Saturday 14 October 2023

Secret Invasion

More than thirty years ago, Skrull refugees on Earth reached a deal with Nick Fury and SHIELD that they would work undercover for the organisation, using their amazing shapeshifting skills, in return for SHIELD's help in locating a new homeworld for them. Unfortunately, some of the Skrulls are unhappy with the length of time it has taken Fury to deliver on his promise, and instigate a new plan: to take Earth as their new home. Fury and his old Skrull friend Talos join forces to defeat the rebels' plan, but find fighting an army of shapeshifters is incredibly hard, even with shapeshifters of their own to help.

Secret Invasion is, in almost all respects, a television series. It is six episodes long, and features sequential events that build to tell a story. If this sounds like a very dull and overly pedantic description, that's because Secret Invasion is possibly the ultimate example of Extruded Franchise Product: something that exists to make money and to keep fans ticking over until the Next Thing in the franchise appears to take their money. It does not dare to innovate, say or do anything interesting. It simply exists, without much in the way of passion or engagement.

Exactly how you make this premise the most boring entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date is a matter for conjecture. You have an outrageously good cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Olivia Coleman, Don Cheadle, Cobie Smulders, Martin Freeman (in a much smaller-than-expected role), Emilia Clarke and a bunch of promising newcomers. The most notable of these is Kingsley Ben-Adir who shows some fire as main antagonist Gravik but is let down by the indifferent writing. Everyone else phones their performances in, apart from Olivia Coleman who is having more fun than everybody else on the show combined, and Don Cheadle, who gets a few great scenes as the sarcastic Skrull-disguised-as-Rhodey. Perhaps a sign that Cheadle should get more villainous roles in the future.

The show also has a remarkable air of topicality: the rebel Skrull plan is to trigger a third world war by undertaking attacks on Russian and NATO soil and getting them to blame one another. In one decidedly bonkers moment, we learn that Russian forces are moving into Ukraine (the show was written and partially filmed before the February 2022 invasion, but completed shooting and post-production afterwards). There is also a lot of commentary on how to handle refugees and deal with displaced populations. However, any potential for the show to speak to our current moment is lost by the writing resolutely steering away from such things, presumably because it just wants to be escapist entertainment (which is a bit hard when the show leans so hard into modern-feeling issues).

Still, you could still have a good show if anybody felt like they were actually invested in this idea. Much has been made of the opening title sequence, which was partially generated by artificial intelligence. I'm surprised there hasn't been more attention paid to if the script was written by artificial intelligence as well. It feels like a greatest hits of Marvel and thriller tropes thrown into a blender and the results fired at a wall to see what sticks, but with almost no passion or excitement about the ideas in play.

The show's biggest mistake is wasting Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson is a fantastic, charismatic performer, but here he is depicted as filled with self-doubt. On one level, it's great that the show allows Jackson's Fury to be human and flawed, and weighed down in the latter part of his life by everything he's done. But that would require an outstanding pedigree of writing and direction to pull off, which is not the case here. Jackson instead often comes across as bored, with flat line deliveries. He sometimes sparks into life, and the show is at its best when he and Mendelsohn are exchanging quips or he and Cheadle are engaged in dramatic face-offs. But these moments are relatively few and far between.

Secret Invasion (**) should be a home run: one of the most popular performers in the MCU in a (relatively) grounded, near-future thriller, packed with interesting and - if inadvertently - topical ideas. Instead it feels tired, bored and out of gas. There are flashes of quality, a few good performances, a couple of solid character scenes, some nice action beats, but these are separated by yawning voids of mediocrity. Easily the weakest MCU TV show to date and a strong claimant to being the weakest instalment of the MCU as a whole.

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Justin Pyle said...

Great write up, Adam.

Say I wanted to save 6 hours of my life but still keep up with MCU developments for future shows and movies. Anything lasting that I need to know coming out of this series?

orthorim said...

I don't understand how this blog doesn't have an army of fans - by far the best written comprehensive SciFi page out there.