Secret Empire #10 is finally here, and the behemoth steamroller of an event from Marvel and writer Nick Spencer is finally over. And after the writer and publishers' constant calls to wait and see, to read every issue no matter what your initial reaction is, and ideally spend hundreds of dollars on the various spinoffs and tie-ins, some of which contain important plot points (I'll get to that), we can finally look at whether Secret Empire was an important landmark in comics we've been promised.
I've waited. I've seen. And I am still thoroughly unconvinced.
As I stated in reviews of earlier issues, aside from my vehement distaste for the decision to make Captain America a Nazi (and yes, Marvel, I do not care, Hydra are bloody Nazis and always will be, and with a panel like the following, it's hard to make arguments to the contrary), the comic event started well, technically.
Spencer managed to pull together disparate threads from his already labyrinthine creation of the Hydra Cap story, and land the start well. It however quickly fell apart from there.
The event seemed unsure what kind of story it was telling, wavering between a morality story as the Hydra Steve Rogers seemed to struggle with the realities of the world he was creating, to becoming a simpler quest story as the rebel heroes searched for Macguffins (sorry, Cosmic Cube fragments), to a political thriller as assassins closed in and then the ultimate showdown in issue #10. The story felt dragged thin, with constant change ups in style, which makes one wonder if it even merited its original nine-issue run, let alone be stretched out to an extra issue that we got here.
Especially taking into account that ultimately, the victory of the heroes feels entirely unearned.
We are told that we should believe that the heroes save the day, and in the ideology of fighting back against this kind of fascism (notably in the comic with fists, which Spencer himself doesn't seem too fond of as a method of combating Nazis), and yet, it isn't the heroes who save the day. It's not even Good "Would you like to system restore from an earlier save point?" Steve Rogers, really. Because ultimately, the saviour of the day is everyone's least favourite walking, talking MacGuffin: Kobik the Cosmic Cube.
And that is the big part of why Secret Empire #10 feels weak as an issue and as an ending to the controversial event series. No matter how many times Marvel editors and writer Spencer assured us that a Cosmic Cube wouldn't save the day, even two days before release after their big New York Times spoiler story, every critic and reader from day one knew that was exactly what was going to happen. We knew before Secret Empire even began, way back in Steve Rogers: Captain America when it was revealed that Kobik was involved at all with the Hydra Cap reveal: we knew a Cosmic Cube would fix that in some way.
The only argument I can see Marvel can stand on is that a Cosmic Cube didn't wipe everything away: Las Vegas is still in ruins, millions dead; Rick Jones is still dead; Black Widow is still dead, at Steve Rogers' hand (even if a rather confusing panel has left some readers unclear on that point). However, Kobik did wipe away the alterations she made to the past (which presumably means the whole Nazis really won WWII and the Allies Cosmic Cubed it away was in fact a fabrication), restored a Steve Rogers we apparently all know (though it's her memory of Steve Rogers who she met for the briefest of times, so how far can she really have made him back to what he was?) and this all magically wiped out the Hydra government, I guess? No matter how you look at it, the day was saved thanks to the deus ex machina that is Cosmic Cube Kobik. And it feels cheap.
This wasn't a victory that was won. It was one the heroes lucked into. So when we get a finale splash proclaiming them once again Earth's Mightiest Heroes, we wonder: how? Most were either co-opted or even willingly part of Hydra Cap's regime, were barely involved in the long fight, or lucked out on being there in the end. And for all their professed might, they did not fight back to victory — they lucked out on a Hail Mary that won them the day.
We then of course get the final schmaltzy epilogue that further hastily glosses over any culpability from any government body that took part in the regime and their internment camps — remember, there were internment camps — and gives us a connecting frame from the first issue in Barf the Inhuman and his bullied younger brother. Ending with a shot of an action figure supposedly symbolising the victory of hope, it again feels out of place.
Now, some who have read my own comic work may want to call hypocrisy here, as I use a similar framing device in The Pride (bullied kids, heroes, action figures and hope, that is, not Nazis and internment camps), so how can I frown upon its use here? Well, simply because it's another case of the moment being unearned.
Aside from the fact it is weirdly bright and glossing over the great injustices inflicted on Barf and his brother by their own government and neighbours after 10 issues of near constant hopelessness for the heroes who have lost at every turn (and as I say, didn't really win the day here), it also focuses on an action figure of Sam Wilson Captain America as a symbol of hope.
This is the same Sam Wilson who, in Spencer's story, walked away from being Captain America. The same one who, for most of the series, was reluctant and even refused to get involved. Who, yes, ultimately got drawn into the conflict, but again didn't do a great deal for the final victory (besides bending the knee before Hydra Cap in a bait and switch). For this character to be the symbol of hope at the end of this story feels disingenuous, to say the least.
Finally, Secret Empire the event and final issue are guilty of the cardinal sin of event comics: not everything is clearly wrapped up or covered within the main story. While events will invariably have tie-ins and those may very well give more depth to certain moments, there are several that are purposefully held back for late-playing blink-and-you'll-miss-them panel reveals (the fact Madame Hydra used a Cosmic Cube shard to change the charm on Mjolnir, allowing Hydra Cap to lift it), or major story elements are not revealed at all or, even worse, are in tie-in issues that readers may not pick up. It's not right or fair to expect readers to pick up every single possibly tangential issue for the hope that a key plot point will be explained.
We're left wondering: if Hydra Cap still remained after Kobik's fix, and if he does, why the hell would she leave him? Was Madame Hydra just a creation of Kobik's, or something more? Who was the new Kraken? And what was the whole purpose of the Vanishing Point moment? Did the heroes really need refreshing on their mission of fighting fascism when that's pretty much what they'd been doing anyway (whether they were particularly good at it or not)? How did Hydra temporarily resurrect Bruce Banner and aim the Hulk at the Underground heroes? Or was that more Cosmic Cube shenanigans?
In the end, Secret Empire #10 was a massive letdown of a final issue to an event. It was an ending we all saw coming from before the very first issue, and it's commentary on hope and fighting back against fascism felt unearned and even a tad problematic in and of itself. At the end of the day, after waiting and seeing, if it's not about the destination and about the journey instead, this still does not feel like a journey anyone needed to be taken on. And if it was about the destination? Well, I'm afraid it wasn't a very awe-inspiring one at all.