Now, even though I am Bleeding Cool's "Secret Empire is actually pretty good" guy, doesn't mean I think the series is perfect. It has its flaws, and one of my first two articles for BC was my review of #2, which was a comic that could basically be summed up with "Hey, don't forget to buy the tie-ins!"
I thought the third issue was a good bit better, and the fourth was interesting, if still greatly flawed.
Overall, I think the series has been an interesting character study on how bad it can be when a champion of good like Steve Rogers has his unshakeable morals flipped but everything else remains the same. It also has me interested because I genuinely don't know where the story is going with its pitch black plot.
I don't think it is by any means promoting fascism. Writer Nick Spencer, before he was fighting off critics of his work on Twitter (which is still not good behavior), was busy pissing off Fox News with his first issue of Sam Wilson: Captain America, which was a comic that put the anti-immigration crowd on blast by making them the Sons of the Serpent (Marvel's version of the KKK). Since then, his Sam Wilson: Captain America has taken on corporate greed and police brutality. I don't really get the impression that the guy is a Nazi.
Nick Spencer is a talented writer, with other great Marvel series like Astonishing Ant-Man and Superior Foes of Spider-Man under his belt. I don't think him blasting Marvel critics on Twitter is a good thing, but I do think he is a good writer.
Now we're up to Secret Empire #5 and what do I think about it? Well, we'll get to that.
This comic starts off with Black Widow being interrogated by Viper and a couple of Hydra goons. Nat reveals to the former Madame Hydra that she knows about her drug dealings under the nose of Steve Rogers, turning the tables on this interrogation. Meanwhile, the Champions are busting out an unknown elderly man from a Hydra holding facility.
It touches on another ethereal scene of the "other" Steve Rogers with people who resemble Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes before turning back to the Underground effort to acquire the shards of the Cosmic Cube. They are turned away by Black Panther, and come up dry when they rescue Shang Chi from Madripoor. They decide to return home from there.
We see Steve Rogers having a brief meeting with representative Hank McCoy from New Tian, and he meets with Madame Hydra to discuss the status of Scarlet Witch, the Vision, and the Odinson.
Back at the Underground HQ, Giant Man is talking with Tony about the prospect of using a time machine to try to solve the world's problems. This is a brief discussion, as Hydra comes down on them in full force.
From here, we are going to get into some really spoiler-heavy stuff, so be warned.
This issue was interesting to say the least. The plot had a good narrative through-line, but it still managed to feel a little meandering and disjointed. It kept jumping around from scene-to-scene. It was more focused than the first three issues were, but it wasn't perfect.
Fellow Bleeding Cool writer, the talented Joe Glass, talked about the character assassination that Beast underwent in this comic. He's not wrong. Beast doesn't get a good look in this comic. Really, not many people have come out looking good in this series.
What's all the more frustrating, I can't say that many of the representations of these characters are outright wrong. They just feel wrong.
The Odinson is broken at this point. He's lost. Steve Rogers has always been the mortal he's most respected, so I can see him joining up with his cause, no matter how warped it is.
The Black Panther expresses outright apathy towards the Underground's cause. He looks like a selfish ass in this comic. However, Wakanda has always been his first concern, and the Civil Wars of the superhero world have likely left him weary. He's apprehensive of Tony Stark, because he's not always made the best decisions. So, I can see him turning a blind eye to his pleas. Similar things can be said for Namor and his decision to turn over his own Cosmic Cube fragment to Steve Rogers.
Remember when Black Panther did that to a Nazi?
I can almost buy Beast sequestering himself with whatever other mutants are in New Tian and just hoping that Hydra leaves them be. He respected Steve Rogers too, and seeing him turn out like this could easily have left him a bit broken.
But all of this still just feels so wrong.
I guess that's the problem. Looking at this from a narrative and character-driven perspective, it's a good story. It's a warped story, but it is good. It all lines up and makes sense if you think about the motivations of these people and some of the arcs their lives have taken in recent years.
