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What Was the Point of Marvel's Secret Empire?

Image Marvel
Image Marvel

There was something very telling about Marvel’s decision this past Monday to announce to The New York Times how its Secret Empire event would end. It felt like the publisher was trying to get ahead of yet more problems coming from the series’ conclusion.

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Now that the final issue of its primary series is in stores today, we know that’s right—and how thoroughly Secret Empire failed.

The core concept that Marvel’s blond-haired, blue-eyed living symbol for American patriotism could actually be a sociopathic fascist with a plan to remake the world in his image was a disturbing one, to be sure. But Secret Empire had the potential to become an iconic story about the dangers of blindly buying into a dark, warped form of American exceptionalism that, given enough time, became the base ideology for Hydra’s oppressive, authoritarian society. This potentially powerful story’s importance was only further heightened by the major political events that defined 2016, a year when a literal demagogue with the political acumen of a D-list comic book supervillain managed to become President of the United States.

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Marvel insisted that Secret Empire wasn’t meant to be a piece of political commentary, but the series launched at a time when its plot eerily echoed the social and political anxieties plaguing the country. Political or not, Secret Empire had every chance to become the kind of seminal story that defined what a flagship comic book event could be in the 21st century. But by Monday, when Marvel spoiled the ending to its own major comic book event, the writing was already on the wall: Secret Empire was about to end poorly and damage control was necessary. Having read the issue, we can say that calling it a series of predictable, unfortunate, bad events is too charitable.

Illustration for article titled What Was the Point of Marvels iSecret Empire/i?

Even if you’re able to completely divorce yourself from the many controversies associated with Secret Empire, you can’t deny the fact that today’s issue #10 is, objectively speaking, very, very bad. Or, at least, lazy and not at all the kind of well thought-out issue a publisher would want to end an event with.

After months of brutal battles and painful deaths, Earth’s mightiest heroes all finally get a chance to take on Steve Rogers himself, newly in possession of a nearly-complete Cosmic Cube and a Hydra-themed suit that allows him to harness its power. As the heroes all dive at Steve, more than prepared to bring the world’s suffering to an end, it’s obvious that even now Secret Empire’s more interested in “shocking” plot twists than trying to actually say or do anything interesting with its story.

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The Avengers, X-Men, and Champions converge on Steve only to be effortlessly erased from existence because Steve’s wearing a suit that’s literally powered by a macguffin. What are a few humanoids in spandex to a man with the ability to bend reality itself to his will?

Illustration for article titled What Was the Point of Marvels iSecret Empire/i?
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But this is a comic book event, which means that the Good Guys have got to win, and they’ve got to win thanks to a clever plan that nobody, not even a man with cosmic omniscience could see coming. After Steve erases all of the physical devastation he’s inflicted upon the world, he’s surprised by a visit from Sam Wilson, the current Captain America, who just so happens to have the final piece of the Cosmic Cube that would turn Steve into a god if he managed to get his hands on it.

At this point in the story, there’s nothing much that Sam can really do to fight Steve. He’s outgunned and his friends are all dead, so he does the sensible thing and bends the knee to Steve, offering his piece of the Cube as a show of good will. But it’s a trick! Though the piece of the Cube is real, buried deep within it are Ant-Man and Bucky Barnes, shrunken down so small that they’re in the microverse within the Cube itself which, it turns out, is a place we’ve seen before.

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Illustration for article titled What Was the Point of Marvels iSecret Empire/i?

All of the dreamy flashes to the land bathed in white where an amnesiac alt-Steve has been encountering his friends and loved ones during all of Secret Empire? That’s all happening inside the Cube where Kobik—a living embodiment of the Cube’s powers who’s taken the form of a little girl—has been hiding from the mess she’s made of the world. Through some comics weirdness that’s never adequately explained, Bucky travels into Kobik’s pocket universe, grabs her and the Good Steve by the hand, and manages to make his way back into the larger universe all within a matter of seconds.

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While all of this is happening, Evil Steve is standing there like a moron, looking at his suit wondering why his god powers aren’t working anymore.

