Marvel's 'Secret Invasion': An allegory of refugee apathy

Marvel's 'Secret Invasion': An allegory of refugee apathy
8 min read
12 September, 2023

Throughout the months of June and July, Marvel aired its newest show Secret Invasion based on the comic storyline of the same name. The show has received mixed reviews from audiences for a variety of reasons ranging from storyline and superhero fatigue to controversial messages on the world’s refugee crisis.

Premise and Critical Response

The show follows Nick Fury as he returns to Earth after finding out that the Skrulls, the shape-shifting alien race, are planning terrorist attacks in an attempt to kill off the human race and inhabit planet Earth on their own.

The storyline of the Skrulls began in 2019 with Captain Marvel. Set in the 1990s, we discover in Captain Marvel that the Skrulls’ home planet has been destroyed by another alien race called the Kree and they have been searching for a new home ever since. At the end of the film, Captain Marvel and Nick Fury promise the Skrulls to help find them a new planet to live on, until then the ones who stay on Earth will act as secret agents for Nick Fury.

"As Marvel’s previous series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier proved before, it’s hard to have villains who preach social justice values, especially when the show itself tries to deliver these values as messages, and still have the audience side with the heroes"

In Secret Invasion, a group of renegade Skrulls led by Gravik have infiltrated multiple governments and news channels around the world and are spreading propaganda as well as starting terrorist attacks in an attempt to ignite World War 3.

They do so because they claim that Nick Fury has abandoned his search for a new home for them and has been manipulating them to do his dirty work while he takes the credit.

Meanwhile, they continue to live in hiding taking the shape of humans so they don’t stand out and get discriminated against in society. Fury now needs to stop them, and since they have made him a murder suspect thanks to a Skrull that has infiltrated the US government, he can only rely on Talos, the former Skrull leader and still ally to Fury, G’iah, Talos’ daughter who originally sided with Gravik, and Sonya Falsworth, essentially Fury’s British counterpart.

This is Marvel’s ninth television series, in addition to the nine movies they have released, since the beginning of 2021. Therefore, large speculation as to why the series got mixed reviews is superhero fatigue, as Marvel is not the only studio producing superhero content.

Critics have also pointed out that it is more plot-centric rather than character-centric which has proven to unsuccessfully pique the interest of audiences in previous superhero adaptations. As well as weak plot points such as having a shapeshifting alien species be the main villains of an espionage series yet only having them take one form throughout the show thus eliminating any element of mystery or suspense.

It doesn’t help either that the comic series has been adapted before in the animated show Earth’s Mightiest Heroes in 2012 with much higher ratings and praise. The show’s AI-generated opening sequence was also controversial, especially considering that writers’ strikes in Hollywood were ongoing while the show was airing.

Live Story

Refugee representation and repeated mistakes

Ultimately what the Skrulls were meant to symbolize in Secret Invasion is refugees that had to seek refuge in other countries, or in this case planets, due to their war-torn home country, planet.

Within that scope, the series accurately depicts the extortion refugees face in order to stay in the country they’re in and the constant promises made to them to find them a new and respectable place to live for years or even decades with no avail. Not to mention, the president of the United States' reaction to his attempted assassination, after which he labelled all Skrulls as enemies and launched a series of hate crimes that led to the murder of innocent Skrulls and humans that were assumed to be Skrulls in disguise, representing the mindless violence and xenophobia against refugees.

However, as Marvel’s previous series The Falcon and the Winter Soldier proved before, it’s hard to have villains who preach social justice values, especially when the show itself tries to deliver these values as messages, and still have the audience side with the heroes. So they resort to turning these rebel groups into terrorists who murder innocent people to ‘send a message’. But it appears Marvel didn’t listen to these criticisms back in 2021, since they repeated the same mistake in this show.

For every scene that tries to stimulate sympathy towards displaced Skrulls, there is another of Gravik and his Skrull followers either committing murder or morally questionable acts. This was made worse in ‘Secret Invasion’ considering it was the hero himself who promised aid to the refugee Skrulls but didn’t deliver.

