‘Secret Invasion’ Review: Samuel L. Jackson Returns to the MCU in a Disney+ Series With Few Surprises

The latest Marvel show boasts an impressive cast, but offers little in the way of ingenuity or depth

Marvel Studios

Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), a Marvel Cinematic Universe character who belongs to a shapeshifting alien race called the Skrulls, is both older and younger than he looks. At one point during the first episode of “Secret Invasion,” Marvel’s latest Disney+ series, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) notes that Talos is moving pretty well for someone north of 130 years old, while Talos points out that in human years, he’s closer to 40, and that he hasn’t even reached his midlife crisis yet. (In real life, Mendelsohn is 54.) Talos then asks the formerly eyepatched super-spy what he did for his own midlife crisis; Fury responds that he founded the Avengers, one of the serious-minded show’s few laugh lines. Whatever crises may unfold over the course of “Secret Invasion,” meanwhile, would qualify more as the three-quarters-life variety; Fury is starting to show his age and his weariness is reflected in the show itself.

That’s not a dig, especially because Jackson has always looked, sounded, and acted younger than his years. After showing up as an early face of the MCU — handy shorthand signaling that the company was serious about tying its characters together in a bigger universe — his Nick Fury has been scarcer in the most recent phases of the project. “Secret Invasion” features his first major live-action appearance in the MCU since 2019, and it’s a long-overdue showcase that puts Jackson’s name first above the title. Fury hasn’t even been on Earth for the last cycle of Marvel movies and TV shows; after being “blipped” back to life in “Avengers: Endgame,” he started working with the intergalactic organization S.A.B.E.R. on a distant space station. In “Secret Invasion,” he returns home to find a Skrull plot to take over the planet, led by the relentless Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir).  

This could potentially confuse both comics readers and movies-only Marvel fans; the Skrulls were floated as red-herring bad guys in the 1990s-set “Captain Marvel,” where they turned out to be the oppressed, not the oppressors, subverting the expectations of the comics-literate. Nearly three decades later, though, at least some of them are ready to fulfill a more villainous role — and their numbers are greater than Fury previously understood. Gravik’s faction of Skrulls secretly living on Earth has become dissatisfied with Fury’s long-unfulfilled promise to find them a new home, so they commit terrorist acts in disguise, hoping to nudge humanity into war. That G’iah (Emilia Clarke), one of the Skrull operatives, feels conflicted about the possible cost of her destructive mission may seem familiar to anyone who suffered through the muddle of “The Falcon and the Winter Soldier.”

Talos is one of the few fantastical characters to pursue this investigation; otherwise, the show checks in with the more human side of the MCU, with early appearances from Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) and Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), along with new character Sonya Falsworth (Olivia Colman), a ruthless MI6 agent. The small-screen treatment of this story seems designed to be less of an all-hands, game-changing event than the splashy comics that inspired it; in other words, it’s yet another opportunity for a Marvel sub-property to claim more grown-up influences.

While “Secret Invasion” will function as an above-average paranoid spy thriller for a superhero-hungry audience with almost no experience actually watching spy thrillers, it does offer some more grounded pleasures than the recent MCU shows. Chief among those are Mendelsohn and especially Jackson, whose real-time aging (he’s been playing Fury for 15 years at this point) gives the show some gravitas that may not be there in its writing. Fury, now bearded and missing his trademark eyepatch, may be unsettled, but Jackson manages to sink into the role like an easy chair, at once comfortable and, behind his impeccable threads, quietly worn out. The best bits of “Secret Invasion” are when it feels like a moderately stylish Jackson vehicle; one of the fieriest moments of the admirably action-light first two episodes is an argument in a train compartment between Talos and Fury.

If only series director Ali Selim made this stuff look a little more dynamic than the standard cloak-and-dagger shadows, or if the show’s dialogue had any of the stylized snap associated with comics author Brian Michael Bendis. Instead, there are cliché-ridden references to World War III and pay grades – and in classic recent-MCU fashion, the story depends on essentially undoing the ending of the movie it’s sequelizing. “Captain Marvel” may not exactly qualify as sacred ground, but the endless reversals are tedious all the same. No wonder Fury looks so weary.

Of course, only two of six “Secret Invasion” episodes were provided for review; Jackson, Mendelsohn, and Colman will likely keep the whole thing watchable, and if Kingsley-Adir and Clarke get more to do as it progresses, maybe it’ll become more than that. At first, though, anyone hoping for the MCU equivalent of “Andor” that Jackson seems up for – a dark espionage drama with some fantasy trimmings – will likely be disappointed.

“Secret Invasion” premieres exclusively on Disney+ on June 21, 2023