***Major spoilers for Captain America #25 and Secret Empire #8***
This has been a big week for the Secret Empire. Major characters have returned, wars have been fought and lost, alliances have formed, and fragments of the Cosmic Cube have been found.
At the end of #8, several things happen almost simultaneously in what will probably strike a lot of readers as an enormous coincidence, and those events finally deliver the hope that the heroes need: after spending several issues searching in vain for the Cosmic Cube fragments, Tony and company discover an Inhuman whose power can help them recover one of the fragments; Quasar awakens from the coma that has put her out of commission since the beginning of the series, and she brings down the planetary defense shield that has kept Captain Marvel and the other heavy-hitters off of Earth; Maria Hill finds and kills Blackout, whose power is keeping New York in the Darkhold dimension; Namor arrives in New York with the promise of a plan to defeat Hydra; and the Steve Rogers who seems to be trapped in a dream-like world (what some people suspect is the Vanishing Point) discovers Kobik in the forest with him. In other words, suddenly everything starts to go right for the good guys.
A cynic or a pessimist might say that all this amounts to a deus ex machina ending for Secret Empire, but that’s not quite right. Deus ex machina endings come out of nowhere, and Spencer began laying the groundwork for this ending before Secret Empire even started (well, okay, the Inhuman does seem to come out of nowhere).
No, it isn’t a deus ex machina, a miraculous turn of events that the story hasn’t earned. Instead, the unlikely events of Secret Empire #8 represent the payoff for what Spencer has been building since the beginning. The major theme of the series has been hope, and what we see in issue #8 is the grace that comes as a reward for hope.
Talking about “grace” might strike some people as odd or even offensive to modern sensibilities. We’re all empiricists. We put our faith in science and in materialism. What I call “grace”––the idea that there is something (God, fate, the universe, something) that stands behind us and gives us the hope that we need when we need it––lost currency in our culture a long time ago. But one of the reasons that I believe comics are so important is that they help to keep alive old ideas that have fallen out of fashion: heroism; virtue; a clear sense of right and wrong; and in Secret Empire #8, the hope that good will always win in the end.
A commentary on the world . . . or the comics industry?
Steve’s consistent refrain throughout the Hydra Cap story has been that the world’s heroes have failed in their jobs. Instead of protecting the world from supervillains and cosmic threats, they’ve been consumed with infighting. He’s certainly not wrong about that. Since Civil War in 2006, many of the stories to come out of Marvel have been about ideological battles between superheroes (so many of them that I’ve written a book about the subject).
That isn’t to say that the book doesn’t speak to what’s going on in the real world––far from it––but Secret Empire has been as much a commentary on the state of comics as it’s been about real-life issues. Hero-vs-hero stories, event fatigue, fan weariness with politically preachy comics, and a general thirst for our superheroes to be heroes––all these things have hung like specters over Secret Empire. So SE #8 feels very much like an admission from Marvel: Okay, fans: we get it. From now on, we’ll do better.
There’s nothing wrong with the mythology reflexively examining itself, of course. In fact, that’s what I find so intriguing about DC’s Rebirth and the Watchmen characters finding their way into the DCU: it allows the comics to think about the role of superheroes in our culture. When Superman fights Dr. Manhattan (a battle that seems to be coming next year), the two characters will represent two different views of comics and what they should do for us––should they be “dark” and “gritty” and “realistic,” or should they urge us toward heroism and virtue?
Still, I hope that when it concludes, Secret Empire will have said something true about us and not just about itself or about Marvel Comics. For a story to really matter, it has to tell us something true about the world we live in or about what it means to be human.
Wait . . . Wakanda=North Korea?
I’ve said before that the topical elements of Spencer’s run on Captain America and Secret Empire have worked best when he hasn’t tried too hard to draw one-to-one parallels between the Marvel U and the real world. Secret Empire succeeds in speaking to real-world politics when it deals with universal principles that apply in any time. Its weakest moments have been those times when the connections to contemporary politics have been more overt and deliberately allegorical.
One of those moments when the parallels stretch belief comes in Captain America #25. The issue opens with Steve Rogers declaring war upon New Tian and Wakanda. What’s remarkable about it is how eery it sounds coming after Trump’s “fire and fury” speech on Tuesday:
It’s at least the second time that an issue in the Hydra Cap story has turned out to be so perfectly timed with real-world events (the first time was the panel in Civil War II: The Oath that showed Steve being sworn in as the S.H.I.E.L.D. commander on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in the rain). The interesting coincidence of of the issue coming out the day after Trump’s speech highlights the danger in trying to draw too close a parallel between comics and the real world. You can’t help but think of North Korea as Steve calls out Wakanda as a dangerous and lawless state. But while North Korea actually is a rogue nation run by a psychopath––a nation that is dangerously close to being able to start a nuclear war––Wakanda is not the place that Steve describes in his speech.
I don’t mean any of this to defend Trump or his saber-rattling toward North Korea (or to attack him, for that matter). But we can’t deny that North Korea is run by a nutjob who is very close to having weapons that can destroy nations. What makes Steve’s actions in Secret Empire #8 so wrong is that he invades Wakanda using a lie as a justification. T’Challa’s nation is no rogue state. But while Trump’s speech might strike some of us as reckless, nobody can deny that North Korea is a real threat to world peace.
Some nagging questions
Spencer and co. have told a surprisingly tight story in Captain America and Secret Empire, but there are still some nagging questions that remain unanswered at this point: why is Hydra Cap able to lift Thor’s hammer? why is Thor on Hydra’s side (we have vague hints about this, but nothing specific)? what the hell is the dream-world? who were the two men who accompanied Steve there for a time?
With Secret Empire drawing to a close, there isn’t much time left to answer these questions.