A few months ago I started the thankless task of recapping Secret Invasion, and now, a month after the series ended, I’m still deeply underwhelmed by the predictable blandness of the entire thing. Then, because I was hit by a fit of nostalgia and because I find Hayley Atwell absurdly attractive, I started a re-watch of the other grounded spy thriller from Marvel: Agent Carter.
After I finished the second season (the show was unceremoniously cancelled in 2016), I was left wondering… how did Secret Invasion manage to fuck up so badly that Agent Carter, a network television release with fewer stars, way less hype, and without Secret Invasion’s $US200 million budget, was better written, better paced, and more enjoyable than Marvel’s most recent spy series?
For some background, Agent Carter was a short-lived Marvel television series that ran for two seasons on ABC from 2015 to 2016. The first season saw Hayley Atwell’s Agent Peggy Carter attempting to establish herself within the boy’s club of the postwar spy organization, the Strategic Scientific Reserve (SSR), hoping to clear Howard Stark’s name after an arms deal goes sideways. It is a science-fiction dramedy couched in the Marvel universe, but with a main character who has no powers, Agent Carter kept both high heels firmly on the ground.
Secret Invasion was touted as “grounded,” and despite the fact that most of the plot was going to undoubtedly circle around the issue of what to do with the aliens that had clandestinely made Earth their home in the ‘90s, I believed the pitch. So much of spycraft is combining information and opportunity—in the right hands, the premise of a group of shapeshifting Skrulls helping Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puppet the Avengers into compliance has potential. What we got, however, was a messy global political crises exacerbated by a single man’s hubris—the exact opposite of what Agent Carter was doing.
On the surface, Agent Carter shouldn’t have worked. It’s a period piece starring a relatively obscure character who was on screen for less than 20 minutes in Captain America: The First Avenger, a movie that was already three years old at the time of the first season’s release. But Agent Carter’s first season’s plot is tight and focused, and the setting, costumes, and even the fact that it includes an (almost) entirely new cast of characters become some of Agent Carter’s greatest strengths.
Agent Carter understood its limitations and worked within them. It utilised practical sets, limited special effects, and some incredibly brutal fight choreography to pull off fantastic stunt work. Add to that a compelling main character who was an absolute smokeshow and had chemistry with any three characters on screen at any given time and you have television magic. The second season, I’ll fully admit, wasn’t as strong as the first, but it still kept up a solid compelling plot and more than that, I cared. I wanted to watch Peggy kick ass and take names, and I didn’t care about what movie she might be in next.
With Secret Invasion, the strongest parts of the show came from the performances. Ben Mendelsohn as Talos and Olivia Colman as Sonya Falsworth were exceptionally good in their roles, and Jackson’s Fury occasionally had some fantastic moments. But these small parts were worth less than the sum total of the series, which failed to deliver a cohesive, tense, or even interesting story. We—the audience—simply knew too much.
Agent Carter never hurried to give away Peggy’s secrets. Everything was peeled back slowly, giving us more and more of the world as we went along. It was paced. Part of this comes from the fact that the MCU was simply smaller seven years ago. Another part of this is that it had two seasons to fill, for a total of 18 episodes; Secret Invasion ran for only six episodes total. Part of this is because the series was never expected to make much of an impact on the movies, by virtue of the function of Marvel television at the time and the fact that it was set in the early 1950s. Agent Carter was given a walled garden and it took advantage of it. Secret Invasion, sadly, was expected to slot into a larger MCU, fill in the gaps between films that are already out or are mostly done, and it suffered for that track. Maybe if Secret Invasion had been able to go off the MCU rails it would have gone somewhere interesting.
The problem with Secret Invasion, and really the problem that has plagued all of the MCU television series since WandaVision was released in 2021, is that these shows are pieces of a puzzle. They are never allowed to show the full picture. They are not allowed to be a complete story. There is no ending to any of these shows, just more hooks for writers and directors to pick up in another show—not even, necessarily, for the audience to pick up on.
Secret Invasion—and most of these other shows—feel both meandering and pointless. There is some fun to be had in exploring new origin stories like She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel, but there’s always the expectation that even if you start a new character’s journey in a Marvel show it will eventually lead into a Marvel film. It’s a cycle of endless content that weakens every concept, that disenfranchises writers and directors, and that turns every ending into a dozen question marks without a satisfactory resolution. Secret Invasion is, ultimately, a stop gap.
The success of Agent Carter as a show is rooted in the fact that it was allowed to stand apart from the MCU but still borrow toys out of its sandbox. It’s familiar, but not full of Easter eggs, winks to the audience, or flashbacks. It would not impact the movies and would have little to no effect on the sacred timeline. It had none of the considerations of contemporary shows and was stronger for it. Secret Invasion had, on paper, everything going for it—great actors, a generous budget, tons of source material—and it struck out. But the universe seems to have reached capacity, and the Disney+ television shows, which could have been fun, experimental trysts in the Marvel garden, are going to be the part of the MCU that suffers most.
Agent Carter and Secret Invasion are both streaming on Disney+.
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