By Michael DeLaney and Spencer Irwin
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Michael: Fictional prophecies are a tricky thing. Typically, the prophecy is either dead-on or has been slightly misinterpreted, but either way it usually comes with a twist. Nick Spencer has played with a lot of elements from Marvel’s last big crossover event Civil War II, but none moreso than Miles Morales clutching Steve Rogers’ lifeless body on Capitol Hill. Secret Empire 7 finally approaches that moment…or does it?
With three issues to go, we are in the home stretch of Secret Empire and The Resistance is growing thinner and thinner. Though Secret Empire 7 features a few separate scenes following Captain Marvel and Steve Rogers, the bulk of this issue is dedicated to Black Widow and her “Red Room” team, specifically Miles Morales. Spencer gives both Miles and Natasha Romanov a hell of a lot of material in this issue, which serves as a kind of new direction for Miles and a send-off for Natasha.
The climax of this issue comes on the steps of Capitol Hill with Miles and Cap, just as the Inhuman Ulysses’ vision foretold. BUT once the dust settles, Cap isn’t the one dead , Natasha is. Earlier in the story Nat locks Miles in a Hulk-containment transport and here she jumps in the way of Cap’s shield, saving Miles and sealing her own fate.
Miles is now fully committed to what he sees as his destiny and is ready to kill Captain America. And while Nat is totally about killing Cap, she doesn’t want Miles to be the one who does it. The idea of an old killer pulling the trigger themselves to keep their young partner’s hands clean is a cliché, but it’s a damn powerful one. After all, Nat’s youth was wasted by being turned into a murder weapon; she’s going to spare someone else from that fate if she can.
Spencer has devoted a lot of time to Nat as the hard-edged veteran leader in Secret Empire, so it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that she meets her end here. With that inevitable, painful neck-snap in sight, Spencer and Andrea Sorrentino give her some amazing sequences prior to her death.
First and foremost, Spencer showcases Natasha as a master strategist. She’s planned the hit on Captain America with the rest of her “Red Room” team but doesn’t inform them of her Inhuman ace-in-the-hole Mosaic until shortly before she uses him. I’d also like to reiterate: Black Widow has planned a hit on Captain America. We know Black Widow to be a skilled assassin but Andrea Sorrentino drawing her with her sniper rifle perched on the windowsill brings it to a chilling reality, akin to a presidential assassination.
Sorrentino does his action deconstruction magic in a couple of fabulous sequences: first when Nat faces off against The Punisher and finally when she dies protecting Miles from Cap. Having one of Nat’s final battles be against fellow killing machine Frank Castle is such a perfect choice. To be honest, I don’t think that ‘ol Frank would side with Cap with the reasons he gives Nat, but the fight is still an adrenaline rush.
I think my favorite sequence from the Punisher/Black Widow fight is Sorrentino’s most complex. In a double-page spread, Sorrentino breaks down the fight across a 4×10 panel layout. The looming background of Frank screaming at Nat as she’s poised in a defensive stance serves as a gigantic first or final panel of the page, depending on how you look at it. The layout reminds me of an incomplete puzzle, with the smaller “missing piece” panels highlighting the blow-by-blow action of the fight. It’s a hell of a visual that just barely tops the conclusion of the fight where we see a variation of the Black Widow sting.
Though he makes it out of the issue alive, Secret Empire 7 really puts Miles through the wringer. Perhaps because he’s a Spider-Man or just because he’s a fan favorite, Miles has become the de facto leader of the Red Room team — or at least its Lieutenant Commander. After spending most of the series trying to do things differently from Black Widow’s more murdery ways, Miles has finally accepted that maybe it’s his destiny to kill the now corrupt Captain America; but he’s robbed of that.
We get some break in the tension and get to enjoy Miles’ imagination as he escapes from his temporary holding cell. Coincidentally, after he escapes his Hulk prison he rages out on Cap following Natasha’s death. Nick Spencer’s parallels between Secret Empire and the current political state of our nation have been hard to avoid. The authoritarian Cap has just defeated the freedom fighter Natasha; and Miles & co. have inherited the Earth. As he beats (a very surprised) Cap to a pulp he screams at him: “Is this what you wanted?”
Climate change denial, healthcare repeal, LGBTQ rights infringed — pick your allegory. Miles is fed up with Cap’s nightmare vision at his friends’ expense and shares their collective pain with him. Raging against the machine can only do so much however, and his teammate Nadia talks Miles down from taking it too far. It appears that The Red Room team gets apprehended but at least they live to fight another day.
