Thursday, July 27, 2017

Plots, Premonitions, and Pitfalls for an Empire: Secret Empire #7

The following is my review of Secret Empire #7, which was posted on PopMatters.com.


Every evil empire, from Star Wars to all the organizations in a James Bond movie, goes through a cycle of self-destruction. It's part of a tried and true narrative wherein an authoritarian regime tries so hard to secure absolute control that they strain themselves and their resources. It doesn't help that these regimes tend to make a lot of enemies, many of which have little to lose and an abundance of targets. For a Hydra-affiliated Captain America, he's achieved a greater level of success than the Red Skull ever could, but he also made himself a huge target in the process.

Throughout the course of Secret Empire, as well as the events that led up to it, Nick Spencer puts Captain America in a high-risk, high-reward position. He is the unambiguous leader and visionary for Hydra, but he's also the perfect target for his enemies and former friends. His role in Secret Empire is akin to the design flaw in the Death Star. It's not very big and it's surrounded by all sorts of machinery, but the flaw is still there. The Avengers, the X-men, and everyone who doesn't enjoy living under Hydra's boot has a clear target and an easy rallying cry. No matter how powerful an empire is, this kind of vulnerability will create cracks.

With each issue of Secret Empire, Spencer reveals and widens certain cracks. Like the plot that put Captain America at the head of Hydra, the vulnerabilities of Hydra's empire are emerging subtly and steadily. The Avengers understand what they have to do to take Hydra down. Cap understands as well, but also has to contend with growing mistrust and distension among Hydra's ranks. Like any evil empire, unity and organization is a luxury and not a given.

There are all sorts of conflicting plots surrounding Hydra, Captain America, and the Avengers. A few have a foundation going back to the events of Civil War II. Some of those plots are finally starting to converge as the event nears its conclusion. Secret Empire #7 acts as both a turning point and a clear sign that the cracks in Hydra's world are about to turn into gaping wounds. As far as evil empires go, Spencer makes sure that Hydra is right on schedule.


From the very beginning of Secret Empire, and even a little bit before that, Captain America goes out of his way to make sure he's in a position of strength while his former allies are not. He arguably pulls off the greatest tactic in the history of the Marvel universe, dividing every major hero and using all the trust they ever put into Captain America against them. Nobody not armed with the Cosmic Cube, a time machine, or a cozy relationship with Marvel's editorial staff can hope to match that kind of subversion.

At the same time, however, Captain America's elaborate efforts have an unavoidable side-effect that even the Cosmic Cube can't avoid. It both humbles and enrages the heroes he worked so hard to defeat. From Captain Marvel to Black Widow to Squirrel Girl, every hero opposing Hydra's regime is battered and wounded, both physically and mentally. They're all in an impossible situation where they're fighting more than just Hydra. They're fighting someone who exposed their greatest vulnerabilities and exploited their trust.

It is, by every measure, a major low point for all those not on board with Hydra. Spencer uses this dire situation to give certain characters a moment of self-reflection. For many, it's overdue. For some, it's unavoidable. It's this self-reflection that helps make Secret Empire the kind of conflict that feels both epic and personal. It also hits hard in terms of drama, making the grim situation feel that much more intimate.

Of all the characters who feel the gravity of the situation in Secret Empire #7, it's Captain Marvel and Miles Morales who get hit hardest. Arguably, Captain Marvel's solemn admissions of failure and humility are overdue. For a character who has a movie coming out in two years and always seems too ambitious for her own good, it's a powerful moment that feels reflective of how many heroes feel after Hydra's triumph. It may not make it into a movie, but it's the kind of insight that can only be shown when a character is at their lowest.

For Miles Morales, the stakes are a bit more pressing. Since Civil War II, he lives with the burden of being destined to kill Captain America, according to a vision of the future. Granted, that vision occurs before Captain America is exposed as a Hydra agent, but it still haunts him. He and Black Widow have a chance to change how that vision plays out. It culminates in one of the most dramatic, and bloody, moments in Secret Empire to date. Vision or no vision, it's a moment meant to strike an emotional chord and it succeeds, albeit in part.


It's that same moment that also exposes some of the flaws in Secret Empire #7. While it succeeds in tying the events of Secret Empire with the events of Civil War II, the path the narrative follows is uneven and chaotic at times. While it never feels rushed, it does feel messy in the sense that there's so much going on between each moment and it's hard to follow the journey for certain characters. That ensures some of those dramatic moments feel hollow.

It's not that the moment has no impact at all. It just comes off as too easy. Given all the drama the entire Marvel universe endures in avoiding the visions in Civil War II, the choices that characters like Miles make and the impacts of those choices don't strike enough of those emotional chords. It creates connections, but not much else. In the end, it feels more like a teenager who just doesn't want to be told what to do rather than someone making the right decision.

Even with the chaotic plot structure, Secret Empire #7 makes clear that Hydra's hold is weakening. Even Steve Rogers is starting to crack under the pressure. Like so many other evil empires before them, he and Hydra are starting to realize that managing a chaotic world full of angry superheroes who don't enjoy being tricked is not easy. At some point, the chaos overwhelms even the mightiest armies. Hydra may be as powerful as any evil organization, but even they can't micromanage beyond a certain extent.

While certain moments struggle to create an impact, the overall story of Secret Empire remains on track. Like a slow-building firestorm, it's finally getting noticeably hot and the artwork of Leinil Francis Yu ensures it's a spectacle to behold. With only a few issues left, Hydra is facing many headaches and for an army that claims to have so many heads, that's saying something.

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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