Secret Empire 4: Discussion

by Patrick Ehlers and Ryan Mogge

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

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Patrick: The Secret Empire epic drives on an engine powered by dramatic irony. From the second Steve’s first “Hail Hydra” was uttered, the audience knew more about the threat the Marvel Universe faced better than any of its inhabitants. It is serendipitous (in the worst possible way) that the current political climate in the United States has made readers hyper-aware of this irony, as we’re able to draw obvious parallels between the rise of Hydra and the rise of white nationalism. We don’t need to parse out the rhetorical devices Steve uses to justify his abuses of power — we see them demonstrated by our president every day. Issue 4 doubles down on the practice of illustrating dramatic irony, giving the audience far more information than any of the characters are ever afforded. The result is an unsettling exercise in moral relativism.

Which of course, is a lot of thematic heavy lifting for a comic book to do, so writer Nick Spencer and artists Joshua Cassara and Rachelle Rosenberg ease us into some very obvious dramatic irony in a tidy four-page scene picking up right after the credits. The scene starts with Punisher pouring over his notes, lit only by the array of monitors in front of him.

The first words on the page is the caption reading “BALTIMORE,” fixing us in space, even before our eyes continue to drift right to the Hydra logo on the wall, and eventually over to the Punisher himself. Location first, then conflict, then character.

On Cap’s orders, Frank is looking for the Black Widow, but it’s proving to be a difficult task. But for the audience, it’s a simple task: we turn the page and there she is. A whole scene plays out with Nat and the Champions (more on that in a second), but we’re snapped back to Cap’s charge before the scene is over.

Frank is either back in the same position he was four pages ago, or he never left it — still no clue where Natasha could be. Steve has — perhaps accidentally — practically guessed her location. Again, the location caption gives it away immediately: we’re in Baltimore.

We’ve got a narrative leg-up on the Punisher. If he knew what we knew, he’d have accomplished his goal by now. And if he had, then that scene of torture wouldn’t have played out at all. The Champions all insist that torture will get them nothing, while Natasha insists the opposite, and their divided front results in having to shoot the Hydra goon to death. There’s a legitimate debate between Natasha and the Champions, each side representing a side that they can defend morally. It doesn’t really matter which side of this argument you’re on, the only choice that proves to be wrong is refusing to commit to either. They come to a combative compromise, and the Hydra dude lunges at Riri with a knife, and Nat shoots him dead. No mercy, no information — it’s the worst possible outcome.

Dramatic irony, moral relativism and failure based on a refusal to compromise. All in four easy pages. What comes next is essentially the same thing, but on a much larger scale, looping in the morality of fascism and the state of the Marvel Universe. Artist Leinil Francis Yu makes the dramatic irony explicit from the beginning, staging panels identically as Spencer’s script bops back and forth between opposing superhero teams.

As the action ping-pongs between the groups, characters are finishing each other’s sentences. Both teams are after the same prize — a piece of the cosmic cube — and only the audience has this information.

Well, that’s not entirely true: Ultron-Pym also knows. And he’s got a plan to make all the heroes hang out and play nice together for once. This is also where the questions about moral relativism get… much, much ickier. Pym doesn’t blame Steve for the current state of the world, he blames the non-stop animosity between various sects inside the Avengers. Ultron invokes Civil War, but he needn’t; Yu has been bombarding the reader with Captain America vs. Iron Man imagery for pages.

Which I guess leads us back to the grand metaphor at the heart of Secret Empire. Does the greatest threat come from the rise of authoritarianism or the inability of opposing sides to communicate and find common ground? To my mind, this is the closest Spencer has come to a “both sides are wrong” conclusion, even teetering on the edge of “the bad guys are right.” Ultron gives the Cube fragment to Tony et. al not because he’s swayed by Scott’s emotional appeal, but because he knows fueling the resistance will ensure more conflict and more chaos.

But I suppose that’s me assuming there should be a moral imperative to impose order. “Chaos” sounds negative, but is it? Ryan, Spencer is asking some tough questions, and he’s using all of Marvel’s biggest ideologues to do it. Plus, Ultron’s wearing a “Kiss the Overlord” apron, so I couldn’t really ask for more in this issue.

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Ryan: Oh man, if only I had seen that apron before my Father’s Day shopping. The family dinner scene is bursting with baggage. These characters have decades of history, grudges and slights on top of the major schism caused by the Hydra takeover. By introducing Ultron’s dinner plan, Spencer is able to force these characters into dealing with each other directly out of a combat situation. It’s a narrative relief from the separate storylines. Here we have a table full of Avengers and the recent changes — as well as old patterns –come to the fore.

