Secret Empire is Squandering its Potential

Posted June 9, 2017 by Jean-Luc Botbyl in Comic Books

The first issue of Secret Empire: Brave New World came out this week. And, for the first time, I felt like a creative team was making good on the promise of Secret Empire.

Leading up to the release of the event, I was legitimately excited for the story. The pitch sounded like a book that would reflect the world that we’re currently living in. After all, we’ve seen the institutions of democracy corrupted by the far right on a global scale. And yes, there have been some rejections of it – most notably in the recent French elections. Regardless, the narrative surrounding the American presidential election was that it represented a total reversal of our principles.

Not so different, then, from Captain America becoming a member of HYDRA. Secret Empire takes a character that is as close to a literal representation of American principles as we can get, and corrupts him. Turns him into a member of a fascist organization with the goal of toppling western democracy. All in the name of security, and a perverted sense of responsibility.

Scenes depicting HYDRA flags draped across government buildings are not so different from far-right groups arguing to fly the Confederate flag. And honestly, its evocative of the frightening rise in the use of Nazi imagery and symbolism by groups that support the Trump administration, and similar political movements across the world. These are symbols of oppression, being used in an official context by members of government.

Does it take it to an extreme? To an extent, the answer to that question is yes. But effective social commentary often comes through taking a modern concept and expanding it its logical (if far flung) conclusion.

Furthermore, the scapegoating of the Inhuman community by HYDRA is reminiscent of the real-world process of othering minority groups. After all, it’s not middle America’s fault that coal mining jobs disappeared. No, blame it on the Chinese. And, while you’re at it, you should be terrified of the Arab world because they’re a threat to our great civilization.

To bring it back to Brave New World, Namor’s crackdown is eerily reminiscent of a real-world government’s response to civil unrest and foreign threats. Just look at Theresa May’s response to the recent attacks in the UK. Hell, go back to the response to riots in Ferguson. Another story shows Giant-Man’s father horrified by what has become the new status quo. America under HYDRA is not the America he was promised – similarly to how America under Trump is far from what many immigrants expected.

The true failing of Secret Empire, then, is not in its conception. The critiques of turning Captain America into the lackey of an undeniably fascistic organizations ring true, to a point. I understand the sentiment that, in times like these, we need our heroes to be heroic. But this story is meant to make the reader feel uncomfortable, and challenge them to think critically about the situation we’ve found ourselves in.

Secret Empire falls apart because it steps up to the plate, and never even bothers to take a swing. It watches underhanded pitches fly by, and makes no attempt to say anything. Instead of being the critical, socially conscious book that it had the potential to be, it’s just another Marvel event with a stupid hook. Captain America’s “Hail Hydra” line, and all the events that followed, play the same role as “look, the Avengers and X-Men are beating each other up!” or “look, Iron Man and Captain America are punching each other!” or “what if the heroes and villains were INVERTED?!?!”

Secret Empire is, undeniably, a reflection of the current political climate. That gave it an opportunity unique among superhero stories to actually say something. Instead, it’s using that opportunity as a cheap cash grab. Perhaps I’m the only one to be blamed for my disappointment. It may have been a mistake to expect a hard hitting, truly socially conscious story from Marvel’s flagship summer event.

At least the Brave New World tie in series is making good on some of that. I have plenty critiques of the first issue, but its attempts at social commentary feel genuine, and at times, exceptional. A shame, then, that for all his political rants on Twitter, Nick Spencer couldn’t conjure up something similar for the main book.

About the Author

Jean-Luc Botbyl

Jean-Luc is a grizzled veteran of We the Nerdy. Most days, he just wonders why he hasn't been formally fired. Follow him on Twitter at @J_LFett to make him feel validated.