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I will die on this hill: Secret Invasion’s big death sets a bar for Marvel

Points to the ‘mature’ Disney Plus era for finally rattling me

Kingsley Ben-Adir as Gravik looking very satisfied he just blew up some people in Secret Invasion
Kingsley Ben-Adir as Gravik in Secret Invasion
Photo: Gareth Gatrell/Marvel Studios
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

After the first hour of Marvel’s new Disney Plus series Secret Invasion, I’m not entirely sure what creator Kyle Bradstreet (Mr. Robot) and the MCU collective are scratching at beyond the global thriller pastiche. Yes, there’s a spiraling refugee crisis and a surfacing terrorist plot, but even with the explosive finale… what is the show about? The question might be moot: The intro to Nick Fury’s solo outing left me grasping for meaning, but gasping for air. Secret Invasion at the very least is ready to pull the rug out from under me in every episode, whether in the form of alien reveals or character deaths.

And the premiere, “Resurrection,” delivers on all of the above, ending with one of the more grounded, terrifying death scenes in the Marvel universe.

[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for Secret Invasion episode 1.]

Maria Hill and Nick Fury sit at a bar in Secret Invasion Photo: Des Willie/Marvel Studios

Heroes have been killed off for dramatic effect over the continuous 15-year MCU saga, but this death hit me and asserted the stakes of Secret Invasion. It’s up to Fury to make sure Maria Hill, one of his closest accomplices, didn’t die in vain.

I should have seen it coming: Around the 40-minute mark in “Resurrection,” Fury and Maria sit down at a Russian pub to sip beer and bourbon and play a round of chess.

“Are you going to move?” Hill asks Fury.

“I haven’t decided,” he replies.

That’s what she’s worried about. With the looming threat of a shadowy Skrull organization and its human-threatening schemes, Hill arrives to Secret Invasion with a lack of faith for her boss who “was always three steps ahead.” But after the events of Avengers: Endgame, after Tony Stark’s snap brought him back into existence, Fury went away to space and never looked back. Hill didn’t hear from him, and the only reason she rang him to help out with the Skrull threat was because Talos, forever his friend, asked her to do it.

“Working with Sam is my favorite thing,” Smulders said at a recent Secret Invasion press conference, a heap of praise that made Jackson audibly snort. “He laughs, but it’s true! So it was really exciting to come back. But [...] I think the relationship is quite strained because [Maria’s] been calling and he hasn’t been answering.”

The chess game that they’re not actually playing is an obvious metaphor: To Maria, this is not the Fury who strolled in with swagger to assemble the Avengers or sniffed out the HYDRA rot from SHIELD.

“You’re not ready for this, Fury,” she tells him. “There’s a very real threat out here. You were never the same after the Blip. You always told me there’s no shame in walking away when the steps are uncertain. So check your footing. Otherwise someone is going to get hurt.”

Of course, someone does get hurt. Though Talos’ daughter G’iah leaks the plans for her boss Gravik’s attack on Vossoyedineniye Square in Russia, Talos, Fury, and Hill don’t get the upper hand. Gravik anticipates their presence, using decoys to successfully detonate a set of bombs. Innocents are killed and blood drips — a sharp veer into the mature for the MCU (even after dabbling in terror with The Falcon and the Winter Soldier). Director Ali Selim puts a button on the hellscape by tracking Maria as she recovers from the blast. Fury is there to find her — or not. We hear the blast, see actor Cobie Smulders feel the pain, and watch the camera whip down to see the wound. In what feels like an inevitable recurring “gag,” this Fury turns out to be Gravik in disguise, but the shot is no joke. The real Fury eventually finds his partner bleeding out on the ground. Maria Hill is dead.

Maria Hill laying dead on the ground with a visible bullet wound in Secret Invasion Image: Marvel Studios

In comic book land, it’s easy to imagine how any cast member death could be reversed with magic or alien tech or, in the case of Secret Invasion, it-wasn’t-really-her-it-was-a-Skrull-the-entire-time sleight of hand. I don’t think that’s the case: First, Marvel already pulled that trick in Spider-Man: Far From Home. There’s also the fact that Smulders receives the first post-show credit, a “Special Guest” nod that suggests she’s a one-and-done player for the miniseries. Also, I’d be mad if she came back to life. I am not the world’s biggest Maria HIll fan, but dang, this got me!

Lots of characters have died in the MCU. Very few have died from being frickin’ shot in the stomach by a dickweed. Sure, a HYDRA agent took down Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci) with a few choice bullets in Captain America: The First Avenger, but it was during a frenzied moment and he was a wearing a brown vest that minimized the blood — one of those deaths that lands right between Uncle Ben plot-initiation and a straight up Redshirt demise. Loki stabbing the extremely mortal Agent Coulson through the chest with a scepter was also a shocker, but not grisly. (Plus, Agents of SHIELD resurrected him a year later!) And while I was sad to see Black Widow abruptly go in Avengers: Endgame, her falling death on the planet for Vormir didn’t quite have… impact.

As staged, Maria Hill’s death in the Secret Invasion pilot really taps into a common strain of paranoia in today’s gun-heavy, politically hot climate: that violence perpetrated by sociopaths could burst out at any minute and take a life. I felt the weight of the scene when Fury discovers her on the ground, struggling to hang on. Maria told him his muddled involvement could cost lives. It did. That hangs on Fury, visibly, with Samuel L. Jackson delivering a more psychological performance than he has in some time. He can talk a big talk, but the moment silences him.

Why Maria Hill? Why now? Is there any chance of a return? In an interview with Polygon, Ali Selim, who directs all the episodes as well as serves as an executive producer on the show, wouldn’t say. “That’s a question for Kevin Feige — I don’t make those decisions about who goes or when,” he says with a laugh. “But I thought, Oh, great, a death scene with Cobie Smulders. How fun is that going to be?

“Fun” being subjective — any diehard fan of Smulders’ ex-SHIELD agent may have been hoping for a more run-and-gun Bourne-esque turn than an early demise. But for Marvel, the death won’t go to waste. If anything it feels like an inflection point: As the MCU attempts to buoy more mature storytelling in a post-Marvel/Netflix era — from looping Deadpool into the core movie franchise to reviving Charlie Cox’s Daredevil in the upcoming Daredevil: Born Again — killing off a core character in a terse-but-routine thriller way sets a tone. There are no glowing stones or portals in the sky. There are aliens, masquerading as stone-cold human killers. People we know can just die. The creators of Secret Invasion will try to keep escalating that drama over the next five episodes, but after watching Smulders’ smolder in her final MCU scene, consider me at the very least shook and waiting for more.

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