In the opening scenes of Marvel’s Secret Invasion, the franchise sets up the darkest premise yet for the brightly-colored comic world of The Avengers. War with Russia is looming, triggered by a surprisingly realistic scenario, considering the current war in Ukraine (an invasion that had not occurred yet when the show was conceived and written). Said war is being spurred on by the not-actually-villains of 2019’s Captain Marvel, the Skrulls, to use as cover for their Terran Takeover To Be. Their shapeshifting abilities mean no one is who they seem; anyone could be the enemy. As the stakes skyrocket, series lead Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is caught up in Cold War-style espionage.
If this sounds straight out of FX’s The Americans, it’s supposed to. Years of critics pointing to Captain America: The Winter Soldier as a superior comic book film because it had that “1970s Cold War thriller” feel instead of being a CGI-fest have evidently left a mark. Secret Invasion looks like it was designed to imitate shows found on the Disney-owned FX brand, with tight close-ups, drab surroundings, and scenes that aren’t just dark in theme, but dark in a “please turn on the lights” way. (An ironic problem, as FX’s one attempt at a Marvel show, Legion, was well-lit.)
Disney CEO Bob Iger recently confirmed plans were underway for Hulu subscribers to access the service via Disney+; Secret Invasion would appear to have arrived early. It looks a little lost with the Marvel logo brand slapped on it, sitting next to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier trading gossip with She-Hulk and her crew of guest stars.
In reality, Secret Invasion is a Disney+ show attempting to ape the “adult” fare over on the brand where the monopoly’s “non-family-friendly fare” goes to stream. The series was initially planned to directly follow the release of Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania in theaters, forming a double whammy of dramatic turns to kick off Phase 5 of “The Multiverse Saga.” The title was not given an official release date at Phase 5’s unveiling; however, it was prominently placed between Quantumania’s February debut and Guardians of the Galaxy 3’s May arrival, putting it smack in the middle of the March-April Emmy Contender release territory.
However, Quantumania’s failure to deliver the drama (or the box office goods), coupled with Bob Iger’s disapproving noises about the number of Marvel titles coming out, prevented Secret Invasion’s originally promised debut right smack in the Emmy contenders corridor from materializing. What’s left is a series desperately trying to imitate what it thinks prestige TV is made of — paranoia, violence, criminal activity, and curse words. (Not too many, of course, this is Disney+; but Jackson is also the man who famously played a character with “Bad Motherf*cker” on his wallet, and also a Jedi who apocryphally had the same on his lightsaber.)
Worse, the series doesn’t seem to have the courage of its convictions. Disney+ only gave critics two episodes ahead of time, but even those who have only seen one will quickly realize the series has revealed which humans are Skrulls and which are not, deflating the tension inherent in bodysnatchers-type horror. Perhaps the show has plans to build the tension in other ways, but so far, no dice.
The “Where are the Avengers?” problem also looms large, and that’s not just because one would think “aliens invading Earth by conspiring to begin a nuclear war” might be a problem Earth’s Mightiest Heroes would be interested in solving. In the Secret Invasion comics run the series is based on, multiple members of the Avengers team are secretly Skrulls; their reveal is part of the gut-wrenching twist. With no Avengers other than special guest star Don Cheadle, who is there as much to remind us that his character, Rhodey, will be starring in his own Disney+ series Armor Wars, as he is for the plot, there’s fewer harrowing twists on the horizon.
But even if the Disney+ series were equipped to pull off an awards-season barn burner on par with HBO’s Succession, or Showtime’s Yellowjackets, Secret Invasion would still have a hard time getting the attention of the Television Academy due to the Marvel label. As the least “Marvel” series of the franchise, the series is the televisual equivalent of a Skrull: It’s shapeshifted into an approximation of a prestige TV series, but failed to get the small details right. In doing that, it threatens to wind up in a no man’s land, not fun enough for a Marvel series but not serious enough to be anything else.
Assuming being “dark and broody” is the way to Emmy glory would be an understandable mistake… for someone who isn’t in the television or film industry. The Primetime Emmy drama category has been awarding dystopian nightmares and violent, paranoid fantasies left and right since Game of Thrones: House of Cards, The Americans, The Handmaid’s Tale, Mr. Robot, and Bodyguard, just to name a few. However, that isn’t all it takes to be recognized by the Emmys, nor is it what defines prestige TV.
What gets the attention of critics and voters is when a show is true to the story and executed to the best of the team’s ability. This Is Us was a great riff on the typical weepfest broadcast show; Succession, a fantastic black comedy family drama. The Crown, Pose, and Bridgerton all earned nominations not for being violent or dark, but for being the highest-end versions of themselves. Marvel already should know this; after all, it landed multiple Emmy nominations for creating the best version of a Marvel TV series imaginable, WandaVision.
Phase 4 has not been kind to WandaVision. The series was severely undercut by Dr. Strange in The Multiverse of Madness and was an unfortunate casualty of Marvel’s pre-launch attitude towards Disney+, which saw its small-screen fare as the streaming equivalent of DVD extras — only viewed by the hardcore fans, failing to coordinate them with the tentpole films. The series, which is as much a love letter to TV sitcoms as a comic book adventure, was a startling breath of fresh air from the franchise, wholly unexpected. That was enough to vault WandaVision over its near-failure to stick the landing — “The Series Finale” was badly hamstrung by lead actors hanging from wires in CGI mush — and nab 23 Emmy nominations in 2021.
Perhaps Marvel and CEO Kevin Feige mistook WandaVision’s shut-out during the Primetime Emmy broadcast for a sign of failure, despite the show having taken home multiple awards during the Creative Arts ceremony. If so, that would be a shame. But it’s hard to see Secret Invasion’s desperate cosplaying as a prestige drama as anything but a misread of how to lure Emmy voters.
New episodes of Secret Invasion drop Wednesdays at 3:01 A.M. ET on Disney+. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily.
TOPICS: Secret Invasion