There’s been a lot of social media backlash directed at Disney over the opening credits to the newest MCU show, Secret Invasion. Why? Because someone made the credits with AI. Or at least made the credits look like they were created by Midjourney or Dall-E. A few years ago, this probably wouldn’t be a big deal. Right now, though? We’re in the middle of an extended writers strike where one of the main points of contention is over AI and the studios wanting to use it to replace people.
With that context, it makes sense why so many writers or people sympathetic to the cause are blown away by the seeming brazenness of Disney. Actor Stephen Sean Ford (Kamen Rider) has a tweet that summarizes the majority point of view: Marvel/Disney have infinite money yet used AI for the Secret Invasion opening credits. A slap in the face to literally every artist Disney has ever worked with & something that overshadows the hard work everyone did on the show.
Post after post is about how idiotic, arrogant, disrespectful, and outrageous Disney and Marvel are. As a writer, I’m very much in support of the strike and writers, artists, and everyone else who contributes to the magic of cinema getting what they deserve. And as a writer, I also think it’s fair to point out that there’s more to the AI choice than greed. There’s an actual artistic reason.
Form and function
One of the coolest things that we see in art is the merging of form and function. For example, imagine a shot of someone walking down the street in New York City. Then we cut to a first-person POV shot. This person strolls right along as strangers pass them by. It’s normal. It’s kind of boring. Then from the corner of the frame, someone dashes across the street to the sidewalk our character’s walking on. This new person is in the background but quickly approaching. They have something in their hand. As they get close to the “camera”, they throw something. It’s some liquid that splashes directly on the lens. We hear our POV character scream. The screen goes dark. The screams continue. The screen is still dark. We hear people react. Some ask direct questions. Others call for help. Still the screaming. The screen remains dark. We cut to later and see the same character, at home, with dark glasses on. A walking stick next to them. They’re the victim of a terrible attack that’s caused permanent blindness.
That’s something that could have been shown with standard third-person shots that would cross-cut between our main character and the attacker. Instead, the first-person camera puts us in the position of the protagonist. When they lose their sight, we lose ours. That’s form and function working together to create a specific experience.
In painting, you could have 3/4ths of the canvas be a sketch then 1/4th be actual paint and the title of the work is Unfinished.
It’s one of those techniques that takes a bit of extra effort to make interesting, good, clever, etc. and often involves a degree of nuance and trust in your audience to pick up on the nuance. It’s not something you’ll see used in multiple episodes of Friends. But it’s still common enough that a Fast and Furious movie might have a moment of form meeting function through motion blur when a Vin Diesel hits the NOS and his car takes off. Form meeting function can be as simple as that or far far far more complicated. And, then, in the middle, you have…
Secret Invasion is the MCU take on a Marvel comics story that ran from June 2008 to January 2009. The story revolves around the shapeshifting alien species known as the Skrulls and their slow, discreet attack on Earth by, over the span of years, kidnapping superheroes and replacing them. The idea being that eventually they’ll outnumber the remaining heroes and launch a sneak attack that ends the war before it really even has a chance to start. For a time, the Skrulls have the upper hand, their plan working well. But the heroes of Earth are mighty and eventually victorious. The end.
The key thing here is that the invasion hinges upon the Skrull ability to imitate the appearance of other people. This doppelganger is identical in every visual way. But a perfect imitation is impossible because the Skrull can never fully embody the personality of whoever they’re imitating. Meaning that if you know someone well enough, there should be a sense that something is off. This person looks right. But they feel wrong. That sense of paranoia and doubt and second-guessing is what made Secret Invasion such a unique and popular arc.
You know what else kind of looks right but ultimately feels wrong? AI art. Midjourney, DALL-E, and others are incredibly impressive at generating some surprisingly high quality art in mere seconds. But because the AI isn’t truly sentient and so has no way to truly understand or judge its work, the results, while impressive, often have some sense of the unreal. For a while, all the AI art of people had six fingers. Or there are elements in the background that repeat or are completely off. A car rendered photo realistically except one headlights is a literal bulb. Things like that.
Except AI art is improving. At an alarming rate. The whole six fingers thing? It’s been solved already. Soon enough, it’s going to be nearly impossible to tell what’s AI-generated and what’s not.
Just like in Secret Invasion you have the dilemma of trying to figure out who is and isn’t a Skrull. So the choice to use AI art in the intro is an incredible moment of form meeting function. The credits themselves make reference to what is going to become one of the biggest societal reckonings of the 21st century. It’s a conversation that will affect pretty much every person in the world. By making that reference, Secret Invasion is drawing a kind of equivalence to its story and saying, “What’s at stake in the real world is what this fictional story is about. What happens in this show is relevant as it speculates on our own future.”
It makes sense why people are mad
Given where things are at with the strike and the fact that Disney is one of the biggest voices in commercial art and is seemingly on the side of replacing people with AI—I get why everyone is mad. It’s a serious topic and people who are in the fight are so focused on ensuring the future for themselves and all future artists that they don’t really have the bandwidth or interest in stopping to admire the meta-commentary on AI use.
But for the sake of posterity, I wanted to at least get it out there that there’s a more nuanced point to Secret Invasion’s AI-created intro than Disney being jerks. I’m sure that will probably upset some people. But hopefully in a few years, we can look back on the intro and acknowledge that it was pretty creative. Just in the context of the moment, tone deaf (at best).