Marvel's Secret Invasion made its debut on Disney+ today, and it's already causing some intense debate. In fact, the controversy began in just the very first seconds of the new six-episode series.
The biggest discussion isn't around the script or the performances of Samuel L Jackson, Emilia Clarke and Olivia Colman. It's the use of generative AI art to design the opening credits (see our guides to the best AI art generators and the best AI art tutorials if you need to get up to speed on how text-to-image generators work).
Marvel's Secret Invasion sees Jackson as a present-day Nick Fury as Earth comes under attack from thousands of shapeshifting Skrulls that have been waiting for their moment. It's a fun expansion for Fury as a character, and Jackson shines as you'd expect. But what on Earth is going on with those weird opening credits? Doesn't that look just like the crude artefact-ridden AI art that was being created in the early days of Stable Diffusion and Midjourney almost 12 months ago?
Yep, it turns out that's exactly what it is. Director Ali Selim has confirmed to Polygon that the artwork in the Secret Invasion opening credits was made using generative AI, a technology that remains hugely controversial because many models were trained on copyrighted images and due to fears of the potential impact on creative jobs.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of artists are not at all impressed. "This show marks the first major invasion of AI on a major studio’s piece of work," the artist Brian Long wrote on Twitter. "It’s utterly horrifying to think about and this is only the start. Think about all the amazing intros created by REAL HUMANS!!!" The concept artist Jeff Simpson, who himself worked on the show, tweeted: "I’m devastated, I believe AI to be unethical, dangerous and designed solely to eliminate artists' careers. Spent almost half a year working on this show."
So Marvel really used AI to make the intro for #SecretInvasion… it’s actually over. pic.twitter.com/pWUNOZWTqdJune 21, 2023
Secret Invasion intro is AI generated. I’m devastated, I believe AI to be unethical, dangerous and designed solely to eliminate artists careers. Spent almost half a year working on this show and had a fantastic experience working with the most amazing people I ever met…June 21, 2023
Some feel it's counterintuitive for a company like Marvel that's built on the work of human artists to use AI art. Others are confused about why the work looks like 'old' AI art when generators like Midjourney have already improved massively on their ability to create cleaner, more photorealistic images.
"Aside from that foreboding sense of the death of values - this looks dated already," one person wrote. "It's clearly been made on an older version of MJ (the one people were playing with in late 2021) and it stands out like a sore thumb." "If they wanted uncanny valley visuals that look unfinished, then they could've just hired The Flash's project management team." someone else wrote.
The credits do look weird and ugly, but I think that's the point. Marvel wasn't sold opening credits by someone who was accidentally using an old AI model because they didn't have access to a newer version. It seems pretty clear that it was an intentional stylistic choice, and it's one that was designed to fit the whole premise of the series.
Secret Invasion is about the world being threatened by shapeshifting extraterrestrials. We can't trust our eyes because the Skrulls can hide among us in human form. The dystopian scenario of a world full of AI images in which we can't tell what's real anymore, or what was created by a human artist and what was generated by a machine, appears to be an intentional parallel.
While Selim himself admits he doesn't “really understand” the mechanics of generative AI, he said he liked the results for Secret Invasion because of how it fit the show's theme. “When we reached out to the AI vendors, that was part of it," he says. "It just came right out of the shape-shifting, Skrull world identity, you know? Who did this? Who is this?”
“We would talk to them about ideas and themes and words, and then the computer would go off and do something," he added. "And then we could change it a little bit by using words, and it would change.”
So is AI art the future of opening credits sequences? We've seen some uses of AI in TV before, including the controversy around the use of AI-generated backgrounds in a Netflix anime. But Secret Invasion is the highest-profile series we've seen yet to actually make a point of using generative AI
It fits the concept of Secret Invasion, but I do hope it's not something other studios take up and run with, or we'll soon start to see sequences where the technology adds nothing conceptual to the narrative and just looks terrible. Like anything, the styles of opening sequences for TV series tend to go through fashions. Let's just hope an AI-look doesn't become the next trend (see our pick of the weird AI art for examples of what that might look like).