[This story contains spoilers for Secret Invasion.]
In the finale of Secret Invasion, Emilia Clarke’s G’iah inherited a litany of MCU character superpowers, as Gravik’s (Kingsley Ben-Adir) plan to become a God-like Skrull backfired, resulting in his death. With G’iah now being seemingly invincible, director Ali Selim is opening up about how the choice and the G’iah-Gravik super-powered fight came to be.
“It starts with Kevin Feige saying, ‘Any and all superpowers are fair game. Have fun,’ and then we storyboarded it. We would be like, ‘What are the superpowers that would happen next?’” Selim tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And then we would go through stunts and understand what superpowers can happen next and what can’t, just because of the physical positioning of the actors. And then, with VFX, some things just couldn’t work because they looked funny shifting from this to that in an instant.”
Perhaps the most controversial choice the MCU has made in quite some time involves Don Cheadle’s James “Rhodey” Rhodes being revealed as a Skrull. While Selim says that it’s still unclear as to when Rhodey first became Skrullified, all signs point to Captain America: Civil War (2016). That means Rhodey wouldn’t have been present for the death and funeral of his best friend, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.).
Selim is well aware that this Stark-related revelation is bound to ruffle MCU fans’ feathers, so he’s trying his best to take it all in stride.
“I’m worried that I will get death threats because of that, and also because I’m the guy who took out Maria Hill. So I’m actually going into hiding now,” Selim dryly says.
Below, during a spoiler conversation with THR, Selim also discusses the changes made to the initial confrontation between Gravik and G’iah, before offering his thoughts on the departures of Cobie Smulders and Ben Mendelsohn’s characters.
So now that G’iah (Emilia Clarke) has a smorgasbord of MCU character powers, it stands to reason that she’s the most powerful character in the MCU at the moment. Do you like her odds going forward?
I hate to deflect any question, especially the first question, but what’s gonna happen to her is a great question for Kevin Feige. I found not only her superpowers, but her arrangement with Olivia Colman’s Sonya to have really great potential to launch something badass, as strong women going forward. But it also served, for me, as a really great resolution to the story that we were telling. So if she goes on, it’s gonna be exciting and huge, and if that was the resolution, I’m thrilled as an audience member.
Secret Invasion was probably your most extensive experience with VFX, especially that final fight between G’iah and Gravik (Kingsley Ben-Adir). While overseeing that sequence, was it a tricky thing to display these uniquely individual powers without them becoming jumbled?
Yeah, the biggest concern was always that they’d get jumbled, and we were always applying emotional reactions from G’iah that would help her recognize what was happening. And maybe that would also give the audience just a breath to realize what she was realizing as it was happening. So, yeah, it was a big focus during that time, but it’s also months and months and months. It starts with Kevin Feige saying, “Any and all superpowers are fair game. Have fun,” and then we storyboarded it. We would be like, “What are the superpowers that would happen next?” And then we would go through stunts and understand what superpowers can happen next and what can’t, just because of the physical positioning of the actors. And then, with VFX, some things just couldn’t work because they looked funny shifting from this to that in an instant. So there was a lot of attention paid towards story, but also the constraints that the story put upon the sequence.
Credit to the great stunt and second unit people, led by Rob Inch, and the great VFX department led by Aharon Bourland. Even the storyboard artists that we worked with: Ian McCaffrey in Dublin and Aaron Sowd in L.A. We all had our fingers in applying what this sequence would be, and when we were storyboarding, Aaron has deep MCU knowledge and leans on comic books. But Ian is not so much an MCU guy; he’s more of a choreographer. And so we put those two ideas together: what would be from the MCU, and what looks lyrical and works? So it was a lot of different people pushing and prosecuting forward, and I think it became a very fun and elegant fight.
Kingsley had an impressive monologue while G’iah was still sporting Fury’s facade. He even got rather up close and personal by grabbing Faux Fury’s face. Do you recall how many times he performed that speech on the day?