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Evil Steve’s horror at the fact that he’s been outsmarted immediately intensifies when he comes face to face with Good Steve who, because of the way that the Cosmic Cube works, is now a real flesh and blood person. As Kobik undoes all of the changes to reality that Evil Steve made and the Avengers are resurrected, the two Steves face off Civil War-style and proceed to beat the shit out of each other in classic comic book fashion.

I’m being rather glib about all of this because there’s absolutely nothing about any of these sequences that at all feels novel or truly creative, especially when you consider the sorts of ideas that big comics events have tried to tackle in the past. No one watching the two Steves fight questions them or unpacks the symbolism of their clash, and that feels like a major mistake. It’s a sorely missed opportunity for Spencer to at least try and have Secret Empire’s characters say something meaningful or lasting about Steve, a living concept at this point, and the ways that he’s put them all through hell.

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Sure, one of these men is ostensibly supposed to be good and the other bad, but both of them are beings who wouldn’t exist without the Cosmic Cube. Secret Empire wants you to feel as if Captain America is a person redeeming himself for the sins of his darker half, but in reality he’s just a physical construct going through the narrative motions of a predicable hero’s narrative. Even that wouldn’t be all that bad if it weren’t for the heavy-handed, coded language of resistance scattered throughout the panels.

Even though Secret Empire isn’t about politics, multiple pages of the issue are dedicated to conveying the basic idea that pseudo-Nazism (Hydra are Nazis; deal with it) is bad and that punching a Hydra figurehead is a good thing. That’s a lovely sentiment to espouse, but it comes at a point in Secret Empire when readers have had to watch as Captain America murdered thousands and sent minorities to internment camps. To lazily pile on the “punching Nazis is good” imagery without actually taking the time to unpack the psychological and emotional impact the story’s had on its characters is outrageously bad. This is what Secret Empire’s been building up to for months now and it’s a disappointment of the highest order.

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Illustration for article titled What Was the Point of Marvels iSecret Empire/i?

Secret Empire closes with Good Steve defeating Bad Steve and the entire world deciding to just go along with the idea that everything’s going to be all right now that the bad Hydra bogeyman is no more. There’s a milquetoast epilogue involving an important Inhuman character being released from an internment camp that entirely glosses over what it means to live as a minority in a community of people who were literally just calling for your extermination. The Inhuman returns home to find his home covered in “Hail Hydra” spray paint messages, but by the next day his home’s gleaming like it’s new thanks to his neighbors coming together to clean the graffiti off. Isn’t that nice? Isn’t that nice?

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It’s difficult to say what Marvel was trying to accomplish with Secret Empire #10 other than to get the whole thing done and over with. But that’s honestly understandable when you look back at just how much of a mess this has been for a while now.

For all its grandstanding and shocking headline grabs, in the end Secret Empire was little more than your typical big superhero event: good guys fighting bad versions of themselves instead of each other, for once, but still a story that superhero comics have told a thousand times before. The lackluster reveal tells readers that the “absolutely-totally-real” version of Captain America Marvel has assured us we’ve been following for over a year at this point is nothing more than a Cosmic Cube-created evil clone, one who’s had the real Cap sitting in his soul all along. That convoluted mechanic speaks to the grand aimlessness of the series. Secret Empire spent too much time wallowing in the grim nature of its premise, its moments of heroism few and far between and coming much too late into the run—and that’s after Marvel extended the whole thing by an issue for good measure, only to end in an awkward rush, like butter scraped over far too much bread.

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Given the generic outcome of its whole premise—and the convenient manner with which America at large forgets how easily it fell under the fascist thrall of Steve Rogers’ Hydra is swept aside by the end of Secret Empire #10—it’s hard to see what this series will be remembered for beyond the vast controversy it leaves in its wake. Bad comic book events are usually forgotten, save for being remembered as a point of mockery by readers years later. With Secret Empire, however, the series ultimately made its biggest impact in the anger it generated, rather than anything that happened in its pages.

