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Secret Invasion

Created by Kyle Bradstreet

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn and Olivia Colman

Streaming on Disney+ starting June 21, with new episodes added weekly

Going by the online chatter, the new Marvel Cinematic Universe series Secret Invasion – wait, can a television show still be part of a “cinematic” universe? – is meant to be the Avengers’ answer to Andor: a mature, dark, thematically complex take on a franchise that has until now been primarily aimed at children. That’s a bold goal, given that Andor, with its morally compromised characters and thrilling intergalactic set-pieces, has been the strongest thing that the Star Wars brand has developed in decades. Even more ambitious because, up till now, almost every single one of Marvel’s eight Disney+ series has been a crushing disappointment.

With the exception of Loki’s first season – which leaned into genuinely weird stories when it didn’t coast on zippy performances from Tom Hiddleston and Owen Wilson – Marvel’s foray into the streaming wars have resembled a giant and tattered white flag. When series like She-Hulk and Moon Knight weren’t showcasing incredibly embarrassing visual effects, they were stretching mediocre stories into six-hour endurance tests. I’m still unsure what was the point of something like Hawkeye other than to juice Disney+ subscriptions by pledging to deliver can’t-miss canonical adventures and instead producing disposable side-chapters.

But Secret Invasion, which adapts one of Marvel’s most adventurous and complex comic-book arcs, will be different, no? Fool me once, shame on me. Fool me … however deep into the MCU’s “phases” we are, well, super-shame on all of us.

The new series revolves around long-time spymaster Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) uncovering a global conspiracy in which the shape-shifting aliens called the Skrulls – first introduced in the 2019 movie Captain Marvel – infiltrate Earth by disguising themselves as politicians, generals, even superheroes. Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets V, laced with the espionage games of a John le Carré novel. Actually, don’t think too hard, because for all of Secret Invasions’ promises, the series – at least the first two episodes made available to critics – are as thrilling as redacting Disney’s latest P&L statement.

The chief problem is that, well, Marvel has decided to make a TV show instead of a full-fledged feature film. Thanks to budgetary and corporate-priority concerns, the stakes are naturally lower when it comes to the story’s central “shape-shifting” conceit. The thrill of the original comic-book storyline was that anyone – even a top hero like Captain America or Doctor Strange – could be a Skrull in disguise all this time.

Open this photo in gallery:

Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Mendelsohn in a scene from Secret Invasion on Disney+.Handout

If movie stars like Brie “Captain Marvel” Larson and Tom “Spider-Man” Holland aren’t compelled to appear here, then the show only has C-list characters and new faces to work with – and does anyone much care whether, say, Martin Freeman’s CIA agent Everett K. Ross is actually a Skrull or not? As it is, Marvel has wasted a potentially great film by tossing it into the undiscerning Disney+ maw.

Perhaps if the series had a signature visual style or go-for-broke action, it might be worth some lazy weeknight attention. But as shot by director Ali Selim, Secret Invasion is set almost entirely in sparsely decorated office boardrooms and muddily lit alleys. It only occasionally shifts from these anonymous locales to stage set-pieces in large public spaces that are meant to be Moscow but could be Anywhere, Europe. The chases are slow, the explosions meh, the entire pace and tempo sluggish. There is even one moment in the second episode in which Fury, escaping bad guys on a train, lets out the longest and flattest of sighs, as if the hero, too, is underwhelmed by his adventure.

But the real folly of Secret Invasion is that it compels the best actors of any Marvel series so far to squirm while delivering soul-deadening expository dialogue. Not only is franchise veteran Jackson wasted here, but Secret Invasion also has no idea what to do with Ben Mendelsohn (playing a good Skrull), Kingsley Ben-Adir (as an evil Skrull), Emilia Clarke (a sorta-good-sorta-evil Skrull), and even the magnificent Olivia Colman (doing her very best attempt to liven things as a MI6 honcho). The talent on display is staggering – I almost forgot that Don Cheadle and Dermot Mulroney also pop by, scratching their heads and cashing cheques – and should serve as a warning for any top-tier actor who has not yet submitted to the Marvel machine.

Could Secret Invasion pull a Skrull move of its own and reveal itself to be a far more interesting series in disguise by the time of the third or fourth episode? Anything is possible, but given that Marvel series tend to lead with their strengths – the first five minutes of The Falcon and The Winter Soldier heralded 360 terribly more boring ones – I’m more likely to reveal myself as MCU mastermind Kevin Feige. Shhhhh. No one needs to know.

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