Tony’s right in the above, Hydra Cap pulls out the barbs for A.I. Tony, reverting to their old dynamic as easily as as a kid home from college finds themselves stomping up the stairs with an “ugh, Mom!” Spencer invokes the Avengers’ history of trying to fix everything, calling out Tony and Scarlett Witch specifically, but each of these heroes has tried and failed in the past. Ultron explicitly mentions inherent stability offered by Hydra’s regime as his reasoning for choosing to give Tony the fragment.

The Avengers are disheartened when they hear about Cap’s acquisition of the Atlantean fragment. In another bout of the dramatic irony that Patrick mentioned above, the reader has a better idea of the nuance of the moment. Hydra did not recover the fragment “without lifting a damn finger” as Sam suggests. Hydra had destroyed a holy site and murdered the nation’s priests, with the threat of further destruction, all under secrecy. After the Ultron sequence asks the reader to question whether Hydra’s strategy is really so much worse than the natural destructive squabbling of diverse opinion, Spencer presents a bowed Namor. Hydra’s act is state-sponsored terrorism and it garnered them their goal.

We can contrast the effectiveness of Hydra’s strategy in dealing with Atlantis with the death of the Hydra agent in the beginning of the issue. While it’s clear that Hydra’s lack of mercy directly led to achieving their goal, Riri’s empathy cost her team any information that could help in their mission. Black Widow leaves the room frustrated with her team, but it’s hard to blame them. Most of these kids weren’t raised in the Red Room. They grew up learning that kindness is a virtue and that easing suffering is a worthwhile goal. And, if they didn’t have it taught to them by their schools or their families, those things would still be somewhere inside.

The prologue to the issue reinforces this idea of natural connection. We again see bearded Steve in the woods. When he is attacked by men in masks, two strangers (with familiar faces) come to his defense and fight beside him. They immediately invite Steve to join their crew. This scene works so well as a backdrop of what’s to come in the issue. It’s a fairy tale that simplifies the world into good and bad, eliminating the baggage and complications that weigh down our characters. Instead, there is friendship and burgeoning hope. Plus, it looks really pretty.

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8 comments on “Secret Empire 4: Discussion

  1. I still don’t know what to make of the prologue — the addition of Bucky and Sam immensely complicates things — but I like Ryan’s reading of it as a fairy tale. I’m sure it will be something a bit more complex and important to the main narrative eventually, but for now, I’m happy to read it as simply a tale of the power of Steve Rogers — even without a name — as a support and contrast to the rest of the story.

    I’m getting a little bit tired of the Widow/Champions stuff. I feel like this is the second or third time they’ve hammered the same point (Widow wants the Champions to kill, they don’t want to) in a row. I’m ready for their story to move forward already.

    • I’ve taken to mostly ignoring the prologue. I don’t understand what’s happening there, or what version of who I’m seeing. I think Mogge’s got the best read, that we’re seeing idealized, fairy tale versions of these characters. There’s a compelling implication that, no matter the corruption in the real world, there’s still strength in the myth of America. Will really have to wait and see on that.

    • Ultimately, the Reis sections are tone pieces, more about how they feel than what they mean. Fairy tale is a good description, because of that suggestion of unreality. This isn’t the real story, but entirely theme. Eventually, it will be revealed to be the inside of the Cosmic Cube or something, but currently it just riffs on the ideas of ‘Hope in the darkness’ and ‘The values of Captain America still exist’

      But it is frustrating how this stuff muscles into the space of Sam Wilson’s arc. Sam is doing the same stuff around being lost in the dark and the values of Captain America, and these prologues really are sabotaging Sam’s arc.

      And honestly, there was a reason I used my section on Castle/Natasha on the art. Secret Empire utterly stalled this issue. No progress on either side. I’m waiting for both to move forward, but the Red Room just reiterated last issues stuff. At least the Underground went on a filler adventure with Ultron

  2. Get Out: Sam Wilson will suit up as Captain America as part of the finale of Secret Empire. We know that. We’ve seen the covers. So Sam Wilson’s arc is going to be essential to this series. And yet, we are wasting time with this stuff, which Spencer hasn’t yet justified. THere are no thematics that have been covered here that are also not covered by Sam Wilson’s stuff, as seen by the fact that they have the same arc.

    But this issue takes things a step worse. With everything to do with Ultron/Hank, with Tony, with Scott, with so many other characters, this is the first issue where Sam’s arc feels like it hasn’t been given enough space. He has been pushed out, not given enough space.

