Secret Empire

Please note there are a few spoilers in this review, but given that it’s for a story that ended months ago, I don’t feel bad about including them.


I’ve actually been in the process of kickstarting (not Kickstarting) a new occasional feature I want to write here. It’s called “The Rundown”, looking at notable superhero comic book runs by specific creative teams, analysing the good, the bad and the ugly of the Big Two. The first cab off the rank, until this week, was going to be Nick Spencer’s conflicted, controversial take on Captain America, which I actually ended up kind of enjoying.

I already did a preliminary look at his Captain America: Steve Rogers run by pulling apart the first issue, concluding that for all the kerfuffle surrounding Cap’s turn from hero to Hydra agent, the book wasn’t all that bad. Having read Spencer’s three volumes of Steve and five concurrent books on Captain America: Sam Wilson, I found that the former had lots of problems while the latter had lots of impact. Both stories did make me a little more confident going into Secret Empire, billed as the culmination of Spencer’s Cap run(s) and the Marvel mega-event for 2017. That confidence was needed, because every comics journo and their mums were tearing this thing to shreds.

Rightfully so.

Captain America is now a Hydra agent, and has been all along. Turns out that the history we’ve known for close to a century got it all wrong; every Cap story since 1940 was just the Allies manipulating the canon to make it seem that Steve Rogers, our eternal paragon of virtue, was always on the side of the angels. Wanting to set things right, Hydra have used their MacGuffin du jour, the Cosmic Cube, to rewrite history correctly, showing that Steve was a Hydra sympathiser from a young age. Now, at the height of his powers in modern-day America, Steve has assumed control of the entire United States with the intention of spreading the authoritarian control of Hydra to every corner of the map. The Avengers are split in half; the street-level heroes reside in a darkened New York under the fascist oppression of Hydra, whilst the cosmic-powered heroes are barred from Earth by a globe-spanning forcefield. Both sides need to work together to overcome Cap’s control and set things right.

There’s no nice way to put it – Secret Empire is a complete mess. It’s at once better and worse than my expectations, the manifestation of every best and worst impulse Spencer has had as a Cap writer, whilst also being a textbook example of the prosaic, predictable and (almost) utterly disposable work Marvel now calls an Event. That parenthetical “almost” is important, though, since Secret Empire – much like its predecessors Avengers vs. X-Men, Original Sin and Civil War II – would be entirely forgettable if not for the utter damage that Spencer’s work has already inflicted upon fans.

Despite what vocal minorities on the internet might spew, Captain America – like all good art – is inherently political. This feels like trying to explain to a child that water is wet and Tide Pods are not for eating, but it’s true. Of all the superhero books in circulation, Cap is easily the most recognisable as an inherently political character. So when he’s the central figure of a crossover where the good ol’ golden boy of the USA turns out to be corrupted and evil, things can’t not be politically charged.

Unfortunately, those politics are delivered and unpacked here with all the subtlety and nuance of a Godzilla rampage. Steve Rogers as a Hydra ruler is, arguably, meant to represent the Trump presidency and the rise of the alt-right. Sure, I get that. But whereas the ascendancy of Trump and his ilk comes with a lot of social, cultural and political baggage that enabled it, Cap’s control of the world basically boils down to, “Hydra was here all along and we’re evil so we’re going to take over now thank you bye”. There are no layers to any of the storytelling decisions made here, and the narrative makes no attempt to show Steve as the least bit understandable in his vile rhetoric. At least with Trump you can trace lines between him and his supporters to see the reasons why they like him and how they can validate him, even if those reasons are detestable. Steve Rogers is just evil because the plot says he has to be; while some interesting decisions were made about that in Spencer’s Steve Rogers series, nothing about that characterisation here comes across as anything other than a gimmick.

