With its second episode, “Promises,” Secret Invasion gets even more intriguing, wrapping itself comfortably in the espionage tropes it introduced last week and introducing shades of gray for all the main characters. There’s a subtlety to this show that other Marvel productions don’t have, especially lately, and that makes it stand out; it also makes some of the missteps more glaring.
In the aftermath of the Unity Day bombing in Moscow, Nick Fury looks for allies and learns a dark secret about the Skrulls – including the ones he trusts. As world leaders scramble to assign blame for the bombing, Gravik plots to draw more Skrulls into his war.
After a flashback, “Promises” opens in Moscow just after the bombing, as Fury holds Maria Hill’s body in his arms. I know people were angry that Maria was killed last week, but it works for me for a few reasons. First, it gives the show stakes, something Marvel’s movies and shows have been lacking lately, and according to some, have always lacked. Maria Hill was never a central MCU character, but she’s been around for a long time, popping up here and there as needed, so we feel the loss. She’s also someone Fury cares about, a friend who knows and trusts him. That was what made their frank discussion about Fury slipping last week resonate; this is one of the very few people Fury trusts telling him he’s not the man he was. Now, she’s dead because he misjudged someone, meaning he feels the loss; that’s made even more evident when he talks with Maria’s mother as her body is sent to America for the funeral. He’s got to rise to the occasion, to be the old Nick Fury, to honor her sacrifice, and make sure he doesn’t get anyone else killed.
That’s part of what’s so great about “Promises”: Nick Fury is firing on all cylinders again, emboldened by Maria’s death and ready to crack some Skrull skulls. He’s shrewd, forceful, wary of everyone around him, and prepared to do it all by himself if need be. The great scene between Fury and Talos on the Russian train makes that clear; he regales Talos with a story about this game he played with his mother, tells a story about his own attempt to tell a child’s lie and how it failed, and uses it against Talos to great effect. This is the kind of thing we want to see from Nick Fury, not getting scratched by a kitty. This is Fury as a master spy, getting information from someone who was born to deceive. He’s also a realist, as he demonstrated in his movie appearances; he wants to believe in the world Captain America does, but he won’t because if he does, people die. The revelation that one million Skrulls are now on Earth, that it happened behind his back, and that it was spearheaded by his friend, puts him in crisis mode, and he’s absolutely right. Who in their right mind would be okay with a million aliens living among us without our consent?
That goes double if we found out some of the world’s most powerful leaders have been replaced by them, which “Promises” confirms. The Skrulls aren’t planning to infiltrate Earth’s power structure; they’ve already done it. The United Nations general secretary, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, some American bigwig (I wish they’d told us who Christopher McDonald’s character is), and others are now Skrull imposters. That’s scary, even before we factor in the terrorism Gravik is causing. “Promises” complicates the premise of Secret Invasion and the MCU’s depiction of the Skrulls by questioning whether even the good ones can be trusted. Is Gravik an outlier or the true representation of a race bent on conquest? And did desperation do this to them, or were they always conquerors? It seems the former for now, but those members of the Skrull Council singed up with Gravik awfully quickly for a bunch of peaceniks. And the one who didn’t made it seem like violence is something the Skrulls resort to all too easily, indicating that maybe it wasn’t just the Kree being evil that caused their war. When Gravik walked into that meeting, I expected him to kill them all and take over, but this is much more interesting.
Where does that leave Talos? He probably is a good man at heart, but he helped cause this by leading his people into infiltrating Earth. Fury doesn’t trust him anymore, and that’s the logical reaction to being deceived on a scale that massive. And the Skrulls certainly don’t trust him because he does want peace. But does he even know what peace would entail? It would be one thing if Skrulls were hiding as bakers and mechanics, but they’re posing as elected officials. Talos’ desperate decision may have eradicated any hope of the peaceful coexistence he wants. And what were his true motives? Fury was gone at first because he was killed along with half the universe; when he came back, yes, he was on SABER, but as Fury points out, Talos could have contacted him any time he wanted. Is he making excuses and blaming Fury for his rash decision? I can believe that; he probably knows it was wrong, and the guilt is so bad, especially now that Gravik is killing people, that he’s blaming Fury almost as a defense mechanism. The other possibility is that he’s a bad guy, which I don’t believe at this point.
Meanwhile, Talos’ daughter G’iah is having doubts as well. Even after talking to her father, she double-crossed him and helped Gravik blow up the Unity Day festival. But she doesn’t seem as committed in “Promises” as she did then. She’s clearly suspicious of Gravik and the other Skrull terrorists, and she snoops around their base to find out what Gravik is really up to. I get the impression she’s more a disaffected youth than a true believer, a lost girl looking for a family and finding a group of fanatics. That she already had loving parents compounds the reality of it; these people often do, but they rebel for whatever ridiculous reason they dream up, and then they leave themselves open to predators like Gravik – or, in real life, David Koresh, Osama Bin Laden, et al. Again, this is a complicated situation; G’iah is uneasy with what Gravik is doing – notice the differences in their reactions to shooting the Skrull who was captured and interrogated – but she also has blood on her hands. Can she make up for that?
