by Michael DeLaney and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
“All good things must come to an end”
Geoffrey Chaucer, Troilus and Criseyde
Michael: Secret Empire is racing towards its conclusion: previously trapped heroes have been freed, once broken spirits have been re-emboldened, and the bad guys themselves are starting to realize that the odds might not be in their favor. After all, all “good” things come to an end — especially evil empires. Unfortunately, that repurposed Chaucer maxim can also apply to the quality of an ongoing Marvel event, as Secret Empire 9 loses a little bit of the title’s oomph.
It has been an unexpected thrill watching the machinations of the bad guys come to fruition in Secret Empire. That being said, I’m no dummy. I know that the heroes are going to come back at Cap with everything they have — that’s how these things work! I guess I’m just a little disappointed that Nick Spencer’s heroic rallying cry doesn’t have the same impact of the cutting political division of earlier chapters. Then again, the whimsy of Return of the Jedi doesn’t match the power of The Empire Strikes Back.
The problem with Secret Empire 9 is its overabundance of characters — which is not something unique to this event. Captain Marvel & pals have returned from their Earth exile, the heroes from the Dark Force dimension have been freed and the mutants from New Tian enter the fray — splitting the narrative focus. Then again, maybe narrative messiness is the definition of America. The totalitarian Steve Rogers had literally divided the nation and separated Marvel’s greatest heroes from one another. By having them break down the technological and magical walls that he built, the heroes have also broken down the ideological walls of Hyrda’s hate.
The “final battle” of Secret Empire reminds me a lot of the last issue of Final Crisis. Like Final Crisis, Secret Empire has suddenly initiated a third person narrator late in the game. Will we see who this narrator is, perhaps telling the tale of this battle once the dust settles? Uncertain. The intent is to give this epic battle the weight of a significant historic event, but it’s a little jarring. Speaking of, where’s The Watcher? Is he still dead?
Leinil Francis Yu has some great layouts of our rebounding heroes socking it to Hydra under the banner of that triumphant narration. This kind of imagery is repeated one time too many, to the point where it loses its meaning. The epic images of heroes teaming up and enemy soldiers falling shouldn’t feel as “filler” it does here.
My favorite two pages of Secret Empire 9 have nothing to do with Steve Rogers nor a battle cry of once-broken heroes. Instead, it comes in the form of a brief scene featuring Taskmaster and Black Ant. Unlike other villains that aligned with Hydra, this pair of mercenaries merely stumbled into allegiance with Steve Rogers out of opportunity. A “join or die” kind of offer. It’s fitting that they leave Hydra with the same sort of opportunistic flippancy. I really like Taskmaster – with his tactical fighting brain he’s the Deathstroke of the Marvel Universe. I believe it’s with that same tactical fighting brain that he sees that Hydra is about to lose, all it takes is one “BOOM” for him to realize it.
Taskmaster’s speech about taking over the world is an excellent point of meta-awareness for comic books and for real life. After all, Donald Trump only wanted to win the presidency, he didn’t really want to BE the president. Taskmaster and Black Ant negotiate a deal for leniency in exchange for the Champions’ freedom. I like the idea of bad guys who know they’re going to lose going for the best of all bad outcomes. Taskmaster would be a good criminal lawyer, opting for a plea bargain and suspended sentence. My only hope is that Miles or one of his cohorts lands a pivotal blow in this final battle, making Taskmaster and Black Ant the keys to beating Hydra.
Secret Empire 9 also clears up the up to this point inscrutable “bearded Steve” scenes drawn by Rod Reis. I can see people getting frustrated/disappointed with this explanation much in the way that folks were with the Lost finale (which I loved) but I think this is the best possible explanation. As they are bound to do, internet theories have abounded on the nature of bearded Steve: he’s the “real” Steve Rogers, he’s the Steve Rogers from Dimension Z, he’s the 2-dimensional imprisonment of Chris Evans, etc. Instead, I think that Spencer’s answer to this mystery falls in line with everything he’s set up so far: bearded Steve is the piece of Steve Rogers that lives on in Kobik’s memory.
