Warning: SPOILERS for Secret Empire ahead.
In 2016, Marvel nearly broke the internet by turning Captain America into an agent of enemy combatants, Hydra. Steve Rogers’ slow burn as a one-man sleeper cell ended with one of the comic book world’s most hotly anticipated crossovers, Secret Empire. As the publisher's last major limited event before their Legacy retooling, the saga was poised to shake up the Marvel Universe and do brisk business.
While Secret Empire was founded on an intriguingly subversive concept, the book imploded due to too many external pressures, falling shy of its true potential by a good ways. Author Nick Spencer did his best to keep the HydraCap doom-bus rolling along, but the wheels fell off about halfway through and the event hit a wall of indifference. In a recent issue of their satirical comic, Not Brand Echh, Marvel took the piss out of themselves. So, which writer did the House of Ideas use to take down Spencer's controversial crossover? Why none other than Nick Spencer himself.
Fascism is no laughing matter, especially when your villainized Captain America acts as a thinly veiled critique of America's own dice with autocracy. In Spencer's lark of himself, he recaps his own painstakingly crafted event, including the dramatic set-up; in particular, the controversial “Hail, Hydra!” reveal and Marvel’s subsequent, semi-backpedaling...the whole “Cap’s totally not a Nazi. We swear.” The same event included a controversial Magneto cover – which depicted the mutant anti-hero and Holocaust survivor as allied with the once-Nazified organization – and Marvel’s “deck your comic shop out in Hydra stuff” promo that also went over like a lead balloon.
During his recap, he also jokes about event book burnout among fans, as well as Marvel’s trend of in-fighting superheroes, joking that “the 80s” – when the grittier books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore’s The Watchmen left an indelible mark on the industry – was the last time comic book characters actually defended more than their egos. Plus, Spencer tackles the countless tie-ins, somewhat over-the-top story arcs like Black Widow’s teen assassin squad, and overly complicated backstory required to grasp the uber-crossover.
He mocks his own sensibilities and use of comic book storytelling tropes, while giving props to Jonathan Hickman as a maestro of narrative box-use. But for all his mirth, Spencer doesn’t address a few key flaws, some of which really knocked the wind out of Secret Empire, including the missed opportunities to explore the spread of authoritarianism into world politics, the rise of virulent nationalism over the last few decades, as well as the topic of virulent nationalism and home-bred terrorism – even if he dabbled with early in the series.
Despite his sincere attempts (and in spite of his round-up lampoonery), Secret Empire didn't make a lasting impact in the Marvel Universe... and it clearly could have. The Cosmic Cube’s presence, which tipped many fans off to a deus ex machina in the works, neatly reassembled the MU. Cap simply went back to being himself (even if Stevil’s still alive and kicking in HydraJail). Aside from a few unnecessary deaths and some post-event social healing pillow talk, neither the United States or the Marvel Universe were dramatically altered, despite the presence of a months-long, terrorist organization-allied, Captain America-led dictatorship.
Overall, Secret Empire was a missed opportunity to create an artful subversion of our culture during a time of extremism and political polarity that's pushed people apart. Spencer's satirization of his own allegory softens the event's shortcomings with humor but fails to address some of the deeper issues which short-circuited the event, including a dumbed-down conclusion – which might have been set up as companywide HydraCap damage control.
In the long run, Secret Empire fell well short of what it could have been, but at least Spencer can laugh at himself.
Not Brand Echh #14 and Secret Empire are currently available.
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