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In Marvel's 'Secret Invasion,' it's a human hero who's the cure for superhero fatigue

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Marvel Studios' <em>Secret Invasion</em>
Des Willie
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MARVEL
Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury in Marvel Studios' Secret Invasion

As movie and TV audiences grow increasingly skeptical of big budget projects featuring folks in capes and cowls moving faster than a speeding bullet, what's an enterprising superhero-based media platform to do?

If you're Disney+ and Marvel, maybe you build an exciting thriller around the baddest dude to NOT wear a cape in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Samuel L. Jackson's super spy Nick Fury. Fury finally gets a showcase all his own in the six-episode limited series Secret Invasion.

It's Marvel's first live action series in 2023 and the first series in its phase five, featuring a severely diminished Fury facing yet another world-threatening calamity. Marvel fans know Fury's had a tough time over the years; the powerful, clandestine spy agency he once led, S.H.I.E.L.D., was revealed to be secretly riddled with Neo-Nazi bad guys in the film Captain America: Winter Soldier.

Then he got blipped out of existence for five years by another bad guy, Thanos, at the end of Avengers: Infinity War.

As Secret Invasion begins, he has returned to Earth after years of being off-world, developing a new defense system for the planet. He's got a scraggly beard, world-weary attitude and little sign of the three-moves-ahead-of-everyone confidence that led him to assemble the Avengers and manipulate some of the most powerful beings in the universe just a few movies ago.

Even his prize protégé Maria Hill, played with earnest efficiency by Cobie Smulders, is disappointed. "You're not ready for this, Fury," she tells him. "You were never the same after the blip. You always told me there is no shame in walking away when the steps are uncertain. So check your footing. Otherwise, someone's gonna get hurt."

Talk about spooky foreshadowing.

An old spy seeking redemption

Admittedly, this is a note we've seen in many series recently, from Star Trek: Picard to Shrinking: a big, longtime star plays a character who is forced to face his age, mortality and the weight of past decisions, wondering if he (even these days, it's usually a he) can find the strength to face one more major challenge.

And this challenge is a doozy. The Skrulls are an alien race of shapeshifters, refugees from an interstellar war that fans – and Fury – met in the film Captain Marvel. A deadly faction has grown tired of waiting for Fury to make good on promises to find them a new home; they want to take the Earth for themselves, and pretend to be to be key human leaders so they can guide humanity to annihilate itself.

In the way that Marvel movies can also be other things – Ant Man is a heist film, Tom Holland's Spider-Man projects are often coming-of-age movies — Secret Invasion leans into the espionage thriller vibe, crafting a suspenseful drama focused on Fury's spy skills.

The biggest question – asked by nearly every major character who meets Fury in the first two episodes – is whether he's too burned out or bummed out to actually save the day. That's a query raised in particular by Olivia Colman's character Sonya Falsworth, a British spy with the vocal tones of a school headmistress and the ruthlessness of, well, Fury himself.

As a fan of both James Bond-style espionage stories and comic books, I'll admit a certain fondness for Nick Fury, even before he was reinvented as a Black man in the Ultimate Marvel comics series. He was a super-heroic secret agent, leading a band of can-do agents in souped-up stories that were equal parts Mission Impossible and The Avengers.

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe cast Jackson as Fury for its films, I was even more excited. The move places Hollywood's ultimate trash talker in a role where he often outsmarts more powerful figures; something you'd expect from a spy's spy. And with all that going on, Jackson's Fury never forgets he's a Black man navigating the world, which makes him feel even more authentic — like James Bond meets Shaft.

Don Cheadle as James 'Rhodey' Rhodes and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.
/ Marvel Studios
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Marvel Studios
Don Cheadle as James 'Rhodey' Rhodes and Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury.

In Secret Invasion, Fury and Don Cheadle's James "Rhodey" Rhodes have a spicy conversation about solidarity and trust (it's to Cheadle's credit that Rhodey doesn't come off as the simple sidekick enabler that so many Marvel stories force the character into). I expect these two characters — played by men who are old friends in real life — will wind up on the same side of things before long.

A show that doesn't need a guy in a cape

By centering on an aging Nick Fury who is struggling to handle a crisis created by his own broken promises, we get a story focused much more on a flawed hero than some kind of super-person juggling computer-generated cars.

For those who have soured on Marvel and superheroes' dominance of Hollywood, this still may not sound like a show worth their attention.

But for this critic — who still remembers dreaming many years ago about the day when great comic book stories could become great TV shows or films — seeing an actor powerful as Jackson playing that flawed, human hero sounds like the surest antidote to superhero fatigue I can imagine.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.