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REVIEW: MARVEL’S ‘SECRET EMPIRE’ IS PERFECTLY TIMED POLITICAL FICTION

Marvel’s crossover event has captured the modern political zeitgeist like few could have anticipated.

We’re just about at the halfway point in Marvel’s latest crossover mega-event Secret Empire and it’s safe to say it has been a polarizing title. Now infamous as the book that turned Captain American into a Nazi, Secret Empire had an uphill battle ahead of it as Marvel scrambled to perform damage control once the mainstream media assaulted their take on the American icon. I personally feel that after Secret Empire #4 that Marvel and scribe Nick Spencer are fully vindicated. This event isn’t perfect, but it’s a very solid read that has tapped into the current political climate to great effect.

THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR SECRET EMPIRE #1-4

Image Credit: Marvel

Political commentary can be tricky, especially in comics where the result can easily be too preachy or too ineffectual. Thus far, Spencer has carefully balanced the story by displaying nuance to what could have been a very black and white conflict. Hydra Cap and his cronies are unrepentant baddies right? It’s actually not so simple.

While issue #2 and #3 showed us that, yes, Cap’s Hydra is very much so willing to kill innocent people to get their point across there’s also a method to their madness — they’re a faction of means and ends. Cap, Baron Zemo, and Madame Hydra don’t just push the button, they debate and plan every move, measuring the effect of every action they take. There’s no mustache twirling villainy in Secret Empire and that makes it feel awfully realistic.

Image result for marvel secret empire 4

Image Credit: Marvel

Without getting on a soapbox, I’ll simply say that modern politics might have some of us feeling like we’re inhabiting a dystopian alternate timeline. Many of us have found ourselves at odds and distrustful of our own governments and fellow countrymen. Secret Empire has used this as inspiration to show us what this would look like on superhero scale, only matters are further complicated as the opposition against Hydra have found themselves fractured and motivated by very different missions.

When we last left off with the Avengers we saw Black Widow go rogue, making it her mission to assassinate Captain America before he can cause anymore devastation. Siding with her were the Champions, the younger members of the Avengers including Spider-Man (Miles Morales), Ironheart, and Hulk (Amadeus Cho).  Meanwhile, Hawkeye, Tony Stark (or what remains of him), and Hercules undertake a mission to locate and unite fragments of the Cosmic Cube in hopes it will restore Steve Rogers and end the war against Hydra. It’s not an easy task. Cap has Hydra searching for the fragments as well. He sees the Cube as a means to unify the world under Hydra without causing further bloodshed. Well, at least not as much bloodshed. It’s hard to accomplish with a guy like Frank Castle under your banner.

Beneath all the “Hail Hydra” there’s still a lot of ol’ Steve left. His actions weigh heavy on him. He’s come to the point where Hydra’s more brutal assaults are ordered by his subordinates. Steve doesn’t want a war — he wants peace, but he’s reaching the limits of what he is willing to risk for it. This leaves some within Hydra wondering if he’s got the guts to do what is necessary and ulterior machinations may already be in effect. Both sides of the conflict are coming apart at the seams and the stage is set for confrontations that will test these factions and decide the fate of the Marvel Universe.

Image Credit: Marvel

Secret Empire #4 kicks things into high gear by having the Avengers and Hydra initiate dueling raids on the first known location of a Cosmic Cube fragment — Avengers Mansion. The old headquarters is occupied by none other than Ultron, who has merged with his creator Hank Pym in a rather unsettling manner. Things take a left turn when Ultron/Pym traps both parties and forces them to talk out their differences. That’s right.

What could have been an all out slugfest turns out to be a dinner table discussion on the ideology driving both factions, all with Ultron as moderator. This is a stroke of pure genius by Spencer. In this exchange, all the ills of every event from House of M to Civil War to Civil War II are brought to light. Ultron shows that both sides have done their fair share of harm and they need to unite in order to save the world. Of course, this doesn’t fly in least bit, but it raises an interesting debate.

No one here is truly evil, or truly good for that matter. Everyone has a critical fault in some form or another and it’s hypocritical, downright laughable in some respects, that either of these organizations think they have the right to reshape the world after all they’ve wrought. In the end, Ultron chooses to give is fragment to the Avengers because it just seems fair after Captain America has stacked the deck against them.

Image Credit: Marvel

The evil robot is the most judicious and well-reasoned character in this story. That has to be a first.

It’s no coincidence either. Here Ultron is playing the part of the reader, and in many ways, the better angel we’d all like to appeal to in difficult times. He knows this conflict is rooted in factors beyond anyone’s control and that coming together, uniting in the spirit of what’s just and righteous, is the only way things will change. The Marvel Universe has been constantly at war with itself for the better part of a decade and it simply can’t persist at this rate.

At it’s core, Secret Empire is attempting to teach us something about the dangers of good intentions and adherence to ideological dogma. #4 brings this event into rare air, already making it the best we’ve seen from Marvel in a long time. If Secret Empire can sustain this level of storytelling it’s certain to resonate with readers for years to come. It was certainly a gamble for The House of Ideas, but a well calculated one that couldn’t be more opportune.

 

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