What if you couldn’t trust your friends, or your family? What if the people closest to you weren’t who they appeared to be? What if they were a thing that looked just like them, sounded just like them? What if they were a Skrull, a shapeshifting alien capable of disguising themselves perfectly, taking over the life of anybody at any time. Anyone could be a Skrull, and there would be absolutely no way of knowing who they really were until you least expected it.
Despite the conceived intentions, Secret Invasion (2023) isn’t that show. It’s less a spy story, and more a dramatic thriller where mysteries are often made readily apparent. There’s depth to the emotional connections built between the characters, but that depth is often buried in exposition, lost in stories that happened off-screen, long ago.
If it’s been a while since you’ve last seen Captain Marvel (2019) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), Secret Invasion picks up very roughly from where those stories left off. Samuel L. Jackson returns as Nick Fury, now with a central role in the story. He was last seen on a space station orbiting Earth, but now he’s come back from doing whatever he was doing there to put a stop to the Skrulls.
Specifically, there’s a rogue group of Skrulls that’s seeking to destroy humanity. In Captain Marvel it’s revealed that the Skrulls’ home planet of Skrullos was destroyed, and as a whole, they’re all on the lookout for New Skrullos. This alternate sect of the Skrulls? They think that the Earth looks like a pretty good planet, nice and inhabitable, and the best way to snatch it is to spark World War III, getting humanity to wipe out humanity in the process (without considering that their newly acquired world would also probably be a nuclear wasteland).
It’s a story that feels a little familiar, with a plot that echoes Falcon and Winter Soldier (2021). In Secret Invasion the villains are refugees, displaced by their planet’s destruction, upset with Nick Fury for not following through with his promise to them to find a new home. In Falcon and Winter Soldier, the villains are refugees, displaced by the snap and the blip, upset with the world governments for stranding them without a home. Both groups of villains utilize some means of acquiring superpowers, and while the villains of Falcon and Winter Soldier cannot shapeshift, they often hide in plain sight. In one show the hero calls upon his leaders and exclaims that they could have done better, in the other the hero says he could have done better.
There’s very little nuance to the motivations that drive most of the characters, with the close exception being Nick Fury, as well as his Skrull ally Talos (played by returning actor Ben Mendelsohn). Talos is a Skrull fighting Skrulls, Nick Fury is a man past his prime trying to prove that he’s still the man everyone remembers him to be. Their relationship as it strains and struggles against the imminent Skrull threat creates the most captivating moments in the show. It’s their conversations that threaten to introduce the idea that there might be a gray area to the conflict, beyond the binary choice between wiping out humanity and not.
And it’s not to say that there aren’t any strong performances outside of Sam and Ben. Olivia Coleman chews up every scene she’s in, and Don Cheadle is stellar returning as Rhodey. Kingsley Ben-Adir gives it his all as the villain Gravik, and Emilia Clarke offers a more soft-spoken performance as Talos’ daughter G’iah.
One of the most complicated aspects of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is its expectation of its viewers to have some passing familiarity with over two dozen movies and at least a dozen TV shows to keep up with character progression. Secret Invasion brings along a different issue, in that a lot of its characters and subplots have not existed in prior stories. Fury and Talos talk about the missions they went on together, and Fury and Gravik have a prior relationship as well. This kind of storytelling results in an excess of exposition, where conversations often find themselves delving into deeper emotional relationships that only exist off-screen in a past that’s never seen. There’s even time enough for a McGuffin to be revealed, an incredibly ridiculous and baffling one at that, that also requires late-stage exposition to fit it into the plot.
The first episode is the most promising, in that there are multiple occasions where characters are Skrulls in disguise, and you don’t know who until it’s too late, all culminating in a finale that wastes the potential of a fan-favorite character for the sake of drama (and possibly internet clout). After that point the story decides that it needs to show you nearly everything, leaving you with far too much knowledge of the invasion, and few secrets. Whatever tension there was all but evaporates, as you wait for the inevitable moment where the good guys succeed, and the status quo is maintained. What, were you expecting the villains to destroy the world?
As a spy thriller Secret Invasion overpromises and underdelivers. There are some interesting themes that dot the landscape, such as characters learning to embrace the skin they’re in, and the idea of authoritative power and its consequences, but they’re unfocused and barely developed. There are exceptional performances brought down by flat characters, and dramatic betrayals ruined by pre-emptive reveals. The action is passable at best, but it’s the show’s inability to follow through on the mystery of its spy thriller that thins out the possibilities of the plot, empties out the complexities of its characters’ motivations, leaving the show, overall, with a taste of mediocrity.