by Patrick Ehlers and Ryan Mogge
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
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.
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.
For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?