by Drew Baumgartner and Patrick Ehlers
This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!
Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.
Drew: This may seem like an odd quote to kick off a discussion about a comic featuring superpowered heroes battling over bits of a cube that can rewrite reality, but I think it’s safe to say Secret Empire has really never been about superpowers or cosmic cubes. Those are the trappings of a big summer event series, sure, but the story was actually about how seemingly good people can be corrupted by toxic ideologies. That’s immediately recognizable as Steve Roger’s arc through Steve Rogers: Captain America and Secret Empire, but it’s also an arc that has been running in the background of Hydra’s America throughout this series, one that is far more unsettling than seeing Steve hail Hydra ever could be.
The resolution hinges largely on Bucky’s confidence that Kobik won’t be a fan of what Steve has done — he’s sure that, when fully assembled, Kobik will chose to undo the work of her Hydra-Cap creation, pulling the real Steve out of the limbo she had placed him in. Of course, it wouldn’t be the finale of a big summer event series if there wasn’t a fistfight to be had, and artist Steve McNiven gamely obliges, evoking his own iconic work on Civil War.
It’s a sequence that ticks all of the summer blockbuster boxes, even if the “good triumphs over evil” conclusion is all the more foregone for that blockbusteriness.
But it’s far from a happy ending. Kobik repairs the history she altered to make Hydra-Steve, but leaves his destructive handiwork, such that his victims (including Black Widow and most of Las Vegas) are still dead. Spencer offers this by way of explanation:
It’s a bitter pill, but there’s no other way — magicking all of those people back to life would have robbed their deaths of any meaning. All of which supports what Spencer and his collaborators have been saying from the start: this story will not be wiped away, and it will have lasting consequences.
For me, the most devastating of those consequences comes in the epilogue, as we see the brothers McAllister return to the neighborhood that was so quick to vilify them.
The scars of Hydra’s America aren’t just physical — the hatefulness of the American psyche has been laid bare, making it clear that Inhumans (or whatever other group has been deemed sub-human today) are not welcome. Sure, their neighbors return to help clean up the house, but that reads less like a sign of the inherent goodness of the American people as it does a sign of their fickleness (or false kindness). Maybe the shame of this particular chapter of history will prevent it from repeating in the immediate future, but the fact that Inhumans were persecuted at all speaks to how short that shame really lasts. The memory of Japanese internment didn’t prevent Inhuman internment, so it’s hard to feel like there’s a lesson to be gleaned from Inhuman internment that isn’t “humans are shit.”
But maybe that’s just where I’m at right now. It’s impossible for any reading of Secret Empire to not be colored at least a little by its uncanny resemblances to the political landscape it was released into. So I might be more sensitive to themes of legacies of oppression and the banality of evil than fairly serve this issue, but man, it’s hard for me to read that epilogue as anything other than depressing. Whether the neighbors helping out the McAllisters thought better of their hatefulness, or were sympathetic all along, none of them bothered to do anything to help until it was a popular (and safe) decision to make.
Which I guess brings me back to that Mark Twain quote. America giving into its more fascist tendencies feels strange, but might actually be less strange as the result of a magical cube tampering with history. Instead, the truth is that we don’t need a magical cube to turn on our neighbors — to lock them in prison indefinitely for the crime of us being irrationally afraid of them. Spencer may have needed a cosmic cube to make that eventuality feel possible, but now that he’s here, there doesn’t even feel like a fictional way to erase the damage.
Geez, Patrick, that’s a dark place to take a discussion of a huge summer blockbuster series, but I’ll be damned if I can read it any other way. I suppose the resistance always stood for what was right, but it’s a heck of a lot easier to stand by your convictions when you can punch your opposition through a wall. More importantly, the average Inhuman doesn’t have a superhero as a neighbor, so has to worry more about the public that was so quick to sell them out. I don’t know if there’s a way to make Inhumans feel safe in America again, but I suspect it will take more than a few coats of house paint.
Patrick: Yeah, man — I feel that. What’s more is that the epilogue is a narrow check-in on the characters effected by Hydra taking over the country. Inhumans were interred, but Mutants were driven out of the country, Natasha Romanoff and Phil Coulson died, Las Vegas was all but destroyed. And while the Hydra-hailing Captain America that made it all possible was blinked out of existence, the same cannot be said of the everyday citizens that either actively or tacitly let it happen. That final slugfest between Captains America: Steve Rogers clearly states one of the values of this series — you never stop fighting for what is right.
“You stand and you fight.” We’re at a point in American history where we are genuinely asking what it means to fight. You pose the question to two super-serumed-up super soldiers and the answer always going to be punching each other in the face, but I’m not so sure that’s what the narrative of Secret Empire is actually espousing. Notice how this “Stand and Fight” page breaks its nine-panel layout for a surprisingly human, grounded moment. That’s a mother watching the fight on TV, scowling at the world she sees unfolding on the screen and holding her son to her chest. She’s not rushing to the streets to join the melee. It’s worth nothing that the only violence in this issue is one Captain America fighting another.
In fact, it seems like — more than anything — Secret Empire prescribes unity. The only way to empower Kobik to make a choice about which version of Steve Rogers she wants is to complete her. This requires an almost unfathomable sacrifice on Sam Wilson’s part, his very own “Hail Hydra” moment.
It’s a trick, of course. I’ll confess that the Ant-Man and Winter Soldier part of this plan doesn’t totally make sense to me. They assume Kobik and the to-this-point-unknown Steve Rogers inside the fully assembled Cosmic Cube will need a hand to pull them out into reality? Also, it’s weird to assume that being teeny-tiny grants them access to the pocket universe inside the cube. All of those logical questions aside, the point is that Kobik needs to be made whole, and that requires the ultimate humbling of Sam Wilson. Look at him — he’s not standing and fighting at all.
What Sam is doing is allowing Kobik to make the decision for herself. Prior the the events of Fairy Tale Steve discovering her in an abandoned school, Kobik feels utterly helpless, resigned to hide from an enemy that she has determined is too strong. She is the overwhelmed American zeitgeist, threatened on all sides by ideologues and fascists. Steve — and mind you, this is the fantasy, idyllic version of Steve Rogers — convinces her that the only way to stop fascists is to fight them. It is a muddled message, half way between peace and war, and perhaps that’s why the ending of this series feels less hopeful than we might want.
I guess if there’s another part of this resolution that makes me feel bad about the current state of affairs is that this ending relies on a Captain America that is just as strong as he is differential. He forcibly takes back both the vibranium shield and Mjolnir, but has the extreme grace to return them both to their rightful owners.
I’m so trained at this point to look for real world analogues in Secret Empire and I am at a loss to name the force in our world that simultaneously has Steve’s power and his humility. He is the embodiment of everything that is good in Captain America, itself an embodiment of American moral exceptionalism. I don’t know if there’s any concrete person or thing that we can point to and say “ah, yes, there is the paragon of paragons we need to save us.”
In that way, Captain America ends up being an aspirational character — representing values we can all strive to embody in our daily lives. I’d gotten so used to the idea that Captain America under Nick Spencer’s pen was only capable of immaculately capturing what is wrong with our country. That’s still there: the invocation of Civil War art, and the use of the world “scars” to describe the damage to the country obviously calls America’s numerous original sins to mind (native genocide, slavery). But if being awful is part of the American identity, so too is finding a path forward. Come together. Stand and fight. The truth — impossible though it may seem — is that resisting a fascistic insurrection is equal parts coming together and fighting.
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