In a superhero multiverse full of shapeshifting aliens, time travel, infinite parallel worlds, and countless Variants, it’s nearly impossible to make an important character’s death feel like a major moment. The MCU has also conditioned viewers to think the biggest consequences, even the ultimate one, probably won’t stick. When someone in the franchise dies, even repeatedly, they don’t tend to stay dead very long. But that’s exactly why the shocking end of Secret Invasion‘s first episode was so effective. It managed to kill off an important person in a way that felt real and meaningful. And that unexpected farewell to Cobie Smulders’ Maria Hill made the thriller’s intergalactic invasion feel truly dangerous.
To love the MCU is to realize you should never assume a character is gone forever. Even when they are unquestionably 100% dead they can still return, like Heimdall in Thor: Love and Thunder. Fans especially understand that no one (outside of maybe Loki, the literal God of Mischief) is better at staging a believable death than Nick Fury. He faked his own elaborate demise in Captain America: The Winter Soldier after he’d previously faked his colleague Phil Coulson’s in The Avengers.
Samuel L. Jackson’s spy, a man who is normally at least three steps ahead of friends and foes alike, understands the value in a pretend death. It makes your opponents think they’ve removed you or your closest allies from the game entirely. With that relief comes a vulnerability you can exploit. Sometimes that’s the only way to win.
But that’s not the Nick Fury introduced in Secret Invasion‘s first episode. The veteran spymaster still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve, but he’s not sure of himself anymore. He’s hesitating when he’d normally already have a plan in place. Even worse than failing to act is that he’s reacting to events. Fury, who’d spent years off world, is completely behind in this war for Earth with Gravik and the breakaway Skrulls.
While some of Fury’s “old man” routine is itself an act, the end of the premiere proved Maria Hill’s worries about him were well founded. Nick Fury at his best would have stopped that bombing. Each explosion revealed how far he is from the peak of his powers. They also made it easier to believe the bullet Gravik put in Maria Hill’s stomach really did end her story when we expected her to be a major part of Secret Invasion‘s. Smulders’ former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent isn’t an MCU redshirt. She’s been a major player in saving Earth for a longtime. The Avengers hung out with her. They trusted her completely.
She was also Nick Fury’s closest and most important friend and colleague. He could rely on her in a way he can’t rely on anyone else, not even Talos or the Avengers. And he’s never needed someone he can trust more. With her dead, the Skrull threat feels real and tangible in a way MCU stories often don’t. If Gravik can get to Maria Hill while she’s working with Nick Fury, Gravik can get to anyone.
The emotional impact of her death won’t go away no matter what happens, either. Even if/when Fury saves the world, he couldn’t save someone he loved along the way. He lost a person viewers care about, too, someone they assumed was entirely safe specifically because she was with him. For someone without superpowers, Maria Hill almost seemed invincible. Making us think someone like that really died is an incredible achievement for a franchise that has always made us believe consequences and stakes are fleeting rather than permanent.
Could her death be a giant ploy by her and Fury and she’s really alive? The entire history of the MCU makes it impossible to dismiss that possibility. But whether she eventually pops back up or not won’t change the fact that in the moment her death feel real. And because it did everything that follows her death will mean more. Truly no one is safe on Secret Invasion.
Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.