‘Secret Invasion’ Review: Marvel’s Superhero-Lite Spy Thriller Is High on Twists, Low on Wits

At its most potent, shape-shifting isn’t a parlor trick. It’s one piece of a much larger puzzle. Take the original “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”: In the 1956 film — to which Marvel’s “Secret Invasion” is plainly indebted — alien spores grow into exact replicas of their human subjects, and these “pod people” slowly take over the town. While devoid of human emotion, the aliens assume each citizen’s memory, personality, and physical appearance, which makes it easy enough to replace their human targets without causing a stir. But all that body-swapping isn’t a game of Who’s Who. It gets under your skin, creating a tone of paranoia, panic, and fear that only grows with each chilling discovery. The payoff doesn’t come from one more rug being pulled, but crescendos in a conclusive tragedy.

Another equally effective use of mistaken identities appears in the “Mission: Impossible” movies. How Ethan Hunt & Co. utilize the IMF’s mask-making technology varies from film to film (or director to director), but the best reveals are often funny or informative — a clever, enlightening embellishment that’s in service of an exceedingly elaborate plan. Some also draw out a character’s emotional journey, as they do in “Body Snatchers,” but rarely does ripping off the rubber serve a single, isolated purpose. Like any narrative tool, it’s better when there’s real meaning behind it.

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“Secret Invasion,” which follows Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as he tries to prevent shape-shifting aliens from taking over Earth, appears more concerned with tricking viewers than rewarding them. Whereas previous movies and shows have used twins, clones, and transformations to destabilize their audience — to scare them, unnerve them, make them laugh, or demand their acute attention — the latest MCU series on Disney+ mainly sees its aliens’ powers as an opportunity for gotcha moments. “Is that guy a secret alien? What about that one? Maybe she’s one? Oh, I’m sure that’s another!” In the first two episodes, there are hints this one-trick-pony may finally learn to gallop — the second episode’s kicker could certainly add some real drama — but a slack tone, dearth of humor, and Marvel’s spotty track record in TV indicate those opportunities for greater resonance will drift by, untapped.

After all, if “Secret Invasion” had any ambitions beyond fulfilling Disney’s content demands, the six-episode limited series could speak to plenty of relevant, real-world issues. The primary setting is Russia. Our heroes’ greatest fear is a third world war. There are direct parallels to international refugees, foreign relation policies, and military overreach. Even Nick Fury’s personal arc — a limping, weary leader of the old guard who can’t tell if he’d do more good by stepping aside than hanging around — echoes topical political debates. But considering the MCU worships at the neutral altar of popcorn entertainment, the best it seems reasonable to hope for is that creator Kyle Bradstreet and super-producer Kevin Feige do something meaningful, fun, or affecting within their own rigidly structured narrative.

That’s why I held out hope for the shape-shifting. No matter what an executive producer claims, “Secret Invasion” is nothing like “The Americans” (besides the aforementioned Soviet ties). Marvel series are unwilling or incapable of fully embracing a new genre (“WandaVision” very much included), so to expect a geopolitical espionage thriller from a show where Samuel L. Jackson shouts, “Have you lost your reptilian-ass mind?” is setting yourself up for failure. But asking for thrills shouldn’t be asking too much, right? Nine shows into Marvel’s streaming experiment, we know what we’re getting, and “Secret Invasion” is nearly as disappointing as its predecessors — even when taken from a modified perspective.

Secret Invasion Olivia Colman Marvel series
Olivia Colman in “Secret Invasion”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

So what are you actually in for? Addressing events first surfaced in “Captain Marvel,” “Secret Invasion” picks up in the present day, when “the entire world is at war,” as one desperate undercover agent claims. Tensions are high, but exactly why is unclear. All that’s known for certain is that a faction of Skrulls are plotting a coup. They’ve been stranded on Earth for decades, waiting for Nick Fury and Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) to find them a new home planet. So far, the Avengers-adjacent agents have failed, and a few of the green, elf-like aliens are sick of waiting. They feel abandoned by Fury (who’s been working in space for a few years) and are starting to put down roots. Why not just stay?

It’s a fair question, but rather than pitch a peaceful settlement, extremist leader Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir) would rather pit mankind against itself and build his own civilization from the rubble. Not all Skrulls are on board, and Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) joins forces with Nick Fury (and his human cohorts Maria Hill and Everett Ross, played by Cobie Smulders and Martin Freeman, respectively) to try to avoid all-out war.

To say the first two episodes are suspense-free wouldn’t be entirely fair. The premiere’s climax works well enough, and the hourlong entries move along without the obvious bloat of past MCU TV shows. Still, “Secret Invasion” proves as tepid as it is inert. The cast, featuring multiple Oscar winners and future recipient Ben Mendelsohn, is barely given room to do anything — even Jackson, who has the most screen time, barely fits in a raised eyebrow or trademark shout. Colman and Ben-Adir fare best, unleashing their wild sides in all-too-brief spurts, and it’s exciting to see Mendelsohn play a good guy for once. But like with most Marvel entries, these dynamic talents are conscripted to spout blunt exposition, rote dialogue, and forced quips. (Stay tuned for a mid-life crisis joke that only exists so someone can mention The Avengers again.)

Each line is in service to a flat, familiar dynamic leading toward what already feels like a predictable conclusion. “Secret Invasion” doesn’t even attempt to embrace the spy genre’s aesthetic or kinetic delights. There are twists, but only die-hard fans will feel anything, and for a story without superheroes, there’s little done visually to make up for their absence. None of the Marvel shows look great, but at least the recurring images of Loki’s get-ups or Moon Knight’s cloaks added something to the sobering color palettes. For a spy story, where are the fancy locales and cool gadgets? (I know better than to expect anything sexy in the MCU, aside from the many beautiful actors who can’t help but be beautiful).

Even “Secret Invasion’s” ace in the hole has yet to be played with panache. Shape-shifting is a fun and impactful device when deployed with purpose. Here, it’s just as habitual as everything else.

Grade: C-

“Secret Invasion” premieres Wednesday, June 21 on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.

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