The Failings of Friendship in Desperate Times in Secret Empire 5

by Spencer Irwin

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

“The power of friendship” is a popular trope in most media. The idea that most situations can be overcome through the bonds we share with our friends is powerful in a lot of ways, but it’s one that never really seems applicable to war or espionage stories like Secret Empire. Make no mistake, Hydra is not going to be defeated by friendship or optimism alone, but in Secret Empire 5, Nick Spencer, Rod Reis, Andrea Sorrentino, Joshua Cassara, and Rachelle Rosenberg do explore the effect pre-existing relationships have on their conflict. It’s not always a good one.

The Reis-illustrated Steve Rogers “fairy tale” segment of the issue addresses this most explicitly, opening on Steve, Sam, and Bucky reunited and strengthened by each others’ friendship.

Their peace doesn’t last, as Sam and Bucky are quickly put down by the Red Skull, who presents himself as Steve’s only hope for escape. Sam and Bucky’s companionship was nice, but Red Skull seems to actually know where they are and how to escape — victory here can’t be achieved through friendship, but through teaming up with an old enemy.

Those ideas resonate throughout the rest of the issue. Iron Man’s appeal to Black Panther based on years of friendship fails because, after all the time they’ve spent together (and likely because of Steve’s betrayal as well), T’Challa doesn’t trust Tony anymore. The bonds of friendship have failed them, in the same way they’ve failed the resistance in general via Mockingbird’s apparent betrayal.

Rogers, meanwhile, is gaining ground by taking control of his former enemies. He’s essentially possessed Scarlet Witch and Vision, manipulated Odinson and Deadpool to his side, resurrected Bruce Banner so as to use the Hulk as a weapon. It’s working for the moment, but may not be sustainable: Hulk is notoriously uncontrollable, Odinson’s resolve is wavering, and Vision has broken through his reprogramming more than once.

Really, the only clean victory we see in this issue is Black Widow’s, who is able to convince Madame Hydra to assist her by playing to her greed and fear of Steve Rogers. That may be the takeaway of this issue: the only way to achieve victory in such desperate times is through strategy and negotiation — relying on either friendship or coercion alone is sure to fail.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. What do you wanna talk about from this issue?

5 comments on “The Failings of Friendship in Desperate Times in Secret Empire 5

  1. As far as Mockingbirds betrayal goes I think this likely that Bobbie was brainwashed like the rest of the shield agents were.

    • Oh, for sure. Though, I suppose it’s worth noting that both Frank Castle and Odinson simply trust Cap’s judgement enough to follow him more or less blindly. Obviously, Bobbi’s morality comes from a different place than those two, but I suppose it’s at least possible that there’d be some “regular” heroes who are willing to give Cap wide latitude while leading.

      • Odinson doesn’t trust Steve. He’s being blackmailed with the threat of Jane’s life, and believes that being near Steve is the best bet to restablish the connection between Earth and Asgard (really disappointed Jane got captured. I wanted a Brave New World story of Jane, powerless, cancer stricken, and puking her brains out, running a resistance cell. Felt like a great story to be told). Odinson is full of doubt over whether this is the right move, that Steve lifting the hammer is turning into an existential crisis, but he isn’t a believer or in any way agrees with Steve. He’s lost, confused and blackmailed, while trying his best to succeed on a completely different quest than everyone else – reestablish contact with Asgard (I wonder if Odinson’s role is in anyway connected to the Neo Nazis love of Norse mythology. From my understanding, Norse paganism is horrifically infected by Nazis)

        Also, disappointed that Bobbi was the traitor, as it wasn’t set up well. Doesn’t feel like a satisfying payoff. My money was on Scott. It made sense. He was a promenient character in the story, unlike Bobbi. He kept talking about Cassie and how she was safe outside the country, that primed itself for a twist where Cassie, due to either her headstrong nature or by Steve’s machinations, got captured by HYDRA and used as leverage against Scott. We even had a scene in Underground where Sam confided in Scott about his theory that there was a traitor, which could have been perfectly ironic if they followed through with the fact. We even had Pietro there whose purpose was specifically to draw attention as a red herring. It would have been amazing, recontexualising so many scenes in fascinating ways (especially Scott’s speech to Hank about Cassie being his moral compass

        And yet, the answer is Bobbi? In the context of Secret Empire, she’s a nobody character. Even Pietro would be better. Too obvious, but we will understand why when the twist occurs. Regardless of what the eventual reveal is of why she betrayed them (I predict CJ’s theory is right, which is a shame as mind control is much less interesting than ‘They have my daughter’), it really doesn’t work here because it is barely a payoff. Not enough build up to make Bobbi a satisfying reveal.