    But Steve? He gets three fucking pages. Valuable real estate, that could have been given to the black person whose arc Steve’s stuff is just a copy of. It almost feels like theft. Why isn’t this Sam Wilson’s story? Why do we have this?

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    Superlife During Wartime: I’m not the biggest fan of Leinil Yu’s work most of the time, whose art often seems to, once everything is done, have a slightly splotchy, slightly misshapen look. Though to be fair, I think that often comes down to how his work is coloured. But this is a best work I’ve seen from from Yu. A big part of this is the little extra grittiness, fitting for Secret Empire’s tone.

    But unlike the transition from McNiven to Sorrentino, the shift from Sorrentino to Yu isn’t as elegant. McNiven to Sorrentino was achieved by the bomb, an event so catastrophic that the world fundamentally changed, fundamentally became darker. Here, the transition is less major. It is leaving the country, and the shift away from espionage to more traditional superhero stories (under the Secret Empire status quo). Secret Empire 4 is distinctly not an espionage/rebel story. It has a supervillain, a sci fi fortress, an Avengers/Master of Evilsesque fight. On the one hand, this means Yu’s work is perfect for the Ultronic territories. But it is also noticeably weaker for the spy stuff. Quite simply, the Red Room is in the country, doing spy stuff instead of more traditional superhero stuff. While the transition from Yu works perfect for the Underground, it really doesn’t here. I would have loved it is, instead, they permanently attached Yu to the Underground and Sorrentino to the Red Room, and had these last couple of issues juggle three artists instead of just two. As pointless as the story that Reis is drawing is, Reis has proven just how effective a different artist for a special storyline could be.

    Out of all the artists Secret Empire has, no one could have done a better job with a majority of this issue than Yu. He was made to draw the Ultronic Territories. But the tragedy is that a book that seems to be putting so much thought into how it transitions from artist to artist seems limited in this belief that each issue can only have one main artist

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    And Now, For Something Completely DIfferent: Bendis’ era on the Avengers was pretty ingenious in how it structured the events, even if I don’t like a lot of it. Going from Civil War, to Secret Invasion to Siege was a fantastic trilogy, conceptually. Civil War set up a new status quo, Secret Invasion shocked that status quo, leading to the worst possible result and Siege showed the status quo collapse. And one of the best parts was that in between events, you had an interesting space to tell typical superhero stories in new, fresh lights. What does an Avengers story look like, during the era of the Initiative? Of Dark Reign?

    Secret Empire seems to be doing something similar. But there is a major difference. And that difference is what made Dark Reign rich in possibility, and Secret Empire 4 a worrying sign that Secret Empire is going to collapse. The Initiative and Dark Reign weren’t part of events, they were the pauses between events. Periods of rest, before the next major event. This is important. Nothing was ever interrupted. THese stories were told in the space before the next inciting incident. When the events actually happened, they were focused and propulsive. The events were only about the Civil War, only about the Skrull Invasion, only about Osborne’s assault on Asgard. The events weren’t good, but it is important to note that in this respect, things were done well.

    Now, is it interesting to tell an Ultron story in the current status quo? Yes. The way events warp the status quo are always interesting for precisely this reason – that’s why we have tie ins. But to essentially pause the main event for an Ultron story is pretty disappointing. I think it is notable that of all the direct continuity references in this issue, the most recent was Dark Reign. This isn’t Secret Empire. This is a story that takes place during Secret Empire. And that is not what we should be reading in Secret Empire

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    Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall: Spencer has been quite clever with the construction of the teams, and how effortlessly he created a dark mirror team that doesn’t look like a dark mirror team. You only truly realise what they come into effect, and you see just how Bobbi or Pietro or Hercules have been specifically chosen to mirror one of Steve Roger’s Avengers (though the Vision/Sam combination is baffling).

    The big problem with this sort of a mirror is that it can be too similar – everyone fights themselves, which is boring. Same powers, little chance for imagination. The best fights are when you have balanced, but not equal sides. Spencer has some cleverness. The Wanda/Pietro is a mirror, but a very different sort of mirror. And that Scott and Eric O’Grady works thanks to the surprise of Eric turning up. But Hercules/Odinson and Taskmaster/Bobbi are much less easier to make interesting. I really hope future fights include more of the Vision and Otto, characters with less obvious mirrors

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    My Dinner with Ultron: I’ve got an interesting relationship with Hank Pym as a character. Because he is a complex character to deal with. It isn’t surprising that the movie’s version emphasised his bad parenting and how the villain was literally a Hank Pym that didn’t retire. Because ultimately, what makes Hank work is that he is the guy who didn’t measure up. He tried to be a hero, and failed. His inherent issues destroyed him, and despite everything, he can’t escape his sins. To me, Hank is a sign that not everyone is equipped to be a hero. Which is a problem, as people too often want to redeem Hank and make him usable again, creating an endless series of stories trying to redeem Hank’s abuse.