Oh boy Spencer! What did you think of Secret Empire 7? There’s a bunch I didn’t touch on. Did you like the focus on Carol in the beginning? I understand that she feels partly responsible for what’s happened but I also don’t fully support the idea of keeping everyone trapped on the other side of that shield, to fight wave after wave of Chitauri. And how about Sharon trying to kill Steve? Is he delusional to think that she’d be sympathetic to his plight? Do you think she held back from actually killing him?
Spencer: I do not for a second think that Sharon held back — her blade was on his neck, held back only by Steve catching her hand. Before she lunged, I actually thought Sharon might kill herself simply to spite Steve, but that’s not Sharon Carter — she’s a fighter, and that’s why I believe she fully meant to take Steve’s life.
And yeah, Steve is absolutely delusional to think Sharon would listen to him, much less show him any sympathy. That said, Steve has quite literally been delusional throughout Spencer’s entire run, since the Cosmic Cube essentially rewrote Steve’s past to make Red Skull and Kobik’s delusions into Steve’s new reality. On a more metaphorical level, Steve’s also delusional to think that he can ever fully take control of his future, or of reality itself. Natasha herself points out his folly.
The Cosmic Cube could give Steve the power to have everything he’s ever wanted, to bring back everything he’s lost, but by bringing back his friends as Hydra cronies he’d still be losing so much of what made his friends worth knowing in the first place. It’s also likely that, the more Steve struggles to gain that control, the more it will slip through his fingers. If nothing else, there will certainly be many more losses just as tragic as Natasha’s before Steve’s done.
Since we’re on this scene, let’s talk about the Punisher for a minute. Michael mentioned that he didn’t buy Frank’s motives for working with Hydra, which is fair, but I disagree. Frank’s vendetta sometimes leaned pretty hard into fascism long before Secret Empire, and chillingly enough, in real life we’ve seen Punisher’s symbol — and with it, no doubt his beliefs as well — co-opted by actual cops. The same cops out there killing unarmed children of color are painting Punisher skulls on their cop cars, and it’s absolutely terrifying. For someone who already views all those who break the law as irredeemable scum, fascism isn’t that great of a leap.
That said, all of that is only Frank’s secondary motive — his true reason for joining Steve is buried in subtext, but clear to anyone even halfway familiar with the Punisher’s backstory.
Frank just wants his family back; that’s all the motivation he’s ever needed, and that certainly hasn’t changed. Regaining and protecting family is actually a motivation that’s abounded throughout Secret Empire, motivating both the Odinson and Ant-Man to betray their friends in different ways as well. They’re putting family above the greater good of the nation, which is incredibly dangerous, yet understandable on some level.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Carol Danvers, who is taking her devotion to justice to equally reckless levels by refusing to retreat from the Chitauri attack and regroup.
Carol’s sense of honor and justice is so strong that it won’t allow her to leave her post, even if it’s probably the smart decision to make in this situation. This feels very much consistent with the Carol Danvers of Civil War II, who couldn’t bare to see anyone Ulysses could have saved suffer, even if it meant overlooking the many glaring flaws in the methods surrounding him. That was really Carol’s fatal flaw in that conflict — Spencer’s explanation in this issue that she felt insecure and just wanted to prove herself doesn’t ring true for such a confident character. That’s a moment that feels more like Spencer is trying to bend Carol into his political allegory even if she doesn’t fit.
Somewhere between Frank and Carol is Miles Morales, who lets go of a chance to kill Steve Rogers in order to honor Natasha’s desire for him not to become a murderer. In the moment it’s another ill-thought out priority like Frank or Odinson’s, but assuming Miles survives Secret Empire, it will eventually make him an icon. In front of the world, Miles Morales just showed that he was better than Steve Rogers, not through fisticuffs (though he did that too), but through morality.
Since Civil War II I’ve been excited about the idea of Miles defeating Hydra-Steve simply because of the symbolism — this young boy of color representing the next generation of superheroes taking down a corrupted, ancient institution is an idea that has a lot of power, especially in today’s political climate. With Miles no longer in the running for this role, it falls to a new player.
It’s about time, Sam.
In many ways Sam being the one to rally the troops against Steve is even more powerful. He’s a symbol of what America should be, not what it’s become via Steve’s hateful right-wing rhetoric. He’s a person of color reclaiming a concept that’s been used to discriminate against him. He’s also a long-time friend of Steve Rogers’, and at the moment that may be what interests me most. It will create a juicy conflict between the two when they finally come face-to-face, for sure, but it also sets up yet another real-life parallel. In this case Sam’s the person who has to try to correct their crazy racist uncle. That’s an important role to acknowledge. Young people like Miles Morales shouldn’t have to carry the burden of enacting change all on their own just because they’re energetic and idealistic — we all have a part, and like Sam, many of us are even better qualified to make a difference.
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