  2. Black Widowmail: With the return of the Red Room to plot significance, it really shows just how much stronger the Red Room half is to the Underground half. The Underground, representing normal superheroes, are constrained by going through familiar motions. They are essentially doing a scavenger hunt. The Red Room crew get something stronger. Going deep into espionage tropes, we get the classic ‘captured event actually has the upper hand’. This scene is obviously reminiscent of the famous Reverse Interrogation in Avengers, but this sort of stuff is a classic. And it works. It plays with power dynamics in the way only spycraft works, Viper as the HYDRA Council weak point is the perfect example of a target for manipulation and the way spies manage assets. And the way both halves of the operation come together is great, but most importantly this is the sort of showing that is thrilling and eventful. Beginning like this gives the book a shot in the arm after last issue’s good yet seemingly meaningless Ultron story. Return to Secret Empire’s core, and it is thrilling.

    The scene isn’t perfect, though. I feel Natasha’s dialogue is wrong. Why is she actually answering Viper’s questions? From a spycraft perspective, you aren’t supposed to tell an asset more than they need to know. And from a dramatic perspective, Natasha has no reason to answer. From an exposition perspective, she isn’t telling us something that we don’t already know. And she has no motivation to tell Viper anything, even if we ignore spy tropes. I think Spencer wants to raise the stakes by making Natasha appear beaten, which is why we first see her wonderfully rendered by Cassara (I think?) as beaten and defeated, before the fight returns slowly throughout the scene, each panel with a little more, as Natasha reveals her play. But the stakes don’t really work, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we never saw Natasha captured, and therefore instantly assume something is going on. If her capture was a big deal, we instinctively know that we would have been shown it. Secondly, Spencer gives the game away instantly by having Natasha say she’ll tell Viper everything, something so out of character that we are instantly suspicious.

    If I wanted to have high stakes here, I would play this differently. Instead of poorly pretending Natasha is surrendering and informing, let’s have Viper instantly suspicious, and aim to break Natasha. Actually have you tortured, instead of just a few punches. If you wanted to get really dark, waterboarding could be powerfully used here (wouldn’t be the first time a superhero has been waterboarded. I remember either Renee Montoya or Helena Bertinelli were once waterboarded in a Question story). But something as simple as electrocution or a prolonged beating before Natasha gets the chance to say anything would work. Raise the stakes, so there is a little doubt about whether Natasha will follow the plan or if she’s broken. Or just don’t raise the stakes, and have Natasha always suggest she is in total control. Instead, what we have is weird. Natasha says stuff she has no reason to say.

    But the other problem is bigger. Who is the guy the Champions saved? This is the only Red Room scene we have in the issue, and they forget to close the plotline. Things aren’t properly resolved. It reminds me of the controversy of the Walking Dead finale, where they with a character dying, but they didn’t say who. As I believe Film Crit Hulk said, it is great to end on a cliffhanger setting up new stories, but not on a cliffhanger that fails to conclude the current story. We gain nothing from learning this guy’s real identity now instead of the beginning of next issue, and it is the ending the issue deserves (Oh god, this is exactly like the mystery about Bob in the Steve Rogers book, isn’t it). This section told a story where we begun with no information, and learned more and more as the plan went into action. By the end, we are supposed to understand the full plan. Except we don’t, because Spencer is pointlessly holding back a key piece of information.

    Friendship is Magic: One of Secret Empire’s great strengths is how it roots everything into relationships. How characters relate to one another is key to this story. Both in the usual superhero way (this book did shamelessly recycle Hickman’s ‘One was Life, One was Death’ idea), and in the more important, universal way. Friendship, romance, parenthood are all key ideas. Other Steve Rogers’ section makes this idea explicit (The Rod Reis Steve Rogers section repeats what the rest of the comic does, with no meaningful additions? You don’t say…) but it is a key idea throughout the book. Clint and Natasha’s bad romance, the focus on Scott’s relationship to Cassie instead of so much other stuff, how people relate to others is so important. Hell, the Ultron section is all about the Avengers’ dynamics (you do not know how annoyed I am that I missed the chance to name a section the Hateful Ate during that issue. Would have been much better than a boring twist on My Dinner with Andre).

    Which is key. Secret Empire is one of the most explicit ‘Superheroes fight big, evil force’ Marvel Event we’ve had in a long time. Since Infinity, I think. But it is more than that, because what makes this big, evil force so horrifying is that it is Steve Rogers. Nothing is more important than the personal relationships, because, more than anything else, this is what is under attack. Take away the superhero stuff, and look at the core dramatics, and it all comes down to the more grievous betrayal from the best of friends.


