Secret Empire-Hydra Cap No More
by Jake Hill
At long last Secret Empire is finally over. Bad Captain America is defeated, Good Captain America is restored (um, spoilers), the Avengers assembled, and America was rebuilt in a few panels. This was easily the most controversial storyline Marvel has attempted in recent memory. Was it a disaster, that not only ruined comics forever, but also the fabric of real life America? No, not by a long shot. But was it good? Let’s dive in, and from here on out, there will be actual spoilers.
The Real Failure of Secret Empire
Marvel Events have a formula, but that’s largely the fault of prolific Marvel writer Brian Michael Bendis. He’s written something like half of the recent Marvel Events, and lots of the cliches come from his approach to them. Stories like Original Sin (by Jason Aaron) and Infinity and Secret Wars (both by Jonathan Hickman) feel very different. Secret Empire was written by Nick Spencer, but it couldn’t shake free of the Marvel Event cliches.
That’s a shame, because Spencer has some really good, twisty stories in him. His creator-owned Morning Glories is lots of fun, as is his run on Ant-Man. Superior Foes of Spider-Man is easily in my top ten Marvel series of the last few years, full of heart and humor. Secret Empire though was a lot of predictable nonsense, full of hand-waving and unexplained developments.
Get out your Marvel Event bingo cards, and let’s count the cliches. The story begins with Evil Steve Rogers (henceforth known as “Stevil”) taking over America in a matter of months. Black Widow assembles the pacifist Champions team and turns them into a squad of young underground assassins (half of Marvel events are about an underground Avengers team such as Dark Reign, Age of Ultron, and Avengers Vs. X-Men). Stevil kills classic Marvel character Rick Jones to let us know that the stakes have never been higher (unnecessary character death, that’s a box). Tony Stark, who died in Civil War II has a showdown with Stevil (irrelevant character with a big role because he’s popular in the movies is a box. So is acting out of character to serve the story). Hulk, who also died in Civil War II is somehow revived (box). Characters like Kingpin and Mosaic show up for single panels to advertise their tie-in series (that’s a box, plus their series got cancelled, so that’s another box). Black Widow was brutally killed (another unnecessary character death, your call if it gets another box). Cap lifted Thor’s hammer (box) and struck down Stevil. Then the Cosmic Cube is used to magic away about half the bad stuff that happened (box), but not to bring Widow back from the dead. Do you have Bingo yet?
There’s a good story at the core of Secret Empire, but it got buried under all this clutter. We love stories about heroes turning temporarily bad, it’s practically all we ever do with Superman these days. But Secret Empire felt more like an ad for tie-in comics, and despite the high stakes, the involvement of a reality warping MacGuffin rendered the conflict mostly toothless.
The Elephant in the Room
It’s hard not to talk about Secret Empire without addressing the surrounding controversy. I already considered the history of Captain America and Hydra, but it’s clear that Marvel’s own marketing undermined this Event at every turn. The Event was already planned before the election, but after Donald Trump won the election, the commentary quickly got away from the story. Scenes of fascists killing civilians feel different after the events in Charlottesville, even if they were written before.
That tension also worked against the story. Instead of doubling down on condemning fascism and bigotry at every turn, the story became a much more typical overblown Marvel Event. Marvel editors were quick to distance the story from actual politics in many interviews, despite it being obviously political and you know, starring Captain America. They tried to hide some of the stories twists, all while spoiling them in major news publications. The whole thing was a mess, and what may have been a fun struggle between good and Stevil was marred by stupid comments and poorly thought out merchandise.
This led to a lot of extreme accusations, most of which were placed at the feet of Nick Spencer, who continues to be a pretty damn good writer of comics. It’s easy to speculate about how this story got away from him, but at the end of the day, it really got away from him on every conceivable level. Marvel has quite a history of burning out creators after Event stories (Matt Fraction after Fear Itself, Rick Remender after Axis, Jonathan Hickman after Secret Wars) but this went beyond the pale. Spencer faced more obstacles than any writer before him in trying to tell his story, and came out the other side battered and weary.
In the End
In the final pages of Secret Empire, good Steve Rogers emerges, clobbers Stevil, and restores America with a magic box. An Inhuman family is reunited, and neighborhoods come together to rebuild. Kids fight over Captain America action figures. It’s supposed to be sweet, but it all comes so fast, and after so much darkness, and after so much nonsense, that it arrives without impact.
Secret Empire felt like comics put through a blender. Everything was chopped to pieces and shoved together with everything else, to the point where it was impossible to tell what was what. It was exhausting. This close to the end of it, I’m confident in saying that it wasn’t very good. Not the worst Marvel Event by any means, not by a long shot (that would probably be Age of Ultron or Civil War II), but not great.
There is a part of me that wonders though… I wonder if there’s a future when this comic really works. Once we’re far removed from the feelings of fear and pain, once our nation and our comics feel more stable, maybe we’ll look back on Secret Empire with a real sense of perspective. Maybe the strength of Secret Empire isn’t in comic book storytelling, but as a historical artifacts that captures the chaos of our time.
Until then, I’m glad it’s over.