The State of Secret Empire

Posted August 25, 2017 by Luke Miller in Comic Books

I can tell you one thing that will happen in Secret Empire #10, and I tell you this with the utmost certainty: There will be lines. Heavy lines. Lines encumbered with the weight of the world. Lines striving to echo through the ages. Lines of despair and defeat and darkness. But there will be other lines, too. Lines of hope and promise and victory. Lines of triumph. Lines of light. But, in truth, these lines will crumble as well. Crushed under the burden they carry. For there is no mirth or joy to uplift them…

So, let’s talk about Secret Empire. We’ve got one issue left (and maybe an epilogue). We’ve had nine already (and really 10, because that zero issue mattered quite a bit). But let’s really talk about it. Let’s not do the thing where we yell that it’s terrible because we hate the author, or scream about how good it is because we love the publisher. Let’s just discuss it and talk about its merits and flaws.

I know a contingent out there is probably saying, “Shouldn’t you wait until the story is done before judging it?” Well, yes and no. I’m a firm believer that stories are more about the journey than the destination. Sticking the landing still needs to happen, but it doesn’t matter as much if the routine was terrible. I won’t be scoring this thing yet. That isn’t what this is for. It’s just that Secret Empire is the most confusing and polarizing event since I’ve been reading comics, and I need a way to process it.

Let’s start with the premise: … well, honestly, I don’t understand all the permutations of this premise. I know it involves the cosmic cube. I think maybe history was rewritten so that Captain America was a sleeper agent for Hydra for basically his entire life. However, all the other characters seem to remember that he wasn’t–and it is stressed multiple times early on that this is really, truly, the one and only Steve Rogers. I mean, I guess that’s the nature of sleeper agents. Everyone else would be shocked at his villainous turn, and most would refuse to believe its veracity.

But why would you use the cosmic cube as the plot device by which to do this? For a fairly grounded character like Captain America fighting a relatively grounded villain in Hydra, why not have him captured, imprisoned, tortured, and broken? Why, instead, use a reality-altering object? I can see three reasons. There may be more, but these are the big ones that come to mind:

  • First, there could be the belief that Steve Rogers is too strong to be broken. Either (in-universe) that he wouldn’t break no matter what Hydra did, or that (real world) actually breaking him might ruin the character going forward. I personally disagree with both of those ideas, but they’re there.
  • Second, and this is the big “real-world” reason, actually showing torture or even implying it off-panel is too brutal to put into a comic book. Fair enough. My counterargument would be the premise of the Winter Soldier, but fine. I say that route makes far more sense to get the character where you want him to be at the start of this thing, but if you have qualms about going there, I get it.
  • Third, and this is, by far, the most likely scenario–you use a reality-altering device to set up the story because it provides a childishly easy way to undo any events that happen in the story. It also absolves characters of any responsibility for their actions. It’s not a deus ex machina (deus ex cube?) at the end of the story if it’s the very thing that set up the story in the first place. If God created the world, then God having a role in the end of the world isn’t a surprise. It’s expected.

Comics, though, inherently ask you to suspend disbelief, so let’s just do that here. Let’s accept the premise for what it is: Captain America works for Hydra, a fascist, militaristic, cultish organization, and he has done so for his entire life. Cosmic cube, Manchurian candidate, straight-up traitor, maybe he’s just a jerk. Doesn’t matter. It is what it is and let’s move on.

The next question: Are the characters acting “in-character?” Are they all doing what we would expect them to do. And I don’t mean “can I predict what Character X will do/say?” I mean, “Character X is not very smart, so doing a not very smart thing makes total sense.” I should also point out, that as far as this story is concerned, Steve Rogers appears to be the only one changed by the cube; everyone else remembers things as they should be.

I will say this: for a would-be, fascist, zealot dictator, Steve Rogers is acting perfectly. I can find zero flaws in his performance. He’s doing what he thinks is right at the expense of everyone else, and taking every step imaginable to ensure that his vision of the world comes into being. Good. Great. We’ve nailed our main villain. Everyone else? Well, we’ve got some problems. I don’t care how pragmatic he is, Beast would not be the ambassador to the Fascist States of America under any circumstances. I don’t believe that the next generation heroes would all willingly go through assassin training, and I don’t believe, given her own background, Black Widow would willingly train them. I feel like Ant-Man would’ve been able to tip someone off before his heel turn. And nothing happening with Thor/Odinson makes any sense whatsoever. Thor (and I’m just going to keep calling him Thor because it’s easier) is taking any and all orders from Captain America simply because “he’s the best man I’ve ever known.” Thor’s memories theoretically have not changed, and I’m supposed to believe he’s going to side with one hero and literally every villain against literally every other hero? And that he has no independent thoughts/feelings/emotions until issue #9?

