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In Its Premiere, Secret Invasion Turns Nick Fury into an Avatar of the MCU

Secret Invasion episode 1 premiere review Nick Fury Samuel L Jackson MCU avatar

This discussion and review contains only minor spoilers for the Secret Invasion episode 1 premiere on Disney+.

There is a fairly decent chance that Nick Fury will be the first line in Samuel L. Jackson’s obituary.

That’s strange to think about. Jackson is a dramatic titan. He has enjoyed a long career spanning five decades, with his IMDb page listing more than 200 roles. Jackson has worked with directors like Quentin Tarantino, Spike Lee, and Steven Spielberg. He can do pretty much anything that a project asks of him, from fleshing out a large ensemble to adding a bit of heft to a supporting role to holding a project together through the force of sheer will. Jackson is, to put it simply, a legend.

However, when the chips are down, there is a good chance that Jackson will be remembered as the one-eyed spymaster at the center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). This association predates even his casting. When writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch offered their alternate-universe take on The Avengers in The Ultimates at the turn of the millennium, they reinvented Nick Fury — who had previously been played by David Hasselhoff — as an obvious Jackson avatar.

Millar and Hitch did this without Jackson’s permission, but they weren’t shy about it. At one point in The Ultimates, the characters wonder who might play them in a movie adaptation, and Fury replies that the only choice is Samuel L. Jackson. “That’s not even open to debate,” he states. This inspired Jackson to directly approach Marvel about the character, and the actor remembers the response, “Yeah, we are planning on making movies, and we do hope you’ll be a part of them.”

With its cinematic sensibility and its grounded framework, The Ultimates served as a template for the nascent MCU. According to Millar, it made Kevin Feige “realize an Avengers movie could actually be a lot simpler than they’d thought.” When working with Jackson on Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, Millar wondered whether Jackson was upset that they’d used his likeness without permission. The actor simply replied, “Fuck, no, man. Thanks for the nine-picture deal.”

Secret Invasion episode 1 premiere review Nick Fury Samuel L Jackson MCU avatar

Iron Man was the first movie in the MCU, and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) was the studio’s first cinematic superhero. However, it was Nick Fury who ushered the shared universe into existence. He appeared briefly in a post-credits scene, welcoming Stark to “a much bigger universe.” He created the promise that — for the first time — these seemingly disconnected superhero blockbusters would tie together into one gigantic epic. As Fury, Jackson would be the glue holding it together.

More than a decade later, it seems like every emerging franchise wants to have a Nick Fury-like character to potentially tie individual films into a larger narrative. Russell Crowe was clearly intended to serve that function as Doctor Jekyll in the misbegotten Dark Universe. Viola Davis and Ben Affleck have split the responsibility in Warner Bros.’ DCEU. Even Transformers: Rise of the Beasts features Michael Kelly as a representative of a certain organization in the movie’s final scene.

It’s impossible to overstate how important Fury was to this larger shared universe. He was a driving force in The Avengers, the company’s first big crossover movie. He made a couple of appearances on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to grant the television series the veneer of connectedness. When Captain Marvel took the franchise back to the 1990s, the film went out of its way to use the opportunity to provide an origin story for the franchise’s enigmatic super-spy.

As Fury, Jackson is an embodiment of the MCU. He is one of the franchise’s last surviving veterans, having outlasted other stars like Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Ed Norton, and Scarlett Johansson. Jackson’s adaptability also means that he can do anything the franchise needs him to do. He can be a co-lead, like in The Avengers and Captain Marvel. He can be a brand ambassador, like in Spider-Man: Far From Home. He can be an effective cameo, like in Avengers: Infinity War or Avengers: Endgame.

Secret Invasion is built around this understanding of Fury. It’s strange that it took the MCU a decade and a half to give Jackson his own showcase, but Secret Invasion is very much a character study of the man who built the shared universe and showcase for the franchise’s most reliable performer. It is an opportunity for Jackson to hold court. It feels appropriate that one key sequence in the first episode premiere of Secret Invasion finds Fury observing the action while sitting in a chair that belonged to Louis XIV.

However, Secret Invasion is also about Nick Fury as an avatar for Marvel Studios. After all, these have been a turbulent few years for the studio. Phase 4 was not the critical and commercial success that Phase 3 had been. Films like Eternals and Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania garnered the MCU its worst reviews ever. Even films with technically positive reviews, like Thor: Love and Thunder or Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, tended to be more polarizing among fans, critics, and general audiences.

