This discussion and review contains minor spoilers for Secret Invasion episode 3, “Betrayed,” on Disney+.
With “Betrayed,” it is clear that Secret Invasion wants to be a very specific kind of television show. It is also very apparent how that kind of show departs from the established template of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). However, it is also very obvious that Secret Invasion has some way to go towards realizing that potential.
There has been a lot written about the perceived onset of “superhero fatigue,” particularly around the box office performance of films like Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash. Whether these concerns have any basis in reality is the subject of debate. However, it is certain that Marvel Studios is taking these concerns seriously. In recent months, the studio has throttled release dates and trimmed content.
This anxiety is woven into the fabric of Secret Invasion. From the opening moments of “Resurrection” — an episode with a very pointed title — the show has treated Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) as a walking, talking embodiment of the shared universe, a hero confronting the possibility of his own obsolescence and trying to prove that he has not lost a step since the release of Avengers: Endgame. This is a show about proving that Marvel Studios can still do it.
When Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige was asked whether audiences would ever tire of comic book adaptations, he insisted that the medium was highly flexible. “There’s 80 years of the most interesting, emotional, groundbreaking stories that have been told in the Marvel comics, and it is our great privilege to be able to take what we have and adapt them,” Feige argued. “Another way to do that is adapting them into different genres, and what types of movies we want to make.”
Feige is correct. There has been a wealth of different kinds of stories told in the pages of the source material. The company has supported art styles as striking as those of Jim Steranko, Bill Sienkiewicz, or Gene Colan. It has told stories in a variety of genres, from the gritty street-level psychodrama of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev’s Daredevil, to the pop satire of Peter Milligan and Mike Allred’s X-Statix, to the mind-bending mythology of Jonathan Hickman and Dustin Weaver’s S.H.I.E.L.D.
However, the MCU has never really reflected that versatility. Writer Christopher Markus might talk about how Captain America: The Winter Soldier was “a 70s, political, Brian De Palma-William Friedkin kind of film” and director Peyton Reed might describe Ant-Man as “a heist film,” but the movies are similar in structure, tone, and narrative. It’s easy to understand why audiences might feel what Chris Miller describes as “a movie that feels like a movie I’ve seen a dozen times before” fatigue.
This is even true of the streaming shows, which were ostensibly a space for the brand to experiment and try new things free of the constraints of blockbuster cinema. WandaVision began as a fascinating exploration of the history of television as a medium, but it inevitably degenerated into various computer-generated sprites modeled on the primary cast blasting color-coded energy beams at one another. It is all very samey.
On paper, Secret Invasion is positioned as a reaction against this criticism of the studio. It also feels like an attempt to test the waters for the long-term viability of Marvel Studios as a brand. If “superhero fatigue” is a real thing, then it seems deliberate that Secret Invasion is an attempt to build a show within the shared universe that doesn’t happen to have any superheroes in it. Is the Marvel brand strong enough that it can sell a project like this without any capes or cowls?
After all, the bulk of the returning cast of Secret Invasion is made up of secondary cast members from other major releases, spies and functionaries like Nick Fury, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). The one superhero who is part of the primary cast, James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), has yet to appear in his superhero persona as War Machine. There is, conceptually, a certain grounded quality to all of this.
President Ritson (Dermot Mulroney) is the first American president to appear in a Marvel Studios project since President Matthew Ellis (William Sadler) in Iron Man 3, more than a decade ago. The supporting cast is rounded out with characters occupying real-world-adjacent political office. Pamela Lawton (Anna Madeley) is prime minister of the United Kingdom, while Sergio Caspani (Giampiero Judica) is the commander of NATO.
There is something very defensive about this. Secret Invasion feels like an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of The Winter Soldier, a film that was praised at the time as “an unexpectedly grown-up thriller” that was “more spy thriller than superhero sequel.” If the company is trying to figure out a path forward in an uncertain time, it makes sense to look to The Winter Soldier as a template to guide it forward.
In some ways, Marvel is still defined by its twin tentpoles from 2014: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two movies that demonstrated the range of what the studio could do. The influence of these films is obvious. The Russo Brothers went from directing The Winter Soldier to directing Endgame, while Guardians of the Galaxy proved that the studio could offer the sort of cosmic spectacle that it would employ on later projects like Captain Marvel and Quantumania.
