Secret Invasion is all about hidden identities and shape-shifting, but after four episodes it still hasn’t really committed to the bit of a shock-and-awe conspiracy thriller. Sure, we’ve gotten a few reveals about politicians secretly being Skrulls, and the U.S. government vaguely blames Nick Fury for Maria Hill’s death, but they could be going so much further.
[Ed. note: The following contains spoilers for Secret Invasion episode 4.]
The show’s fourth episode finds Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and his men discussing the fact that they are supposed to be speaking Russian during their next operation: an attempt to assassinate the American president. It is difficult to miss how reminiscent the scene is, intentionally or not, of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission.
In the game’s mission, a terrorist leader, Makarov, reminds his men not to speak Russian during a terrorist attack on a Russian airport, in hopes of framing America for the attack and sparking a war. The level was incredibly controversial at the time because it put players in a position to shoot virtual civilians, but it’s also exactly the type of politicking Secret Invasion keeps feinting at then shying away from — it’s a show dealing in half-measures.
This week gives us a prime example: Gravik may have hoped to frame the Russians for the attack on the president in the planning stage, but then his mission seemingly fails. He and his team frequently speak English throughout the operation. Then, as if his cover wasn’t blown enough, he goes and uses his weird Groot-esque tree-arm powers. His team also commits to killing Talos instead of the president. Everything feels completely botched.
Let Gravik do bad and let him blame other people for it! Even the one good frame job the show has so far, Fury killing Maria Hill, is relegated to blackmail material from Rhodey — who is almost certainly a Skrull.
The premise of shape-shifters taking over the world sounds unnerving in an exciting way, but four episodes in, Secret Invasion can’t quite make good. It’s clear why the comic version of Secret Invasion wouldn’t work in the show, and why Marvel wouldn’t want this series overrun with its most famous superheroes. But that doesn’t mean that Skrulls disguised as heroes shouldn’t be committing assassinations and devious plots all over the world. As it stands, almost every moment of the show so far could have just been about any anonymous terrorists instead of refugee aliens.
The whole point of introducing shape-shifting aliens in a world full of characters that we know and love is that they make you question the motivations of your favorite heroes; would That Guy really do that horrible thing, or are they just a Skrull in disguise? How bad is the villain, really? It’s all a way to put audiences out of their comfort zone. So while the plot may echo Call of Duty, it’s not embodying the risk of that franchise’s notorious moment.
Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission was controversial not because of the crimes depicted in it, but because the game forced players to participate in them. It’s gratuitous but effective, and temporarily washes away the “we’re the good guys” facade that Call of Duty games usually let players sit safely behind. Sure, the mission could have been a cutscene instead, but we definitely wouldn’t be talking about it now if it was.
The interconnected Marvel universe may be too fragile to go there. Secret Invasion’s reasons for avoiding something shocking seem pernicious and branding-related. It feels like Marvel isn’t willing to sully the image of any of its moneymakers with an atrocity lest they be needed for a spinoff in Phase 9.
I’m not saying that Secret Invasion needs to go full “No Russian” or have Skrull Captain America killing civilians, but I do think the series might have benefited from a minor hero committing a war crime or two — or at least being framed for them.