*** SPOILERS AHEAD! for Secret Empire, Avengers Standoff, Civil War II, Captain America: Sam Wilson, and Captain America: Steve Rogers ***
Secret Empire was more than just another crossover event. Unlike the desperately chaotic Avenges & X-Men: AXIS, the clinically frustrating and underwhelming Original Sin, or even the inarticulately dull Fear Itself, Nick Spencer’s socio-political opus is more than the sum of its parts. And while Secret Empire has its flaws – and they are many – it came at a tenuous time for Marvel Comics fans, a crossroads between the current US political climate and a general resentment of cash-grab, line-wide crossovers that rarely deliver as much as they promise.
I don’t believe Secret Empire will go down as one of Marvel’s greatest crossovers, but I do believe that given distance, more readers will come to realize just how much went into this epic storyline. Read aside from the tumultuous debate during its publishing run, Secret Empire will be seen as a poignant and thorough examination of Marvel storytelling tropes through the lens of socio-political tension and moral dissonance. To understand the breadth of Secret Empire, one must look back at least a full year before the event officially kicked off; so, let’s start there.
Standoff Against What?
When it was published in early 2016, I hated Avengers Standoff. Given the premise and the players involved, Spencer’s narrative was a disappointment that pushed me to ask why it needed to be told in the first place, as all it seemed to do was twist Maria Hill from an effective leader into a megalomaniacal monster who actively ignores the consequences of her actions. On Hill’s orders, S.H.I.E.L.D. manipulates a Cosmic Cube – a sentient, reality-altering energy source personified as a young girl named Kobik – to imprison super-villains by literally rewriting their very reality and transforming them into complacent, content citizens of Pleasant Hill, Connecticut. As a stand-alone story, Avengers Standoff is a poor facsimile of DC’s Identity Crisis that simply doesn’t carry as much emotional weight; the stakes are presented as being high, but in reality, the various Avengers teams only get pulled into the fray to further a plot that would have worked far better as a self-contained S.H.I.E.L.D. drama.
By the end of Standoff, the incarcerated villains have escaped with a righteous new level of loathing for S.H.I.E.L.D., Kobik is on the run with Bucky Barnes and a host of her super-villain ‘friends’ from Pleasant Hill, Maria Hill’s position as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. is under scrutiny, and Kobik has renewed Steve Rogers’ youth and super-soldier power. These are all solvent shifts to the status quo, but nothing truly groundbreaking or worthy of such pomp and circumstance. And while I still believe Standoff is a poor story by itself, the themes presented throughout the interconnecting Avengers titles offer a blueprint to Marvel’s line-wide narratives moving through 2016 and into 2017: abuse of power, distrust of authority, self-fulfilling prophecies, and fear of what we can’t control.
The second major piece in the overarching Secret Empire saga runs through Spencer’s laterally-published Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers, each of which starred a Sentinel of Liberty carrying a shield and fighting against injustice, only with major differences concerning what injustice actually means. In the former, Sam Wilson is caught between his convictions as a black man in America and how his words and actions are twisted by opposing voices. The latter kicks things into gear right out the gate when the Steve kicks fellow American-themed hero Jack Flag to his supposed death to the tune of “Hail Hydra” at the end of Captain America: Steve Rogers #1.
By the second issue, Spencer reveals that Kobik was influenced by the Red Skull during her time in Pleasant Hill – he convinces her that the world is wrong, and that Hydra is what’s right. In renewing him, Kobik also rewrites Steve Rogers’ entire history, shuffles through his life and inserts new narratives and characters who point him down the road that will take him from scrawny Brooklyn kid to becoming the most powerful Hydra agent of all time hiding behind the face of America’s greatest symbol of hope.
Even with a somewhat-cogent explanation, the ‘Nazi Cap’ controversy swept across the internet and into mainstream media when opposing viewpoints clashed over the imagery and what it meant for the character. Some saw Hydra as a clear stand-in for the Nazis, and thus Cap’s declaration was an obscene perversion of a character created by Jewish writers as the antithesis to Hitler’s fascist, racist ideals. Others saw the ‘shocking twist’ as just that, simply comic book flair that would either a.) be revealed as an alternate timeline, b.) turn out to be a clone., or c.) be mind-control/psychic influence. The most fascinating part of that entire debate is that neither side was happy and nearly everyone saw the move as a bad decision in the broader context of the character. The next 14 issues of Captain America: Steve Rogers did little to dissuade those who were against the concept, as it detailed his new history as a sleeper Hydra agent, the rewritten backstory that now informs every decision he makes, every nefarious alliance he strikes, and every turn he takes toward the inevitable empire.