"Secret Invasion may have had the potential to be a thrilling espionage show that triggers genuine social discourse and challenges stereotypes, but instead it decided to stick to these conventional images as well as Marvel’s formulaic and overused tropes"

The violence committed by the Skrulls wasn’t the only misrepresentative act meant to sway audiences to side against them. A common complaint conservatives have against refugees is their influence on governments and government policies.

This a stereotype that has been repeatedly proven to be untrue, not to mention how many politicians promote it themselves as well as using anti-refugee policies among their main goals in their campaigns, all while refugees' poor social status prevents their needs or voices from actually reaching policymakers.

Conversely, in Secret Invasion, the Skrulls are shown to have successfully infiltrated American and European governments, in addition to media outlets, in order to progress their malicious mission.

Skrulls who also refuse to assimilate humans to better ‘fit in’, and instead wish to walk around in their natural green skin were portrayed to be rebellious.

G’iah would explain to newcomers to the Skrull refugee camp that within the camp they are free to take their natural form and those who wish can volunteer and shapeshift into humans to enact terrorist attacks outside the camp. While it was made clear that it would be dangerous for the Skrulls to appear in their alien skin in front of humans, choosing to only look like them for the purpose of violence propagates the stereotype that refugees are uncivilized and dangerous towards their host countries.

Asgard’s absence from the narrative

A plot hole many viewers have also pointed out was how when the Agardians became displaced at the end of Thor: Ragnarok, they were welcomed into Earth and given land to build a new home for themselves in Avengers: Endgame which they named New Asgard. In Thor: Love and Thunder, it was shown that New Asgard has become a popular tourist attraction that many humans go to and feel safe doing so.

Critics question why that was possible with the Asgardians but not the Skrulls. Secret Invasion decided to not tackle that question whatsoever and contained no mention of the Asgardians. This not only created a plot hole but symbolised a missed opportunity by Marvel to have stories that genuinely challenge the status quo and trigger social conversation.

Specifically, Asgardians are more “human-passing”, or even “white-passing”, than Skrulls. Secret Invasion could have delved into that topic deeper as they did try to incorporate critical race theory in the script but came across as forced and out of place.

This topic could have been an allegory of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, which displaced millions of Ukrainians. European countries welcomed Ukrainian refugees in a kind and responsive manner that was unrecognizable by refugees from third-world countries. European politicians and journalists went so far as to publicly claim that the reason that was the case was that Ukrainians are more 'civilized' than refugees of colour.

The Final Battle

The final battle of the show happened between Gravik, the main villain, and G’iah, now an ally to Nick Fury, after they were both infused with the superpowers of some of the Avengers.

Obviously, the hero defeated and killed the villain, saving the day and countless human lives. Aside from the criticism the battle faced such as the poor CGI and illogical shapeshifting, mimicking tattoos or magical abilities even though those aren’t part of one’s DNA, what stood out as well was Gravik’s choice to take his true Skrull form in the battle while G’iah stuck to her disguised human form.

From the beginning, G’iah was shown to agree with Gravik’s philosophy on freedom, even speaking on the importance of being in one’s own skin and speaking their native language in the prior episode. But for the battle that would basically determine the fate of the Skrulls, she stuck to her human form. Specifically that of a white woman, played by Emilia Clarke.

Some might argue that that was a decision by the producers to show off a big-name celebrity to potentially get more viewers. Nevertheless, the, albeit possibly unintentional, message of white dominance and the need for refugees to give up their sense of identity and just integrate mindlessly into the society they reside in, ultimately went against the character of G’iah and harmed not only the show’s attempts at representation but also the narrative.

Secret Invasion may have had the potential to be a thrilling espionage show that triggers genuine social discourse and challenges stereotypes, but instead, it decided to stick to these conventional images as well as Marvel’s formulaic and overused tropes. Ultimately it joins its counterparts such as The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Iron Man 3 in the list of Marvel productions that propagate harmful stereotypes for the purpose of entertaining their American audience while trying to fool them into believing that they are challenging these stereotypes.

Mahdi El Amin is a full-time Data Scientist and freelance writer with an interest in the Politics of TV & Film and the applications of data analytics in media & art