However, these people are damn super heroes. They're idols, inspirations, and symbols of hope and peace. Seeing them like this, where the Underground, the Champions, the heroes on the other side of the shield, and the Defenders in New York are the only ones who seem to understand how wrong this all is. It's like everyone else is freaking gas-lighting them. "Oh, America has been taken over by a bunch of fascist Nazi-humpers who have their eyes set on the rest of the world? Not my problem!"
I definitely buy the Punisher helping them. He respects Captain America too, but I still feel like he would shoot Zemo and Zola on site.
Mockingbird turning out to be the Hydra mole in the Underground did outright piss me off. She's an Avenger, a S.H.I.E.L.D agent! She should know how wrong this all is!
Everyone should be fighting against this. Every hero, Beast, Punisher, Mockingbird, Namor, Black Panther, the Odinson, Sam Wilson, every hero should be against this. Even many of the more morally ambiguous characters, like Magneto and Doctor Doom, should be vehemently against this. This is the exact kind of thing that many of them struggle against. Red Skull, Baron Zemo, and their ilk used to try to conquer the world on a weekly basis. But, now that it's Steve Rogers, we're just going to lie down and let it happen?
Here's the thing, this succeeds has character-driven fiction, but it woefully fails as super hero fiction. Making every character nigh-unlikable with the exception of a chosen few, namely Hawkeye, Black Widow, the Champions, Tony Stark, Hercules, Ant-Man, and the ones that aren't involved in any way, is not a good idea. We're comic book readers, we want to stick with these characters for years to come. It's not gonna be fun to read a Black Panther comic and have to think back on that one time he just threw his hands up and said "I couldn't give a shit about the Fourth Reich rising in the U.S.A." Or that one time Thor said, "Yeah, it's a fascist government, but my buddy was the dictator. Plus, my hammer was gone."
Remember when this was just about fighting crime and evil? I mean, yeah, the distinction between good and evil can be blurry, realistically speaking. I'm not going to knock a comic for wanting to talk about real-world problems (see also, my glowing opinions on Black Panther and the Crew, Sam Wilson: Captain America, and Green Arrow). I think it's important that we grapple with the tough questions, even when they are just silly comics about people in tights fighting the bad guys.
But these aren't tough questions; this isn't a story about parceling out good from bad. It's fascism; it's evil. Only Nazis, dictators, and wingnut Alt-Reichers think it's an acceptable form of government. Yet somehow our champions of justice are hemming and hawing about what to do about it, or, worse, they're cooperating with it.
Also Bruce Banner shows up at the end. That's something. I'm not sure it's good or bad yet, but it's something. I look forward to the retcon on his death.
Here's some mindless speculation about the identity of the old man. It's probably an old Steve Rogers, but that's no fun and would be an outright bummer of a red herring reveal. Here are some other ideas: Nick Fury, Bucky Barnes, Silver Surfer, or Thunderbolt Ross. Those first three are reliant upon some drastic physical changes. The last is the one I really want it to be. It would be cool to see Red Hulk bust out and kick Hydra ass. Magneto was another thought, which would make the one in New Tian a clone or fake or something. Again, it would be awesome to see the Master of Magnetism tearing apart Nazis.
The art is still really good. Andrea Sorrentino was a fantastic artist to choose for this story. His surrealist style adds to the unnerving reality and how it all just feels so wrong.
This should have been a graphic novel set in an alternate universe so these queasy feelings don't come back for us some day. I mean hell, this actually does have some similar themes to the more celebrated graphic novels like Watchmen¸ Squadron Supreme, and Kingdom Come. Heroes are doing morally off-kilter things and deciding things for everyone else without a second thought.
And yeah I just compared Secret Empire to Watchmen and Kingdom Come. Sue me. They have similar narrative themes. I didn't say they were of the same quality.
I can't say that this is a bad story. I'm sorry, I just can't. It's not satisfying super hero fiction, but it's not bad. I can recommend it. It's a decent continuation to the story. It just won't make you feel good in any way shape or form.