Marvel’s Secret Empire (Part 1)
Or How to Alienate Your Readers with a Great Storyline
We’re heading towards October, the time of year where the Marvel Universe receives its annual shake-up at the climax of a 5-month long universe-spanning crossover that involves every hero with TV or silver screen time (planned or actual) and nearly every support character they’ve ever worked with.
Yes, this year is no different – as a longstanding Marvel fan I have now been conditioned to prepare myself and my bank account for a relentless onslaught from May onwards, and I have even reached the stage where I’ve accepted the fact that I can either choose between rent or being able to read every chapter of the story.
As the dust is now preparing to settle on the latest summer blockbuster, I felt that now would be an outstanding time to share my thoughts with some fellow geeks on this year’s offering, along with a healthy smattering of completely unsolicited comics on both the storylines that led into it and summer blockbusters in general.
Naming the Secret Empire
I’m starting to suspect that we’re running out of formulaic ways to name massive Marvel Universe events. I mean, we’ve had at least 3 Secret Wars, a Secret Invasion, and now a Secret Empire? (I mean, you can have a cheap chortle by holding a piece of paper with the word “Victoria’s” in front of each of those, but that is a LOT of secret stuff, surely?) It’s great that Marvel broke ground by using a new word that hasn’t yet been deployed for one of these, but get ready to place your bets on how many years it will be before the next “Empire”-based crossover. I’d love to see a House of M-pire. Because puns.
Why am I opening the batting with a mini-rant? Aside from the fact that it’s cathartic, I feel like this was a missed opportunity. Marvel actually achieved a pretty good shake up of the status quo during this crossover, but when it was announced, my reaction was… “heh”. Imagine, as well, a half-hearted shrug of the shoulders. “Sounds like every other crossover.” But it wasn’t.
After the largely underwhelming Marvel Previews of last summer… sorry, Civil War II was its actual name, and the actually quite disappointing Secret Wars, Secret Empire restored my wavering faith in Marvelpocalypses. This isn’t the only thing that might have put readers off, though, so expect this theme to be something that we revisit soon.
The Premise (Spoilers – look away or they will hurt your eyes!)
We’re living in the throes of a Marvel Universe equal-opportunities-splosion where there are 18 versions of every character so no-one will feel like they aren’t represented in some way. You’ll have your own feelings about this if you’re a Marvel fan, and that’s a topic for another article. However, safe to say that there are those who vociferously protest at any change to any character – in some cases because they love them the way they are but, in other cases, for reasons that may be less… wholesome.
Here’s the case in point – Steve Rogers is a great Captain America and he is absolutely the iconic name and face that fits the red, white and blues. Cap A was Steve for the longest time, in and out of continuity. And then the unthinkable happened, and the concept that the original Captain America could have been a person of colour was floated. Nope. Complaint spam. So Marvel backed down. The same happened with young Captain America (Patriot) in the Young Avengers. Not exactly everyone’s favourite character. Again, I’ll repeat that this isn’t supposed to be an article about race or politics – we’re on a geek website, but occasionally the stuff we read mirrors reality.
So, given that the latest attempt at a non-white Captain America was in full swing, with Sam Wilson (a logical heir to the mantle) filling the role and, given that the same things were being said, writer Nick Spencer decided that it was time to make a point. And he made it beautifully. Here comes the controversial bit.
Sam Wilson’s book eventually became an absolutely fantastic and very thinly veiled metaphor for how intolerance has been rising to dangerous levels in various parts of the USA (cf. Black Lives Matter and every pertinent discussion).
In it, certain media channels continually questioned whether he was fit to “wield the shield”, and he was constantly torn over how to act – did he stand up for what he believed in? Or would compromising his beliefs give him a better platform from which to take a stance in the long run? Throw in the fact that some of his supporting cast, including a Mexican iteration of the Falcon, had clear expectations for him to come out swinging, literally, rather than looking for any other solution, piled impossible pressure on his shoulders, and we had a very interesting take on Captain America. How could he represent a people who didn’t trust him? And, sure enough, this was based on the same old demands. “Where’s Steve?” “Who the hell is this? This isn’t Steve Rogers?” “Sam Wilson is the Falcon, not Captain America! What is Marvel doing?”
Again, some people just love good old Steve Rogers, and that’s fair enough. So Nick Spencer gave them what they wanted – Steve Rogers returned as Captain America – one of two Captain Americas.
It happened part way into Sam’s run, and it came with the most fantastic bombshell that Marvel had dropped in some time. Steve Rogers had been corrupted by a fragment of the cosmic cube, and issue 1 of his new run ended with him saying the words “Hail Hydra”.
At that point, it began to rain poop in the geekverse pretty hard. Dan Slott had death threats for putting Otto Octavius’s brain patterns in Peter Parker’s head for Superior Spider-Man, so you can only imagine what went down with this. The best part for me was that some of my American friends heard a spoiler, went off the deep-end and refused to even read it.
Even better, quite a number of them were not even people who read comics – but still it was important for them to angrily voice their opinion on why this should never have been allowed to happen, and how it was an insult to the country as a whole. (I countered with the fact that Captain Britain has been painted as completely incompetent, failing to fulfil his duties to save the entire multiverse on numerous occasions, but that wasn’t important to them for some reason – can’t think why!)
Those who know me understand that I fill the contrarian role well, but that I think being contrarian for the sake of it and without an adequate information to form an argument is pretty pointless. I don’t mind being wrong or acknowledging that other people have opinions, so I want to be able to explain where I’m coming from, assuming they’re prepared to listen. So I made good and sure to read the rest of that run of Captain America: Steve Rogers. I was certain that he would be reverted to his usual non-Hydra self at some point, but in finding out how, I was treated to a compelling series that laid the groundwork for Secret Empire right from day one.
That’s a thing that happened for Secret Wars as well, which had a long run-up in the Avengers books. I was treated to an in-depth understanding of what Steve’s mindset had been altered to be. Why he believed he was Hydra, and more Hydra than the Red Skull. I saw him making political machinations – setting up an extremely elaborate plan by using other people to do his work for him. All of it was fantastically well written and absolute classic villainous mastermind, but all with the front of Steve still being the hero the Marvel Universe had come to know him to be. Dramatic irony was taken to new levels. At one point, the whole gig was almost blown wide open by one of my long-time favourite characters, the Taskmaster, but just mere seconds away from him being able to reveal Cap’s true intentions, he was captured by Hydra agents and press-ganged into service for them.
Baron Zemo slowly became Rogers’s right-hand man – a concept that would have been inconceivable in any other storyline, and it was all penned in a way that made it seem like the most natural and logical thing in the world. The Masters of Evil were slowly reassembled, their ranks bolstered with new blood, and the reverse echoes of the crossover to come were seen and heard in books that were running totally unrelated arcs – Spider-Man’s Clone Conspiracy, for example. By the time the Free Comic Day issue #0 dropped, I was already clapping my hands and saying “Bravo!”. But, unfortunately, Steve Rogers was a “Nazi”, so there were people that didn’t pick it up.
Today’s article is a guest post from Ed Brown, who has a tendency to ramble when he’s got a point to make, but he rambles rather well. Part 2 will be published on Tuesday 19th, come back for Ed getting to the point.