The franchise’s box office dominance was challenged. In 2021, Black Widow, Eternals, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings were all outgrossed by movies like Godzilla vs. Kong, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and No Time to Die. In 2022, none of the studio’s offerings could compete with Top Gun: Maverick or Avatar: The Way of Water. The company’s most successful recent film, Spider-Man: No Way Home, was actually produced by Sony and feels like something of a divorce movie.

While the company is still in robust health, it’s not top dog anymore. More than that, there are rumblings of the dreaded “superhero fatigue.” Marvel Studios has adopted something of a defensive stance, a war footing. It’s pushed back movies like The Marvels and its upcoming Avengers sequels. It’s cut the number of shows dropping on streaming and effectively written off Echo. The studio is no longer in its imperial phase. This is to be expected. Nobody wins forever.

Secret Invasion episode 1 premiere review Nick Fury Samuel L Jackson MCU avatar

Many of the company’s recent projects are built around this understanding. Multiverse of Madness and Love and Thunder feel like a brand working through a midlife crisis, contemplating existential questions about what could possibly follow Endgame. Multiverse of Madness, Love and Thunder, Eternals, No Way Home, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 are all — to one degree or another — “breakup movies,” and they feel like the franchise is navigating a shifting relationship to audiences.

This is part of the text of Secret Invasion, with Nick Fury serving as an avatar of the troubled and diminished shared universe. In a literal sense, Secret Invasion is about bringing Fury back to Earth. The character’s introductory scene, the first scene after the opening credits, finds Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) greeting Fury on his arrival back to the planet. “Welcome back to Earth,” she states. Fury has had his head in the clouds for too long. He needs to get his feet on solid ground.

Throughout the premiere, characters contemplate whether Fury has something, suggesting that he is no longer what he once was. Pagon (Killian Scott) talks about how Fury is “washed up, walks with a limp, can barely see with his good eye.” A stranger in a pub (Mihai Arsene) taunts him, “You’ll never be the man you once were.” Hill wonders if it’s time to cash in his chips, “You always told me there’s no shame in walking away when the steps are uncertain.”

Fury is presented as old. The series makes little effort to disguise Jackson’s advancing age, letting him grow a bushy gray beard. Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) asks him what he got for his “midlife crisis shopping spree,” and Fury replies, “The Avengers.” When he’s taken to Sonya Falsworth’s (Olivia Colman) office, he makes a point to study the clocks adorning the wall. “A clock goes up when your time in the circus is done,” she explains. Is Fury’s time done? Is he over the hill?

Secret Invasion episode 1 premiere review Nick Fury Samuel L Jackson MCU avatar

Secret Invasion isn’t exactly subtle in its central metaphor. Characters repeatedly state that Fury hasn’t been the same since Infinity War and Endgame, echoing fan criticisms about the state of the franchise after those critical and commercial smashes. “I think Thanos’ snap changed you,” Falsworth chides Fury. “You were never the same after the Blip,” Hill tells him at one point. Can Fury find his way back to the man that he once was? Can the MCU find its way back to what it once was?

Secret Invasion suggests that Fury and the MCU needs to re-engage with something resembling reality, whether the gritty spy aesthetics of the genre or perhaps even the somewhat uncomfortable social commentary of this conspiracy theory plot. It’s revealed that Fury “abandoned Earth” in “a crisis of faith,” and Secret Invasion is framed as a narrative about Fury trying to find his way back. It’s telling that personal stakes articulated by Falsworth are for Fury to “go back to (his) space station.”

It’s a compelling setup for a serialized event narrative like Secret Invasion. It’s a framework for the MCU to work through its existential crisis using Fury as a stand-in for the company and the universe itself. However, there’s also a tension there. The past cannot be revived or recaptured. The MCU accomplished something truly spectacular with Infinity War and Endgame, but maturity would come from accepting that times change and that people (and franchises) should change with them.

Secret Invasion gestures at that idea. It is an attempt to construct a star-driven MCU project without any actual superheroes in it. It’s a literal-minded attempt to avoid superhero fatigue. Even Rhodey (Don Cheadle) doesn’t wear his work costume. However, watching the premiere, the show’s embrace of espionage tropes feels more like a shallow affectation than a meaningful attempt to find a new way of telling stories within this gigantic franchise.

Secret Invasion sets up a story about how Fury is no longer the man that he once was and how the MCU is no longer the dominant cultural force that it once was. There is a lot of interesting drama to mine from the premise, and the real test of Secret Invasion will lie in whether it can truly find a new path forward for Fury and the MCU, or whether its response to these existential anxieties will be a trite reassurance that Fury and the MCU are as good as they ever were and it’s the children who are wrong.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.