I hate to sound cynical, especially when there are real people suffering, but violence and tragedy have become so commonplace that it’s hard to work up the kind of emotional response that we ought to have about these sorts of things. Maybe it’s because these days, the Outrage Machine runs on high-output twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty five days a year. Maybe it’s because every day there’s some new cause demanding my full emotional investment flooding my social media feed and the news cycle. But whatever the reason, increasingly I find myself feeling shame more than anything else when bad things happen. Things like the Alexandria shooting ought to shock me, but I’m ashamed to say that they don’t. I don’t have the energy to be shocked anymore.
I bring this up because Secret Empire #4 landed on shelves yesterday, and I can’t help noticing how (sadly) relevant the book is to where we are right now––but not (necessarily) in the way that Spencer intends.
The issue follows two main subplots: one involving Black Widow and the Champions, and the other involving the Avengers and a Hydra group led by Steve Rogers.
Widow and the Champions, who are scheming to assassinate Cap, capture a Hydra agent and hold him in a sleazy-looking motel while Natasha tortures him for information. After listening to him scream, the Champions interrupt the interrogation and tell Widow to stop.
Black Widow has fewer scruples than most heroes, but her determination to kill Steve and her willingness to torture a low-level grunt who does kitchen work points toward a problem that we must all face: what we’re willing to do in order to achieve our political goals. Granted, Hydra taking over the U.S. is an extreme situation that might justify Widow’s actions, and Widow believes that she is being purely logical and practical. But how do we know when things are really extreme enough to justify an extreme response? James Hodgkinson apparently believed that things are that extreme now. (Yes, of course, we all assume that shooters like Hodgkinson have some sort of mental or emotional problems, but violent rhetoric, paranoia about our country turning into a dictatorship, and violent actions have become increasingly commonplace in the last few years.)
Building a Perfect World
Meanwhile, a team of Avengers and a Hydra detachment led by Steve Rogers travel to the “Ultronic Territories,” a place in Alaska where Ultron/Hank Pym has built technological cities inhabited by Ultrons. Both groups are there to steal a shard of Kobik that Ultron/Pym has in his possession, but when they arrive, they find that Ultron/Pym has orchestrated events in order to bring together most of the original Avengers: Steve Rogers, the A.I. Tony Stark, Thor, Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and Quicksilver. He gathers them into a recreation of the dining room from Avengers mansion for a kind of weird family reunion.
While you might expect that Ultron/Pym’s plan is to kill his former teammates, what he actually does is berate the Avengers for their behavior over the years.
In particular, he goes after all the ways in which the various Avengers have tried to make a perfect world with “big ideas.”
The problem isn’t with intentions. Captain America: Steve Rogers and Secret Empire have shown that Steve isn’t a simple villain out to conquer the world (mwahahahahaha!). He really believes that what he’s doing will make the world better. But then, that’s what most people with power think: If everyone will just listen to me, if they’ll just accept my good idea, then the world will be a better place. But these “great ideas” only work well in theory. Most of the worst tyrants in history all thought that they could make the world perfect if people would only listen and do what they were told.
Ultron/Pym has a point about the Avengers gathered around his table. Tony, Wanda, and now Hydra Cap––each has done more harm than good by believing that they can make a perfect world.
Maybe that’s where we’re going wrong. It’s commonplace now to complain that everything is political, and maybe the reason why everything is political is that everybody has an idea about what the perfect society looks like. No doubt Hodgkinson thinks that he knows what the perfect society is.
The Secret Empire Gets Metafictional
There’s an interesting metafictional element to Ultron/Pym’s dinner table lecturing, too. When he castigates the gathered Avengers for always “bickering and battling,” he’s saying what a lot of fans have said about Marvel Comics since Civil War eleven years ago. The common complaint is that heroes spend more time fighting each other in the big event comics than fighting the bad guys, and that complaint reached a fever pitch with Civil War II last year. (I realize that Civil War II has its problems, but it didn’t deserve the critical lashing that it took.)
And since Marvel has announced that Secret Empire will be their last major crossover event for at least 18 months, it’s hard not to read Ultron/Pym’s lecture as an acknowledgment that the yearly crossover events have gotten out of hand in the last several years.
What makes this metafictional commentary on superheroes constantly fighting each other more interesting, though, is that while comics readers might have gotten tired of hero-vs-hero stories, those stories are the most appropriate ones for our time. When Ultron/Pym says, “The constant bicker and battling, always at each other’s throats . . . it’s all you ever do anymore,” he might as well be talking to us.
An Uncharacteristic Plot Problem(?)
I try not to nit pick with plot holes in comics, books, movies, TV shows, etc. But there’s an apparent problem in SE #4 that I have a hard time getting around. When the Champions confront Widow about torturing the Hydra goon, Falcon (Joaquín Torres) complains that he “can’t listen to that dude scream anymore.” A few minutes later, Widow shoots the Hydra goon and says, “Now we have to switch motels.” Do they have to switch hotels because the sound of the gun will draw attention? If so, why the hell wouldn’t the Hydra goon’s screams draw attention, as well?