The result is a story that doesn’t know what it wants to be. At least in the past, Marvel crossover events were clear on their intentions: Avengers vs. X-Men was a dumb schoolyard fantasy brought horribly to life, while Infinity was both a climax to Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers runs and a sweet blockbuster throwing most of Marvel’s main cast into outer space to fight aliens. By contrast, Secret Empire can’t decide if it’s a mega-event superhero crossover of heroes vs. neo-Nazis, a thinly-written anti-fascist polemic, a comment on the Trump presidency, a marketing stunt designed to draw readers in, or just all of the above. The focus is scattered between these elements to an uneven degree, creating a book that is a mixed bag of politics and punchouts. There’s spectacle throughout, handled by an army of artists who do decent work but lack consistency, and the climax relies on a predictable deus ex machina that counters Marvel’s insistence that Hydra Cap is the real Steve Rogers. All of this is delivered alongside persistent, badly-written narration boxes that give Chris Claremont a run for his money in the field of over-explaining things.

Though their styles are at odds with one another, the artists here do as well as they can. The bulk of the main duties are helmed by Andrea Sorrentino, whose distinctive style – reminiscent of Jae Lee – brings an appropriately washed out, nasty look to the story’s early, despairing chapters. The rest is handled by Steve McNiven, himself no stranger to a Captain America story, Leinil Francis Yu, Jesus Saiz and Daniel Acuña, all of whom acquit themselves well. There are moments where the disparate styles manage to pull off great work on their own; McNiven’s vivid style, made whole by inker Jay Leisten and color artist Matthew Wilson, ably illustrates the bravura final clash between Hydra Cap and our heroes. Similarly, cover artist Mark Brooks delivers sterling work through a number of images which each deserve a framed place on your wall. Otherwise, there’s little cohesion with the artwork, giving the impression that the shifts were done out of editorial necessity rather than narrative decisions.

But at least the illustration comes out looking better than the scriptwork. In addition to those damnable narration boxes, there is little in the dialogue that doesn’t come across as immensely clunky. Given the sheer size of the book’s cast, many main characters lack their distinctive voices, used only for exposition delivery. Those who do get given focus are largely blunt and bland, lacking even the barest hint of Marvel’s now-trademark Joss Whedon snark. The most egregious case, besides our headlining villain, is Black Widow, who attempts to be a hard-nosed spymaster in teaching some of Marvel’s younger heroes how to fight a cold war – because the political allusions weren’t alreayd blatant enough – but largely comes off as an insensitive and needlessly callous bully. There’s also a lot of schmaltzy scripting about the need for hope in times of peril, which unfortunately ramps into overdrive as the story reaches its disappointment of a climax.

About the only time Spencer gets it right with the words is in the final issue, Secret Empire: Omega, an issue-long conversation between Hydra Cap and a spoilery character, intercut with scenes of the Marvel Universe rebuilding in the wake of Hydra’s demise. This, coupled with the decent work he did for his issue of the follow-up anthology series Generations, works better as a resolution to Spencer’s twin runs on Captain America than the entirety of Secret Empire. This is Spencer bidding adieu to the characters he’s spent nearly two years writing (or ruining, depending on who you ask), and it’s easily the most satisfying moment of the entire book. But as good as Omega is, it doesn’t save a story that is almost universally reviled.

I honestly can’t remember the last time a book was as hated as the works Spencer did for the Star-Spangled Man. If the internet’s reactions are anything to go by, Secret Empire seems like a culmination of that hatred, the apex of every bad narrative impulse that both Spencer and Marvel Comics have had for the past two years. Without question, the book has a lot of problems, many of them indefensible but most of them endemic to the problems of writing and marketing crossover events to begin with.

For my money, Secret Empire is both a failure of an ending to what could have been one of the most interesting Marvel experiments of their history, and yet another predictably disappointing superhero crossover comic. Even if you took the politics out of it – which would be like taking the blue out of the sky – it’s still a narrative trainwreck, not quite as offensive as I was led to believe it would be, but nowhere near the gold standard either.

PUBLISHER: MARVEL COMICS

STORY: 1.5/5

ARTWORK: 3/5

DIALOGUE: 1/5

OVERALL: 5.5/15

BEST QUOTE: “I know some part of you might want to give up hope. But this is our moment. Our chance to turn things around. I know we’ve been divided. Torn apart. Broken – for so damn long – but now it’s time to assemble.” – Sam Wilson

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