Gravik himself gets some background this week, and it makes him more three-dimensional and a much more interesting villain. He was part of the initial group of Skrulls who came to Earth in the 90s, the ones working with Nick Fury to find a home. He was a teenager then; his parents were killed in the Kree-Skrull War, and like G’iah today, he was looking for a purpose, a family, and a home. And Fury promised him and his fellow Skrulls that he’d find them a new home, one where they could regrow their species and live safe from the Kree. But he asked for something in return: he wanted the Skrulls to work for him, to use their shape-shifting abilities to become his off-the-books spy network. Years later, the Skrulls still don’t have a home, and Gravik is tired of waiting. He’s decided the Skrulls will take Earth, the planet he believes betrayed them, and he wants revenge on Fury, whom he holds personally responsible. His meeting with the Skrull Council confirms that many Skrulls feel as he does – hell, Talos feels it too – and that his terror campaign is a pledge to stop at nothing to win the Earth for them as he asks for their obedience. Gravik is a monster Nick Fury created, not just by failing to find the Skrulls a home but by training them to be spies. Gravik knows how to strike at us because Fury taught him how, and he’s Fury’s responsibility even more so because of it.
Finally, there’s Rhodey, who is toeing the political line as a representative of the US. He takes a strong hand when dealing with other world leaders (and it’s so satisfying to see someone we’re supposed to like defend America the way Rhodey does here), but he does the same with Nick Fury when Fury tries to warn him about the Skrull invasion. Rhodey dismisses Fury, worried more about the political ramifications than what he sees as a wild, unsubstantiated theory. Like Talos, Sonya Falsworth, and even Maria Hill, Rhodey doesn’t trust Fury, thinks he’s lost the skills he once had, and sees him as a liability more than an asset. Now, we have to wonder if Rhodey is a Skrull; they’ve replaced people more powerful than Rhodey, and while the liquor he offers Fury turns out not to be poisoned (which is a great bit), Gravik doesn’t want Fury dead. On the other hand, Rhodey has acted this way before, like in Civil War, when he threw his fellow Avengers under the bus and immediately sided with the government over registration. He seemed to have learned his lesson in Infinity War, but he’s also been made a bigger player in Washington since then. The paranoia at the show’s heart is taking shape nicely.
A couple of things about “Promises” don’t work. First, they need to tone down the race talk. It’s better here than it was in The Falcon and the Winter Soldier because these are better writers, but it’s still too much. Fury relating a story from his childhood is fine, but likening mankind not accepting the Skrulls to its propensity for prejudice is too far; as he explains in that same conversation, we have a right to be skeptical of invaders. This also bleeds into the scene with Rhodey, where he implies a black man wouldn’t have risen as high as Rhodey did if he didn’t have help. That’s silly not only because Fury is admitting that a black man was already high up enough to help Rhodey, but he’s saying that in the wake of a black man being elected President of the United States (unless the MCU is erasing Barack Obama from history). Some of this is fine, especially when he’s talking about past experiences, but relating that to the modern world is ridiculous. It also stretches believability that G’iah, who was watched like a hawk last week, can just run around Gravik’s base with no one the wiser. I know she proved herself with the bombing, but how is she walking into off-limits rooms where secret meetings are happening? She isn’t even trying to hide as the scientist and her immediate superior talk about the super-top-secret project. For a show that executes most of the espionage elements so well, this is disappointing.
But there’s great stuff that makes up for the episode’s shortcomings. Again, all of the espionage skullduggery outside of G’iah’s Nancy Drew escapades is excellent. I love the interrogation scene with Sonya Falsworth, especially her smile and chirpy voice as she’s applying pain to the Skrull. Even her talking her way past the frontman at the deli is terrific; she’s a seasoned spy who knows her way around this sort of setup. The question of a poisoned drink, the explanation to throw off the Russian soldiers on the train, the secret meetings, the cryptic phone calls, the roadblocks created by politics, the government infiltration; this show is going out of its way to be a great spy story, and I love it. I also love the hints at what’s to come. I suspect Gravik’s secret project is a version of Super Skrull, and those alien DNA samples will be his powers. It’s a shame this is coming before the Fantastic Four, so Super Skrull won’t be as cool as he could have been, but what can you do? And that whopper of a reveal at the end raises so many possibilities. Nick Fury is married… to a Skrull! The big question is, does he know she’s a Skrull? If he doesn’t, is this an attempt to spy on him, or was she afraid he wouldn’t love her? Either way, will he ever trust her again? Or did he marry a human woman who was replaced by a Skrull? I think we’ll need some more flashbacks for this to have the proper effect. As I said last week, I understand why a lot of people don’t like this, but I’m hooked on Secret Invasion.