be subtly keeping an eye on Gravik which then becomes her talking to Beto - a character who in and of himself has a suspiciously large role for a supposedly random Skrull who showed up one day. Maybe Beto is there as the audience surrogate newbie to get the exposition about how things work in New Skrullos or maybe Beto is more than he seems.
Yet another detail that stands out to me is the idea that Fury was different after the Blip. It’s repeated often enough that it becomes eyerollingly annoying when yet another character says it. However there is a tiny difference in the repetition. Talos brings it up but as part of explaining why things went wrong with Gravik and G’iah. Talos still very much wants Fury’s help. He’s the one who called him in the first place. Sonya Falsworth and Maria Hill on the other hand? Tell Fury that being different means he should quit. He’s not up for the challenge. Which on the surface could just be friendly characters being used to tell the audience that the story is that Fury is washed up and this is the obstacle he has to overcome… or is “Hey, Fury, you really shouldn’t get involved in this” a message that enemy Skrulls would very much like Fury to believe in?
(And if so, a note that is possibly amusing only to me is that “Reveal that a trustworthy character wasn’t who they appeared to be hinted by them telling the protagonist he should quit” was a recent plot point in the comics… for Moon Knight. I’m just saying.)
What’s nice is that regardless of whether details like this go anywhere, it does demonstrate that the show is doing a good job of setting a tone where the audience doesn’t know what to trust. That unsettling atmosphere is a large part of what shows like this need and so far with that they’re succeeding.
The one thing that didn’t work for me was the scene of G’iah and Talos meeting in secret. How did this meeting get setup? We spend time on an establishing shot of two extras in a cab to reveal it’s G’iah and Talos but no time at all on - I assume based on results - G’iah’s decision to contact her father? Or how the contact was managed? Plus I get why Talos would believe his own daughter but why would Fury and Hill?
It read like a scene that was inserted as part of post production reshoots because there was a network note that whatever they did to set this up originally didn’t read well enough.
And I get that part of the setup had to be secret to make the later reveal of the fake backpacks and all work. I’m not saying that we needed a scene of G’iah and Gravik explaining the plan. I’m just saying we needed a better shot of Emilia Clarke’s expressive face than the one the show used. The scene before ends on her looking discomfited and that’s it. What it needed was that leading into her looking as though she’s formed a plan and then cut to the scene of the cab. Now we’ve got a connected tissue to help carry us along.
(And yes, I also get that the G’iah at the secret meetup and/or the one carrying the empty backpacks might not have actually been G’iah. But even so G’iah herself could’ve been shown making some decision which we assume was about the meeting. It could’ve also just been what she wanted to have for dinner that night! That’s fine! The story just needs the facial expression to help it along.)
Final note: The title of the episode is Resurrection. We don’t see anything in the episode that suggests anyone or anything being resurrected. Maybe the concept of New Skrullos counts but that seems like a tenuous connection. What or who was resurrected that was so meaningful it was worth naming the episode after? Is it possibly Fury himself?
And, the Marvel universe being what it is, just how literal might that resurrection be?
Lots of things to make you go hmmm.
The AI Elephant in the Room
I want to touch on the reveal that Secret Invasion’s opening credits were made by AI. First off, put me down as one who agrees that art AI as it currently stands is abhorrent for all the reasons touched on in the linked Polygon article. Then you get into things like how people who worked on the show weren’t told about it.
Not only that but there is Marvel Studios’ well known abuse of VFX artists and the current Writers’ strike (and looming potential actors’ strike) where the use and abuse of AI is a hotly contested issue. In both action and timing it’s hard not to read this as Marvel Studios pissily saying that if they’re going to be expected to treat workers as people well then they’re just not going to use workers at all! So there!
It’s not helped by how Ali Selim, who was apparently in charge of this decision, didn’t even know what he was paying for. Plus the idea that you needed AI alone to provide the morphing technique on people’s faces is undercut by how traditional VFX artists have been able to pull this off since 1991 (and in spite of Tyra Banks going off script on top of it).
Plus let’s be real: it’s fucking Disney. They have the cash. Pay your workers, assholes.
As always, things that didn’t fit anywhere else:
- This is a really hard show to watch if you have face blindness like I do. I thought the initial reveal during the fight between Prescod and Ross was that Ross was secretly Talos. Don’t even ask me to try to tell the difference between the guy I think is Gravik’s right hand man and the one we were shown taking over someone’s body? If there is a difference? I think they’re two separate guys? Maybe??
- Agent Prescod, by the way, clearly from the Exposition Division of whatever government organization he and Ross supposedly work for now.
- I didn’t mind the reveal shot of Fury looking sort of alien-like in silhouette when he arrived because it didn’t seem heavy handed. I’m okay if that’s a subtle bit of reoccurring imagery.
- Not subtle? That thing on Samuel L Jackson’s face pretending to be a beard. Woof.
- A noticeable actual difference in post Blip Fury is that he’s more physically affectionate. I hope this is actual character growth for him and not a reveal that he’s not the actual Fury
- Olivia Colman seems to be having the time of her life with the role and god bless.
- Fury putting the spy gizmo on the owl’s left eye (aka the same one he lost) is a cute detail, again because they didn’t smack you in the face with it. Though I don’t know that I buy someone smart and clever enough to be Fury’s contemporary, as Sonya Falsworth is supposed to be, wouldn’t pick up on it. Seems awfully convenient that she had that conversation where she thoughtfully name dropped every detail Fury, Maria Hill, and Talos needed while she was perfectly framed in the shot.
- I appreciate that they gave an in character reason for why our main character Skrulls aren’t going to be hidden by the makeup all the time. I mean we all know they won’t be but it’s nice when the narrative recognizes it. Now let’s all just ignore how Talos and G’iah have entirely different accents for no apparent reason.
- Fury noticing the girl with a ball when he was walking at night gave me Men In Black vibes. Given the later reveal, I’m sure that was intentional.
- As much as the conceit of the show is that we don’t know who is a bad guy Skrull in hiding, I feel like there’ll be a missed opportunity if there isn’t a reveal that at least one bad guy is completely human but rooting for the Skrulls anyway.
- Finally, I’m not touching on Maria Hill’s death because I don’t know how much I believe it? If it’s meant to be taken as-is then no, not a fan of fridging Maria for the sake of this or any storyline. I realize this is my cock-eyed optimism again but at this moment I’m not ruling out an episode six reveal that Maria was in one of those pods in New Skrullos the whole time.
And that’s all for now! See you next week as we find out how it all unfolds. Thanks for reading!