Over in Captain America: Sam Wilson, the overall effect is less straightforward which makes the series far more enjoyable as a stand-alone enterprise. By itself, Sam Wilson is about the struggle a man of color undergoes wearing the uniform and carrying the shield of one of the most recognizable faces in American history that’s always been white-skinned, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed. For the first time, a population of people in the United States is forced to look at Captain America and not necessarily see themselves, but rather a different part of the population that makes this country great. From allegories to white supremacists and police brutality to media coverage being ingrained throughout the entire series, Sam Wilson succeeds as a character study and a commentary on how real change in the United States of America can cause deep-rooted fears and prejudices to bubble up and explode.
When examined in the context of what the series means to Secret Empire, Captain America: Sam Wilson is about the loss of innocence, the erosion of confidence in the name ‘Captain America’ whether deserved or not. Nick Spencer doesn’t write Sam Wilson as a weak or worse Captain, but the story is about parts of the country rooted so deeply in their archaic convictions that they cannot accept a black man with an expanded definition of injustice as their symbol of hope and patriotism (see Barack Obama, birtherism). Sam as Captain America divides the country, and that societal tension is the ticking time bomb that makes Hydra’s takeover of the United States just that much easier: anger, resentment, and paranoia begin to take grip as a symbol that once united the nation now divides it more than ever before.
Civil War, Too
I will spend no time defending Brian Michael Bendis’ Civil War II – it was poorly written, terribly paced, and offered no context for justifications by either side for their various cruelties and crimes against one another. I can respect Bendis’ past works and still hold a grudge for how he shoved his “let’s imprison people before they commit crimes!” ridiculousness into one of my favorite heroes of all time, Carol Danvers, just as she was reaching Wonder Woman-levels of critical acclaim. And while she’s currently a member of the Ultimates and carries her own ongoing title, it all feels like wheel-spinning because Bendis destroyed any goodwill Carol had, erased the convictions of teamwork and transparency she’s always championed then somehow forgot when she gained a little power, and turned her into a stubborn totalitarian hell-bent on being right above all else. But I digress… Setting aside all the horrid aspects of Civil War II, three major ideas resonate that fuel the fires leading into Secret Empire.
The first theme that continues from Avengers Standoff and runs through Captain America: Sam Wilson into Civil War II is distrust of heroes. Yet again, Earth’s Mightiest find themselves involved in a circle-jerk of infighting and personal squabbles to the detriment of the innocent people they claim to protect and serve. Demigods punch and blast each other in the sky while ordinary citizens shoulder collateral damage, emotional trauma, and infringement on civil liberties. Aside from staging their massive super-fights in the middle of some of the most densely-populated cities in the country, the most solvent example of superhero overreaching comes from Carol Danvers incarcerating an innocent woman based on a flawed vision of the future, then not even having the dignity to apologize.
|No, thank you.|
The second major theme concerns Inhumans and their place in the Marvel Universe. Civil War II hinges on a single nu-human whose powers influence an entire superhero war, draws the extended Inhuman cast into the fray, and gives arguable credence to rising fears surrounding a new, growing population of super-powered individuals. I’m not saying the hate and fear and resentment are good or warranted, only that in context, ordinary people in the Marvel Universe live in daily fear that the next Magneto or Doctor Doom or Red Skull will come out of an Inhuman Terrigenesis pod, and that there will come a day when the world’s best simply won’t be enough.
Finally, the epilogue issue Civil War II: The Oath is the culmination of humanity’s worst tendencies under fear and panic when Steve Rogers is sworn in as the new Director of S.H.I.E.L.D.: make it someone else’s responsibility. After Maria Hill is convicted of war crimes a in light of Pleasant Hill and the second superhero civil war, consolidating power under the one consistent symbol of American hope and honor seems like the only option. That valuing of security over freedom is the real reason The Oath is so important: this is the first real step towards Hydra’s occupation and the fall of the Avengers. At the time of release, Secret Empire had been teased and previewed for some time, which meant the notion of Captain America leading S.H.I.E.L.D. (again) didn’t offer the calm before the storm it should have, but instead fell flat because readers already knew that Steve’s rise to power was inevitable.
The Empire Strikes
Standoff started the ball rolling by discrediting S.H.I.E.L.D. via Maria Hill’s questionable ethics, giving an entire legion of super-villains a real reason to hate the government, and rewriting Steve Rogers’ history. Captain America: Sam Wilson exacerbates the themes of distrust and division slowly growing throughout the United States, while Captain America: Steve Rogers fills in the narrative gaps of Rogers’ new Hydra-influenced backstory to inform the coming rise of his new order. Civil War II begins a trend of dueling political ideologies concerning strength and security vs. freedom and democracy, more clearly frames Inhumans as a persecuted minority group in the Marvel universe, and places Steve Rogers in the highest position of power possible.