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Many were already uneasy at the idea of Captain America being made a fascist in a time when white supremacy has risen to an ugly prominence on a national level in America. But as the months dragged on, it felt like Secret Empire continued to heedlessly court controversy at every turn, from Captain America’s descent into supervillainy to variant covers putting heroes and villains alike in the crossfire of consumer ire. A great story might, in some ways, have been worth weathering the storm of fury and criticism Marvel Comics has faced this year. One that ends in such a lackluster manner as Secret Empire does, does not feel like it was worth the immense backlash Marvel faced.

And yet, Marvel acted oblivious to it all, which could have dire ramifications for the publisher’s reputation going forward. The fact that you should never trust a single word out of a comics publisher’s mouth is a long-told joke in the industry, but the sheer disingenuity with which Marvel has conducted itself with Secret Empire is a dark moment for the company’s relationship with its readers. The company audaciously told mainstream outlets like Entertainment Weekly or the New York Times that the political imagery Secret Empire wrapped itself in was harmless or unconnected to the context of the time it’s come out in. They brazenly told fans were told that this really is Captain America, he really is evil now, only for that not to be the case. Moreover, readers were reassured that if they waited and read the whole thing, they’d be given a satisfying conclusion to this whole incendiary tale, only for it to end in a poorly paced fizzle.

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If this journey, one that’s dragged Steve Rogers’ character and Marvel’s own reputation through mud, was one meant to be worth going on, its culmination being the simple message that “Hey, maybe you should stand up and fight back against the bad guys”—a message so explicitly obvious in the realm of superhero comics the fact that it is presented here as a grand statement feels almost disingenuous—rings hollow.

In the end, Secret Empire didn’t have anything new to say, only controversy to stoke, in the exact wrong way at the exact wrong time. The journey Marvel Comics asked readers to go on was not worth the destination in the slightest.

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James is a News Editor at io9. He wants pictures. Pictures of Spider-Man!

io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

angriergeek
Angrier Geek

What was the point of Secret Empire?

Same as the point of this:

It’s a old trope that if certain good guys went bad they’d be near indefeatable as opponents. In the comics, Cap has no superpowers but is considered formidable because of his brains and will. This was all about how bad it would be if he pursued a dark path with the same devotion as the light. The only problem was it was too damn long. The panel you see above is from an in-continuity Superman story. It lasted about five issues. I dismissed earlier complaints about the story from people who were upset simply because it was Cap, but I realized I If you took Superman in continuity and had him doing shit like this for over a year the same way you did Cap I might be making the same complaints even though I knew it was all going to be undone by the end. It’s neither the doing nor the character, but the goddamn duration. This should have started in May ‘17 and ended in Aug ‘17 and not been an event. It should have been like Emperor Joker, an underrated Superman story from the great “triangle era” where The Joker somehow gets cosmic power and takes over the entire world. It was told only in Superman books and nowhere else and was over in two months!

And you’re all giving Spencer too much credit as this entire thing was obviously planned a year before the election so there’s no way he could have known what America was going to turn into. He got “lucky” if you can call it that, but the way comics are published you really can’t do what’s happening right now for months.

Hydra are nazis; deal with it.

No they aren’t and everyone saying this needs to deal with that. The reason I always respond when someone says that is because it’s a) lazy and b) shows they’re choosing to be angry. Nazism is so goddamned horrible we actually distinguish it from “regular fascism” and to lump it in like that is lazy and dilutes the sheer horror of it. Every would be world conquer in comics is some kind of fascist, but they aren’t Nazis and no one insists they are. Also, they didn’t start off as Nazis, weren’t depicted as Nazis for the bulk of their 50+ years of existence and were run by an actual Nazi all of one time in the early 70's. You don’t get to cherry pick the one time that bothers you or the things Hydra has in common with Nazism and dismiss everything else that contradicts it. As I said that’s just the mindset of a lazy person who just wants to be angry. Steve has been brainwashed into being a Nazi, twice. This wasn’t one of them.

I’m looking forward to picking this up this afternoon and seeing it through the clear eye of a comics fan reading a superhero story and nothing more.