There’s a scene midway through an early episode of Secret Invasion, Disney+’s first Marvel series in more than eight months, that is thrilling and will have you on the edge of your seat.
And it involves two men talking in a restaurant.
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The men — Nick Fury and James “Rhodey” Rhodes, played by MCU vets Samuel L. Jackson and Don Cheadle — are old friends, which is something that perhaps, and understandably, eluded you over the course of their occasionally overlapping movie appearances. But Secret Invasion‘s not-so-secret weapon is that it can make time for these two to have a deep conversation that spans shapeshifting aliens, complicated foreign policy and the burden placed on successful Black men, and then builds to a rousing climax.
Premiering Wednesday, June 21, spanning six episodes (I’ve seen the first two) and based on the 2008 Marvel comic of the same name, Secret Invasion follows a faction of shapeshifting Skrulls who, it is realized, have been infiltrating all aspects of life on Earth for years. In addition to Jackson and Cheadle, the cast includes MCU vets Ben Mendelsohn (as Talos, the Skrull we first met in Captain Marvel), Cobie Smulders (former Deputy Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. Maria Hill) and Martin Freeman (CIA operative Everett K. Ross).
Franchise newcomers, meanwhile, include Emilia Clarke (Game of Thrones) as Talos’ daughter G’iah; Kingsley Ben-Adir (Peaky Blinders) as Gravik, the leader of a group of Skrull extremists; and Olivia Colman (The Crown) as Sonya Falsworth, an antagonistic (but oh-so-resourceful) MI6 agent.
It’s tempting to frame Secret Invasion as Marvel’s counterpart to the Star Wars TV series’ Andor, in that both are a bit less about the pew!-pew!-pew! and instead delve into the grounded, oft-muddy areas of espionage. And yes, Secret Invasion, despite opening with a foot chase in Moscow, is, like Andor, rather slow out of the gate. But by the end of the opening hour (the first two episodes are both 50+ minutes, with credits), the stakes are set in a dramatic way that you won’t see coming and that will feel like a punch in the gut.
What is left for one to say about Samuel L. Jackson? His Nick Fury has always been cool like the other side of the pillow, but as both Maria Hill and Talos note here, he’s been quite distant since disappearing during the Blip. In fact, he’s been literally and frustratingly distant, while overseeing the build of the S.A.B.E.R. space station first glimpsed in the Spider-Man Far From Home post-credits scene. But as Secret Invasion digs into Fury’s psyche, Jackson easily delivers his best MCU work ever. Ditto Smulders (whose last live-action MCU appearance was 2019’s Spider-Man Far From Home) and Cheadle (last but barely seen as Rhodey in Disney+’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier).
Mendelsohn similarly gets to build on the little we learned about Talos and Skrull society in Captain Marvel, with his character dropping some bombs along the way that just might recontextualize your opinion of Fury.
Of those new to the MCU, Colman is clearly having the utmost fun, whether MI6’s Sonya is locking horns with Fury or boasting of her ability to force intel out of a Skrull. Clarke gets to play a variety of notes as G’iah juggles her loyalty to Gravik’s cause with her instinctive reaction to some devastating news on the home front, but two episodes in, the character is still a bit thin. Ben-Adir as Gravik is lightly featured and thus a bit hard to read in the very early goings, but the Episode 1 climax, followed by one of the aforementioned flashbacks, explosively kickstarts his villain’s journey.
If Episodes 3-6 are more like the second episode, and less like the first, this sum total of Secret Invasion could prove to deliver the uptick in quality recent MCU fare has needed.
As a production, Secret Invasion boasts terrific visual effects. The shapeshifting is efficiently conveyed (though someones needs to explain to me like I am 7 how clothing changes in kind), Jackson is de-aged a la Captain Marvel for a couple of flashbacks, and a bombing scene is thoroughly harrowing — in a way previously glossed over in the MCU — with its suggestion of loss of life.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: In the wake of CGI-saturated, cosmic movies like Ant-Man 3 and Guardians 3, Disney+’s Secret Invasion is a welcome blast of serious, grounded MCU fare.