    ‘Trump isn’t my fault, I voted for Jill Stein’: What the hell is T’Challa’s argument against Tony? Tony is not perfect, and it makes sense that T’Challa wouldn’t be entirely comfortable with him. T’Challa is right that Tony is flawed. In fact, I think it is fitting that the man who started two Civil Wars is the Big Good of Secret Empire. Tony screwed up the superhero community, giving Steve all the space he needed to be successful.

    But at the end of the day, Tony is the only hope you’ve got, T’Challa. Yeah, he isn’t perfect, but the fact that he’s flawed isn’t a problem here. To be fair, T’Challa does offer a third option, and it sounds reasonable. Except because his argument is so poor, all he is actually doing is asking for the dangerous addition of complexities for the sake of his ego

    Let’s think through this seriously. Tony has proven to often respond to crises in dangerous ways. The Civil Wars, Hickman’s Avengers… What do we think he would do with a fully charged Cosmic Cube in this situation? Because here’s the thing, Tony is honest about his dangerous stupidity. He’ll state his plan, and do it. Start the SHRA, build Earthkiller Superweapons, go to war with the Inhumans. But he always does exactly what he says he does.

    And that’s the thing. What do we expect Tony to do with a cosmic cube? Is there any reason to expect Tony to do something dangerous with it, instead of just changing Steve back? I wouldn’t let Tony keep it, he would probably put it in a lab and experiment on it until he could easily replicate Cosmic Cubes as part of a vision to build the future. But for all Tony’s flaws, there is no risk of him taking the Cosmic Cube to rebuild the universe so that he is god, or anything like that. For all Tony’s flaws, he isn’t like that. Hell, I think he is probably philosophically opposed to using the Cosmic Cube to change the world. Won’t reconcile with his build the future ethos.

    It’s all great for T’Challa to say that he doesn’t trust Tony Stark, but ultimately, it all comes down to Tony. T’Challa won’t save the day in Wakanda. All T’Challa is doing is placing his need to feel superior over the fate of the actual world. Honestly? This is the first moment where Secret Empire hit too close to home


    NuWho?: So, New Tian is finally doing something. New Tian has been a weird part of the story so far. In the pages of Steve Rogers, or in tie ins like United or Secret Warriors, New Tian has played a role. But I think this is the first reference of New Tian in the main book. They certainly haven’t been a focus, unlike the Inhumans were in the first issue. There is all sorts of problems with New Tian.

    Most obvious is, of course, the information asymmetry. To those who are only reading the main event, New Tian is weird and you don’t fully understand what it means that Emma Frost attacked Shang Chi. To those that have read literally everything, you know of New Tian’s relationship to HYDRA America, and that Emma Frost is the puppetmaster who secretly controls New Tian. That is a massive difference.

    But more importantly, even to those that have read everything, New Tian is frustratingly vague. Why are the X-Men part of this? Wasn’t the point of ResurreXion to return the X-Men to their superhero roots? Why are they instead doing this weird stuff where they aren’t fully committing to saving the world?

    The fact that attention was brought to New Tian means it is likely to be important, and yet it is a complete and total mess so far.


    Tucker’s Law: Steve Rogers is afraid of the hammer. He may be able to hold it, but he is actually scared of losing control. He’ll disguise it with intimidation, but he means it hat he’s afraid of losing control. A fitting fear, because there is nothing that he should be afraid of more.

    Let’s cut through Elisa’s lies. Wanda may not be a problem, but Chthon is. The idea that HYDRA have a strong level of control over Chthon is laughable. In fact, it makes a mockery of the very idea of HYDRA offering stability. And the Vision isn’t much better. All it takes is one time where the AI virus can’t stop him fast enough, and that’s all over. And the very blackmail that they are holding over Odinson is getting less and less powerful. Ultimately, one of the most important threats to HYDRA is not Natasha, or Tony. It is his own crumbling administration.

    The comparisons to Trump are easy


    ‘There was never much hope. Just a fool’s hope’: There’s something brutal about the darkest hour here (to be fair, there will likely be another, darker hour later. But it shapes itself as a darkest hour). Often, there is the sense of a Hope spot. Or something. Some success, before the horrors come down. But there isn’t, really, here. Their big hope was a lie Tony spun, there was no detector. As a mission, they didn’t even get close, they got so little that it didn’t deserve mentioning. And Sorrentino’s art makes very clear the hopelessness (damn, he depicted Hercules well this issue) Before the darkest hour came and they were attacked, there was no Hope spot.