There are, of course, a number of other minor factors/ideas that could be added into the overall mix, like the vision of the younger Spider-Man gripping the corpse of a dead Steve Rogers in Civil War II, the formation of the U.S.Avengers as a practice in patriotic propaganda, or even most of the third volume of Uncanny Avengers that focuses on the Red Skull’s machinations leading up to Avengers Standoff – but none of those are truly necessary to the greater understanding of Secret Empire.
Yet, it’s those smaller aspects added to the effect of the major beats leading up to Secret Empire that set the event apart from many of its predecessors. Through an ‘opening salvo’ mini-crossover, two parallel-running solo series, and even weaving through a disparate event, Nick Spencer seeds and nurtures the themes and concepts that eventually converge in Secret Empire #0, when Steve Rogers reveals himself as Hydra Supreme and the true invasion of the nation begins.
The image of America’s greatest champion under a new flag is powerful, but in context, it makes sense. S.H.I.E.L.D. lost any moral high ground after the Pleasant Hill incident, the superheroes discredited themselves with their petty civil war, and the Inhumans are feared and hated more than ever before. There is an elegance to the forest, a flow from one narrative to the next that offers clarity to the temperature of the United States when Captain America addresses the nation to finally say what no one else will: the system is broken, the heroes do not care, and the only fight fear is with strength. I consider myself a hyper-liberal in real life, yet when considering how I would feel if I lived in the Marvel Universe, I can’t say how I would react to Hydra. Would I see it as the fascist, totalitarian regime the reader in me knows it to be? Or would my own insecurities and fear for the future of the planet overwhelm my sense of goodwill and acceptance? I’d like to believe the former to be true, but the truth is that in an extraordinary world that sees constant conflict between self-absorbed demigods, I simply don’t know.
Though Hydra is obviously a nefarious, evil regime designed to instill fear and subjugate people, it’s a metaphor for the consequences of ignorance, a warning that abuse of power is a real threat and can come from what we feel is most secure and unwavering. Spencer’s aim was never to present the Hydra Empire as a reasonable option (like how Bendis attempted to give Carol’s dictator-esque behavior equal credence to Tony Stark’s dedication to freedom of thought), only that in the exaggerated universe of men and women in capes and masks who punch and kick one another for vague or obtuse reasons, the fall of the ‘American Empire’ would indeed be at the hands of an organization that promises to not only root out corruption from a maligned and overwrought bureaucracy, but also end the threat of constant super-on-super violence that ravages cities and claims hundreds of lives each year, then create a new system that ensures total safety.
What Does It Mean?
Often, artistic works take time to gain appreciation. Vincent Van Gogh was not recognized for his genius until he had already passed away, and now he is considered one of the best painters of all time. Wet Hot American Summer was initially panned by critics across the board but gained a cult following that eventually grew so large it warranted two follow-up television series. Secret Empire will always carry its inherent narrative flaws – fractured pacing, artistic dissonance, too many tie-ins, character digressions, and bloated plot strands – but I truly believe that given time and distance, this event will be seen in a more positive light. By itself, Secret Empire offers a solid story that missteps from time to time but comes back in the end to offer a positive message about resilience and perseverance against injustice. As a broader story, Nick Spencer’s socio-political opus that begins with Avengers Standoff, runs through Captain America: Sam Wilson and Captain America: Steve Rogers, is fueled by the events of Civil War II, and finally culminate with Secret Empire is a fantastic narrative about what it means to be a hero, the cost of peace, and the things that divide us when we forget that everyone struggles with something whether we can empathize or not.
The Hydra Empire is a direct response to serial irresponsibility, a calculated solution to the various problems beguiling a shared superhero universe. In this sense, Secret Empire is analogous to Marvel’s recent publishing strategy: since 2012, there have been no less than seven major crossover events that interrupt normally scheduled programming and disrupt organic narrative flow, with more diminished commercial and critical returns each time. Much like Steve Rogers’ focus on literal strength and flagrant shows of force, Marvel’s reliance on short-term gains neglect long-term issues that drag the entire line down. Forced to buy into a never-ending cycle of Earth-shattering threats with little to no substantial consequences, it’s no wonder readers are exhausted with event comics and misleading hype.