    Which is why merging Ultron with Hank is such a genius idea. SPencer goes for a very different approach to Duggan, whose Ultron pretended to be Hank, but wasn’t. This is a pure synthesis. Hank was always the person’s whose problem was that his sins let him down, and it is now literalised. In fact, it is massively important that it is vague whether this is mostly Hank or mostly Ultron. Regardless of who is in control, their destroys threatened to destroy the world.

    There’s a real clever balance here. Scott’s scene shows the one good thing we can learn from Hank. Hank’s one admirable quality is that he is always trying to fix what he broke, and that is something that can inspire people like Scott. But it is fitting that it is clear that Scott, through Cassie, has passed the hurdle that Hank keeps failing at. Scott is better than Hank.

    And there is the fact that while Ultron is there for symbolism, the sin they really focus isn’t the silly comic book stuff, but the painfully real abuse. I love Tony’s speech. Because it is all true. It throws Hank’s sins in his face, and makes very clear how bad he is. How he hurt everyone, destroyed everything. Because as accurate as what Scott says is, it is also important to note just how much damage Hank did. Hank is the hero who couldn’t cut it. The guys who isn’t a good enough hero, and because of that, has devastated the superhero community.

    This is a really powerful Hank Pym story. It all comes together. Combining him with Ultron makes clear his fundamental problems. It embraces the fact that ultimately, he is the bad guy. Seeing Hank try to repair the Avengers, not realising that he is the man who made the real damage, is the perfect story. This is what Hank should be, a supervillain who thinks he can fix the Avengers, but unable to fully understand the ways he is the problem. That even when TOny and Steve have their constant, epic fights, the real problem is that Hank destroyed the Avenger’s soul. THis is basically the perfect Ultron story, especially in how it uses the Secret Empire status quo as context.

    It is what makes this issue such a complex one to talk about. On the one hand, you have a fascinating, complex Ultron story to discuss. On the other hand, everything else I have said applies. This is may be a bad issue of Secret Empire, but it is an amazing issue of Avengers (Spencer should totally write the core Avengers book).

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    Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Episodic storytelling is important, in comics. Each issue should be able to stand on its own, even as it is part of a greater whole. But there is more to episodic storytelling than just making each issue an individual unit. Because it has to work as a whole.

    One well known episodic structure is, of course, the collection of a series of McGuffins. This approach has advantages. It provides a reason to find enter multiple different situations, to show how characters react to different circumstances. Same value that the villain of the week provides. And it can be very useful in the sort of setting where you want to explore the world, look at the many different aspects. But what it lacks is momentum.

    And Secret Empire really needs momentum. This sort of storytelling works best when we aren’t talking about a story that has a strong need for progression. But Secret EMpire certainly needs progression, a sense of things going forward. A scavenger hunt in the Ultronic Territories, Wakanda etc is not the sort of storytelling an event favours. Events need to be propulsive. They work on the idea that the biggest things are happening, and instead the rest few issues seem to be the heroes pissing about on a scavenger hunt, where the only real effect is who gets what prize. I mean, the Ultron stuff was done well, but had literally nothing to do with anything. What was the point of this issue, in the greater context of Secret Empire?

    Episodic storytelling can work with event style narratives. In fact, the goal should be so that it does. You just have to make sure that the story is filled with individual events that can be split up, while progressing the story forward. The first two issues handled this much better. The first issue was the build up to the bomb. The second was the response to the bomb. Individual episode, but propulsive storytelling through the overarching plotline. Then the third issue got lost doing nothing in particular, and this issue told an episodic story about something completely different. I’m a little worried, honestly. When are we going to get meaningful plot progression next? WHat will next issue be? Will it be another scavenger hunt, as Spencer has prepared us for? Or will it be more wheelspining like issue 3? Because Spencer seems to be losing complete control over the structure.

    Honestly, the Cosmic Cube fragments should have taken only a single issue to gather. From then, you then start telling stories about the two sides fighting each other for the fragments they’ve acquired. Instead, Secret Empire really looks like it has lost its way. Two disappointing issue in a row.

