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Darkness descends over the Marvel Universe. In a narrative that began way back during the Standoff! event, Captain America (Steve Rogers) now leads Hydra. Through a series of convoluted machinations, deception, and murder, Cap solidifies his rule over the U.S. through a – wait for it – Secret Empire – and scatters the heroes who would stand against him.
The very premise of Secret Empire ruffles feathers. This story-line takes a character created by two Jewish men and turns him into the figurehead for Hydra, a fictional group synonymous with Nazis. A controversial move to say the least. The idea doesn’t lack boldness, but execution matters when taking such a heavy risk.
As the not-so-secret Secret Empire reigns, there are three main hero teams to combat it: first, those trapped in a bubble of Darkforce energy in Manhattan; the Defenders, Cloak & Dagger, Claire Temple, and an oddly benevolent Kingpin. Second, an underground in Las Vegas composed of current and ex-Avengers. Lastly, and completely absent from this issue, a team led by Captain Marvel, currently trapped in space. All fight against Hydra in the hopes of turning Steve Rogers and freeing the U.S.
Written by Nick Spencer, with pencils, inks, and colors from Andrea Sorrentino and Rod Reis, this book has high aspirations. Despite all the big ideas its characters discuss, the action feels stagnant rather than propelling. Let’s dive in to examine what they were going for, what they achieve, and how most of it falls short.
A wiser writer than myself once said “every piece of dialogue should move the action forward.” That applies to Secret Empire #2, but only in the most general sense. Huge chunks of dialogue are dedicated almost exclusively to exposition. Black Widow, Rick Jones, and even what should be a sinister moment between Cap and BFF Helmut Zemo all let us know what Hydra intends to do next, but nothing actually happens. In a story with three different hero teams, the opportunity to do more is too great. When the story goes nowhere, Hydra wins you fools!
Next on my list of gripes, there’s the whole dour tone. In past crossovers there’s always the inclination to create an atmosphere of hopelessness. And that’s fine. That is completely understandable when setting up a world where our heroes are on the ropes. Age of Ultron did it. The Dark Reign of Norman Osborn did it. Even the much maligned Fear Itself did its best to make it seem like there’s no going back. But through each new turmoil persists an unflappable resolve, one we’re sorely missing in Secret Empire.
We still get shreds of the classic Marvel hero optimism. Tony Stark, currently a holographic A.I., is somehow the moral center of the Underground, Hydra’s top enemy on Earth. While the Black Widow extols the virtues of assassinating Steve Rogers, Tony offers intel from a recently executed Rick Jones (R.I.P Rick Jones, you underutilized prince) to offer a third way: recreating the Cosmic Cube that turned Cap into a Nazi in the first place and fixing everything.
At issue’s end, the schism divides the Underground. Frustratingly, this narrative choice seems to dismiss everything else the young heroes fight for thus far. Infighting among teammates, extreme measures when non-lethal options exist – are these not the idealists who formed the Champions just to get away from such pratfalls? I thought so, but Spencer has other plans.
It’s rather rare for a comic to use a single pair of creators to cover pencils, inks, and colors. One might think this strategy leads to cohesion, to a uniform artistry to elevate the narrative. In the case of Secret Empire, not so much. The predominant hues are ashen grey and an occasional blood red to punctuate Black Widow’s violent leanings. Cap is almost entirely portrayed in reds, an unsubtle nod to the deaths already on his head.
One plus are the layouts. Panels are arranged in a fantastic mosaic, a creative array which would be great if it showcased better artwork. For instance, as Luke Cage and Iron Fist get a timely rescue from Jessica Jones after stumbling into a room of Darkforce demons, they look like shabby cosplayers more than bedraggled heroes, a drawback many characters unfortunately share.
Lastly, a stray observation: the cover of this issue has almost nothing to do with its content. Daredevil and Dr. Strange do not appear once, and the only appearance of Luke Cage and Iron Fist lasts three pages.
I’m curious to see where this story goes, if not to see how they get out of it than just to see if there are any lasting impacts to the status quo. Until then, the Secret Empire reigns, Hail Hydra!