With its grim color palette, rampant paranoia, and emphasis on S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Secret Invasion is clearly trying to mimic the political thriller vibe of one of the most acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Every so often, this franchise attempts to recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle success of that motion picture by delivering another gritty title grounded in real people and a dour tone. In theory, these productions are supposed to provide a counterbalance to wackier MCU outings like She-Hulk: Attorney at Law and Thor: Love and Thunder while becoming as beloved as The Winter Soldier.
However, time and time again, these attempts to recapture the atmosphere of The Winter Soldier keep coming up short. This is seen in the mixed reception to Secret Invasion and the minimal pop culture impact it’s left in its first few episodes. However, these aren’t the only pieces of evidence that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can’t make this style of superhero storytelling work again. Other productions like The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have also demonstrated that Marvel Studios just can’t reproduce that energy again.
‘The Winter Solider’ Was a Tough Act to Follow
One note of clarification: Captain America: The Winter Soldier was not a political thriller, at least not in the traditional sense. A third act centered on multiple Helicarriers shooting at each other solidified that this film was a long way from The Parallax View or All the President’s Men while the film’s absence of concrete modern viewpoints on relevant social issues also kept it from fulfilling the “political” part of the political thriller. The Winter Soldier is a well-made movie with exciting action sequences, but it’s certainly not a film in the exact mold of Three Days of the Condor and The Boys from Brazil. Even in its peak foray into grounded thrillers, a Marvel Studios production was still kept from fulfilling its potential by obligations towards commercialism.
Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier did a lot of things right in opting for a more grounded approach at least inspired by (if not directly imitating) vintage political thrillers. For one thing, it leaned into the fact that its story was supposed to involve flesh-and-blood people by delivering a barrage of more tactile and bone-crunching action sequences. The camerawork was more intimate and the fight choreography was significantly more reliant on believable physicality than prior Marvel Studios projects. For another, going this route with the second Captain America movie ensured that The Winter Soldier could offer something new compared to the glitzy retro vibes of Captain America: The First Avenger.
Rather than mimicking what worked in earlier Marvel movies, The Winter Soldier had a creative inclination to deliver something truly new compared to what people had previously expected from the big-screen version of Captain America. This lent some urgency and purpose to its grounded aesthetic. Unfortunately, subsequent Marvel Studios productions following in the footsteps of this particular project have felt as derivative and hollow as The Winter Soldier felt fresh and bold. Rather than building on what worked in this 2014 film, productions like Secret Invasion have merely expanded on its shortcomings.
The Problems with Modern Marvel Stabs at “Political Thrillers”
In hindsight, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was a harbinger of how Marvel Studios would be struggling to recapture the creative alchemy of The Winter Soldier. Chiefly, this was a six-episode miniseries, the only domain at the time that Marvel Studios had opted to mimic the aesthetic of that 2014 superhero film. The big screen has become the home for much more elaborate cosmic and fantastical adventures, while more grounded Marvel Cinematic Universe fare has found a home on Disney+. This is a problem for many reasons, but it’s especially rough because the pacing of traditional Marvel Studios TV shows is anemic to the propulsive suspense of a darker thriller.
The Winter Soldier was always on the move, informed by a sense of paranoia over Steve Rogers being unable to trust anyone. By contrast, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier was padded out to meet six hours of “content” which resulted in a series that had no sense of forward momentum. Similarly, Secret Invasion has come under fire for being incredibly tedious and slow-moving. Thanks to the shows being limited-run TV shows that have to put most of their money towards the salaries of famous actors, these programs also don’t have the cash to pull off the kind of tactile and compelling action sequences that were so engaging in The Winter Soldier. Generic and poorly-editing fight scenes are the name of the game within The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, which only further diluted any potential entertainment in this show.
Most damningly of all, the lack of concrete political commentary in both of these programs feels totally extraneous in the modern streaming landscape. Captain America: The Winter Soldier didn’t have a lot to say about the presence of rampant surveillance. However, that was less of a problem since it could provide blockbuster movie-level thrills to compensate for the lack of sociopolitical depth. Meanwhile, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Secret Invasion are both arriving in a streaming television landscape with minimal expansive spectacle and with tons of competition from other actually-substantive political thriller TV shows. Why would someone spend time on the glacial pacing of Secret Invasion when they could just watch The Americans?
Worst of all, these shows feel like they’re actively chickening out on going all the way with the political subtext of their stories. At least The Winter Soldier had the guts to end its story with S.H.I.E.L.D. definitively dead in the ground. The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, meanwhile, teased a very dark turn for new Captain America John Walker (Wyatt Russell) right down to a post-credits scene that showed him making a ramshackle red-white-and-blue shield in a shed like he was a domestic terrorist.
The ramifications of making Sam Wilson’s Captain America’s first major foe an embodiment of white entitlement could’ve been interesting and added some real sociopolitical heft to the show. Instead, Walker gets a semi-redemption arc in the show’s final episode, right down to him making quips about Abraham Lincoln to Bucky Barnes. The sociopolitical commentary is cut short in favor of offering an abrupt tidy ending to Walker’s character arc. Whereas the great political thrillers, like The Parallax View, ended on grim notes reflecting brutal truths about America, new Marvel Studios properties emulating The Winter Soldier can’t even entertain the idea of ending on a slightly complicated or uncomfortable note.
Maybe It’s Time for Marvel Studios to Stop Trying Political Thrillers
In the weeks since Secret Invasion started, there haven’t been endless recaps breathlessly talking about its incisive political commentary or even tirades penned for big publications about its toxic political ideology. The show has left so little of an impact that there’s been barely a whisper about the show’s narrative elements, save for a Vulture recap astutely pointing out how the program is peddling a harmful Marvel Cinematic Universe trope of murdering women to motivate male characters. That’s the ultimate kiss of death for any pop culture property attempting to even emulate the aesthetic of a political thriller.
These are productions that should spur conversation and inspire viewers to look at the authoritative figures in society a little differently. While Captain America: The Winter Soldier didn’t fully live up to either the scope or sociopolitical ambitions of those titles back in 2014, it was at least a well-made enough blockbuster to compensate for those flaws. Plus, it was only a two-hour movie, there was way less time for the shortcomings in its thematic ambitions to be apparent. Contrast that to The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and Secret Invasion, shows burdened by lengthy runtimes and devoid of any set pieces as fun as the elevator skirmish in The Winter Soldier.
At this point, Marvel Studios should just stop outright trying to make TV shows that attempt to mimic the political thriller vibes of The Winter Soldier. That 2014 installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was such a breath of fresh air because it was deeply unexpected. Making a bunch of overlong streaming programs with garish visuals and no concrete political commentary to offer is the farthest thing from the unexpected. The cold shoulder audiences have given Secret Invasion should make it clear that modern stabs at recreating the magic of The Winter Soldier just aren’t clicking. It’s time for something new…and preferably something that isn’t a two-hour Marvel movie stretched out to a six-hour piece of Disney+ “content.”