Let’s be honest. You’ve already seen the book that I am reviewing and the score I’ve given it, so you’re already thinking “Explain yourself, Stew!”.
So I won’t meander on too much here; let’s just get to it.
TITLE: Secret Empire
Writer and Artist: Nick Spencer and, like, 38 artists.
Protagonists: All the Marvel good guys.
Antagonists: Captain America
The phrase that launched a million angry fanboy missives, Marvel had the audacity to reveal that Captain America of all people was a sleeper Hydra Agent his whole life. After several months of this being just a background fact, Marvel paid it off with the event story Secret Empire.
After having been ceded more and more power as the director of SHIELD, Hydra Cap became the de facto ruler of the United States. As part of his plan, he locked Manhattan and all of its heroes in the Dark Dimension and shut several other powerful heroes out of the planet with a global defense barrier. A small pocket of heroes are huddled together in Las Vegas, but they are too impotent in the face of Cap’s authority to do much more than save locals.
It isn’t until a captive Rick Jones is able to sneak some Hydra intel out to the heroes about remnants of a Cosmic Cube that a rebellion is able to be mounted. The already-splintered heroes divide even further as Black Widow and the Champions break off to kill Cap—something that Hawkeye and a Tony Stark AI refuse to do—and all seems lost when Cap comes into possession of all but one piece of the Cube.
Unbeknownst to everyone, though, the real Steve Rogers’ essence lives on inside the cube with Kobik, the living personification if the cosmic device. With an assist from Scott Lang and Bucky, this Cap is able to emerge from the Cube and fight Hydra Cap, turning the tide once and for all (in this story, anyway).
So yeah, the score here.
The thing is, I actually really enjoyed this work. I did not read it before this weekend, and I always just assumed it was as bad as everyone had claimed. Aside from the art situation, I was surprised to find there is a lot to enjoy here.
For starters, despite this being a big, dire Marvel event story, there is a lot of heart here that is directly attributable to Nick Spencer. While Hydra Cap is ruining the country, there are some genuine moments of levity, whether it’s old Spencer favorite Boomerang kissing his piles of money and telling them he loves them or Taskmaster and Black Ant seeing the writing on the wall and switching sides (included imploring the heroes they are releasing to remember they brought them milkshakes), Nick includes his trademark humor.
Even away from those tension-busting fun scenes, there is honestly a lot of “little” things that just worked for me in Secret Empire. Black Widow forcing Hawkeye to face the fact that he will never accept its time to make the hard choices before she abandons him. Sam Wilson embracing the Captain America mantle and giving a Cap-like speech to rally the heroes. The entire damn Pym/Ultron issue, which is a treasure unto itself. Wilson Fisk’s scheming from inside the darkened Manhattan because he remains forward-thinking and always has a plan. Odinson’s conflict over trusting Steve Rogers implicitly and not really understanding Midgard politics until he finally naps to his senses. Miles Morales’ struggle with his prophecy (including another fun moment where he uses the prophecy to his advantage to escape a cell). The usually meek and easily cowed Bruce Banner telling Hydra Cap off. It goes on and on, but there was a flow of moments throughout I found to be impeccably handled.
What I couldn’t help but do was compare Secret Empire to the barrage of Marvel event stories since 2000 or so that all came before this. Stories like Secret Invasion, Siege, Secret Wars, Civil War 2, Original Sin, Fear Itself, etc. And Secret Empire is more well-written and makes more sense than any of those. Granted, I think most of those are trashcan stories, so it’s a low bar.
There is a lot of heavy handedness to this story, as it’s obviously all a superhero punchfest allegory for post-Patriot Act America and the rise of strong-arm authoritarian governments across the globe in a world where people seem more willing than ever to exchange freedom for military leaders who obsessively display strength and promise to have all the answers. It IS a Marvel superhero comics, though, so there isn’t a load of nuance going on But the parts of the book that show just how okay with Hydra Cap’s rule such a large portion of the United States is actually makes sense.
Now, the art situation is a mess, and it’s by far the weakest area of the book to me. At various points, Andrea Sorrentino, Lenil Francis Yu, Steve McNiven, Daniel Acuna, Jesus Saiz, and others all deliver at least one issue. The lack of consistency is frustrating, and few of these artists have a style that is even remotely similar to one another. Also, while all art is subjective, I have never cared for LFY’s work, and I have no idea how he keeps getting such high-profile jobs from Marvel. His stuff is a dirty, ugly mess. It just would have been nice if they had limited the art duties to one or two talents at most. And kept Yu away entirely.
Talking Point: What is a widely reviled book that you have always enjoyed. Have I done this one before? Probably! But it’s been a while.
It’s lacking in tact at moments, and the inconsistent art situation is a nightmare. But it reminds me a lot of Superior Spider-Man in that it took an egregious idea but delivered on it with high quality. I’m not trying to convince you it’s objectively great, but I went in expecting to hate it, and I was pleasantly surprised. Spencer really made chicken salad out of this in my eyes.