Samuel L. Jackson has been perhaps uniquely enriched by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Headliners like Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson may come and go, but, as the indefatigable Avengers ringmaster Nick Fury, he sticks around, bringing both his talent at a certain portent and the star persona that preceded him into the role to bear. His performance is a backbeat across the franchise, but it’s, to this point, never emerged into the spotlight.
Which is among the elements that may make “Secret Invasion,” Disney+’s new Marvel series, particularly potent for fans. That Jackson excels when given the chance to lead a project comes as no meaningful surprise: He’s Samuel L. Jackson. But, in the show’s first two episodes, he’s a part of a show that makes a case for itself as, specifically, television, which is a fairly welcome surprise for a brand that’s had mixed results in this arena.
Here, Jackson’s Fury grows enmeshed in a drama involving the Skrulls (an alien race who emerged in the 2019 film “Captain Marvel”) attempting to take Earth by, first, subversively impersonating human beings. Aided by a Skrull who’s a friend to humanity (Ben Mendelsohn), Fury attempts to hold together a cause that seems impossible, one in which the villains look just like us.
Typical caveats apply: Viewers who missed the Brie Larson-led “Captain Marvel” will find themselves on Wikipedia playing catch-up, although the show does its best to situate viewers. And, as in the past, the visual spectacle that helps Marvel earn its name seems reserved for the silver screen. But there are, in the two episodes (of a six-episode season) furnished to critics, moments of sparky energy that distinguish this show from the movies in a good way. The casting of Emilia Clarke as a dangerously intense figure with conflicting impulses toward her own rise to power — the sort of role she played on “Game of Thrones” and was being set up to play by the end of vexed would-be franchise starter “Solo” — is hardly imaginative, but Clarke is good at her job and the kind of actor Marvel is lucky to get. Similarly, Olivia Colman is, to a degree, doing Olivia Colman in her role as MI6 agent Sonya Falsworth (one half-expects her to burblingly thank Lady Gaga at the beginning of scenes of her torturing a suspect), but, well, that’s being put toward an MI6 agent who tortures suspects. Colman’s inherent cheeriness intriguingly coexists alongside, and intensifies, her character’s moral ambiguity.
In its early going, “Secret Invasion” stands out for its willingness to go places, and its reticence to call attention to itself. Consider that, in the two-and-a-half years since Marvel began its project of airing series that explicitly complement what’s happening in their film universe on Disney+, its TV shows have looked for all the world like segmented feature films, albeit with a little less major-scale action and with franchise stars like Chris Hemsworth and Paul Rudd juuuust out of view. Ever since “WandaVision,” the show that started this period for Marvel, wound up ditching its novel episodic premise in time for a big climactic fight, these shows have often struggled to make the case for themselves as shows.
These two episodes, by contrast, work, with a second-episode kicker that surprised me by leaning into the prickly perversity that can emerge in a “Body Snatchers” scenario. (About this, I’ll say no more, to preserve the surprise.) In the main, “Secret Invasion” has things on its mind that it’s content to tease out in a pace that a Marvel film might not allow. The persistence of commentary on Fury’s race, from Colman’s character jokingly comparing him to Paul Robeson and suggesting he might sing “Ol’ Man River” to Don Cheadle’s James Rhodes outright declaring that he owes nothing to the Black man who’d considered himself Rhodes’ mentor and calling him “mediocre.” The former depends on a certain context (an erudite joke about Moscow, where both Robeson performed and Fury’s been located, collides thuddingly with the Sonya character’s blunt approach), and the latter exists within the context of the roles both Rhodes and Fury, and Cheadle and Jackson, play within this universe. But together they suggest there’s still more to tease out as this show goes on. The conversation with Cheadle, in particular, gives new notes to play for an actor who’s for many years been asked to bring out the best in the heroes around him. Jackson’s morose disappointment, verging for a tense moment into rage, suggests, too, that the performance will show us still more of this legendary actor’s toolkit.
These are among the promises of the first two installments of “Secret Invasion,” as well as the idea that the show’s mercenary willingness to kill off key characters, stunning for this franchise, will not result in a cascade of “surprise!” revivals. For now, “Secret Invasion” looks very much like its own beast, a genuine serial story within the lumbering Marvel apparatus. One wonders if, like the villainous creatures at its center, it’ll end up revealing its true form, but for now, its humanity makes for a pretty good look.
“Secret Invasion” will premiere Wednesday, June 21, on Disney+.