However, the influence of Guardians of the Galaxy may be in decline. James Gunn finished his trilogy with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, a film that is in some ways about the challenges of working within a system hostile to genuine creativity. While Captain Marvel was a massive financial success, the reviews were unexceptional. Quantumania massively underperformed. Marvel cannot replicate what Gunn did with Guardians of the Galaxy. It makes sense it has turned to The Winter Soldier.
The scale of Secret Invasion is appreciably smaller and more in keeping with the trappings of an espionage thriller than the blockbuster action of The Winter Soldier. “Betrayed” unfolds in cars, pubs, offices, art galleries, nuclear submarines, bunkers, and country houses. A lot of business is conducted over cell phones. The most expensive computer-rendered shots within the episode are shots of submarines and charter jets.
It’s honestly fascinating that key scenes in both “Promises” and “Betrayed” have featured two actors talking to one another across a table in a communal dining area, with Rhodey firing Fury in “Promises” and Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) hosting a “parlay” with Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir) in “Betrayed.” Even just looking at the visual language of the show and its storytelling conventions, this is an aesthetic closer to The Old Man than to Quantumania.
On paper, this is commendable. It is easy to understand why, as Joanna Robinson reported, sources within the company were quick to point to Secret Invasion as “their Andor.” Even the logo is similar, as the letters of the title come into focus around a planet viewed from space. Andor represented something of a critical reset for Disney’s Star Wars brand, a genuinely ambitious piece of television that demonstrated something the Star Wars franchise had never attempted previously.
However, Secret Invasion brushes up against two big problems as a test case for the long-term viability of the shared universe beyond familiar capes and cowls. The most obvious is that it feels decidedly noncommittal. The show is constantly reassuring viewers that the superheroes are still a part of this narrative, even if they aren’t appearing on screen. This is a common problem with post-Endgame projects, with movies like Eternals compelled to name-drop the Avengers.
“The heroes of Earth will react,” Gravik tells his council. “The only way we can counter that and claim this planet as our home is to become super ourselves. Now, we no longer just change faces. We change powers. We’re going to be uniquely programmed weapons of mass destruction. All of us. Super Skrulls.” It is a clumsy speech that feels desperate, as if the show is trying to assure audiences that there will be some big special-effects-driven action if they wait through enough talky bits.
The second problem is that Secret Invasion simply isn’t very good at this, on a nuts-and-bolts level. The show’s answer to the eloquent dialogue of literary spy fiction is a scene of Talos and Fury arguing over picking up dog excrement. “I mean, just name me one other interspecies relationship where it’s acceptable to clean up the other guy’s poop,” complains Talos, as the show makes it explicit as a metaphor for the dynamic between the two. Talos is hardly talking about “burning his decency.”
There is some interesting character work here. It’s nice that “Betrayed” is structured around the idea of Fury having to learn humility, trying to get around apologizing to Priscilla (Charlayne Woodard), Talos, and Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman), and accepting that he didn’t accomplish anything on his own. However, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. This is obvious even during the high-stakes climax, as the Skrulls threaten to plunge humanity into war.
This is a ticking clock sequence. It’s like something from 24. However, the stakes never feel especially real, and the solution doesn’t feel earned. Commodore Robert Fairbanks (David Bark-Jones) is the only way to stop that attack… until Talos shoots him, and then he isn’t. Talos then just calls G’iah (Emilia Clarke) and gets her to solve the problem in two minutes of screentime, blowing her cover and leading to her death. There’s no suspense. There’s no sense of escalation. Things just happen, with little build-up.
Espionage thrillers require clearly defined rules and setup. They aren’t just a set of aesthetics; they also adhere to their own internal logic. They need a strong sense of vision and purpose. They need clearly defined stakes, ambiguous characters, and a strong central viewpoint. Secret Invasion might have burner phones and belabored dog poop metaphors, but it never actually commits to the elements that make these sorts of thrillers work.
In some ways, Secret Invasion reflects the Skrulls at its core. This isn’t actually a compelling spy thriller. It’s not even an especially convincing copy. It’s just a generic Marvel show wearing the face of one.