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    Not Realpolitik: One of the most interesting features of Secret Empire is the heavy use of fictional nations. Ultronic Territories, New Tien, Atlantis, Wakanda and the Mole Man have all featured as key parts of the story, showing how HYDRA America interacts with the greater stage. WHether it is the tense alliances that many have, or Mole Man’s frustrations of the effect of HYDRA America on his life cycle (through the cancellation of Fargo), a key and important idea is that what happens to America affects everyone else. Spencer doesn’t use real world nations, wisely. Trying to properly discuss how the European Union would react to this creates all sorts of complexities when it is so much easier to use the fake nations you have complete control over. But it is a great sign of how things matter.

    Trump would like to believe he can say ‘America First’, and the rest of the world will just get along without America. But Foreign Policy is important. Which is why Trump’s first trip abroad led to truly greivous damage to America’s foreign policy plans of the last couple of decades. And I do like how Spencer is exploring this, because it really is critical to understanding what the Secret Empire means. Everyone is affected, and no one can truly escape. An important political point.

    And even as the last two issues have been so misguided, as has the Sam WIlson series, I think this stuff shows the real strength of Spencer’s work here. Even at his worst, he is putting the work in to understanding what a fascist takeover means. Spencer hasn’t given everything a new coat of paint, but it honestly exploring what everything means. It does a lot to make up for Secret EMpire’s weaknesses.

    Still, I hope Secret Empire 5 makes this series consistent again

      • Glad you like it, I always get slightly nervous when I post big comments like that (especially as I give them a deathly lack of editing). I’m always afraid I’ll embarass myself. You would not believe how scared I got for a moment when I saw Nick Spencer praise this article on twitter, and wondered if he decided to read my comment…

  3. I know that it’s just a stipulation of the current post-Civil War II status quo but I keep focusing on Tony Stark’s AI substitute. Clearly Spencer is having his cake and eating it too by using him as Tony Stark for all intents and purposes. But what’s up with the AI being drunk? I’ve never gotten that at all. Is it just supposed to emphasize that he’s not as good as the real deal?

    I think one of the allegories Spencer is trying to make is that Cap/Hydra is the GOP and Iron Man/The Resistance is the Democratic party. If that’s the case, he’s not putting all of the emphasis on the despicable nature of Hydra/GOP since the Democrats did lose the election. That’s why I like that the face of the Resistance is literally a hollow shell.

    • Spencer didn’t decide Tony’s status quo, but this issue certainly took advantage of the fact that Tony is a literal ghost of himself. Ultron’s lines and the idea of Tony being a hollow shell of himself is important in this issue.

      Though I think the Tony = Democrats comparison doesn’t really work, for a couple of reasons. The Democrats didn’t ‘lose’ the election, really. Clinton got more votes than any presidential candidate in history except Obama. The story there is much more complex, and involves things like an electoral college designed to favour slave owning states, success foreign espionage from Russia and voter suppression in key states after the Supreme Court gutted the Civil RIghts Act. You can make a lot of Trump parallels, but the specifics of the election itself are too complicated to match Secret EMpire. Especially when TOny’s role would have been planned before the election.
      But the other thing is that Tony was out of commision during that period. He can’t be the Democrats, because during the ‘election season’, Tony was in a coma in a SHIELD facility. Technically he was with Riri as an AI, but idea that Tony was an active force against Steve’s rise ignored the fact that Steve did most of that AFTER bragging over Tony’s comotose body.
      In fact, I think Civil War II: The Oath is essential to see what Tony’s role actually is. I think the real comparision to Tony is democracy itself, particularly the way that recent years have shown democracy’s weakenesses. Both specific things like GOP obstructionism or the power of lobbists AND the more general sense that the government has drifted so far away from the people that the people feel they have no say. Steve’s speech in the Oath was all about how Tony and the superhero community was disconnected from the real people, failed to work to their interests. And I think that is Tony’s role. The legitimate status quo that has done such a great job of destroying tiself and alienating normal people that it provides the seeds for facism to grow. The hollow man, because the institution he represents has been cheapened so much (especially in the minds of the public he is supposed to serve) that he gave Steve everything he needed. Tony represents legitimate government fighting back, and unfortunately it was legitmate government’s problems that let the idea of ‘Make America Great Again’ infect America.

      Also, I think the first issue said something to the effect that Tony reprogrammed himself to replicate being drunk. Basically, the situation was so bad he had to retreat into the bottle, so he virtualised the experience. Really weird, and kind of feels like something from Spencer’s earliest drafts, before Civil War II was planned. There has to be some other way to show Tony falling back into his vices that doesn’t involve calling a hologram drunk.
      And I hate the fact that this was used to put Tony in what I think is the worst designed costume in comics. I hate how the limbs of that Iron Man suit so much. It is supposed to be a mechanical suit of armour! How do those limbs work?

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