    Which I think is an important thrmatic statement. The existence of hope spots means you are fighting because you have a chance to win. But I think Secret Empire really wants to show the heroism of fighting when there is no hope. Fighting not because you’ll get the result youw ant, but because ultimately, it is the right thing to do.

    Today, it is easy to feel like everything is hopeless. That victory is literally impossible. But in those circumstances, we must remember that the superheroes kept fighting anyway. That is important


    Heart of Darkness: So, for the very first time, something happened in the Rod Reis stuff that felt like it wasn’t just Sam Wilson’s arc, repeated by Steve Rogers and given more prominence. Maybe Sam will encounter some similar darkness (hell, Natasha probably fits), but this finally makes the case for this section having thematic purpose. Still think I would prefer it if we just focused on how Steve’s values existed through Sam, but at least this is justified.

    On the other hand, I have no idea how Spencer is going to pull this off. A key idea of Secret Empire is that in such circumstances, morality is tested and people can’t be clean. Maria Hill is a terrorist, Natasha and the Red Room are going as dark as they can. The idea of making a compromise with something evil is certainly a key idea.

    But this isn’t any evil. This is the Red Skull. Among the most evil figures in the Marvel Universe. Of all the villains to ally with, I can’t think of a worse one. Because one of the most important circumstances is the situation, we still have to mindful of who we work with. Strange bedfellows isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but certain figures are too evil that an alliance with them only lessens us. It is our duty to make sure that no matter what we do, we remain the good guys, and do not sell out the very values we fight to protect. That’s the big problem with a lot of the White Working Class/anti Identity Politics discussion happening these days. Civil Rights are values too important to compromise on.

    Red Skull represents nearly everything evil in the Marvel Universe. SO how the hell is Steve supposed to work with him of all people, and get out clean? How do you thematically justify a superhero ever working alongside the Skull? I hope Spencer puls it off


    Prelaunch Preparations: Is it me, or is the cliffhanger a bit weird? After everything that had just happened, it needed something special to up the stakes. The base was already under attack. In the most hopeless moment, something worse had already arrived. And we had the Red Skull stuff. To have another big reveal, especially one relating to the Underground, it had to be something really, really big. Something so horrifying, that even the fact that they were under attack by the full force of HYDRA wouldn’t cut it.

    In most cases, the Hulk would work. He is the biggest, scariest thing in the Marvel Universe. But considering that Bruce was previously dead, it ends up being slightly different. To me, I saw this as a resurrection first, and a cliffhanger second. And the resurrection of a superhero is a good thing. To me, instead of going ‘Holy Shit’, I’m going, at least once they get through this, Banner is back.

    And the other problem of it feeling like a resurrection first is that it isn’t a good resurrection (or, at least, not yet). Ever since Superman died, we have to accept that resurrections happen in comics. And while many us would prefer it if that didn’t happen, there is no point complaining. But the best resurrections are an actual story. No magical switch is flicked, but effort is applied, where characters pay costs and face consequences. Resurrection works best when it is the payoff to strong storytelling.

    Which is the worry of Banner’s return. Maybe Spencer, either in the pages of next issue or in Steve Rogers, will explain Banner’s resurrection in a compelling way. But as a cliffhanger, it feels less like a holy shit moment of the other two previous scenes, and more of a ‘getting things ready for Marvel Legacy’. Which is a shame, as I shouldn’t be thinking about Marvel legacy while I read Secret Empire. I should be so lost in the experience that I’m not even thinking about what comes after

  3. What is everyone’s opinion on Secret Empire as a whole, now that we are at the half way point? I think the Secret Wars/Civil War II/Secret Empire trio may be the strongest chain of events Marvel have done in a ong time, but I feel Secret Empire may be the weakest. Secret Wars was almost perfect, and Civil War II was this wonderfully weird thign that at every turn always committed itself to being just a little more interesting that anyone expected.

    The best moments of Secret Empire are among the strongest parts of any event, but Secret Empire keeps doing things that disappoint or frustrate me. Unlike Civil War II, that felt better than it should be, Secret Empire always feel like it should be better. That more of it should match those high points. If everything was as good as those first two issues, I’d easily place this above Civil War II and have serious discussions of its comparative merits to Secret Wars. But I really think that issues 3, 4 and 5 could easily be compressed into half the space, and there is a bunch of other stuff that really needs ironing out.

    As a guy who rarely likes events, the fact that I have three in a row from Marvel I really, really like is great news. Secret Empire is bad. But of the three, it is the first one that really feels like it should be better

What you got?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s