The issue opens up with the Underground cleaning up after the Hydra attack in Las Vegas at the end of last issue. Black Widow, in the midst of all this destruction declares, "He has to die."
We then see Luke Cage and Iron Fist pinned down by a number of demonic creatures while on a medical supply run in New York/the Darkforce Dimension. They look like they are about to be overwhelmed until Jessica Jones makes an appearance and hauls their fat out of the fire.
They return with what they can to Claire Temple's clinic, but they didn't find everything. Disease and looting is running rampant across the city, and the demonic creatures are constantly on the prowl. Everything would be pitch black if it weren't for Dagger at the top of the Empire State Building, but she is losing power and can't keep the light on for very long.
The comic cuts to a scene of looters holding up a church for medical supplies. They are interrupted by the Kingpin, whom kills the looters and tells the occupants of the church that they are under his protections so long as they remember "it was Wilson Fisk who kept you safe."
Back at the Underground, Black Widow is trying to convince the others that they have to find and kill Steve Rogers. The hologram AI of Tony Stark tells them that there is another way, showing them a recording that Rick Jones made while in prison. This was the one brought by Rayshawn in the last issue, and it details essentially the events of Steve Rogers: Captain America: Kobik making friends with the Red Skull, her corrupting of Steve Rogers, the apparent death of Bucky Barnes (please don't be true), and Selvig's scattering of Kobik's shards to the four winds to keep her out of Hydra's hands.
Tony argues that this is a chance to save Steve and everyone else, but Natasha is reluctant. Hawkeye tries to argue that Steve would want them to try this, but Natasha argues that he would want to be stopped by any means.
Back at Hydra, Steve is mulling over the fact that he had to get Madame Hydra to order the attack on Las Vegas. Baron Zemo tries to convince him that it's a good thing that he is so merciful, and Steve sends him out on a mission to find the pieces of Kobik.
Clint and Natasha continue to debate how to go about ending the Secret Empire, and Hawkeye admits that he may never be able to bring himself to kill Steve Rogers. Natasha decks him after they share a kiss, and she leaves the Underground HQ.
Tony finishes a device to find the shards, and he shows Clint the retrieval team, made up of Mockingbird, Ant-Man, Hercules, and Quicksilver. They know that they have to get out of the country somehow, and Ant-Man has a suggestion for this problem.
Natasha makes it to a shack in Colorado and finds that she was followed by Miles Morales, the Ultimate Spider-Man. He tells her that he knows he has to do this because he was the one to kill Steve Rogers in a vision that Ulysses had back in Civil War II. They are joined by Viv Vision, Ironheart, Amadeus Cho (the Totally Awesome Hulk), Nadia Pym (the Unstoppable Wasp), and Joaquin Torres (the new Falcon). After they arrive, Natasha cuts her hand and leaves a blood trail on the wall of the cabin, declaring it the "Red Room" (where she was trained to be an assassin back in Soviet-era Russia).
In Montana, Stark's Kobik retrieval team arrives at a dive bar, and Ant-Man's contact turns out to be Sam Wilson.
There is one more section after this which has a pretty significant spoiler, and I'll discuss that and its implications at the bottom of this article after the score. Stick around if you want to read that.
Nick Spencer has succeeded in creating an intensely bleak atmosphere in this story. It's been a rough read because of that, but the storytelling quality is there.
Andrea Sorrentino's artwork is sublime in this issue, and I wish he were the regular artist on this book. We'll come back to that in a bit.
Black Widow calling the cabin "the Red Room" seems a bit interesting given what those words mean to her. I'm curious where that tie-in is going to go with that angle. Perhaps Natasha really is that far gone and without hope, but then why would she treat the Champions like she has been given how horrible she knows that was? Maybe she's trying to "take back" that title from the Soviet trainers who used it? I guess we'll see.
It's also a bit weird that Doctor Strange and Daredevil are MIA given the cover including them both prominently. I also remember the plot synopsis from a Previews issue a few months back mentioning Strange. I'm also pretty sad the Thing didn't show up at all this issue like he did in the last. *sigh* I miss the Fantastic Four…
Despite the widespread backlash, I think this is an expertly put-together story. It isn't meant to make anyone feel good, and it doesn't. I feel quite sad while reading this tale of heroes, dictators, and fascism. I'm fine with that. Comic books storytelling and super hero fiction can be more than just high-flying good times. I'll feel all the better after watching my favorite heroes make it through this one, because that's how conflict and resolution works in this genre (assuming the payoff works, which Marvel has a notorious problem with).
That being said, I can't separate the text of the comic from the context of the marketing and Nick Spencer's announcements about this book. I know that the Steve Rogers: Captain America series is going to detail the Secret Empire's search for the shards of Kobik. I know about the Underground and Uprising tie-ins. As a result, this issue just feels like a vector to advertise for those comics.
Even if it is advancing the plot, it does feel a bit like advertising snuck into a comic story under the guise of plot points. These plots and angles do seem interesting mind, but I know they won't be followed up on by the story itself until their conclusion.
It's still better than Fear Itself, which was nothing but a vector for tie-in stories. However, it did weaken the impact of this issue for me.
I am not a fan of the rotating artist idea. It reinforces the idea that Marvel thinks of artists as disposable when they are what separates a comic book from a novel. Furthermore, artists are crucial to delivering atmosphere and tone. Different artistic styles deliver different feelings in a story. Brett Booth would be a weird artist to enlist for a darker book. Mike Deodato Jr. would be an unwise choice for a lighter and more fun book. Both artists are talented, but they should not be put in situations for which their style is ill-suited.
Charles Soule's upcoming Astonishing X-Men title is a little shaky for me because of this. I was originally quite excited with the writer and the line-up, but, given that it will also have rotating artists, I'm not quite as thrilled with it.
Back to Secret Empire itself, after reading this issue, I am convinced that Andrea Sorrentino would be the perfect choice as the artist for this series. His art in this issue is grim, atmospheric, and expressive. It really sealed the deal on the kind of world we are dealing with in this story. It's just a shame that he was put in the weakest issue of the series so far and will be shunted off for a different artist next issue.
Pick up this issue if you're invested in the story. It's not bad and does advance the plot in interesting directions. And, again, the Sorrentino artwork is superb.
So, there's another Steve Rogers. In the sequence of this comic, the Serpent Society is chasing after a young woman, and she is saved by a bearded, ragged-looking man calling himself Steve Rogers.
Yeah, I can kind of see where this might be going. The Steve Rogers in power is somehow a duplicate and this one will lead the resistance. It would be cool to see an out-and-out heroic Steve Rogers yet again. Nick Spencer is emphatic in saying that this won't be the case, so maybe this will play another role in the conflict. Who knows.
I do feel that it would behoove Mr. Spencer to not argue against the significance of his plot points, between this and him saying that the Cosmic Cube won't be the solution to the Secret Empire problem despite it being the main thrust of the Underground and Empire plots in this issue. That makes people feel like the comic they are reading is a bit of a waste of time, and that's never a good way to make your audience feel.
That being said, the Cube and this Steve may still play a role in overthrowing the Empire and not fixing the evil Steve Rogers problem itself.