***Major spoilers for Secret Empire #7 ahead.***
In some ways Secret Empire is the final part of a three-act story that began last year with Standoff. The second act of that story, Civil War II, set up one of the biggest moments in Secret Empire when Ulysses showed the Avengers and Inhumans a vision of Miles Morales killing Steve Rogers on the steps of the U.S. capitol:
Though the gathered heroes didn’t understand at the time, readers knew that the vision had everything to do with Steve being transformed into a Hydra agent. What we didn’t know was whether or not the vision would come true, and if so, what events would lead Miles and Steve to that particular moment in time. Secret Empire #7 finally answers those questions.
Black Widow leads the Champions to the capitol so that she can assassinate Steve Rogers while he gives a speech on the steps of the capitol building. Knowing that this is the moment that Ulysses prophesied, Widow locks Miles inside a van so that there’s no chance of him killing Steve. But Miles escapes the van by starting a fire and then speaking the voice passcode to open the locked back door.
At this point, the inevitable problems associated with prophecy and foresight in fiction arise:
Miles doesn’t know the passcode. He can only make a guess at it. But since he knows that he “has” to be at the capitol to kill Steve Rogers, he also knows that he “has” to make the correct guess (on what basis he guesses, the book doesn’t tell us). These things must be true because Ulysses, who sees the future, predicted them, right? Well, not so fast. There are a couple of problems with this:
- At this moment Miles seems to believe that the future is set, in which case, we live in a deterministic universe where free will is an illusion, and the fact that Miles guesses the right password (whatever that password is) suggests that he’s right. But Civil War II establishes pretty clearly that Ulysses doesn’t see the future; he sees possible futures––maybe even likely futures, but not certain ones. Therefore the future is not set, and people do have some degree of free will.
- Miles goes on to almost kill Steve Rogers, but he doesn’t actually do it. What stops him is Nadia Pym and the other Champions reasoning with him. They talk him out of it by appealing to his sense of right and wrong and pointing out that Widow plotted Steve’s assassination largely in order to keep Miles from doing it himself.
The odds against Spider-Man escaping from the van by getting a passcode right on a random first guess seem astronomically high. That strongly suggests something like fate, the idea that our futures are determined for us. But the fact that Miles can choose not to kill Steve (in spite of Ulysses’ prophecy and in spite of the fact that he’s emotionally traumatized when Steve accidentally kills Widow) says that our futures aren’t determined.
The question of whether or not we really have free will or if we live in a deterministic universe is a complicated one that yields no easy answers, so it’s no surprise that we find paradoxes in stories that take up that problem. Still, Miles’ extraordinarily unlikely escape from the van followed by his choosing not to kill Steve leaves me unsatisfied. How is it that fate would rule his escape from the van but not his confrontation with Steve on the steps of the capitol?