Thus, Secret Empire is a meta culmination of event exhaustion as well as a clever allegory for the same thing. Speaking to the prior, Secret Empire was unfairly saddled with building animosity from years of unsatisfying crossovers, and though it deserves most of the criticism levied against the actual story, much of the vitriol and outright hate was rooted in a general distaste for events, especially after 2016’s erratic and divisive Civil War II. To the latter, Secret Empire’s in-universe narrative mirrors these real-world frustrations with constant superhero infighting and meaningless devastation that claims lives and ruins others. This isn’t the first story to approach superhero accountability in the Marvel universe (see the original Civil War event), but it is the boldest; the individual pieces might struggle to stand on their own, but taken as an overarching saga, Nick Spencer’s exploration of the corruption of the American Dream at the hands of its most celebrated hero begs reconsideration outside its politically-charged publishing timeframe and aside from the emotional baggage it was forced to carry. AXIS and Civil War II will always be poorly structured, hopelessly misleading events that won’t get better with age. Secret Empire, on the other hand, has the potential to go down as a watershed moment for Marvel superheroes.
What Comes Next?
Much frustration has been expressed over Marvel’s next publishing initiative, “Legacy”, which reestablishes legacy issue numbering from pre-2012, and will most likely bring back classic versions of heroes who had new faces filling their roles over the past five years. This bitterness comes from the apparent lack of real change, yet again; aside from the new issue numbers and potential for old faces showing back up, there doesn’t seem to be anything new or interesting to make “Legacy” feel necessary, let alone exciting. Unlike ‘Marvel NOW!’, there aren’t creative team shifts; unlike ‘All-New Marvel NOW!’, there isn’t a solid lineup of intriguing new #1 issues; and unlike ‘All-New, All-Different Marvel’ or ‘Marvel NOW! 2.0’, there don’t seem to be any fun new characters.
Since Avengers vs. X-Men eclipsed most of 2012 only to give way to a twice-per-year crossover release strategy, constant events followed by soft relaunches have been harshly criticized as ineffective, transparently greedy, and generally confusing to new and old readers alike (try figuring out how to read Captain Marvel’s adventures in the correct order when there are three Volume 1 graphic novels on the shelf, all of which were published between 2012 and 2017.) Each time Marvel pulls this stunt, fans and critics alike express disdain and frustration for a publisher more interested in churning out high-selling #1 issues than telling good stories. Thus, I find myself wondering exactly why there is so much public outrage over “Legacy”.
Marvel makes it clear with “Legacy” that even though there will be fallout from Secret Empire with consequences that reach into storylines going forward, they have actually listened to fan sentiment and are acting accordingly. Instead of ending current series and reformatting the entire line post-Secret Empire, Marvel ongoings will continue without further interruption, only now with their classic numberings – no major creative team changes, no massive shake-ups in titles not directly connected to Secret Empire (like, say, the new Captain America title starring Steve Rogers), and no massive onslaught of #1 issues.
With a (reasonably doubted) promise of no major crossover events for 18 months, “Legacy”, in fact, feels like exactly what fans have been asking for – less unnecessary marketing gimmicks, less events weighing down organic narratives in established series, and less overall insistence that ‘everything has changed!’. Far be it from me to tell comic book fans how to feel about what they read, but it seems to me that (completely understandable) compounding resentment for a publisher that has eroded its own goodwill over the last half-decade is now skewing how “Legacy” is being perceived. Yes, it was probably a mistake to push the lenticular variant covers so hard at such high ordering thresholds, but beyond that, this new initiative feels like the House of Ideas trying to get itself back on track by offering a very different post-event landscape than Marvel readers have seen recently by keeping things the same. Fans asked for a more digestible, less frantic Marvel universe filled with the heroes that made it great, and that’s exactly what “Legacy” will do.
I didn’t really know where I was going with this piece when I started. For some reason, I found myself stepping back and looking at Secret Empire not as a die-hard comic book fan, but as a critic considering a story on its own merits. I opted to spend little time discussing Secret Empire’s flaws because those have been extensively covered across the internet. I also chose not to praise the series beyond its due because nothing is perfect, and despite being an enjoyable read overall, Secret Empire does have glaring issues.
As the outline of the piece came together, I nearly missed the metaphor hiding in the name of the event: ‘Secret Empire’. An empire is often valued by its size and duration, with the most well-known being the largest and longest-lasting. Nick Spencer’s narrative began nearly two years ago and wove three events and two ongoing series into a single, contextual saga right under our noses – in secret, if you will. Sure, Captain America: Steve Rogers was a direct line to the endgame, but every other part large or small added to the mystique and tension that built throughout a divisive 2016 and into an even more bombastic 2017. In truth, Secret Empire isn’t even in my top five Marvel events (House of M, Secret Wars (2015), Secret Invasion, Civil War, Infinity), but I felt compelled to give this event the credit it deserves with a bit more consideration than most critics or fans are willing give to at this point. Perhaps one day, more fans will see this event as I do, and then again perhaps not. Either way, I do not believe Secret Empire will always carry the burden of a half-decade’s worth of frustration and resentment, but will in fact rise up as and persist as an eloquent take on the Marvel Universe in 2017.