Bearded Steve Rogers is the platonic Steve Rogers: the ideal American dream that we hold in our hearts. Currently, that man and that dream seem to exist solely in our hearts but I think we’d all like that to change, right? Odds are that Kobik will woman up and restore Steve Rogers to his former glory, which is as good of an explanation as any in my opinion. Mark Waid will be picking up Cap’s shield soon and it doesn’t sound like he’s addressing anything Secret Empire, so I’m perfectly fine with a cosmic cube editorial wipe. It’s what got us into this beautiful mess in the first place.
Patrick, whaddya think? Did you find more to like in the battle itself? Recent chapters of Captain America and Secret Empire were positioning Sam Wilson as the man who turns the tide, but would you agree that he more or less fades into the background here? It’s about time the mutants stepped in and helped — why do you think they always get sidelined in things? Do you think that characters like Odinson and the mutants merely “changed their minds” because we’re in the final stretch?
Patrick: Oh, I’m all in on characters like Emma Frost and Odinson bailing on an idea that they thought they had to go along with. I actually really like the subtle difference between why they were “supporting” Rogers in the first place — Emma because she made something of a temporary political deal with Steve, Odinson because he personally felt defeated. They aren’t the only heroes whose loyalty to the Hydra Supreme flags when the resistance unites: both Vision and Scarlet Witch are freed from the sci-fi/magical machinations that are keeping them under Hydra control. It’s amazing how much those may feel like narrative cheats, when that’s exactly the kind of thing we’re seeing with Trump supporters now. No one backs a guy like that without having a reason, and while those reasons can range from opportunism to being politically trapped, there has to be a point where those reasons dissolve. In the end, this was always going to have to boil down to battle of good versus evil, which means the wishy-washy forces of the “middle” needed to pick a fucking a side.
That gets me pumped.
Also getting me pumped: that it isn’t just Sam Wilson leading the charge against Hydra. Michael, I think it’s smart to draw a line between the fracturous nature of the American identity and the multitude of superheroes that are banding together to stop Hydra. It’s insane to me how Spencer, Yu and the rest of his collaborators have managed to stay right on the tip of relevance, predicting the political landscape like prophets. Big splash battle pages showing the legion of good guys has echoes of seeing the footage of the counter protests in Boston last weekend. The bad guys suck, but man, there are so many good people that just need to be shaken into action.
All of which is to say that I continue to get a lot out of the political allegory. I’m trying not to think too much about the series’ inevitable conclusion, but that is largely because “resolution” almost feels disingenuous to the story Spencer has been telling for over a year. After all, we’ve been on a parallel rollercoaster ride, and while Sam Wilson and the AI Ghost of Tony Stark get to move on to whatever story is next, we will be stuck on our ride for a lot longer.
That is a little short-sighted of me. I tend to have a very of-the-moment read of Secret Empire — I’ve been reading every entry in the event the day it comes out since before Steve uttered “Hail Hydra,” and current events keep echoing the events of the book. But this series will exist in perpetuity beyond the very fucking specific moment it was published in. There’s a moment during the “fairy tale” portion of the issue where artist Rod Reis takes a second to revel in the memorable images the series has generated.
Fairy Tale Steve is getting a glimpse at the narrative of Secret Empire the same way a lot of people did — through the imagery that punches through the tweets and the headlines. I’ve seen that page of Cap saying “Hail Hydra” to Dr. Selvig more times than I’ve seen any other page or panel — possibly in my lifetime. The hits just keep on coming: Cap wielding Mjolnir, Cap tossing Red Skull out the window, Cap defeating Black Widow. These are all key images. You know that Civil War cover with Tony blasting Cap’s shield at point blank range? The moment they specifically recreated for the movie? Spencer and his team created four of those moments at least.
My point is that even as the story tumbles toward its conclusion with some kind of Iron-Hydra-Cap Big Bad (awesome), it’s impact on our collective experience of the Marvel universe will be on-going. It is perhaps worth noting that Michael’s borrowed words of wisdom about good things coming to an end is from a 700 year old epic poem. Yeah, the poem ended, but the relevance of at least that one line never burned out.
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?