The continuation of our guest post from Ed Brown of last week which has had to be split into two parts, in which Ed explores Marvels major story-arc, the Secret Empire. We left mid-discussion about Captain America switching sides to H.Y.D.R.A and the fact that it put a lot of people off…
You’re a man with a shield, enhanced strength and agility, and some of your friends can fly real fast, have strength vastly surpassing your own, and have a nasty tendency to do things like beating Tony Stark into a coma while walking away completely scot-free. While he’s wearing Hulkbuster armour. Yeah. That happened.
So of course, you need a plan. And at the very start of Secret Empire, you get to see one exceptionally hastily constructed plot point that freezes New York and its population of crimefighters out of the equation, and one more carefully developed plot point that walls of Earth from outside influence while most of the galactic-powered characters are up in space. Inhumans are corralled into a prison in their own ‘city’ of New Attilan, and Mutants are expelled from the USA and forced into an independent province on the west coast. There’s more to all of that, which was explained in individual books, but the set-up, in all honesty, was compelling.
The question then became, as Hydra enacted its masterstroke and conquered the USA with Steve Rogers at the helm, “OK, so who’s left?”. Not only did this read as a nice way to establish Hydra as a dominant force overnight, it also gave readers the opportunity to pick a specific storyline strand if they wanted to. You’re a fan of the Guardians of the Galaxy? Cool, you can crossover with other books such as Captain Marvel and Ultimates² to see how they attempt to break through the “impenetrable defence shield” and drive back a massive Chitauri invasion force. You prefer Daredevil? Well then picking up such books as Dr. Strange gave you the chance to see what happened when New York was trapped in the Darkforce dimension, cut off from light and relying on the Kingpin as an unlikely saviour as they tried to break out to rejoin the rest of the world.
This was another tactic that had previously worked with Secret Wars – it was not necessary to buy every Marvel Comic released between May and October to be able to participate in and enjoy the crossover. As an added bonus, this time the monthly books that were included actually had anything at all to do with the events in the main storyline, which is where they beat Secret Wars hands down.
Meanwhile, as is normal with these events, the flagship book served as the backbone to the event, and it’s possible to read Secret Empire issues 1-10 without picking up anything else and still enjoy the ride. Barring one issue where there was a questionable visit to Ultron (pretty much a tea party with Ultron, which I am still confused about and I can only really take as an indicator that Ultron is going to be used for a major storyline sooner rather than later), the core book was a very solid read. The art was great, the pace was good, and there were some very nice looking variant covers available throughout the run.
There’s not much more you can ask for a crossover like this. Even more staggeringly, this is the first time since these mega-world events began that all issues of the core book were released on time. Secret Wars famously overran by months in 2015, with the hastily re-penned conclusion to the story only just making it to the shelves in time for Christmas. Civil War II overran as well (just like its predecessor).
This was an important thing for Marvel to get right – the impact of Secret Wars was greatly weakened by the fact the monthly books had already moved past the end of the war, so we were spoiled on some things. With Civil War II it mattered less, but it really made the story drag. You should not be thinking to yourself “please make it end” when you reach the climax of something like this – it should be the hook that makes you want to buy comics for the next year and beyond.
Impact on the Marvel Universe
The good news is that Secret Empire achieved its goals. There were “shit the bed” moments a-plenty as Steve Rogers had to get more and more extreme to tighten his stranglehold on the not-always-entirely brainwashed population of the United States. Seeing Las Vegas disappear into a crater under the fire of Hydra hover-ships as the first point of escalation usually gives you an idea that someone is playing for keeps.
Other choice moments like Bucky Barnes being strapped to a rocket and fired out over the Atlantic, Rick Jones being publicly executed and the ruination of the capitol building were really striking. Not to mention Hydra-ed up Cap picking up Mjolnir and laying down the smack with it – you were right there with the other heroes, wondering just how he was going to be taken down if he was worthy to lift the hammer!
As a means of shaking up the Marvel Universe, it was perfect – longstanding characters have had experiences that will give them plenty to think about, older versions of certain characters are ready to return alongside their newer counterparts, the Captain America issue is going to be even more tasty, and, oh yeah – Old Man Logan had a badass line. Let’s not forget that! Needless to say, Captain America is back to normal, the haters can unclench (I believe there’s enough evidence to say that Sam Wilson is going to return to being the Falcon).
This all leads into the next Marvel project – Legacy. What’s that about?
Well, cleverly, it’s about the old versions of characters everyone loves returning to hold their titles alongside the new and updated versions of those characters. Which… is the same as they did just before Secret Wars. And after Secret Wars. It’s just that this time they are really making a really freaking obvious point of saying “YOU DON’T HAVE TO NOT LIKE THE NEW VERSIONS OF THE CHARACTERS WE MADE SO THAT EQUAL REPRESENTATION COULD BE A THING! JUST CALM DOWN AND READ THE VERSION OF THE BOOK WITH THE ORIGINAL CHARACTER!!!” They’re also returning some of the books to their “original numbering” (cue another catfight over the numbers they picked to return to and whether this is a good idea). From my own personal perspective, this is all a good thing – we have a sense of nostalgia, we have the original versions of the heroes so we’re not losing them, but we also have a selection of really interesting, newer characters who I have grown to love just as much as the originals.
The only one thing that leaves a question mark over my head, though, is the death of the Black Widow. I can’t honestly figure out what purpose it serves, from any standpoint at all – literal, creative, merchandising… no clue. Maybe I’m just dead on the inside or something, but it seemed kind of… throwaway, especially considering there had been a slew of other deaths that were already undone by the time the main story ended.
Civil War II did this as well, and in fact it looks very much like the one death that did stick from that event was undone in this one as well. Killing off the Widow makes no sense, not just because she’s popular, but because Infinity War is coming up. If this is a spoiler for the fact that the Widow dies in either of those two films, I won’t be massively thrilled, because we’re again in the realms of weakening the impact of something that should be ground-shaking. This is before we even get to the fact that she’s my 2nd favourite alpha-Ginger of all time, pipped to the top spot only by everyone’s favourite, Joel Smith.
Ironically, then, given that the Widow’s death was kind of played down, the impact on the Marvel Universe is minimal, but it doesn’t feel that way. I’m excited about what seems like the genuine new beginning that Secret Wars kind of failed to deliver. I have a jumping on point to pick up new books, and where titles are being cancelled it feels like there is a purpose to it, rather than the seemingly random (sales-based) cancellations that have been causing titles to disappear from the shelves lately.
Believe it or not, after a large number of annual attempts, Marvel finally got the execution of a universe-wide crossover right, in pretty much every aspect. The story was great, it ran on time, the tie-ins were fantastic, you didn’t have to buy 2,000 books to stay on point and it actually had a moral. Heck, they even prevented the cosmic cube from being a deus ex machina resolution to the story by using it as the whole basis for the story, which I also appreciated.
The universe has been expertly manoeuvred into a place that’s great for sales and relaunches, Thor is poised to pick his hammer back up just in time for his new movie, and there have been some very interesting little details included along the way. Now all we need is a period of stability so… if we could maybe move to a bi-annual model of mega-crossovers then that would be bloody brilliant!
So, my recommendation – assuming you closed your eyes and/or put your fingers in your ears for the spoilers – is to pick up the trade paperback or get your digital butt to the digital comic store and give it a read, especially if you were one of those people who were outraged to the point of doing a realistic pufferfish impression when Steve Rogers said “Hail Hydra”. Nick Spencer has challenged you to prove you’re not a bigot… so are you going to take him up on that? If you don’t, this will be the greatest story you never read.