I wish I could say it was on the day; it was several days. (Laughs.) It was a very complicated sequence, and we shot things that didn’t end up in the final piece. But that boiled down to actor process. Sam is a one-to-four take guy. Ben Mendelssohn is literally a five-take guy. It’s his fifth take that you just can’t imagine anything better ever happening. But Kingsley loves to work it and he’ll work it all day long. I have a feeling he probably asked that we do that speech six-to-eight times, so it’s just a different process and a different way of finding your grounding and your point of loft.
It was also a highly technical scene because the set was real, but everything beyond the set was VFX. And at one point, there were other people in the scene that had to be taken into consideration with Gravik’s movements. So it was a complicated moment, but also, as you noted, it’s deeply personal between these two characters. There’s a vulnerability that we rarely see in the MCU, where two characters are talking about their hurt rather than just slugging out their anger. So it was fun for me because it was more of an acting moment.
So, I have to imagine that Don Cheadle asked, “Hey, how long has Rhodey been held captive?” What was he told as far as how long Rhodey had been a Skrull?
No, he never asked me that. He’s a great collaborator. He was a detailed, logical guy who would not say, “How long have I been … ?” But he would say, “Let me tell you why I could’ve been, and let me tell you why I couldn’t have been,” which is an interesting way to get at his character. So I would say this to anybody, but go back and visit all of the Rhodey scenes in the MCU and see how you unpack it now that you have a slightly different perspective on Rhodey or Skrull. But I don’t know that there’s a definitive answer. I think it’s still open to interpretation.
I know your job is to execute the story you’re given, but it’s painful to think that the real Rhodey wasn’t present for Tony Stark’s death and funeral considering their friendship.
I’m worried that I will get death threats because of that, and also because I’m the guy who took out Maria Hill. So I’m actually going into hiding now.
Speaking of Maria Hill, Secret Invasion said goodbye to both Cobie Smulders and Ben Mendelsohn’s characters. Were those sad days on set?
There is no sad day with Cobie Smulders. She is can-do. She shows up, does her work, loves it and brings incredible spirit. She and Sam did have a bittersweet goodbye, but who knows where Maria Hill is gonna end up. I don’t think she has any superpowers or serum that will keep her alive forever, but they could always make a movie that takes place before 2023, in which Maria Hill shows up.
And Ben, I gotta say that it was a little bit of the same. He loves being in the MCU, he’s grateful that he’s in the MCU and if they want to kill him, he’ll die. He also knows that anything can happen in the MCU, and they’ll bring him back if they think of a way to bring him back.
I can live without end-credit scenes, but I know that some people were surprised about the lack of one given that they’re a staple of MCU storytelling. Was there ever an end-credit scene?
None that I was privy to. There may have been discussions in the upper offices where I wasn’t involved, but I don’t know. I think that they use those end-credit sequences to launch something or to resolve something, and maybe this story feels like it resolves itself. So I don’t know what they’re launching other than Nick Fury went up in the spaceship to get ready for The Marvels.
Sam Jackson and Charlayne Woodard were great together on this show, and in a lot of ways, Secret Invasion was about saving a marriage. But Sam told me at the start that he expected a bit of commotion over Charlayne’s casting just because of their previous experiences together in Unbreakable and Glass as mother and son. Did their history together give you guys any pause during casting? [Writer’s Note: In Unbreakable (2000), Woodard was originally cast to play Young Elijah Price’s mother via flashbacks, but Shyamalan was so taken with her performance that he aged her up for the final scene in the present.]
Not me, no. I really just think in terms of great actors who have electricity or connection or chemistry, whatever you want to call it, and those two did. So I might not be the perfect audience for the MCU because I don’t bring a lot of stuff with me to the thing I’m watching. I just think that this is a story that’s contained within itself and I loved it. And if they were together 20 years ago, great. Did you find it detrimental that they had a history together?
Not in the slightest.
They’re great actors who bring great chemistry, and they were honest and clear about the scene that they’re in right now. To me, that’s exciting.
Secret Invasion is now streaming on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.