That’s to say nothing of the villains that are surrounding Cap every second of this story. They suddenly have his infinite trust, and they’re not going to take advantage of that and just, I don’t know, stab him or something? He’s been very nearly assassinated twice in this series–his security detail clearly isn’t great. Zemo, Zola, Faustus, the list goes on … none of them? You can play the “seeing him like this is the best revenge” card for one of them, but for every single one to happily take their marching orders from their biggest enemy is just too much.

That covers premise and characters, so what about plot?

Well, the general idea is that Captain America wants to take over America and, presumably, the world. Not exactly nuanced, but it’s not out of line for fascism and “enlightened despotism/benevolent dictatorships.” So, we’re actually good there. The problems, though, as I see them, are threefold. The first half (or more) of the series is spinning wheels. Search for cosmic cube fragments, find fragments, fight over fragments, rinse, repeat. Then, there’s the second half (or slightly less) where the heroes summon extra willpower and determine to succeed if they can just dig a little deeper and just fight a little harder. It implies that wars are won by “who wants it more.” Weapons? Nope. Tactics? Screw it. Intelligence? Why bother? You gotta want it men! And if we lose, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough! (I believe Sun Tzu’s Art of War is just the lyrics to “Eye of the Tiger” and then it ends.)

The final problem, which is an odd outlier for a comic event, is that so much of the action seems to be happening in tie-ins. At least I think that’s what’s happening. There are certainly a bunch of moments where I just said, “wait, what?” So either my memory is terrible, or something happened in a book that wasn’t the main series. On the one hand, it’s nice to have tie-ins that matter. On the other other hand, I’m not buying 50 books, and neither are you. You shouldn’t have to. If you want to see what the X-Men are up to during these events, great. But Magneto should not be flying in for a crucial attack with one line of expository dialogue if he hasn’t appeared in the series proper. (Again, I can’t say with certainty whether he briefly showed up in the series proper yet or not. I don’t remember it happening, but there is literally so much going on here that I can’t keep track of what every character is doing, and that’s also a problem.)

Okay, so the premise is weird, the characters are erratic, and the plot is all over the place. That said, Secret Empire has it’s moments. Hank Pym as Ultron, or vice versa, was an amazing issue. Taskmaster and Ant-Man’s reverse heel-turn was great. There are little snippets here and there where it feels like Spencer really does understand the characters … but he’s just repeatedly forcing square pegs into round holes and they just don’t fit.

This would have been an absolutely mind-blowing What If? title. “What if Captain America was a Hydra sleeper agent?” There’d be no rules, no worries about continuity, no fretting about mischaracterizations. Just dystopian chaos, and I love me some dystopian chaos. (Fictional dystopian chaos, not real world, just to be clear.) Plus the cosmic cube isn’t even necessary then as there would be no need to revert the status quo by the end of the series. Cap could win, or lose, or die, or redeem himself, or whatever surprise ending you wanted without worrying about any ramifications to the Marvel Universe as a whole.

If you’re able to look at Secret Empire in that light, and just say “to hell with it, none of this counts,” then this is worth a read. Yes, the narrative is heavy-handed and Spencer relies entirely too much on short sentences to try to infuse them with false gravitas. But the framework is there for a good story. Marvel just made the mistake of building with the wrong materials.

So should you read issue #10, even if you skipped everything else? Yes. You should. We’re down to Captain America versus the world at this point. It’ll be one giant fight. Someone will dig deep and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. And there will be lines. Good lord above, there will be lines. But I want to see the last six pages. I want to see how this train pulls into the station, be it a smoldering wreckage of flames screeching to a halt, or merely several busted axles and missing cars.

It won’t be pretty, or graceful, or probably even satisfying, but it will be something.

About the Author

Luke Miller