Thursday, June 15, 2017

United, Divided, and Spited: Secret Empire United #1

The following is my review of Secret Empire United #1, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Every tyrannical regime in history usually learns the hard way that governing people is hard. People are erratic, petty, melodramatic, greedy, and every other quality associated with Lex Luthor. United them under a common state, guiding them down what tyrannical leaders think is in their best interests, tends to morph into a prolonged test of unending frustration. In a world populated by mutants, Inhumans, and teenagers that build suits of armor from trash cans, even Captain America is prone to such frustration.

Secret Empire pulls back the proverbial curtain, revealing a conspiracy wrapped in an agenda sparked by a retcon. The biggest secret not related to Tony Stark's biological parents comes out. Captain America has been a secret Hydra agent the whole time and puts himself in a position to take over. He does so with an efficiency that would give hippies and tobacco lobbyists alike nightmares. Short of a grassy knoll, it has everything conspiracy theory enthusiasts could ever want.

However, taking over the world is actually the easy part. The fact it takes Hydra so long and requires a Cosmic Cube says a lot about their efficiency as an organization. It also doesn't bode well for their ability to actually manage what they conquer. The pages of Secret Empire are already setting the stage for a clash to overthrow Hydra's new favorite patriot. Secret Empire United #1 opens a new front in that battle, one that's sure to complicate Hydra's efforts.

Jim Zub and Ario Anindito go out of their way to create some real-world parallels, giving the new Hydra-dominated nation a bitter border dispute. Given the sheer breadth of Hydra's power and influence, there aren't many nations that could actually threaten it. However, a nation full of mutants run by both X-men and their former enemies definitely would give any nation pause, Hydra or otherwise.

New Tian is presented as Hydra's solution for managing a sizable population of super-powered mutants. It's a small, semi-sovereign state where mutants and mutants live in limited harmony. It's actually very limited because the catalyst for the story is basically a script in racially bias police, albeit the opposite of what mutants are used to. It's both fitting and relevant. It highlights issues that are plucked right from the news and hashtag movements. While it's sure to spark divisive political debates, complete with outrage on both sides, it establishes and important dynamic for the issue.


Given how fascist states usually deal with minorities, it's surprisingly pragmatic. The Hydra-affiliated Steve Rogers understands that going to war with mutants rarely works out for anyone. It often ends with heroes fighting heroes and at some point, cosmic forces get involved and Tony Stark will try to shoot it with an oversized gun. That's not good for the stability of any nation, fascist or otherwise.

It's not a perfect solution, but it creates the perfect setup for a story that effectively doubles down on the conspiracy dynamics that guide the narrative in Secret Empire. It's a gamble, but it pays off in a big, satisfying way in terms of actual substance. It's a story that involves secrets, real-world issues, a prison break, and a fight that includes Deadpool. By the ever-changing standards of Marvel, it checks more boxes than most.

At the heart of that story are secrets and agendas. Captain America wants his Hydra-led empire to succeed and he prefers to do it without going to war with mutants. Mutants also want to improve their lot in the world. They've lived most of their non-Hydra lives in constant fear of Sentinel attacks, racial bigotry, and living weapons programs. Under Hydra, they have a chance to live in a state where they're the majority and they get preferential treatment by the cops. Even if it means living in a world dominated by Hydra, it still counts as an upgrade to them.

However, they're still a minority that shares a border with a Hydra-run nation. If the history of the real and fictional world has shown anybody anything, it's that minorities and fascist regimes don't get along. It creates bitter disputes, fosters even greater racism, and even sparks full-blown world wars. As everyone learned in Avengers vs. X-men, a war with mutants has no real winners in the long run.

That backdrop in Secret Empire United #1 helps make the events that play out feel real and dramatic. It's not just that there are parallels to draw between the story and the news that plays out every day on social media. It's easier to relate to the high emotions involve. Seeing characters like Sunfire decry a fascist state or listening to Hydra's leadership rail on strengthening the border carries more dramatic weight.


There are so many other cases of one group of super-powered people whining about another. In fact, that makes up the vast majority of Marvel's major conflicts. Secret Empire United #1 stands out by providing a real, relevant context to the situation. While it may inspire more political whining on social media, it makes for a much more compelling story and in an era where almost anything can spark political whining, that's a fair price to pay.

A story that fosters that kind of dramatic weight is strong enough on concept alone. However, Zub and Anindito really overachieve by crafting a concise, action-packed narrative, complete with a satisfying twist at the end. It's not the kind of twist that involves Cosmic Cubes or deals with Mephisto either. It's just a resolution that feels so perfectly appropriate, given the context of the situation and the over-arching themes of Secret Empire.

By nearly every measure, Secret Empire United #1 exceeds the expectations usually associated with tie-in issues. It's not simply a shameless plug for a larger story that creates one too many holes. It tells the kind of story that offers just the right kind of impact for a specific kind of story. It's essentially a targeted narrative, one that hits its mark in all the right ways. That, in the grand scheme of things, is still worth inspiring more angry political rants.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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